Updated on: February 14, 2021

The ultimate guide to using public transport in Switzerland

4  comments

You know how it goes.

You land in a new country, get the stamp in your passport, grab your bag and make it through customs. Next, you try to figure out how the public transport system works around here to make your way into the city.

But all those options can be overwhelming and you have about a million questions you don't know the answer to.

Should you have booked your train ticket in advance? Are trains even a thing here or are buses more popular? Should you buy tickets as you go or would a travel pass work out cheaper? 

That‘s where this guide comes in. By the time you’re done here, you’ll know just as much, if not more than the average Swiss about the public transport system in Switzerland.

1. The public transport system of Switzerland

Public transport in Switzerland is efficient, (mostly) punctual, and literally all over the place.

If you sum up all the railway tracks running across this little country, you’ll end up with over 5.300 kilometres (3.300 miles).

That’s a lot. 

That’s the distance from Vancouver to Halifax. Or from Ushuaia to São Paulo. Or from Cairns to Sydney. Return. Quite impressive for a country half the size of Lake Superior, isn't it?

Summing up all means of public transport like buses, trains and Postauto lines, the whole network contains roughly 29.000 kilometres (18.000 miles) and looks something like this:

Swiss Public Transport

The Swiss public transport network (click here for a more detailed map)

2. Means of public transport in Switzerland

2.1 Trains in Switzerland

In terms of trains, Switzerland is a country of superlatives.

No other European nation covers as much ground on the railway tracks as we do. In 2019, we travelled a whopping 2.400 kilometres (1.500 miles) by train.

Additionally, since summer 2016, we've been proud owner of the world's longest railway tunnel: the Gotthard Base Tunnel. It is 57 kilometres (35 miles) long and reduced the travel time between Zurich and the Canton of Ticino by 30 minutes, or 20%.

As you can imagine, trains are by far the fastest and most convenient way to get around Switzerland. If you open this map, you will see the red lines running up and down the country. They represent the railway lines that are served by Intercity, Interregio, Regio, suburban trains and mountain railways.

The major train company is called SBB, or CFF in French and FFS in Italian, which stands for Swiss Federal Railways.

Apart from SBB, there are over 70 more railway companies completing this dense network.

Switzerland has one of the densest railway networks in the world

2.2 Long-distance buses in Switzerland

Long-distance buses aren't really a thing in Switzerland. The Swiss are a (proud) nation of train riders. 🙂

However, bus companies have been on the move across Europe lately and it is now possible to travel within Switzerland by bus. Check the Flixbus or Eurobus websites to find your connection.

While long-distance buses are definitely cheaper than trains, they come with a few downsides.

  1. Trains run several times per hour between major cities, while buses only run a couple of times per day.
  2. Buses take a lot longer to reach their destination than trains because they drive more slowly and get stuck in traffic.
  3. A bus ticket ties you to a specific service. This means you can't spontaneously travel at a different time, which is possible by train. 

Update January 2021: You will currently have a hard time finding bus connections within Switzerland. This might be due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but for the time being, long-distance buses aren't really on the market.

2.3 Postauto buses in Switzerland

No corner of the country is too remote to have one of those iconic, yellow Postauto buses running through. The yellow lines on this map don't even come near to covering their whole territory.

To dig a little deeper into this extensive network, visit the regional section on the Postauto website

While Postauto buses are very common and popular in remote regions and villages, they also serve most cities and their suburbs.

As the name suggests, they were originally used to transport mail. But over time, Postauto gradually started carrying people as well, which is all they do nowadays.

The shiny yellow Postauto buses take you anywhere in Switzerland.

The shiny yellow Postauto buses take you anywhere in Switzerland.

2.4 City buses in Switzerland

In addition to Postautos, cities and certain bigger villages also have their own local bus network. You can find a list of all local bus lines on this website

City buses often run quite frequently. Especially in larger cities. Depending on the size of the city and the time of day, you’ll see anything between 30-minute down to two-minute intervals.

2.5 Trams in Switzerland

Trams aren't that widely spread in Switzerland and the only places with notable tram networks are Zurich, Basel, Bern and Geneva.

Trams are in charge of connecting the cities as well as their suburbs to the centre. They usually run quite frequently – sometimes up to every two minutes. In Basel, there's even a tram running across the border to Weil am Rhein in Germany. 

A little word of warning from a country girl 🙂 Trams can be an aggressive species and if you'd like to do ensure your physical wellbeing, look out for them in the city centres. They have a tendency to favour honking over breaking. 

As they do all over the world, I suppose.

2.6 Passenger ships in Switzerland

With all those lakes and rivers, it only makes sense that passenger ships are another easy way to get around Switzerland. Where there's a white line on this map, there's a passenger ship or a ferry.

Since those ships are quite slow in comparison to all the other means of public transport, they're not really used by commuters. So if you're in a hurry to get from one place to another, maybe skip this one. 

However, if you have time and fancy taking in some stunning views or even embark on a steamboat, visit this website to find out more about everything that's available.

Please be aware that it can get quite crowded during summer on a sunny day. While I've never run into the situation where they stopped letting people on board, it might make sense to be at the pier a few minutes before departure.

