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Holidays to Switzerland Travel Podcast Episode 84 Transcript

May 18, 2024 Last Updated on May 18, 2024

How to use public transport in Switzerland

You can see the full show notes and listen to this episode > here.

Hi there, welcome to episode 84 of the Holidays to Switzerland podcast.  I think you’re going to find today’s episode super helpful as it’s all about using Swiss public transport.  It’s probably safe to say that the majority of visitors to Switzerland would use public transport at least once during their trip so today’s episode really is for everyone.

With the densest, and what is widely regarded as the best, public transport network in the world, getting around Switzerland by train, bus and boat makes perfect sense.

But if you’re not a regular public transport user, the idea of hopping on and off trains in a foreign country and understanding how the public transport system works can be a bit intimidating.

In this episode, Andy Nef joins me to share everything you need to know about travelling by public transport in Switzerland.  Andy tells us about the different types of tickets you can buy and where to buy them, how to know where to sit when you board a train, where to look up timetables, tips for travelling on public transport with luggage and much more.

If you have any concerns about using the Swiss public transport network, they’ll be put to rest with this episode.

Before we welcome Andy back to the podcast, I’d like to say thank you to the folks from Switzerland Tourism for sponsoring the podcast. Make sure you visit their website myswitzerland.com for Swiss travel tips and inspiration.  If you need the train ride of a lifetime, you need Switzerland.

Now, speaking of trains, let’s hear from Andy.


Good morning, Andy, and welcome back to the podcast. You’re a frequent guest on the show, and it’s great to have you back again. Just in case people don’t remember, could you give us a bit of an introduction and tell us what you do?

Always a pleasure to be here. Good morning, Carolyn. Well, it’s 7:30 in the morning here because I live in Switzerland, in the suburbs of Zurich, my name is Andy Nef, and I’m a market manager for Swiss Travel System. I take care of the Australia market, even traveling to Australia every now and then. I have been working for the railways and companies close to the railways for 29 years now.

Yes, well, you’re a real train expert, especially a Swiss train expert, as you’ve shared with us on many occasions. So it’s great to have you back to tell us more about the trains. And we know that travelling by train is probably the most popular way to get around Switzerland. But for folks who are coming to visit Switzerland and they’re perhaps not regular users of public transport, it can be a little bit daunting. So they’ve decided on rail as their mode of transport, and that’s the first step. But then they really don’t know what to expect when it comes to actually getting on the train and getting from A to B. That can be a little bit overwhelming. I think you’ll be able to put everyone’s mind at ease with all this information and the practical tips that you’re going to share with us today.

Yes, that’s a great pleasure to talk a little bit more about our public transport network and how easy it is to get around by public transport. There is one thing I really want to point out. Don’t be afraid, don’t worry. You may be anxious to use public transport in Switzerland because there is, I think, nothing comparable in the world. But in the end, it’s really easy and practical and everything is well signed and explained. Don’t you worry, try it. After the first day, you will fall in love with public transport in Switzerland.

Yeah, absolutely. All right, so let’s start by talking about using public transport with the Swiss Travel Pass because many visitors to Switzerland purchase a Swiss Travel Pass. But just in case we have people listening who don’t know what it is, can you just give us a little bit of an overview of the Swiss Travel Pass?

Yes. Keep in mind that the Swiss Public Transport is operated by more than 250 public transport companies. Well, imagine you had to buy a ticket for every single of these companies. That’s why we have the Swiss Travel Pass. The Swiss Travel Pass is the all-in-one ticket for the Swiss Public Transport, call it our flagship product. The good thing is with this ticket, you just hop on and hop off wherever and whenever you like.

Excellent. Now it is, as you say, very handy to use. I always recommend to people that they buy the Swiss Travel Pass before they leave home, then they’ve got it with them. As soon as they arrive in Switzerland, they can start using it. If they’ve done that and they’ve got the Swiss Travel Pass, are there any steps that they need to take before they can hop on the first tram, train or bus?

