Traveling by train in Switzerland
The rail network in Switzerland is well organised, convenient, and takes you almost everywhere. Whether travelling for business or pleasure, the Swiss Federal Railways, known as SBB in German, CFF in French, and FFS in Italian, offers a multitude of options.
Important: Tickets cannot be bought on Swiss trains so make sure to purchase them before boarding. Fines for travelling without a ticket are steep. If you forget your travelcard, you have to pay the fine but will be able to request a refund minus a service charge of CHF 5.
Our tip: Download the SBB/CFF/FFS app, you can't really do without it. You can access the real-time schedules and purchase tickets directly. Not to mention it is also available in English and also, and if you are not sure which zones to choose, the app will select that for you.
Your essential travel cards explained
The Swiss Pass
The Swiss Pass will be your default card that stores all cards, especially if you buy a Half fare travel card or a GA. It can also store ski resort tickets, your Mobility Carsharing membership (another SBB service) and PubliBike, the most extensive bicycle rental network in Switzerland.
The Half-Fare card
The Half-Fare card (Halbtax, DE and Demi-Tarif, FR) allows you to travel at half price for a year on the entire Swiss public transport network. This includes all SBB/CFF/FFS railway routes, many private and mountain railways, boat and ferry crossings, and even Post-buses (which provide connections in more remote areas). It is worth the investment if you are planning to be in Switzerland for more than just a short stay and if you have to travel frequently by train. There is a choice of one, two, or three years' validity. Passes can be purchased online or at railway stations. Bring a valid passport or identity document and a recent photograph.
Supersaver Ticket or how to save money when traveling by train
If you want to save some money on train tickets, it makes sense to be on the lookout for Supersaver tickets (Sparbillet, DE or billets dégriffés, FR). On these tickets you can get a discount of up to 70% and can be bought directly on the SBB app. The only catch is that you need to purchases these tickets for a specific connection and are not valid for the entire day. However, if you already know you will take a certain connection well in advance, it makes sense to purchase them.
The GA card (General Abo, DE or Abonnement Général, FR)
If you use public transport frequently, the GA card is worth it. The pass allows unlimited travel on public transport throughout Switzerland, not only on SBB/CFF/FFS and the many private railways, trams, buses, and boats, but also on certain cable cars and funicular mountain railways. With the GA card, the cardholder additionally benefits from travel discounts on many Swiss mountain railways and from discounts in neighbouring countries such as Germany and Austria. Several options, including annual, monthly, and daily, are available. A GA also entitles the holder to reductions on car rentals in Switzerland and discounted participation in car sharing schemes.
Day cards/ Tageskarte (DE)/ Carte journaliere (FR)
The commune day card is a card you can use for unlimited travel for 24h - it is basically a GA for a day. The cards are usually sold by your local commune and various community centers in your neighbourhood should have it on sale. The cost of such a card is about CHF 50 and availability is sometimes limited (of course, this was before corona). There is a certain number of cards available per day and you need to choose the day well in advance.
The card is a huge advantage especially when you have guests over, as no Half fare card is required.
SBB also has their own day cards on offer, but they are more expensive that the commune day cards (one SBB day card costs around CHF 70).
Track 7 or seven25 card
Track 7 is a special offer for young people under 25, who hold a Half-Fare pass and are happy to travel at night. Travel in 2nd class is free from 7pm to 5am throughout the entire SBB/CFF/FFS public transport system.
Multiple trip cards for frequent travelers
Weekly, monthly or yearly season tickets for specific zones are also available. These are useful for regular travel on the same route, for example to and from work. An annual season ticket costs about the equivalent of ten monthly tickets. Cards are valid for six one way trips and must be stamped before boarding the train.
Traveling with children on Swiss public transport
Children travel for free on all public transport in Switzerland until the age of 6 years old. Between 6 and 16 years old, you need to purchase the Junior Card. This Junior Card costs around CHF 30/ year and it allows the child to travel without paying any extra tickets, but only when accompanied by the parents whose signature should be on the card. Don't forget to sign the card once you buy it, Swiss ticket controllers are quite strict in this respect and do check it.
On certain major trains there is a Family coach with a small, but nice play area which does wonders on longer journeys. Of course, it is mostly full, but you can get lucky. If a train has such a play area, you will see it once you book your ticket - you should see the FZ (Family Zone) under inclusions. Or just spot the most colourfully drawn carriage once you see the train - you can't really miss it.
How to discover Switzerland with the postal bus
Postal buses cover remote areas in Switzerland and sometimes have incredibly scenic routes on craggy mountains and steep hills, where you would not want to take your car. We highly recommend it. Have a look at some of their scenic routes.
Downsides of public transport and what to use as alternatives
The Swiss are huge fans of public transport and for good reason, as it covers most areas and it is also incredibly efficient, with minimal delays. There are however downsides to it.
As main downsides, it is expensive and for certain out-of-the-way locations, time-consuming (it might take you 1h by train + bus instead of 20min by car).
The go-to alternative of most Swiss people is the bicycle, normal bikes, e-bikes, cargo bikes, you name it. With Publibikes so well spread out in the main cities and offering e-bikes, you really are covered.
Car ownership is also quite high in Switzerland and so are rental cars. By far the most well known car sharing service is Mobility.
For internationals looking to own a car, but unsure of how long they are staying, the Carvolution car subscription is an excellent option, as there is no downpayment required, all costs are included in the monthly subscription and also, you can pick the duration of the contract.
Taxis in Switzerland are expensive. The initial charge is on average CHF 6.50 plus CHF 3.50 per km. The exact charge may depend on the canton, time of day, weekday, luggage, animals and whether you are crossing a cantonal border or not. Fares are state supervised and subject to change. A service charge is included in the fare so tipping is not obligatory. Taxis are available at public taxi stands but are difficult to hail in the streets.
Other public transport need-to-knows
It might seem like Swiss public transport for dummies, but when you're freshly landed in Switzerland from a foreign country, these things are not immediately evident, so here goes:
If you want to buy a ticket, you can only do so from the automated machines in the stations or (and we recommend it) from the SBB or local transport authority app. You can only buy tickets from the driver on post buses.
Buses do not stop in all stops, especially outside the cities, so you will need to push the Stop button (you'll find it, there are quite many of them).
Travelers with disabilities usually are able to manage on their own, but if they cannot, they can hail the bus/tram driver for assistance. Most high buses have a platform for wheel chairs that the driver will open and close when necessary.
You have to pay a ticket for dogs and bicycles.