Swiss scenic trains – and the DIY alternatives
I was originally ready to post this last week, but then the news came that a landslip had caused the Glacier Express to derail into a ravine. Luckily nobody was too seriously hurt on board and I hope it won’t put people off travelling by train in Switzerland, as the country is home to some of the most scenic rail journeys in the world (and normally has a great safety record!). From the comfort of your train carriage seat you can see a procession of lakes, snow-capped mountains, dramatic gorges, alpine meadows and pretty villages. But along with its reputation for stunning scenery, Switzerland also has an equally well-deserved reputation for being an expensive place to visit. Two of the country’s most scenic train journeys – the Bernina Express and Glacier Express – travel through some of its finest scenery in trains with fancy glass-walled observation carriages. But they’re also both run by local train companies on the same lines as their regular services. So when I was planning my European rail trip I looked into whether the special scenic trains were worth the price or could you do it cheaper yourself – and if so was it worth the hassle?
The Bernina Express
The real version… The Bernina Express runs between Chur to Tirano, just over the border in northern Italy. It take around four hours and crosses 196 bridges and viaducts, passes 20 towns and villages, and goes through 55 tunnels. The route starts at the historic city of Chur and follows the River Plessur past a series of hilltop castles. It then crosses the spectacular Landwasser Viaduct, which curves around so you get a great view of the train as it travels over, and passes through the Landwasser tunnel into the Engadin valley, home to the St Moritz ski resort. From there it changes onto the Bernina Line and climbs up into the Upper Engadin, with views over to the Morteratsch Glacier, right up to the highest point 2253 metres up at Ospizio Bernina. And from there it descends almost 2000 metres back down to Tirano.
Tickets for the Bernina Express between Chur and Tirano cost 60 CHF one way in second class or 105 CHF in first class (which has bigger windows and wider seats). There’s also a compulsory seat reservation fee of 14 CHF in summer or 10 CHF in winter. You can also pay an extra 24 CHF for their bus connection if you want to transfer on to Lugano. So a summer ticket will cost a minimum of 74 CHF or £50 in total. Swiss Passes, Interail and Eurail passes are all valid on this route.
The DIY alternative… It’s easy to do the Bernina Express route on normal local trains, and although you don’t get the panoramic carriages, instead you can open the train windows which is much better for taking photos. It does involve a couple of changes along the way though, but Swiss trains are very reliable and the stations are tiny so it isn’t too difficult to do. The first change is at Samedan, which is near St Moritz and almost two hours from Chur. Then it’s a short seven minute journey to Pontresina where you change onto the train to Tirano. The whole journey takes about four hours and 20 minutes.
A though ticket from Chur to Tirano is around 60 CHF (£40). You can book tickets on the Swiss Railways or Voyages SNCF websites – though double check the routing offered as some include a bus and some use the Bernina Express trains (these are marked BEX) so are subject to the seat reservation fee. Swiss Passes, Interail and Eurail passes are all valid on this route.
The Glacier Express
The real version… The Glacier Express is known as the ‘world’s slowest express’ and takes almost eight hours to travel the 180 miles between the ski resorts of Zermatt and St Moritz. The journey starts beneath the Matterhorn in Zermatt, then descends over 1200 metres to the towns of Brig and Visp using a cogwheel railway to work its way down the steep slope. It then follows the Rhone Valley to Andermatt and climbs up to the windswept Oberalp Pass, the highest point of the line at 2033 metres up. Then it descends again to Distenis where you change from the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn to the Rhätische Bahn. From Distenis the train travels through the steep Rhine Gorge and from Chur it follows the same route as the Bernina Express, crossing the Landwasser Viaduct on its way to St Moritz.
Tickets for the Glacier Express on the full Zermatt to St Moritz route cost 140 CHF one way in second class or 254 CHF in first class. Both have panoramic windows and you can order meals and drinks to be served at your seat. There’s also a compulsory seat reservation fee of CHF33 in summer and 13 CHF in winter. So a summer ticket will cost a minimum of 173 CHF or £115 in total. Swiss Passes are valid on this route but Interail and Eurail passes only cover the section between Distenis and Chur.
The DIY alternative… As with the Bernina Express, there are also local trains running all the way along the route of the Glacier Express. But this one does involve a few more changes – though again small stations and reliable trains stop it being too complicated. The whole journey takes just over eight hours, so is only 20 minutes slower than the Glacier Express. You need to do four changes on the way though – at Brig, Andermatt, Distenis and Reichenau-Tamins (just outside Chur).
