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Car or train to explore Switzerland: what's best?

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Train near Chillon Castle

In general, public transport is the preferred way to get around. All major attractions, and much more, can easily be reached by trains, buses, boats and cable cars.

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Rent a car or get a train pass, how to choose?

In general, we recommend to use the excellent trains and other public transport. But of course there can be good reasons to drive. Learn about the pros and cons of both options here.

Good reasons to travel by car

  • You intend to visit remote areas with little or no public transport;
  • Your main goal of visiting Switzerland is to explore the pass roads;
  • You have a huge amount of luggage. There are luggage transport services for train travelers, but this can be pricey if the amount of luggage is excessive;
  • You're a skilled driver and greatly enjoy exploring a country by car;
  • You have specific reasons to avoid public transportation.

Good reasons to travel by public transport

  • You want to include the famous scenic train and boat trips in your itinerary;
  • You want your trip to be safe. Public transport is safer in unknown mountainous terrain than driving. We recommend public transport if you are not used to driving in the mountains, or not used to driving on the right lane. In winter, we recommend not to drive unless you are an experienced driver in such conditions;
  • You want your trip to be eco-friendly;
  • The public transport system in Switzerland is among the best in the world. If you are not a frequent train traveler, this is the best place to get a break from driving and enjoy a perfect public transport network;
  • If you don't speak any of the local languages it will be easier to request assistance in English while using public transport.

Myths about traveling by car

  • Renting a car is cheaper. This can be true, but it depends on what you'll be doing in Switzerland. Real costs can be underestimated. Take these costs into account:
    • The daily rental fee. Be sure to pick a large enough car. An economy 4-seater is not sufficient for 4 people plus their luggage;
    • Fuel;
    • Parking;
    • Excursion tickets. Without a train pass, you would pay the regular price for cable cars, boat trips and cogwheel trains to places you can't reach by car. Train pass holders get a 25% to 100% discount on such trips, and free access for children up to 15 years old. If you drive, consider at least a Swiss Half Fare Card to save money;
    • Car trains to cross the mountains, especially in winter;
    • Motorway vignette;
    • Fines can be avoided if you drive carefully. Be aware of the traffic regulations, and do not speed. This requires focus: mind the signs and pay special attention when driving downhill. There are quite a lot of speed traps;
    • If you rent in one country and drop off the car in another country, there will be an additional fee;
    • You can download a spreadsheet from this page to compare train and car costs.
  • A car offers more flexibility. This is true in the sense that you can stop whenever and wherever you like, and you don't depend on public transport schedules. On the other hand, public transport schedules are quite frequent in most regions, and there are train and bus stops about anywhere. Also, public transport can be more suitable for scenic trips and hikes as you don't need to go back to where you parked your car. Note that there are many places you can't reach by car. There are car free towns (e.g. Zermatt), car free regions (most of the Jungfrau region) and there are no roads to most peaks, so you'll have to change to a train or cable car at some point anyway.
  • It's quicker to travel by car. This depends on the route, day and time. Traffic jams are common around the larger cities during rush hour. Long waits for tunnels in high season are common as well. Trains are often quicker for longer journeys. If you travel from one smaller town to the other, the car is often faster. If you use an online travel planner, beware that the indicated times are usually shorter than the real driving times. Such indications usually don't include stops, (unexpected) road construction works or the delay caused by driving in the mountains: driving on narrow twisty roads is slow, and should be slow to be safe. In all, there's not that big of a difference between car and train time wise.
  • I need a car to enjoy scenic routes. There are indeed wonderful scenic roads in the Alps. But there are wonderful scenic train routes as well, which are at least as impressive and safer than the roads. Twisty roads require constant attention of the driver, so you won't see much scenery until you pull over for a break.

Myths about public transport

  • It's hard to find my way using public transport. If you are not used to public transport you might need a day to get accustomed to the system. It is very easy. There are signs everywhere, and there is staff to ask questions. Many tourists are impressed with the ease of use and effectiveness of the public transport system.
  • Booking trips is a hassle. You do not need to "book" trips in Switzerland. You can use public transport just as spontaneously as a car: go to the train station, get a ticket, and board any train you like. If you have a rail pass, you don't even need to buy a ticket in most cases. Apart from a few tourist trains, there is no need for seat reservations. It's similar to subway systems. You don't book these in advance either, but simply use the system when you need it.
  • I can't handle my luggage. As long as you can carry your own luggage in one go, it won't be difficult get your luggage on the train. There are luggage services if you can't carry your luggage, or prefer to travel without. The key is to not overpack, whether you're traveling by car or by train. It will make your trip much more pleasant.

Combining train and car

If you can't do without a car, we recommend to smartly combine the advantages of the car and public transport. Some examples:

  • Do most of your traveling by train, and rent a car for those days on which you want to explore remote valleys or pass roads.
  • In case of lots of luggage you can rent a car to travel from one base town to the other. Use public transport for local day trips. A Swiss Half Fare Card can drastically reduce the costs of such trips.
  • If you have booked accommodation in a village with limited or no public transport, you will need a car. You can then drive to the nearest rail station and enjoy train rides from there.

TRAVELING BY CAR

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