Public transport in Switzerland is fantastic, but a car has its advantages: You can save time reaching smaller villages and experience the thrill of winding up and down an Alpine pass, stopping for photos or picnics whenever you like. Note that the season for crossing Alpine passes is short due to snow; they’re sometimes open only from late spring to early autumn. But the big tunnels can be an adventure, too. You and your car can catch a ride on a train via SBB to get through some of the mountainous areas. This Autoverlad service is available for Furka, Lotschberg, Simplon, and Vereina.
Switzerland’s roads are generally excellent, marked by clear signage and seldom pockmarked with potholes. Drivers are well trained. You may only need a rubber bone when driving sharply curving, narrow, steep mountain roads, with impatient locals at your rear; or in cities, where trams and bicycles seem to whoosh into streets out of nowhere. One more note of caution: Never, ever drive into the mountains if there’s any chance of snow unless you have proper winter tires or chains. In some areas, chains are required, which will be indicated by a blue road sign with a picture of a tire in chains; the same sign with a red slash tells you when you exit that zone. Attempting to drive down an icy mountain with summer tires can be incredibly dangerous (and you may not be covered by insurance).
Car Rentals—If you’re considering renting a car, try the website Autoslash.com. It applies any coupons on the market to your rental upon booking, continues to search for better rates until you pick up the car. If the price drops, they’ll automatically give you a new reservation. We’ve found Autoslash.com to be the best search engine for rentals by far, though it’s a bit clunky to use (you must wait for an email back before you can see the options; that email usually comes within minutes of your request, though). Car rental search companies usually report the lowest rates available between 6 and 8 weeks ahead of arrival. The minimum age for renting a car in Switzerland is generally 19 or 20, though some vehicle classes have restrictions or surcharges for drivers under 25.
Rent the smallest car possible and minimize fuel costs by requesting an efficient diesel rather than a gasoline engine. Many rental cars in Switzerland come with a manual transmission, so be sure to clarify this in your booking or at time of pick-up. Also, consider renting a smaller car if you’ll be driving in cities, as maneuvering in wee garages and parking spots can be a challenge.
Renting at the airport costs more, so you might choose to pick up a vehicle at a downtown or regional office run by one of the major rental companies.
Highway Tax Sticker (Vignette)—Instead of charging tolls, Switzerland levies a single annual fee by selling stickers permitting use of the nation’s highways for 40CHF. The sticker, called a vignette, is good for a full calendar year. Anyone caught driving on a highway for even one exit without a vignette clearly affixed to the inside of the windshield receives a fine of 200CHF. Fines are also doled out to drivers found just setting the sticker on the dashboard or trying to stick it with tape as a temporary fix.
You can buy the vignette at a Customs office at the Swiss border, at Swiss post offices, and gas stations. If you want a vignette in hand before arriving in Switzerland, a website run by the Swiss federal government, www.ezv.admin.ch, provides information about the vignette and where to purchase it online or in other European countries. Most rental cars in Switzerland come equipped with one.
Note: The vignette isn’t required for secondary roads—only highways.
Gas—Prices for gas or petrol (Benzin in German, essence in French, or benzina in Italian) vary across the country but tend to be lower in rural areas and away from highways. As of press time, fuel costs about (1.60CHF/liter (6.10CHF/gallon). You can often find mini-markets attached to gas stations that are open 7 days a week, but rarely overnight. Nearly all gas stations have machines to pay at the pump 24-7.
Driver's License—Any adult who’s at least 18 years old and holding a valid national driver’s license can drive in Switzerland, as long as the permitted vehicle categories are listed in the Roman alphabet on the foreign license. However, if you’re touring Europe and driving to other countries, you might want to invest in an International Driving Permit (www.internationaldrivingpermit.org). Italy, for one, requires an IDP of anyone holding a non-E.U. driver’s license, and even where not strictly required, the IDP can simplify things. Before leaving home, you can apply for an IDP from the American Automobile Association (AAA; www.aaa.com; tel. 800/622-7070 or 650/294-7400). In Canada, the permit is available from the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA; www.caa.ca; tel. 800/222-4357). The permit is only valid in combination with your actual driver’s license.