A through ticket from Zermatt to St Moritz costs around 130 CHF (£86). You can book tickets on the Swiss Railways or Voyages SNCF websites – though make sure to put ‘via Andermatt’ when you search as otherwise you’ll get taken on the quicker but less scenic route which goes via Zürich instead. Swiss Passes, Interail and Eurail passes are all valid on this route.
As you can see the price differences aren’t huge, so if you can afford the extra cost it may be worth it to avoid the hassle of all the train changes. But where the local trains really come into their own is if you don’t want to take the whole route. If you want to break up your journey on the Glacier or Bernina Express, you have to pay a seat reservation fee on each section. But on the local trains you can break the journey up as much as you like – stop off for a night or do some walking between one station and the next then carry on on the train. Often the train fares aren’t much cheaper in advance so you can buy them at the station.
If you want to take one of the scenic routes as part of a longer journey and are travelling on to (or coming from) another European country, you can also save money by booking with their train company instead of Swiss Railways (try OBB for Austria, Trenitalia for Italy or Deutsche Bahn for Germany).
With limited time to spend in Switzerland on our rail trip, we chose a relatively short section between Chur and St Moritz for our first Swiss scenic train experience. This spectacular stretch is part of both Glacier and Bernina Express routes and is short enough to do a return trip in one day and still have time to explore, or to add on as a diversion to longer rail journey, like we did. The trip takes two hours by direct train and costs 37 CHF (£25) each way – and although we booked onto a local train, it turned out that the Glacier Express carriages were attached to the same engine, so there really wasn’t much difference after all!
Have you ever been on the Glacier or Bernina Express, or do you know of any other good scenic train journeys in Switzerland?
Would love to do this scenc trip, it´s beautiful!
Thanks so much, it’s a really pretty part of the world, hope you get to visit one day!
Your photos are absolutely gorgeous! I need to see more of Switzerland (although, as you rightly said, everything there is expensive!).
It is a stunning place – I think it’s the mix of different types of scenery that make it so great (though it’ll never be a budget destination!).
I’m always a fan of the DIY form of travel, so it’s interesting to know how much you save. I’m actually surprised it isn’t more for something like this! Although, like you say, the main attraction for me would be the chance to stop off in towns and villages along the way.
Yes I was surprised too – though you can save a bit more if you’re travelling on the routes as part of an international trip as the other European countries train companies seem a bit cheaper. It’s nice to be able to do it slowly though and stop off – we saw a lot of people we were walking between stations or taking their bikes then getting the train back.
As a Swiss, I have taken most of the scenic train routes except for the glacier express. You have documented them carefully!
The Golden Pass Panoramic Train from Montreux to Lucerne shows you another part of Switzerland, from the French speaking western part through the vineyards to the famous city of Lucerne where you can continue to Interlaken for example.
You are right, the Swiss train company SBB is very expensive. On the French SNCF or the Italian Trenitalia Website you can make some pretty good deals. I also recommend taking the Swiss Pass. In addition, there is a Swiss offer from the Swiss municipality, where you can daily train tickets from 45-50 Swiss francs, but only 10 days in advance before your trip (www.tageskarte-gemeinde.ch).
Thank you – it must be great to have such beautiful train trips so close to home! The Golden Pass Panoramic Train looks like a fantastic journey too, and quite different as there are more lakes along that route. Thanks for the tip about the Swiss Pass and special offer tickets too – you reminded me about booking with other countries sites (which is what we did as we were going on to Austria and it was much cheaper) so I’ve added in a sentence about that to the article.
I must add Switzerland on my list, even though I’m a bit scared of their prices. Amazing photos as always, Lucy! 🙂
Yes it’s one of those where you don’t want to think about it too much! We ended up only spending one night there and overnighting in France and Austria around our train trip so we kept the expense down as much as possible.
Excellent post Lucy – great information which is very useful for planning a rail journey through Switzerland. I’d love to do the slow travel and stop off at places along the way. One day maybe.
Thanks – yes it’d be a great place to amble through the different mountain towns and villages by a mixture of train and walking!
Not only can you DIY – you should!
Those panoramic carriages look great don’t they. Not only are they a photographer’s nightmare, they are also not that frequent. A young American couple were in the ticket queue ahead of me, in some Swiss train station (sorry, forgotten the name). They wanted to travel on a Glacier Express with panoramic windows. Definitely NOT on a regular train. Because the next day was a Sunday, they were told that due to the timetable, if they wanted to return on the same day (which they did) then they would only be able to travel less than half distance, and then return straight away. But if they travelled on a regular train, and left early enough, then they could travel a LOT further. They opted for the shorter “special” journey.
