Hi bcarman, and welcome to MySwissAlps!
>> My husband and I are planning our first trip to Switzerland at the end of May. We are flying into Zurich and plan on taking the train around the country. Our main interest is mountain biking, hiking, and seeing the country (Alps) via cog/train.
May is a tricky time for visiting the alps, as it is between seasons: the skiing season has finished, and the hiking season at higher altitudes doesn't start until around the second half of June.
Depending on which part/s of the alps you intend visiting, you may find much of the mountain transport has either closed for 4-6 weeks to undertake maintenance, or has not yet reopened after closing for the winter. Dates vary from place to place, so if you can be more specific about places and dates, we can probably provide information to assist you to make the most of what is open/operating.
>> My primary question is should we book our hotels in advance or leave our itinerary open so we can see the Alps (in case of cloudy/bad weather)?
My approach would be to plan an itinerary taking into account
- what will be accessible/open/operating while you are there
- staying as long as possible at each base to increase your chances of getting suitable weather for mountaintop visits and outdoor activities
- having backup plans for days when the weather doesn't cooperate. Without knowing how long your trip is, and where you intend to go, it's hard to suggest how long to stay in each place, but in general I would say 4 nights/3 days as a minimum.
- access to the panoramic routes, if you intend to do any of those trips
>> I was just curious if the smaller mountain towns will be busy during that time of the year where we wouldn't be able to find accomadion for the night.
They won't be busy, as it is off-season, but many hotels in the mountain villages and towns will be closed, so the number of rooms on offer will also be reduced.
I'm sure you could always get a room somewhere, but if you want accommodation that meets all your requirements in terms of location, proximity to public transport, amenities, price, and length of stay, in my experience you're more likely to get that by booking well ahead. Some establishments are quite small, especially in villages.
If you plan on incorporating scenic train trips into your itinerary, your overnight stops should be chosen with those routes and travel times in mind. There is a map of the panoramic routes to help with your planning: it is attached to the map showing where the Swiss Travel Pass is valid, and you can download it from the following page:
Approximate travel times for the scenic routes (one way) are as follows:
- Golden Pass line (part) from Luzern to Interlaken Ost: almost 2 hours
- Golden Pass line (part) from Interlaken Ost to Montreux: 3 hours
- Palm Express (PostBus) from Lugano to St Moritz: almost 4 hours
- Voralpen-Express from Luzern to St. Gallen: 2.25 hours
- RegioExpress Lötschberger (full) from Bern to Brig: 1.75 hours
- RegioExpress Lötschberger (part) from Spiez to Brig: Just over 1 hour
- Centovalli Railway from Locarno to Domodossola: 1.75 hours
If you want to calculate travel time for short sectors along these routes, you can use the Swiss Timetable: