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Holidays to Switzerland Travel Podcast Episode 99 Transcript

May 29, 2024

How to plan your perfect Swiss adventure on the Gotthard Panorama Express

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

Intro  

Are you dreaming of visiting Switzerland? Planning a trip to Switzerland is very exciting, but it can also be overwhelming. How do you choose which of the many scenic cities, towns and villages to visit? Which mountain top excursions should you take, and what’s the best way to get around Switzerland? And of course, how much of the country can you realistically see within your timeframe? If you’ve asked yourself any of these questions, this is the podcast for you. This is The Holidays to Switzerland Travel Podcast, and in each episode. Your host Carolyn Schönafinger chats with Swiss travel experts to answer your most commonly asked questions, provide practical tips and take you on a virtual visit to the most popular destinations. And of course, some hidden gems to help you plan your dream trip to Switzerland. And you’ll hear plenty of conversations about Swiss cheese and chocolate too. Are you ready to plan your trip to Switzerland? Well, let’s get started.

Carolyn Schönafinger  

Hi, and welcome to episode 99 of The Holidays to Switzerland podcast. Switzerland’s panoramic train rides are world famous and for very good reason. And whilst names like the Glacier Express and Bernina Express are familiar to many folks planning to visit Switzerland. There’s one panoramic train that flies a little under the radar. It’s the Gotthard Panorama Express, a combined boat and panoramic train journey that connects Lucerne in central Switzerland, with Lugano in the south. And today, we’re going to hear all about this unique and special journey. My guest, Laura Lichtenberger, has been fascinated by trains since she started her career selling tickets at Basel station. Today, she is the sales manager for Gotthard Panorama Express. And she’s here today to share with us the incredible history of the Gotthard Tunnel. And the best way to experience a journey on the Gotthard panorama Express. Hello, Laura, thank you very much for joining us on the podcast today. Would you like to start by introducing yourself and telling us a little bit about your background in the Swiss travel industry?

Laura Lichtenberger 

Yes. Hi, Caroline. Thanks for having me. So I’m Laura, and 33 years old, and I live in their pretty town of Olten in Switzerland. It’s located between Basel and Zurich. And yes, I have been working for the Swiss railways for about five years now. And one of my role is being the sales manager of the Gotthard Panorama Express. I actually started my career at the Swiss railways when I was 20 years old and my first job was at the front. I used to sell train tickets to the people who came to the counters in Basel. And that was a really exciting time because Basel is located near France and Germany. So we had a lot of tourists coming in. And yeah, it was really good.

Carolyn Schönafinger  

So you’ve got a very long history with working with promoting train travel, then?

Laura Lichtenberger  

Yes, I do. I didn’t know when I started working there. I just got hooked. You either fall in love with trains, or probably you don’t, but I did so much. And I never wanted to stop working for them. Yeah, I did my tourism degree while working on the counters. And then I followed what they do next, though, I tried to get a job at the Swiss railways in a different position. But then I got the job offered in London. And oh my God, I have to take that I have to go over there. So I did and I started working as a travel agent for the Switzerland Travel Center. 

Carolyn Schönafinger 

Okay, yeah. 

Laura Lichtenberger  

And that’s when I really got into the whole panoramic train journey thing, because that’s what I did there. I took those panoramic train journey journeys for clients all over the world. And one of them, obviously, was the Gotthard Panorama Express. 

Carolyn Schönafinger  

Yeah. Fantastic, and now you find yourself in a role where you’re promoting that particular train. Amazing.

Laura Lichtenberger 

Yeah, that’s true. Yeah.

Carolyn Schönafinger  

So for our listeners who perhaps aren’t familiar with it? Would you like to tell them exactly what the Gotthard Panorama Express is?

Laura Lichtenberger  

Yes, of course. So it is a panoramic journey from Lucerne to Lugano, or the other way around. And it’s a combination of both and train travel. Though you start in Lucerne by hopping on the boat for about three hours, and then you arrive at Flüelen where you board the Gotthard Panorama train, and that brings you down south to Lugano in just about two and a half hours.