And this is just a personal preference. The train (normal RhB train) that I travelled on was about 30% full only. We passed a couple of “special” trains on the way. They were FULL. And the only person who looked like they might actually be Swiss – was the ticket collector.
The rest had cameras slung around their necks, were of a certain size (you really DON’T want t be sat next to someone that big), were of certain age (think grey hair & no hair).
If you could travel by train and make it appear that you were on an ocean liner (without the sea), then that was it.
DIY. It’s SO easy. You get to travel on quieter trains. You get to open the windows to take reflection-free photographs (and you WILL want to – it’s just so beautiful). And you might even meet a local.
Oh. And the scenery is IDENTICALLY stunning.
[this info is the same for both the Glacier Express and the Bernina Express]
Haha your comment made me laugh! I agree with what you said. The best way might be to mix up “normal” train journeys with one “special” one.
As somebody who grew up and still (partly) lives in the beautiful countryside in Grisons (in a small village called Rabius, the Glacier Express passes it on its way from Chur to Disentis) I strongly support what you say.
I use the RhB very often (since it is the only way out of the village if you don’t have a car) and it really is quite empty most of the time. I can only recommend using it instead of the Glacier or Bernina Express, which will only be way more expensive and less comfortable.
Just don’t take the RhB from Chur to Disentis between 5 and 7p.m., all the people commuting home from work will be in there, so it usually is awfully full. If possible, I recommend taking a later or earlier one, or you won’t be able to take many photos. Of course same counts for very early trains from Disentis to Chur (6:30 to 8 a.m.).
If anyone has any questions about the route from Chur to Disentis, don’t hesitate to ask me, I know it quite well, I must have done it more than a 100 times. You can also ask me questions about Disentis, Chur and its surroundings in general.
I wish everybody, who will be visiting my beautiful home a most wonderful experience and an unforgettable time 🙂
Good to hear how you got on Iain – our regular train was less than half full too and it was great to be able to open the windows (I even got to have a seat on both side of the carriage so I could run between the different sides to take photos!).
Thanks LocalGirl too, great tips about avoiding peak times and thanks so much for the offer of advice on the region – you live in a gorgeous part of the world!
I haven’t been on either of those scenic trains, but I had fantastic train experiences in Switzerland. Of course, the service is excellent, but the scenery along the way is spectacular in many areas. I can’t wait to go back someday. I’d definitely consider the scenic trains, but I do like being able to break up the journey and explore a bit.
The Swiss train services (and actually the ones in France and Austria too) were great – clean, comfortable and all completely punctual, it really is the best way to travel around Europe, and there are so many more routes I’d like to see!
Beautiful photos! My only scenic train trips was through Austria and I loved it. Would love to do another one again.
We went on from Switzerland to Austria next and there was some fantastic scenery there too!
We did the Bernina express in June. It was a blast. The train was packed with Italians and Austrians (interesting mix if you ask me!). On arrival in Tirano we took the bus to Lugano, it was absolutely worth the money. I put my swiss adventure on hold to write about Croatia but as soon as I am done you’ll see some pictures on my blog.
I don’t think taking photos through the glass was too bad, I brought a pol filter ..it helped a lot! In winter we’re going back to take a ride on the glacier express. Can’t wait!
Thanks Suze, good to hear how you got on – look forward to seeing your posts too. Great tip about using a polarising flilter, I usually struggle with reflections in the glass on sunny days and hopefully that’ll help!
Surprisingly most of my pictures turned out pretty decent 🙂 (OK, if one looks closely there are some reflection) ..nothing lightroom couldn’t fix though! I overheard some of the old Austrian folks saying I wouldn’t get a decent shot.. They took me for an American and kept talking about my photo-obsession (I must have taken about 300 shots within 4 hours).
The biggest problem for me was the moving train.
The Glacier Express is going to be even more exciting! 🙂 The Pol filter helps a lot (works great on water and glass) Def get one if you haven’t one already!
Very cool and informative post. It definitely seems like it would be worth the ease to buy the fancy train ticket, but being able to lower the windows would be nice too. Either way, I really want to ride a train through the Alps right now.
Very comprehensive and detailed post! Switzerland has long been on my list of countries to visit because it is so scenic, and seeing it by train would be amazing.
It’s definitely a good way to see the mountain scenery – the roads are so twisty and turny that you need to keep your eyes firmly on them but the train is perfect for watching the scenery out of the window!