Yeah. Also from our side, we highly recommend to get the ticket in advance to avoid queues in Switzerland. The good thing is with the Swiss Travel Pass, you don’t have to do anything before traveling. You really arrive to Switzerland, arrive to Zurich or Geneva Airport, you get off the plane, you walk down to the railway station, which is right in the terminal, you hop onto the next train, that’s it. There is no validation required. You just start traveling and that’s really a good thing. A small exception is the Swiss Travel Pass Flex.

You remember, there are two kinds of Swiss Travel Passes. There is the consecutive pass, which is probably the most widely used pass, but then there is also the flex pass where you can choose the dates of travelling within a monthly period. There you have to activate the days. Day by day, you have to activate them. Since nowadays we have only E-tickets, so you don’t get a physical paper ticket anymore where you can write something in, you have to do that online. There is a special website called activateyourpass.com. That’s where you can do that. Whenever you decide to travel, maybe you have preset your itinerary in advance so you know exactly on which days you are traveling, you can actually select all the travel days in advance. Though you keep the flexibility. Changes can always be done before traveling. Once you have started your trip in the morning, you cannot change the date anymore.

Okay, fantastic. So if you activated it for a day and you woke up that morning and the weather was terrible, so you decided, Well, we’re not going to do that trip today, you could then change that travel date to the next day.

Exactly. That’s how it works.

Okay, good. All right. So you’ve got your pass. And if you have a Swiss Travel Pass flex, you have activated it. What happens then? Can you just jump on any train?

Yeah, that’s another very important point. In Switzerland, we don’t need seat reservation on regular trains. So free seating, that’s the rule here, that’s how we do it. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of space available when avoiding rush hour. Rush hour is pretty early in the morning here in Switzerland, starts at about 6:30 to about 8:30. After that, you are fine. You basically board a train, look for a free seat and enjoy the trip. One exception are the premium panoramic trains. Those trains require seat reservations, which I recommend to do as early as possible. They usually open the system about three months prior to the travel date.

Okay, all right. You’ve hopped on the train, you found a free seat and you’ve sat there. It’s important to remember that you need to carry that Swiss Travel Pass with you at all times, isn’t it?

That’s correct. You always have to have the Swiss Travel Pass. As I said, it’s an E-ticket nowadays, so you can either show it on your mobile phone as a PDF file. You receive a PDF file when you purchase it, so you show that on your mobile phone. But I always recommend to have a printed version as well as a backup just in case you run out of battery or whatever, always have these backup ticket. How to say? Traveling without a ticket in Switzerland can turn out to be quite expensive. Make sure you always have the ticket with you.

Okay, great advice. If someone isn’t purchasing the Swiss Travel Pass, what are some of the other ticket options that they could purchase and use for their transport?

There are quite a few alternatives. For example, there is a Swiss Half Fare Card for a month available, so that’s especially for the tourists coming to Switzerland. The Swiss Half Fare card in general is an annual ticket which is extremely popular among the Swiss. Most of the Swiss people have such a Half Fare Card which is cutting ticket prices into half. And especially for the tourists from abroad, well, it doesn’t make sense to have an annual ticket, we came up with this Half Fare Card for a month, which is a very good alternative. Regular train tickets can be quite expensive here in Switzerland. With this Half Fare Card, it really helps to save on travelling costs. You can then buy point-to-point tickets with a 50% reduction. This also works for mountain top excursions. This also work for boats and bus trips. That’s just a very good alternative.

In case you really do only one or two trips and only limited travelling only short distance, just a normal point-to-point ticket can also be an alternative at good price.

As I mentioned before, make sure to have a ticket when boarding the train, so you always have to buy the ticket in advance. On most public transport, there is no ticket purchase available, meaning there is not a conductor on the bus where you can buy a ticket or on the train. Many trains run without the conductor. They run in a so-called self-control mode, meaning there can be random ticket checks. Should you be on a train or on a bus without a ticket while such random check is happening, it is going to be very costly. The other thing is they open a record. Well, you know how it is. It’s not good to be in such a record. Better make sure always buy the tickets in advance.