Insurance—To drive a car legally in Switzerland, as elsewhere in Europe, you must have in your possession an international insurance certificate, known as a Green Card (Carte Verte). Rental cars ordinarily store this with the car registration and manual in the glove compartment.
Driving Rules—The legal minimum age for driving in Switzerland is 18, though car-rental firms often set their own minimum age.
Drive on the right side of the road.
You’ll practically never see traffic police lurking on roadsides, but Switzerland deploys many grayish, unmarked speed cameras hidden in tunnels, behind trees and traffic lights, and other unexpected locations. Avoiding this roadside candid-camera photo and the associated fines is another strong motivation for following speed limits. Limits are generally 120kmph (about 75 mph) on highways, 80kmph (about 50 mph) on other roads outside built-up areas, and 50kmph (about 30 mph) in cities, towns, and villages, unless otherwise posted. Areas with a lot of pedestrians or children often limit speeds to 30 kmph (about 17 mph) or less. Speed limits on highways are sometimes temporarily reduced because of poor visibility. Note that if speeds exceed the limit by a certain amount, fines can be severe.
A few more road rules to follow in this rule-loving nation: Keep headlights on even during the day. Never pass another car from the right—not even if they’re annoyingly slow. Always wear your seat belt, whether sitting in the front or back. Kids under 12 years old must sit in a special car seat if they are under 150 cm (59 inches) tall; for ages 4 to 11, this can be a booster seat. Children of all ages may sit in the front seat, if in the appropriate car seat; but in cars equipped with airbags, the front airbag on the passenger’s side must be deactivated for rear-facing child car seats. Don’t use your mobile phone while driving unless it’s hands free. And, needless to say, don’t drink and drive; driving while under the influence of alcohol is considered a serious offense.
Also note that pedestrians have the right of way. If one steps into the "zebra stripes" crossings, stop the car.
Breakdowns & Assistance—If you have a breakdown or other emergency, set up the reflective warning triangles 50m (164 ft.) in front of and behind the car (or even further away if in fast-moving traffic). The triangles should be in the trunk of your car. Dial tel. 140. Or, Switzerland’s Touring Club Suisse (TCS) (www.tcs.ch; tel. 0800-140-140) advises visitors to contact their automobile club back home if they’re members. The home club may be able to advise on the next steps to get your flat tire or other car trouble fixed, and, if it’s a partner organization, may even make the arrangements with TCS directly. Highways often have emergency call boxes.
Parking—White lines for on-street parking indicate public spaces, sometimes, but not always, free, and sometimes with time limits. In that case, set the time of your arrival on the blue cardboard disc that looks like a toy clock, and set it on the dashboard. You should have one of these Parkuhren in your glove compartment or the pocket of the driver’s door.
Parking within blue lines often requires a residential permit or paid ticket, unless a sign indicates that blue parking disc is needed. To pay for street parking, there’s usually one machine for a group of cars. Some require you to drop in coins corresponding to how long you want to park; the machine then spits out a ticket that you leave on your dashboard. For other parking meters, enter the number of your parking spot and then pay. You may not park in a yellow spot, unless it has an X indicating it’s a loading zone; but you still shouldn’t park here except for very quick cases such as dropping luggage off at a hotel.
Parking lots and garages have ticket dispensers, but exit booths are not usually manned. When you return to the lot to depart, first visit the payment machine to exchange your ticket for a paid receipt, which you will then feed into the machine to get through the exit barrier. Even grocery stores and chains like IKEA tend to charge for parking, which is a precious commodity in such a small country with densely populated urban centers.
The number of parking spots with charging options for electric cars is increasing.