On a little side note, services don't run with the same timetable all year round. Make sure you double-check the departure time before you set out on your cruise.

steamboat

Catch a steamboat...

ship Lucerne

... or a regular ship in Lucerne to travel around Switzerland

2.7 Cable cars in Switzerland

Technically speaking, cable cars aren't part of the public transport system and most of them don’t get any financial support from the government. Nevertheless, they still deserve their spot on this map in the shape of black lines.

To use a cable car, you usually have to buy some sort of an extra ticket. And those are rarely cheap.

However, most cable cars accept the most common travel passes, which I will talk about further down in this post. So make sure you show them any kind of ticket or travel pass you might already have.

Cabrio cable car Stanserhorn

Probably the coolest cable car ever: The CabriO at Stanserhorn near Lake Lucerne

2.8 FAQ: What people also ask about public transport in Switzerland

Is public transport in Switzerland expensive?

Unfortunately, it is. Quality definitely has its price here.

Luckily, there are a few ways to optimise your travel costs by buying a travel pass or a Supersaver Ticket. 

I will talk about both of these in the next sections of this post. 

What's the difference between first and second class coaches on Swiss trains?

There are two main differences between first and second class coaches on Swiss trains. Price and legroom.

  • A ticket in the first class costs up to 75% more than the same journey in the second class does.
  • If you prefer more legroom and some extra peace and quiet, you might prefer the first over the second class.

Is it worth travelling first class on Swiss trains?

Generally speaking, our second class coaches are of very high quality and if you travel outside of rush hour, you should have no problems feeling comfortable in a second class coach. 

However, if some extra peace and quiet and more legroom is a priority to you, you will enjoy your journey more by travelling first class. Just factor in the considerable 75% price difference. 

How long does it take to travel across Switzerland by train?

Not long at all.

With Switzerland being so small, it takes just under four hours to travel from St. Gallen to Geneva and less than three hours from Basel to Lugano. 

If you travel with the fast intercity trains, that is. 

Of course, there are slower and more scenic trains that take longer. But if you're starting your trip in Zurich, it will take you no more than one to two hours to reach any other major city in Switzerland. 

How do I know when my train, bus, Postauto or ship leaves?

The best way to find your timetable is by using the SBB website or the SBB app.

Tickets

3. Tickets on Swiss public transport in general

3.1 One journey = one ticket

In Switzerland, it doesn't matter which company or means of transport you travel with. The price will always be the same. You pay for your journey from one place to another, regardless of who runs it.

For example, if you go from Zurich to Zermatt, you need to change trains in Visp. The first part of your trip is operated by SBB, while the second part belongs to MGB (Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn). But your ticket from Zurich to Zermatt covers both rides.

The same goes if part of your journey is operated by a different means of transport. Let’s say you travel from Zurich to Stein in the Appenzell region. After getting off the train in St. Gallen, you need to change to a Postauto bus. Your ticket from Zurich to Stein covers the whole journey.

​Find ​the perfect itinerary

​for your trip to Switzerland...

3.2 Tickets are flexible and never sell out

Tickets are valid for a certain time span and not for a specific service. If you buy a ticket from Bern to Zurich, you’re free to take any train leaving from Bern to Zurich on the day of travel. You're also free to get off along the way and continue your journey later that day.

Therefore, tickets aren’t limited and reservations aren't necessary. Whether you buy it two days or two minutes in advance, you’ll pay the exact same price. This doesn't go for Supersaver Tickets, but we'll get into that later.

3.3 Have your ticket when you get on

Once you're on the train, you need to have a valid ticket in your pocket. On certain trains, you can buy one from the ticket collector but I only suggest doing that in an emergency as it costs you extra.

If you see the sign below, it means you can't buy a ticket on the train and you'll pay 100 CHF if they catch you without one.

With buses and Postautos, it's a different story. You have the option to buy a ticket on board – either at the ticket machine or directly with the driver.

If you see this sign, you can't buy a ticket from the ticket collector.

4. Your ticket options

4.1 Long Distance Ticket

What is it?

If you travel between cities that aren’t part of the same fare system (more about that later), you need a Long Distance Ticket. This allows you to catch any train running between your origin and destination, either one way or return.

You don’t have to use it for a specific train and once you begin your journey, you can get off along the way

The Long Distance Ticket is best for you if you are...

  • travelling between cities
  • not using public transport on a regular basis
  • only in Switzerland for a short amount of time

Example

With a ticket from St. Gallen to Bern, you can get off in Zurich and hop back on whenever you’re ready.

You’re free to add on as many stops as you like. As long as you don’t miss that last train to Bern because one-way tickets are only valid for one day.

Where can you buy it?

At the ticket counter: The easiest place to buy your ticket is at the counter. They sell any ticket imaginable and answer your questions about public transport.

At the vending machine: Alternatively, pick one of the many SBB vending machines standing at every train station.

Online: The SBB website lets you buy tickets with or without creating an account. You can either print your ticket or display it in the SBB app. The app will ask you for an account, though.