Definitely don’t want to be in Switzerland’s bad books, that’s for sure.

There we are.

Where is the best place for people to get those point-to-point tickets once they’re in Switzerland?

There are still ticket counters at quite a few stations, but not all stations provide this facility anymore, especially at smaller stations, those ticket counters have been closed. Well, as it is, they have been replaced by a ticket machine. That’s how it works nowadays. At the station, where you still have a manned ticket counter, of course, there are limited opening times, so they wouldn’t be open 24/7. These would be regular opening times of the shop, maybe in a very big station like Zurich Airport, Zurich Main Station, the ticket counters would be open a little bit longer than usual.

But as I said, the ticket machines are a very good alternative. You find a ticket machine at every station. You have to imagine these are touchpoint ticket machines. Basically, you can buy any ticket there. You can buy just short-distance tickets, you can buy long-distance tickets. What you could not do is buy a Swiss Travel Pass at the ticket machine, but point-to-point tickets, no problem at all. You can even select the 50% reduction for the Half Fare Card, et cetera. But on my opinion… Sorry, yes?

I was just going to say. We should also mention that you can select English on those ticket machines.

There we are, yes. Of course.

If you’re listening and thinking, How on Earth am I going to navigate the ticket machine if it’s German or French or Italian, well, you don’t have to because you can select English or many other languages to go through the process of buying your ticket.

Correct. It’s really self explaining how it works. You select English, you follow the steps, and in the end, you have your ticket. That’s how it works. But on my opinion, the most effective way to buy tickets is the SBB mobile app. That’s really a very useful thing. The SBB mobile app for your mobile phone, for your smartphone, or then the online ticket job, which is more or less the same, but on a computer, on the internet. Especially, as people with mobile device, is very useful not only for buying tickets, but also for checking timetables. I think you have used this app quite a few times when you have been travelling in Switzerland, right?

Yeah. It’s so helpful. I think it really is the most useful tool that anyone who’s visiting Switzerland can have because I just love how you can, as you said, look up the timetables. It even tells you which platform the trains depart from and arrive at. That’s so handy if you’re having to change trains en route between your destinations. It’s always good to know, Okay, I’m going to get off at platform two, but I need to get on to the next train at platform four or five. Knowing that in advance is really useful.

Absolutely. The good thing is it’s all real time. That means delays, well, should they ever happen in Switzerland?

Rarely.

No kidding. Now there are delays, of course. The changes of tracks are always shown, so this is really helpful. But of course, there are also departure boards at all the stations. There is usually a main board at every station where you have all the departures. These are very big indicators or they are smaller screens, which is always real time as well. But then you also have the indication boards on the track, right on the platform.

They usually show the next departure with the final destination and the stops in between, and also the formation of the train, meaning where to find first class, where to find second class, the restaurant car, the family car, et cetera. It’s all indicated on that board so that you can place yourself at the right area of the platform because stops in Switzerland normally, well, the train don’t stop for ages. On a normal station, the train stops maybe one, two minutes, so better make sure to get on the train swiftly.

Yeah, absolutely. And like you mentioned there, having that indication of whereabouts the train will stop is so handy because if you’ve got a second class ticket and you’re waiting where the first class coach is going to pull up, you might have to move pretty quickly to get to the second class carriage. That’s really handy. The trains can be pretty long, too.

There we are.

Absolutely. When there’s a lot of people on the platform, people with luggage all trying to get on. It can be a bit nerve-wrecking if you’re standing in the wrong spot.

There we are. Yes.

What are some of the other services that we can find at the railway stations?

Another service which I personally find very useful are the lockers. You find lockers at all major stations. You still have the rather old-fashioned ones with the key, or you have the very new ones with a small terminal where you just get a receipt with the code. But that’s really useful. So for a few Swiss francs, you can get rid of your your luggage while exploring a city or doing some sightseeing or whatever. But of course, that’s quite unique here in Switzerland.