Road Signs—A speed limit sign is a black number in a red circle on a white background. The end of a speed zone is black and white, with a black slash through the number. A white circle with a black slash means the maximum speed limit, 120 kmph, is in effect. A red circle on white, a black arrow pointing down, and a red arrow pointing up means yield to oncoming traffic, while a red-and-white triangle pointing down means yield ahead. A blue circle with white triangles going around it signal an upcoming traffic circle. Such traffic circles are common, effectively a low-tech substitute for a traffic light.
A white arrow on a blue background is used for one-way streets; a mostly red circle with a horizontal white slash means Do Not Enter. Any image in black on a white background surrounded by a red circle means that image is not allowed (for instance, if the image is two cars next to each other, it means no passing; a motorcycle means no Harleys permitted; and so on). A circular sign with blue and a red circle-slash means no parking.
The Swiss sometimes grumble about delays or other annoyances on their trains, but people from other countries, such as Germany, the UK, or U.S., roll their eyes and quickly set them straight. Swiss trains on the whole are punctual, clean, and comfortable, with frequent connections. Staff tend to be polite and helpful. On some newer trains, you could almost be fooled into thinking that second-class cars are actually first-class. Driving can be more convenient if you’re changing locations frequently with a lot of luggage or visiting remote places. Otherwise, try the trains.
Here are some tips and good-to-know info make train travel in Switzerland a breeze:
Be a super trooper. Research your planned journey to see if there is a supersaver ticket, which is indicated with a percentage sign. The discounts dip as low as 70 percent. If you see a supersaver fare after you purchase a regular ticket, you can even get a refund, minus a 10CHF fee.
Surf for specials. Also—especially if you buy individual fares instead of a broad-coverage travel pass—look for package deals on www.sbb.ch. SBB posts frequent specials combining train fare with, for example, admission to a museum, or accommodations and ski passes.
You can go your own way. Within Switzerland, every ticket lets you travel on any train, whether it’s the slow, local choo-choo or the more luxurious high-speed train.
Get validated. Any tickets without a specific date for travel must be validated before boarding the train. There’s usually a small box on the train platform where you get the date stamped on the ticket. Some automatic ticket machines have a slot, too.
Easy as A, B, C (or D). For long trains, look at the sign above the platform indicating at which sectors the first- and second-class cars will stop. Then you’ll know where to stand and won’t need to dash to the right door when the train pulls in.
Have some reservations. If you have a reservation, look for a chart on the platform that shows approximately where the numbered train car with your seat will stop. Reservations are generally not required, except for some special tourist trains.
Check conditions. You can’t reserve seats on a local train, but usually can on trans-regional ones. The SBB app and website show when trains will likely be more crowded, so you can decide if you want to buy a 5CHF reservation to avoid stress and make sure you sit with companions or just chance it.
Ask away. Most announcements and information are in English as well as German, French, and Italian. Any worker near a train will probably be able to help in English if you’re ever unsure of where to go or how things work.
Kid around. Double-decker InterCity trains have a family car, marked as “FA,” with a small playground and games. And lower odds of dirty looks if your kids get stir-crazy.
Travel durations and facilities vary depending on what type of train you take. High-speed, longer-distance trains have charging ports and a dining car or snack cart, for example. Because Switzerland is small, many trains passing through are actually from other countries—Germany’s Intercity Express (ICE) and France’s TGV Lyria are two, and Italian and Austrian trains also ride the rails in Switzerland.
Some other types of trains you may frequently encounter, in ascending order of speed and distance covered, are the suburban S-Bahn, Regio (R), RegioExpress (RE), InterRegio (IR), InterCity (IC), and EuroCity (EC). The former trains stop at virtually all stations.
If you’re in need of advice, you can buy tickets from the counter at larger train stations. Some smaller stations have a convenience store that sells tickets, but the cashiers can’t offer much guidance. Otherwise, buy tickets online, by app, or on the multi-lingual automatic ticket machines at all stations. These usually take both cash and credit cards. Because you can take any train for the same price (barring special tourist offers), there’s no need to buy in advance.
