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How to travel by Swiss rail

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Digital information board

On larger railway stations, information is displayed through boards in the main hall, like here in Lucerne.

The rail network in Switzerland

Switzerland has a fantastic rail network with rail stations in many towns and villages. Rail stations are usually in the town center. Local attractions can mostly be reached on foot. Details can be found on the map of Switzerland.

Places that cannot be reached by train can be reached by switching to a bus or another mode of public transport at the nearest rail station. Bus routes complement the rail network: if a route is serviced by trains, it is usually not serviced by buses as well, and vice versa. So you don't get to choose the mode of transport. You simply use what's being offered on a particular route.

Planning your trip

The Swiss timetable shows how to travel from A to B. It shows what time to depart, where to switch if necessary, and what time you will arrive. The timetable knows about nearly all modes of transportation, so if you need a bus or a cable car to reach your destination, it will show that too.

Getting a ticket

Traveling by train in Switzerland is easy and does not require lots of planning ahead: you simply buy a ticket for a specific route and day, and just board any train (for special tickets, exceptions to this rule may apply). There is no need to book seats, except for a few international trains and panoramic trains like the Glacier Express. The timetable will indicate that for such trains.

Some regions have a fare network and work with an alternative ticket type: a ticket allows unlimited traveling within a specific area during a certain time frame (e.g. two hours or one day). All modes of transport are included. Public transport in Zurich works like that, for example.

Buying point to point tickets isn't necessarily the cheapest or most convenient way to pay for your trips. Some rail rail passes allow you to travel by any train, bus or boat on any route, as much as you like. There's no need to buy tickets or worry about fare networks. This is often cheaper and more convenient. There are many rail passes to choose from. How to choose is explained here.

Larger rail stations have a staffed ticket office that sells point to point tickets. All rail stations have ticketing machines. Rail passes can be purchased online and at ticket offices. Find out where you should buy.

The train type (InterCity, regional train, local train, etc.) is not important when traveling. The rail company operating the train is not relevant either. You can just travel like the timetable suggests. There are no price variations for train types or railway companies. A ticket or a pass is valid for any train type and any company operating on the route.

Finding the train

Smaller stations only have one or two platforms. Signs indicate which platform your train will depart from.

Large stations have multiple platforms, and sometimes multiple floors. Still, it's not hard to find your train. If you know the departure time of your train and its destination, you can quickly find it on the displays. The trains are listed there, and so is the platform number. Then just follow the blue signs to that platform. At the platform, there are again displays showing the departure time and destination of the next train. In case of a long train, they also show which section (A, B, C, etc.) of the platform will be the position for 2nd class and 1st class coaches.

In some cases you need to pay a little more attention. There are a few trains that split during their journey. They stop at a station along the way and split in two sections: one section continues to one town, the other to another town. So you should be seated in the section bound for your destination. If a train has multiple destinations, you will see so at the platform display and in/on the train itself.

Getting on the train

As explained before, seat reservations are very exceptional in Switzerland. You can sit wherever you like, unless the seat is reserved. That's indicated by a small display above the seat, or a sign on the seat itself.

If you have a 2nd class ticket or rail pass, then sit in the 2nd class coach as indicated inside the train and on the outside too. You can sit anywhere if you have a 1st class ticket or pass.

Show your ticket or pass to the train personnel when asked. Be sure to have a valid ticket or pass when boarding the train. You're risking a fine if traveling without it. Some trains don't have personnel on board, but there are mobile teams that board such trains randomly.

Note that some trains have quiet zones (where you're not supposed to talk or call), family zones and business zones. Be sure to sit elsewhere if that does not fit your travel needs.

Getting off the train

The next station will be announced through the train intercom (mostly in multiple languages) and/or the display in the train. Also there are signs with the station name on the platforms, so you can double check as the train pulls into the station.

Regardless whether you travel with a ticket or a pass, you're allowed to break your trip along the way and continue traveling later that day, unless your ticket indicates otherwise.

Request stops

Trains usually stop at all stations as indicated in the timetable. However, some trains only stop on request at small stations. The timetable shows whether that's the case, and so do the train intercom and/or displays. You need to press a button near the doors to signal the train driver that you want to get off. Do so a few minutes before arrival.

There's also a button at the station. You need to press it to request your train to stop for boarding. Do so no later than two minutes before arrival.

How to behave on board Swiss trains

Train traveling is great experience, especially if all passengers take each other into account. Your fellow travelers will appreciate it if you stick to a few basic rules:

  • When boarding, first give way to the passengers that get off the train. Patiently wait until you can get in.
  • If you want to sit down next to a passenger you don't know, it's appreciated if you ask if the empty seat is indeed available. If you're not sure how to do so, making eye contact and pointing to the seat works as well.
  • Put your luggage in the designated areas above or between the seats, so that seats are available for passengers. Especially do so if it's crowded.
  • You're allowed to eat and drink, but you'd best not use products that have a strong odor, that are very crumbly or that cause a lot of noise.
  • Please dispose of your waste in the small bins in the train carriage, or in larger bins at the train stations.
  • Try not to disturb other passengers with loud conversations, music or phone calls. If you want to listen to music of watch videos, use a headset and pick a low volume.
  • Don't put your feet on the seats.

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