Carolyn Schönafinger 

Fantastic. So when you mentioned there, the boat cruise so you’re basically going from one end of Lake Lucerne right, down to the other side, right?

Laura Lichtenberger  

Yeah, that’s correct. So it’s two regions that are combined and the regions of Lucerne and Lugano. Yes. In between, there’s a beautiful lake. Very, yeah. It’s quite a long journey. It’s 3 hours you do and you see so much and that like so. Yes. It’s a great, it’s a great trip. 

Carolyn Schönafinger  

All right. We’ll talk more about the actual trip itself in a moment. But what’s the history behind the train or the Gotthard Panorama Express  journey, and the Gotthard tunnel?

Laura Lichtenberger  

Okay, so that’s quite a big story. So imagine that before the tunnel existed, people used to travel by steamboat to Flüelen, and then with the stagecoach down to Italy. So a trip from up North from Basel, down to Italy to Milano took about 50 hours. That was quite a long time to travel. And today, the fastest route by train is only 3 hours. Pretty, pretty amazing. And it was such an important route, not only for traveling, but also for dealing with goods. And then at some point, they hired an engineer who built the tunnel from version one to a role in 1872. And the guy was called Louis Favre and he was from Geneva. 

Laura Lichtenberger  

He got the job because he was obviously a bit of a daredevil and said he could only finish it in 8 years. And in the end, it took 10 years to finish it. So it officially opened on 22nd of May 1882. And at that time, it was the longest tunnel in the world. It was revolutionary. 

Carolyn Schönafinger 

Yeah. Wow. 

Laura Lichtenberger  

That’s yeah, that was quite a big thing. And to be fair, I have to mention that because I read so much about it. The people who built the tunnel were mainly Italian workers from the Piedmont region. So, it is assumed that about 20 up to 25,000 workers were involved during those 10 years. They built that tunnel and that. Yeah, it’s I could tell you so much about it, but I’m gonna stop here..

Laura Lichtenberger 

Like they said that when Louis died just before the tunnel was opened, he died in the tunnel, unfortunately. And it is said that Italian workers when they did the breakthrough, they the first thing that went through the tunnel, really, or through through that little hole was a picture of him.

Carolyn Schönafinger  

Gosh, obviously he was a real pioneer. And yeah, as you said, it’s just an engineering masterpiece to happen so long ago that they obviously didn’t have the tools and equipment that we have today. What an amazing feat. 

Laura Lichtenberger 

Yeah, it was. 

Carolyn Schönafinger 

Yeah. Wow. So how is the trip on the Gotthard Panorama Express best experienced would you say?

Laura Lichtenberger 

So, I think best experience is it’s part of the Grand Train Tour. So if you have a lot of time, you can do the grand tour, train tour in 8 days. Better to be done in 14 days, I’d say. If you like to, if you don’t have that much time, maybe you could just do the Gotthard Panorama Express yourself in about 3 to 4 days. So with one night in Lucerne, one night in Lugano. Or especially when you’re coming down from Amsterdam, with a river cruise, you could add it on to heading down to Italy or the other way around. But it’s just the perfect connection from North to South. 

Carolyn Schönafinger

Yeah, okay. Yeah, plenty of options there then, and so many visitors love to go and stay in Lucerne because it’s such a beautiful city, even if they as you say have just got one extra night they could spend it Lugano, they can do the trip and get down to the South of Switzerland as well.

Laura Lichtenberger  

Yes, exactly.

Carolyn Schönafinger 

So you already mentioned the the whole journey connects Lucerne in Central Switzerland with Lugano in the South. What are some of the highlights of the trip do you think? 

Laura Lichtenberger  

So, it is a very historic and personal experience. So when you’re on the boat, you’ve got magnificent views on the mountains around you. You have Rigi on the left, you have Pilatus on the right and you pass that Rütli meadow. I don’t know if you heard about that.