I’m From South Africa and went to Switzerland April this year and absolutely loved it! the trains were amazing, I saw almost the whole of Switzerland, it was amazing and I know it would not have been possible if not for the Great railway system! your Article has brought make such great memories!
Glad to bring back some good memories. Sounds like you took a fantastic trip too – there are so many great train routes around Switzerland!
Good to have someone else do the legwork on DIY vs. “tourist” options :-). Sounds like avoiding the hassle of train changes is the way to go. We just took a scenic return train trip from Vancouver to Jasper here in Canada with VIA Rail (had a sleeper cabin) – lots of fun!
You’re welcome 😉 Yes if you want to do the full route (and don’t mind the non-opening windows) then the dedicated trains are a good idea. I would love to do a trip by train across Canada. I did a sleeper train from London to Edinburgh but we don’t have many of them in the UK as it’s a bit too small!
Argh this looks so scenic and beautiful!!! I’ve always been fascinated by epic train journeys like this – Would love to do this and the trans-siberian railway too. For some reason I would also love to hitch a ride on a cargo train like you see people do in films haha! Great article, really vibrant photos!
Thanks Paul – I love travelling by train and the Trans-Siberian would be the ultimate train journey! The longest I’ve done so far was 48 hours on an Indian train which was a lot less luxurious (and punctual!) than the Swiss ones.
I´d like to travel this way
Thanks, train travel is one of my favourite ways to see the world, as especially around Europe.
I’ve only been to a Swiss airport, but my niece recently went to Switzerland and was raving about the country, including its train system. There’s no doubt I’d love to visit the country – and when I do, doing a train trip through the Alps will be at the top of my list. Lovely photos, I wish I could go there now…
Switzerland is such a beautiful country – so many landscapes and different cultural influences within one country – it’s definitely not a budget destination but I think it’s well worth a trip!
A few weeks ago, I took a scenic train from Wilderswil up to Jungfraujoch. The views were amazing. I was surprised to see so many towns along the route.
That’s a fantastic route – I did the train part of the way but not right to the top of the Jungfraujoch, would love to go back and do the full trip one day!
I would love to do a train ride across the country! That must be such a beautiful and relaxing way to enjoy the countryside. So picturesque!
It’s definitely relaxing, just watching the scenery go past the window – probably my favourite way to travel!
Switzerland s such a lovely country. You did a great job with the DIY route, a friend of mine was looking for something similar so now I know where to point her to.
That’s great – hope it comes in useful and your friend has an amazing trip!
The Glacier Express is just lovely. Did you also have the chance to enjoy some of the cities alongside the train route?
It is – we stopped off at Celerina near St Moritz on this trip, but I’ve visited Chur and Zermatt before and both were lovely – always more to see though!
Switzerland via train is very high up on my “bucket list”, i cant imagine the amazing things you would see of of your window.
the DIY usually ends up a lot cheaper
It’s definitely worth the trip someday! The DIY versions aren’t hugely cheaper in this case but it does let you be a lot more flexible and get more of a locals experience.
Looks marvellous. Trains in Europe are always a great ride. I’d love to do Switzerland in winter as I like “real” snow and mulled wine. Oh yes! Lovely post Lucy.
I’d love to do the routes in winter too – I’ve seen some gorgeous photos of it amongst all the snow (and can never say no to a mulled wine!).
What a thorough research on the prices Lucy! You are definitely right, Switzerland is gorgeous and it is quite expensive so having a comparison like this certainly helps. It might also help that if you travel in Switzerland a lot, it might be handy to have their half price card which I purchased during my stay there and it gave me 50% discount on all of their train services.
Thanks Aggy, the Swiss pass is a really good idea too – we weren’t in Switzerland long enough to make it worthwhile this time but if you’ve got a few days there it’s a great option.
Hello! I really loved this article. I want to take a train ride through the Alps soooooo bad!!
Thanks, it was a fantastic journey – hope you get to try it our yourself one day!
I think you made the right decision to take the local train, if only for the option of opening the windows to take your great shots 🙂
Being able to open the windows was great – I’ve never managed to get very good shots through glass and because the train was fairly quiet I got to alternate between the different sides too and get shots in both directions!
I went on the Glacier Express when I went and it was all booked so last minute that I didn’t really research it too much otherwise I might have figured out these DIY options so I’m relieved to see it’s not a huge difference! 🙂
Yes it was really not too much of a difference for the Glacier Express and the lack of changes compared to the DIY route would definitely be a bonus!