You can also ship your luggage to the next destination. Just be aware of the delivery times. When you ship the luggage standard shipping, that means you send it today and you will receive it the day after tomorrow, can be useful even for a tourist if you want to send one suitcase ahead for the second part of your holidays or whatever. But there is also an express version which works only between a selected, how to say, some selected destinations in Switzerland, the more touristy destinations, where you get it on the same day when sending it in the early morning. The good thing is this can also be done from hotel to hotel, by the way.

You can leave your luggage at the reception in the morning. Well, of course, you have to book it in advance, but you can leave it at the reception in the morning, and you will receive it in the evening in the new hotel. Of course, everything has a certain price, especially in Switzerland, but the good thing is it works, right? Imagine what you can do without luggage. I mean, in Switzerland, distances are not long, so you don’t travel for hours. That means you can stop always in between, do some sightseeing on the way, go up a mountain top, take a boat instead of the train, do some sightseeing, do a hike somewhere, get off for having lunch somewhere or whatever, and you never ever have to worry about your luggage.

But another service I even make use personally is the money exchange. The SBB ticket counters, but also ticket counters of many of the private railway companies here in Switzerland, provide money exchange service at very good rates, very good rates and with quite low commissions. This may be a good opportunity to get Swiss francs, even though, of course, credit cards are very widely accepted here in Switzerland, but it’s still very useful to have a coin every now and then.

For example, toilets, that’s a big thing in Switzerland. Most of the public toilets are not free of charge. You have to pay a small amount to make use of this service, yes.

Okay, all right. So getting back to luggage, we’ve talked about the lockers at stations and that you can ship your luggage onto the next destination. But if you’ve decided that you’re going to take the luggage with you, is there much space on the trains to actually store all your luggage?

There is not too much space on the train, but there is, yes. There is space on trains, on buses, even take your luggage on a boat. There is space on a boat as well. Usually, there is a luggage rack close to the entrance, of course. But there is also, and that’s what many people don’t realise, there is space under and between the seats. You can easily push your suitcase under the seat or there is space available between the seats where luggage fits in. Of course, if you are travelling with your two-bedroom flat, that doesn’t work. I always see people with huge suitcases, and this can really be a challenge if you bring your super big suitcase with you. Please try to have maybe a medium-sized suitcase. 

Always remember there is no porter service here in Switzerland. You have to take care of your luggage. You have to bring the luggage from one train to the other. You have to bring the luggage to the platform. However, there is always a ramp or an elevator or an escalator. There is always a step-free access to the platform. A suitcase with wheels works perfectly. Really, that’s not a big thing. Try to have a medium-sized suitcase with wheels, maybe have a small backpack as your hand luggage, and then you are fine. Also for changing from one train to the other, remember, connections can be short. This can be a few minutes to change from one train to the other. With medium-sized suitcase and the backpack, you are just fine. This can be easily stored away of the train.

Absolutely. Definitely only bring what you can easily manage. You can lift too. If you’ve got to lift it up, some trains, especially like the big intercity trains, you have to get up steps to get into the carriage. Trying to haul up a huge suitcase can be really difficult.

Most trains nowadays provide same-level entrance, but you might remember that especially the intercity trains are double-decker trains. There, of course, you can’t avoid steps on the train. But also, yeah. There is a certain weight limit usually on the plane already. Flying economy class, you can usually take 23 kilograms with you. If you’re under that limit and your suitcase is medium size, you’re just fine.

Right. One of the things that I’ve noticed when I’ve been traveling in Switzerland is that some of the trains and particularly the buses, they don’t automatically stop at every station or every bus stop. How do you make sure that you’ll be able to get off where you want to get off?

That’s a very good point, yes. Too bad when you want to get off, but the bus is just moving on. Most buses and even some trains, these are more the regional trains, so the local trains, they run a so-called stop-on-request mode, meaning you need to press the stop button in time to make the driver aware that he needs to stop at the next bus stop or station. Nowadays, there is a passenger information system in most trains and even on the buses. We monitor showing the next stops approaching. This really helps you to know when your stop is approaching and when to press the stop button.