Carolyn Schönafinger  

 I’ve heard of it. But tell our listeners about that if you don’t mind. 

Laura Lichtenberger  

So that’s quite a historical place for all Swiss people because it’s said that in 1291 that oath of the Swiss Confederation was sworn there. That’s the birthplace of Switzerland but to be fair, it’s not historically proven. It’s a myth. No, no, for sure. It’s real celebrated actually, on first of August. They have celebrations up there and the high and mighty of Switzerland come and yeah, do like a speech or something.

Carolyn Schönafinger  

Yeah. Okay. But it may be a myth.

Laura Lichtenberger  

Yeah, so that’s the lake cruise thing. But then when you board the train in Flüelen. What I really love are the tour guides on the train. Because they all have their own connection to the route and to the Gotthard train and they are very open hearted and chatty. So they can tell you everything about the train, the road, the tunnel, the surroundings, every name of each lake you pass. And then they love interacting with the guests. And I think that’s because they’re not doing it every day because you do that job like 20% of your time during summer. So they may be doing it once a week, each of them. So they’re always full of power when they’re finally on the train again, that’s what they told me. And yeah, that’s what I like the most. 

Carolyn Schönafinger  

Okay, so the guides, do they just wander through the different carriages and answer any questions and point sights out to the passengers?

Laura Lichtenberger  

Yes, that’s exactly what they do. So they go through the carriages. And when there’s a new highlight coming up, they tell everyone, okay, now look to the left or look to the right. They answer questions. They tell you maybe a little bit more off the beaten track. Each of them has her or his own very little story, they can tell. They’re just so close to the guests and all of them are very enthusiastic. Yeah.

Carolyn Schönafinger 

They’re great. So it’s like having your own tour guide on the train.

Laura Lichtenberger 

It’s definitely like that. Yeah.

Carolyn Schönafinger  

Yeah, good. I’m sure there’s so much to see, as you mentioned, as you travel both on the boat and the train. But is there a section that you would say is your favorite, or one that you think is the most picturesque?

Laura Lichtenberger  

I have indeed a favorite section. And that is the one when you’re actually just before or after the tunnel. The train must overcome many meters in altitude in a short amount of time. So that’s why the route has many like spiral loops. And then I first realized that really, when I was traveling from Lugano to Lucerne, and after we came out of the tunnel, you get to see the church of Wassen, which is one of the sightings. And the church is on the right, and it’s very far away and small and below us. And then minutes later, it all of a sudden, it was on the left very big and very close. That was like oh, what happened? Magic, obviously, I was again chatting to someone not paying attention. And then I realized, oh wow, that the church is now here on the left and I lost that unexpected moment. 

Carolyn Schönafinger  

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Great. So for people that are traveling on the boat in the train, what sort of services can they expect onboard?

Laura Lichtenberger  

So during the whole season, there are usually paddle steamer boats running. And in the paddle steamer boats, you can see a lot of the marine engine inside. They have a lower deck, they have an upper deck, they have a restaurant for lunch, and the boat is running and first and second class. So you can do either of it. The Gotthard Panorama Train only runs in first class. And when you change at Flüelen which is like only a few meters away from the boat to the train, which makes it very convenient. You bought the Gotthard Panorama Train, with its high panorama windows, that’s really nice. And you have a photo wagon on that train, which I really love. Because unlike many trains in Switzerland, or I think they still have some photo wagons, but very rarely, it’s just not common anymore that you can open the windows. That’s a speciality and you get just get that a picture. 

Carolyn Schönafinger  

Yeah, no glare from the glass if you can get the window down. Yeah. Okay, that’s a good tip to know. And so what about if people are in a wheelchair at the boat and the train accessible for them?

Laura Lichtenberger 

The boat is accessible. Yes, for the train. It’s much harder. It’s not really at the moment. A great thing to do. But we’re working on that.