Schedules are easy to track via app or online and are listed on yellow posters at train stations. Arrivals are listed on a white poster. If you want to explore unencumbered, you can usually find luggage storage lockers at bigger stations.
Special Passes & Discounts
Special train passes can be a great deal, especially those that include admission prices and discounts for museums and other activities. They can also simplify things because you don’t have to buy individual train tickets—though you do have to be mindful of which journeys require an additional reservation or supplement. But a pass can also be a waste of money if you buy one that’s more than what you really need. So sketch out your itinerary beforehand, at least roughly, and try to get an idea of the costs of point-to-point tickets compared with passes.
Swiss Travel Pass/Swiss Travel Pass Flex—The Swiss Travel Pass offers a decent bang for the buck if you plan some days of longer train rides and visits to the attractions it covers. It entitles you to unlimited travel by train, bus, and boat, the scenic panorama trains (though reservations or surcharges may apply), public transport in more than 90 towns and cities, free admission to more than 500 museums, full fare or discounts on some mountain trips, and discounts on RailAway day trip specials.
The Swiss Travel Pass is good for a predetermined number of consecutive days—3, 4, 8, or 15. A 3-day pass for adults in second class costs 232CHF; 4 days are 281CHF, 8 days cost 418CHF, and a 15-day pass costs 513CHF. In first class, it costs between 369CHF and 810CHF. For young adults ages 16 to 25, the pass is called Swiss Travel Pass Youth, and prices are 15 percent cheaper. There are no discounts for senior citizens.
The Swiss Travel Pass Flex variation lets you travel and use the discounts on any 3, 4, 8, or 15 days within a month. Prices are, for adults in second class: 267CHF for 3 days, 323CHF for 4 days, 467CHF for 8 days, and 563CHF for 15 days. In first class, the flexible pass runs from 424CHF to 890CHF. The youth discount again is 15 percent for young adults between 16 and 25.
Another option is the Swiss Half Fare Card, which gives a 50 percent discount on train, bus, and boat travel and most mountain railways, as well as on local and regional public transportation in dozens of towns and cities for 1 month for 120CHF. It can be a good choice if you’re planning shorter trips and can pay for itself quickly, given the prices of Swiss trains.
You can order the passes and Half Fare Card online or buy them at some international outlets (see the list on www.myswitzerland.com) before your trip. In Switzerland, buy them at major train stations, including at the Geneva and Zurich airports, and at tourist offices in Zurich, Bern, Basel, Geneva, and Luzern. All but the Flex pass can also be purchased online and printed out before traveling. These deals are available to anyone whose permanent residence is outside Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Families should request a free Swiss Family Card when purchasing their passes. It lets all kids under 16 years travel for free with the adult holder of the travel pass. Kids under 6 travel free even without a ticket or pass, but for children between 6 and 16, you’ll need a free Swiss Family Card, which you can request when purchasing your Swiss Travel Pass/Flex or Half Fare Card.
Swiss Regional Rail Passes—If you plan to devote a block of days to intensively exploring one area, the Regional Passes can be a savings. These include passes for Lake Geneva and its Alpine region, the Tell Pass for central Switzerland, and passes for the Grisons (Graubünden), and the Bernese Oberland. They’re priced for a fixed number of days; you choose how many from a list of options.
One that’s popular is the Bernese Oberland Regional Pass (www.regionalpass-berneroberland.ch), available from mid-April through October. You get access for 3, 4, 6, 8, or 10 days to most cog railways, buses, cable cars, ferryboats, and federal SBB trains in the region. You’ll also get discounts on a number of activities. A second-class pass costs from 210CHF for 3 days to 390CHF for 10 days. Holders of a Swiss Travel Pass or Swiss Half Fare Card pay 50 percent less. The Swiss Family Card is not valid here; all kids between 6 and 15 must pay 30CHF for a pass. If you use it for a few of the major mountain ascensions, which typically may run from around 50CHF–90CHF, in addition to regular area transport, it can pay off. If you’re arriving very early in the season, check first to make sure the mountains you want to visit are already accessible. Buy it online and print before travelling, or purchase it at airport railway stations in Zurich, Geneva, and Basel, and at train stations, boat ticket sellers, and tourist information centers in the region.