I remember when I was younger and traveling on a bus, you always had to rely on the bus driver announcing stops, depending on the language and the quality of the speaker, etc, it was really a lottery to press the stop button at the right moment. But these times are over because even with the SBB Mobile app, you can follow your journey live. That means you always know where you are and when your next stop is approaching.

That’s really useful. I’ve used that numerous times, particularly when I’ve been going to places that I haven’t visited before, and I’m not sure on the bus how many stops it is until I’ve got to get off, following along on the app, seeing exactly which station I’m at is really useful.

Totally agree on that. Still useful for me, by the way, sometimes. Yeah, okay.

Well, that’s good to know. Now before we finish, there are a couple of other things that I’d just like to clarify about the Swiss Travel Pass, because these are questions that I get asked a lot, both in the Facebook group and people sending emails asking these questions all the time. So if they’ve got the Swiss Travel Pass, we know that that includes travel on buses and boats as well as the trains. But people often ask, do they need to exchange the Swiss Travel Pass for another ticket before boarding? I think we’ve covered this with regards to trains, but what about with the buses and the boats?

Yeah, that’s an important point. I observe people showing the Swiss Travel Pass to the bus driver quite often, and that’s not necessary. Your Swiss Travel Pass is your ticket, it’s on your mobile phone, it’s your E-ticket, and you only need to show it on request. When you change from the train to a bus, you just get on the bus through any door. You don’t have to use the front door. You can also use the back door or one of the other doors and you just sit down and there might be a random check.

There are still a few probably smaller bus lines where you need to show it to the bus driver, but you will notice. You will notice. Then usually there is only one door open and there is a queue in front of the bus driver, so you will notice. But let’s say on 80 or 90% of all the buses, you just get on, you just sit down and that’s how it works. By the way, how to recognise whether a bus is running on the self-control mode, that’s when you see yellow stickers, yellow signs with an eye on it. That means you are in a self-control zone.

This applies to the trains, to the boats, to the buses. Whenever you see such an eye, that means you don’t have to show your ticket automatically, you only show it on request, and you better be sure you have the tickets. There is one exception when you travel by cable car or mountain railway, meaning your Swiss Travel Pass is not fully valid on those. That means you have to buy an additional ticket at a reduced rate. Remember, with the Swiss Travel Pass, you get up to 50% reduction on mountain top trains. When traveling, for example, to the Mount Titlis, Pilatus, or I don’t know, the Schilthorn, you have to go to the ticket counter, you have to present your Swiss Travel Pass, and you will get tickets.

Fantastic.

That’s how it works.

All right. It’s very, very easy and straightforward. Of course, it’s Switzerland, right!

If you say so, yes. You have been traveling many times in Switzerland. You know how to travel. You know it by now.

Well, thank you for sharing all that with us. It’s been very helpful. I know our listeners will be very grateful to know all that before they set off on their trip. I know you’re going to come back again in December and give us some news and updates about travelling by train in Switzerland next year, in 2024. But for today’s time, thank you again.

Great pleasure always, and can’t wait to be in your podcast in December again. Thank you, Carolyn.

Are you feeling more confident about using the Swiss public transport network now?  Armed with all this info, you’ll be travelling around Switzerland with ease.

As Andy said, after your first day of travelling by train (or bus or boat) in Switzerland, you’ll wonder why you were so nervous about it.

The entire public transport network runs like clockwork (like a Swiss watch, in fact) and it’s a convenient way to get around the country.  And one thing Andy didn’t mention is just how clean the trains and buses are.  Prepare to be impressed.

If you’re keen to know more about the Swiss Travel Pass, I’ll include a link to our detailed guide to this all-in-one-ticket, and where to buy it, in the show notes for this episode.  In the show notes you’ll also find links to previous episodes featuring Andy discussing Swiss trains and some other helpful articles about rail travel.


Those show notes are at holidaystoswitzerland.com/episode84

You can see the full show notes and listen to this episode > here.