Carolyn Schönafinger  

I’m sure you are. Switzerland is always working on improving things, so that’s great. And can you tell us a little bit more about dining on the boat because I know that’s something that I’m quite looking forward to when I do this journey in a month or so’s time. How does it work with dining on board the boat?

Laura Lichtenberger  

Okay, so you can actually reserve a seat? I would say you should really because the book very quickly. So you see that’s actually a restaurant reservation you can do. And then you can actually choose the many yourself or I think they have even pre booked options if you like that.

Carolyn Schönafinger  

Okay, can you sit out on the deck or do you dine inside?

Laura Lichtenberger 

Oh, you dine inside.

Carolyn Schönafinger  

Okay. Yeah, perfect. 

Laura Lichtenberger  

Yeah, that would be maybe that’s their improvement they could do.

Carolyn Schönafinger  

Now I’m sure dining inside would still offer amazing views as you’re cruising across Lake Lucerne and enjoying a delicious meal. Now lots of travelers who are taking Gotthard Panorama Express journey will have luggage with them. Is there much room to store luggage on board the boat and the train?

Laura Lichtenberger  

Yes. For groups the Swiss railways offer a group luggage service from hotel. And for independent travelers, we offer a luggage service, so you don’t have to worry about that at all. When you board the boat, you can give your luggage into our good hands and we bring it to Flüelen. And then it actually goes with you on the train down to Lugano and only in Lugano, you get your luggage back. So you have your hands free. It’s stress free, though nothing to worry about.

Carolyn Schönafinger  

Okay, that’s good to know because I do know that some travelers perhaps do take a little bit too much luggage. So if they don’t have to maneuver that on and off the boat and the train that makes it a whole lot easier. Yeah, definitely. Yeah. So let’s talk about tickets and reservations, because I know with a lot or with some of the panoramic trains in Switzerland, you need to have a seat reservation. How does it the ticketing and the reservations work with the Gotthard Panorama Express?

Laura Lichtenberger  

So we accept all kinds of tickets. So the Interrail works, the Eurail, the Swiss Travel Pass, even the day cards and normal point to point tickets. And the most important thing is that the Gotthard Panorama train is only available in first class. Though, if you have a second class ticket, no worries, just book a class upgrade for that little route. So for example, with a Swiss Travel Pass second class you buy a class upgrade, I would suggest to do it for the whole trip because even on the boat, it is so lovely to be in first class. That’s the main thing and the reservation, of course on the boat, you can just choose your seat, that’s totally free. And for the Gotthard Panorama train, you need a seat reservation, which gives you like dedicated seats.

Carolyn Schönafinger  

Okay, now with the class upgrade, they could just do that, what prior to boarding in Lucerne or in Lugano, it doesn’t need to be purchased further ahead than that, does it? 

Laura Lichtenberger  

Yes, it should be purchased ahead. I recommend it like when you do the seat reservation book also at the same time the cloth upgrade. 

Carolyn Schönafinger  

Okay, great. And do the usual Swiss discounts for children apply? So if someone’s traveling with the Swiss Family card or a Junior card, for instance, are they applicable on the Gotthard Panorama Express?

Laura Lichtenberger

Yeah, definitely. So if the child needs their own seat on the train, of course, you can book a seat as well. If it’s really tiny still, of course, you can have it on your lap.

Carolyn Schönafinger  

Very good. All right. Now, I should ask you, where can people make those bookings for the train and the boat journey? 

Laura Lichtenberger  

Oh, yeah, good question. So we actually have our own website at www.gotthard-panorama-express.ch. Or you can actually book it with your trusted travel agent. And I’m sure there are other websites where you can book it, of course. And always, for example, like GetYourGuide or something behind that is usually a tour operator who is trained in the end for you. But it’s always best to book directly with us because we have the newest information.