Eurail Passes—Eurail does not offer a single-country pass for Switzerland, but you can travel in Switzerland with the Eurail Global Pass. See www.eurail.com for a price calculation tool based on countries you want to visit and number of days you plan to travel by train. You can buy a Eurail pass at European train stations, but it’s more expensive, so buy it before you arrive. Eurail passes cost less if you’re under 28 or over 60. Children under 11 can get a free Child Pass. Though the Eurail pass will let you hop on any train in Switzerland, you need reservations for some tourist trains, night trains, and international high-speed trains. Only citizens of countries outside Europe can buy a Eurail pass. Citizens and residents of European countries, for their part, are eligible to buy an Interrail pass (www.interrail.eu). Up to two children ages 4 to 11 travel free with one adult who has a pass, but need to have a Child Pass issued. Kids under 4 don’t need any pass. If traveling at night, kids need their own reservations for a bed in a couchette or sleeper car.
You can buy the passes at travel agents in North America, as well as various websites. Or see Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com), where you can also get informed on other passes and European travel options.
The dense network of comfortable yellow Swiss postal buses (www.postauto.ch, tel. 0848/888-888) is practically a world wonder. The drivers, with nerves of steel, zip up and down mountains, bringing you to more rural places not covered by the train network. Bring your rubber bone and enjoy the views. A few routes (the minority) require reservations. Buy tickets from the driver (cash only), vending machines, at a service counter or some post offices, or the app. Post bus routes are also included on the SBB website and app.
For long-distance (by Swiss standards) stretches, Eurobus (www.eurobus.ch, tel. 0848/000-212) operates city-to-city routes in partnership with Flixbus (see above), which provides the booking system and sells tickets. Flixbus offers reduced fares if you book in advance. You can also purchase tickets via the SBB, but then you won’t be eligible for the early-purchase discounts. Bus journeys can take longer but are usually cheaper than trains.
Switzerland doesn’t merely have great outdoors; the outdoors are spectacular. That scenery combined with superb roads and thousands of miles of bike paths and trails begs for exploration by bicycle, whether that’s a leisurely ride around a lake or powering over a mountain pass. Rent a Bike (www.rentabike.ch) rents a variety of bikes with helmets—standard bicycles (Velo) or mountain bikes, electric bikes (aka e-bikes, for a little assistance in those mountainous regions or to cover wider distances), children’s bikes, seats (Kindersitz) and trailers (Anhänger), and tandem bikes (Windschattenvelo). It's best to reserve your bicycle of choice online. Some bikes must be returned to the same station; in places where you can return the bike to a different location, there’s a 10CHF surcharge. Prices vary depending on model and duration: A day’s rental of a standard bike costs 35CHF. Note that not all stations accept credit cards for payment. Many of the bike rental spots are at train stations, which lets you take advantage of a RailAway offer that gives a 20 percent discount on bike rental if you use public transport that day. You can buy the ticket and RailAway voucher at www.sbb.ch or a ticket counter.
Switzerland’s old towns were made for walking. They’re generally compact, and often with extensive pedestrian zones. And then there’s the rest of the country. There are countless beautiful, thrilling, or tranquil, hikes for all levels of ability and interest, from highly challenging to very easy—all told, about 65,000 kms of signposted trails (well over 40,000 miles) of trails. A hike can be an hour or multiple days, with overnights in mountain cabins (Berghütte) along the way or in hotels, with luggage schlepped from hotel to hotel for you with a pre-arranged tour. Maintained grill pits (Feuerstelle) line some trails, sometimes with a supply of wood on hand. Just bring matches, sausages, and pre-packaged pizza dough to wrap in strips around a stick and roast over the fire (Schlangenbrot, or snake bread).
