General tips and advice from Maggie
1. Definitely buy a rail pass of some kind and rely on public transport. We buy the Swiss Travel Pass for the convenience of not needing to buy tickets except for the discounted ones we need for gondolas etc. This year we also took advantage of the free Pilatus excursion and free Schynige Plattetrip. Because we travel in high season we buy the first class version of the Pass –also because we like the upper decks on boats and more space in trains but second class travel is fine as well if cost is an issue. The only reservation we needed to make was on the Glacier Express from St. Moritz to Brig.
2. Be flexible. By all means prepare for your excursions by using the timetable. You can save time at railway stations if you know in advance which platform your train will arrive at and your next connection leave from and the timetable will give you that information. But there will occasionally be situations where the plan doesn’t quite work – "animals on the line" made one of our trains late so we arrived on a different platform late and had to quickly find out where we could leave from! Fortunately overhead signage at the station will give you that information and the key is not to panic but just follow the signs! If you miss a connection there will be another train along soon! You are on holiday and don’t have a deadline to make to get back to base so go with the flow!
3. Weather forecast. Use the weather forecast to decide when to go up into the mountains – it is expensive to pay to look at the inside of a cloud! Webcams can also be very helpful in making decisions. There are plenty of other ways to enjoy yourself if the weather is being a bit unhelpful so have alternative plans for visits to lower level attractions like visiting the old town areas in a city or town to admire the lovely buildings or go to a place like Ballenberg Open Air Museum near Brienz or the Transport Museum in Lucerne or a cheese factory visit. Have your travel plans worked out in advance for such visits so you can change your mind at the last minute.
4. Budget. For the last two years we have indulged ourselves with a week in a good hotel first followed by 3 weeks’ self-catering. In fact if you choose your hotel carefully by checking what extras are included in the price, it often works out to be less expensive than you think. Our hotel in St. Moritz included a good breakfast, an Engadine Travel card which covered all our mountain transport (except the Brambüesch gondola which was discounted by 50 % and quite a cheap trip trip anyway). We were also given lots of vouchers for food in restaurants (in Soglio, on Piz Corvatsch and at hotel in Val Fex), a free boat cruise on Lake Sils and free horse and carriage ride into Fex Valley, free entrance to National Park Museum in Zernez and a free ride on the little tourist train into the Park. We ate our main meal at lunchtime which tends to be cheaper than an evening meal and bought ourselves sandwiches and cake from the Co-op to eat on the hotel terrace in the evening! When we were in the apartment for our Bernese Oberland weeks we also made good use of the Co-op for evening meals with an extensive range of deli foods available to eat with salad vegetables and microwaved potatoes and occasionally we had microwave meals for a change, also from the Co-op – again a good range to choose from and very tasty.
5. Avoiding the crowds. If you are on a first or possibly only visit you will naturally want to make your way to the most famous places like Titlis, Jungfraujoch, Pilatus etc. But if you have already visited those places, learn to look further afield for less busy places. We decide every year to see if we can find places we have not been to before and succeeded very well this year. I was intrigued by the fact that some places boast what they call their Hausberg or home mountain so wanted to include some of these. We visited Chur’s home mountain – Brambüesch, Weissenstein by Solothurn and Zugerberg in Zug. All of them well worth the research to find and visit – different experiences and less busy than the most popular places! Though we did re-visit Pilatus as it had been a long time since our first visit and it was included in the Swiss Travel Pass this year.
6. Keep your eyes open. Remember that Switzerland isn’t just about mountains and lakes – there are many beautiful lowland areas to see. The Inter City trains are just that – the quickest routes between cities so ideal if you need to get somewhere at speed but they often use tunnels to achieve that speed. If you have time to use regional trains and S-bahns or post buses you will see a different aspect of Switzerland – admire fields full of corn, sunflowers, cabbages, pasture-land and hay meadows which are not just grass but colourful with flowers. Small pockets of land near a rail-line with just a couple of contented – looking cows grazing or a small herd of goats. Allotments with vegetables, flowers, a small chalet-style hut with chairs outside and a Swiss flag flying. Look at the houses and apartments you pass – especially at their balconies – some are like miniature gardens up on the air, some have tables and chairs and perhaps a fridge for extended living space, I have even seen one with a washing machine installed! A guest staying at the apartment above ours told me she once saw a lady doing her ironing on her balcony in Zermatt in the middle of winter! As well as being fascinated by balconies, I love seeing all the pretty country churches with their elegant spires. I have quite a collection of photos of these. When walking on trails I take a lot of photos of flowers too and butterflies if they keep still long enough!
7. Expect the unexpected! We were approaching Thun station one evening to catch our S-Bahn when we heard the sound of a piano! There on platform 1 we found a piano had been installed with a notice on it saying “Play Me!” and an enthusiastic gentleman was doing just that with some gusto and a small group of people were gathered around him enjoying the performance. It was there still on the next day and a different gentleman was playing!
8. Make use of this forum – ask your questions but also read other people’s questions as it might give you an idea you hadn’t considered. Read the trip reports to see how other folk enjoyed their time in Switzerland – I have found many an interesting trip from following up what other people have done – special thanks here to Alpenrose in particular! Follow the excellent advice given by Arno, Annika and Lucas and search all the information pages they have provided for you. Also make use of the website called myswitzerland.com and search for the events coming up during the time of your visit – that’s how I found out about the car rally in Adelboden. It’s a good way to discover unusual things to do.
9. Above all, relax and enjoy yourself. Be flexible and spontaneous, trust the transport system. Don’t allow minor hiccups to spoil your day. Appreciate the kindness and helpfulness of the Swiss people you meet – most speak good English and will help you if you need it. If you see something that looks like it might be an interesting detour, don’t be afraid to follow it up! Don’t try and cram too much into one day as you will get too stressed out trying to keep to a rigid tight schedule and not enjoy the experience. We are a bit too old and unfit now to undertake hiking and other activities requiring stamina but we are still able to really enjoy our Swiss holidays by being sensible about what we tackle and not getting stressed out if we feel we need a "rest day" occasionally!
All the best and have fun!