Carolyn Schönafinger

That’s right. And I will put a link to your website in the show notes for this episode, as well as there’s a great map that you sent me from the brochure, which shows the route and all the highlights along the way. So I’ll add a picture of that map to the show notes as well so people can check that out. Now, one important thing that we need to know is can people take this journey all year round or is it seasonal, and how many services operate each day in each direction?

Laura Lichtenberger

Okay, so it operates only from mid April to about mid October and only from Tuesday to Sunday. So we has one connection going south and one connection going North.

Carolyn Schönafinger  

Okay. Now, I noticed there that you didn’t mention Mondays. The journey isn’t available on Mondays, why is that?

Laura Lichtenberger  

So there is only one panorama train. And we would just like to like our clients to experience a good quality. So we have to send our baby to the maintenance center once in a while now we do that. We do that every Monday and we give it you could say a full day beauty treat. We do clean the wagons inside out. We scrub the windows through the brakes, check the air conditioning and just to make sure the trip is safe, and everyone feels great and having a good time with us. Yeah. 

Carolyn Schönafinger 

Wonderful. So Monday is like makeover day. That’s good to know. So in your opinion, what makes the Gotthard Panorama Express journey so special and why should our listeners include it in their Switzerland itinerary.

Laura Lichtenberger  

So one thing I need to mention is it combines Lucerne and Lugano and it Lucerne you eat schnitzel, in Lugano, risotto, in Lucerne you’re yodeling in Swiss German and in Lugano you listen to Italian opera. Of course, I’m exaggerating. But you know what I’m on about. It’s two very diverse regions. That’s one point, and what I really like about this trip is that you have the boat trip, half of the time, and then half of the time, you’ve got the train bit so it feels a bit adventurous and it’s very exciting. Because it’s splits up the journey and it’s always nice after being free hours and about to feel the how to set the floor again for like 2 minutes before we bought the train again. And to sum it up, it’s the combination of the personal experience on the train with the tour guides, and also this special feeling while traveling through the Gotthard tunnel. Fascinating story. 

Carolyn Schönafinger 

Yeah. And as you said, it’s connecting the two very different regions. And you’ve got the two modes of transport and you’ve got all that history as well. So it’s yeah, it’s quite unique. 

Laura Lichtenberger  

Yeah, it is. 

Carolyn Schönafinger

Wonderful. So for our listeners who would like more information, as I mentioned, I’ll put a link to the Gotthard Panorama Express website in the show notes so they can go on there and get any more information that they need and hopefully book their seat reservation so that they too can enjoy this journey themselves very soon.

Laura Lichtenberger  

Yeah, that’d be brilliant. Thank you, Carolyn. Looking forward to many more travelers and on The Gotthard Panorama Express

Carolyn Schönafinger 

Wonderful. Thank you so much, Laura, for taking the time to tell us all about it today. I’m sure you’ve now given everyone another panoramic train journey in Switzerland that they’ve just added to their list. And hopefully, we hear from them that they’re all booking their trip very soon.

Laura Lichtenberger  

Thank you.

Carolyn Schönafinger 

What a fantastic journey. The Gotthard Panorama Express combines two of my favorite things to do in Switzerland, travel by train and cruise on a lake. Now, I haven’t yet experienced the Gotthard Panorama Express myself, but I’m happy to say I have my reservations confirmed for June 2024 and I’m really excited about it. I will let you know all about the trip in my post-trip podcast episode in July. So make sure you’re subscribed to the podcast so you don’t miss out. If you’d like to see some photos of the Gotthard Panorama Express, or you’re ready to book your trip, you’ll find the link to the Gotthard Panorama Express website in the show notes. I’ll also include a link to our free Scenic Rail Journeys in Switzerland guide so you can grab a copy of that and start planning your Swiss rail vacation. Thanks very much for joining me today. I hope you’ll join me next time for more Swiss travel tips and inspiration in our 100th episode. Until then, tschüss.

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