Families can increasingly find themed trails where kids track giants or gnomes, or learn about planets or ibexes, usually with a cafeteria and often a playground.
Switzerland Mobility (www.schweizmobil.ch; tel. 031/318-01-28) has advice and links for all types of hikes, package tours that schlepp your luggage from hotel to hotel while you wander unencumbered, and even a special Alpine taxi to take you to remote destinations from wherever the train or cable car ends. A nifty website with maps showing hiking trails and public transport, where you can also mark and "draw" on maps, is at www.map.geo.admin.ch.
In the summer, passenger boats sail Switzerland’s major lakes and rivers. Most offer food and sometimes themes. Evening trips with music and dancing are also popular. The old paddle-steamers on the lakes of Brienz, Geneva, Lucerne, and Zurich, dating from before World War I, are particularly scenic and romantic. These cruises are operated by local companies, but the national and local tourist boards can give an overview of options. These cruises are covered by the Swiss Travel Pass.
Special Train Tours
It’s a shame Switzerland’s natural beauty can’t be packaged to take home with you. But you can pack yourself into a panoramic train to soak that scenery up while you’re here. True, many regular trains similarly wind through mountain valleys and over mind-bogglingly engineered bridges straddling Alpine ravines—with cheaper tickets and more flexibility. However, travelers often enjoy the ease and comfort of these special train lines, with XXL windows and routes designed to maximize your amazement. Note that not all panoramic tours accept all Swiss travel passes, half-fare cards, and other passes.
The Rhaetian Railway (www.rhb.ch; tel. 081/288-65-65) operates the Glacier Express between two of the Swiss Alps’ big guns, Zermatt and St. Moritz; optionally, you can start from Davos via an extra train. This "slowest express train in the world" is 8 hours if you opt for the full journey. A seat in the deluxe "Excellence Class," including concierge service and access to the Glacier Bar, starts at 420CHF, while a second-class ticket for the whole stretch can cost around 150CHF plus 33CHF for the seat reservation, depending when you travel.
What do glaciers and palm trees have in common? Rhaetian Railways’ popular Bernina Express, with the Alps’ highest railway, can take you to both in1 day. Covering tracks from Chur to Tirano in northern Italy, part of the rail line is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. A Bernina Express Bus lets you extend your trip with a ride in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. Tickets can’t be purchased online more than a few months in advance, but you can make the obligatory advance reservation, for which prices vary. Rhaetian Railways also runs other special train trips.
The Furka Steam Railway (www.dfb.ch; tel. 0848-000-144; tickets 121CHF round trip, children under 16 free with a parent; reservations required; Fri–Sun June 22–Oct 6; daily July 8–Aug 18), carries you from Realp to Oberwald in about 2 hours over the Furka Pass of 007 fame (though Sean Connery as James Bond zoomed down it by car, not train, in Goldfinger).
Cheese, chocolate, and a choo-choo is what you’ll get on the Chocolate Train (www.mob.ch; tel. 021/989-81-90). At 95CHF for a second-class ticket or 99CHF for first-class (discounts from Swiss travel passes and half-fare cards apply), you could cobble the trip together yourself for less, but it might be more challenging to fit it all into a day, and you wouldn’t get to ride a glam, Belle Epoque–style train. Note, however, that after that first stretch, the day’s transport is actually by bus. The Chocolate Train, from May–Oct, brings you from Montreux to Gruyères to see production of the eponymous cheese and the medieval village. Then it’s off to Switzerland’s most popular chocolate factory experience, Maison Cailler and back to Montreux.
The Golden Pass (www.goldenpassline.ch) line promises more peak Alpine eye candy in three separate trains: Montreux to Zweisimmen, in a train car with panoramic windows or, in first class, a retro car inspired by the 1930s Golden Mountain Pullman Express. Next is Zweisimmen to Interlaken, then Interlaken to Lucerne. You can book reservations on the website, but you buy the tickets from the SBB. The whole journey is a bit over 5 hours, but you can break it up as you please.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.