Through the SBB App: The SBB app is a tool I recommend to anyone travelling through Switzerland. It lets you buy tickets, displays your online tickets and comes with an extensive timetable feature.

4.2 Zone Ticket

What is it?

Switzerland is split up into over 20 fare networks. Each of them consists of several zones and if you travel within one of those networks, you need a Zone Ticket instead of a Long Distance Ticket.

The Zone Ticket is best for you if you are...

  • using local transport within a fare system
  • only in Switzerland for a short amount of time
  • staying in the same area and not visiting any places outside the fare system

Example

To get from Zurich airport into the city, you’ll be travelling within the fare network of ZVV. In this case, you need a ticket for all the zones between the airport and the main station.

Depending on how many zones your ticket is for, you have between one and two hours to use it on any means of transport within those zones.

Where can you buy it?

Zone Tickets are available in the same places as the Long Distance Tickets. You can either go through the counter, the vending machines, the SBB website or the SBB app.

You have some extra options here, though.

Postauto and city buses: To get your Postauto or bus ticket, pick one of the following options:

  • Vending machine at the bus stop (in and around cities)
  • Vending machine inside the bus (in and around cities)
  • Pay the driver (in more remote places)

If you don’t already have a ticket once your bus arrives and you can’t see a vending machine anywhere, just get on through the front door and ask for a ticket.

Trams: Every tram stop has a vending machine because you can’t buy a ticket from the driver.

Ships: Not all companies are part of a fare network but certain Zone Tickets are valid for ships as well. To make sure you get the right ticket, I suggest getting one on board or at the counter by the pier.

Show them all your (local) tickets so they can give you your cheapest option.

ZVV commercial advertising one ticket for everything - trains, trams, buses and ships

4.3 City Ticket

What is it?

The City Ticket is a combination of the two tickets above and is only available for certain participating cities. It comes in handy if you combine an intercity trip with a local journey.

The City Ticket is best for you if you are...

  • using local and intercity transport in the same journey
  • not using public transport on a regular basis
  • only in Switzerland for a short amount of time

Example

If you travel from Lausanne to a place somewhere in the city of Bern, you catch the intercity train for the first part of your journey. Once you’re in Bern, you change to the local city bus or the tram. The City Ticket covers both rides.

It also works the other way round, where you use local public transport only in Lausanne and then add the Long Distance Ticket to Bern.

Another version of the City Ticket is the former City-City Ticket. Quite the mouthful, I know. 

A while ago, this one got integrated in the assortment of the City Ticket. With this one, you have the option to add your local transport to your intercity journey in both your starting and ending point. 

Where can you buy it?

Like the Long Distance Ticket, you can buy the City Ticket at the counter, most vending machines at the train station, the SBB website or the SBB app.

Buying a City Ticket works out slightly cheaper than buying two separate tickets. Savings range between 2 and 3 CHF for the whole journey.

4.4 Supersaver Ticket

What is it?

This one is worth its weight in gold. Most long distance connections come with a limited amount of Supersaver Tickets. Discounts are sometimes up to 70% off.

The catch? The Supersaver Ticket is tied to a specific train. You lose the flexibility of using any train you want and there’s no getting off along the way. They also sell out at some point because they’re so popular. Once you know your exact travel dates, it pays off to check for Supersaver Tickets right away. They’re available 60 days in advance.

Supersaver Ticket Switzerland

The Supersaver Ticket is a very handy invention for those looking to travel cheaper. 

In case you miss your connecting train due to a delay of your previous one, let the ticket collector know. Ideally before you get off at the station. He'll confirm the train's delay and hand you a piece of paper, which you can show along with your Supersaver Ticket on the next train.

If you spontaneously decide to catch a different train, you can get a refund. However, going through this process is a bit of a hassle and costs 10 CHF. So I only recommend getting a Supersaver Ticket if you're sure to travel on that specific day and time.

The Supersaver Ticket is best for you if you...

  • are travelling between cities
  • know ahead of time when you’ll be travelling
  • don’t mind losing the flexibility of hopping on any train you like
  • are not using public transport on a regular basis
  • are only in Switzerland for a short amount of time

Where can you buy it?

You can only buy Supersaver Tickets through the SBB website or the SBB app. With both options, you have to go pretty far into the buying process to see if special offers are still available.

4.5 Swiss Half Fare Card

What is it?

Strictly speaking, the Swiss Half Fare Card is not a ticket. Like the name suggests, it’s a card that gives you 50% off every ride. Everyone in Switzerland who uses public transport on a regular basis owns one.

The classic Half Fare Card is valid for a whole year but visitors can buy the Swiss Half Fare Card for one month. It costs 120 CHF, which seems like a lot for a discount card. However, since ticket prices aren't cheap in Switzerland, it pays off fairly quickly.

The Swiss Half Fare Card is best for you if you are...

  • using Long Distance Tickets, Zone Tickets, City Tickets, City-City Tickets or Day Passes on a regular basis
  • only in Switzerland for a short amount of time

Where can you buy it?

The Swiss Half Fare Card is available online or at any ticket counter. All you need is your passport or your identity card.

Travel Passes

5. Travel Passes

5.1 National Day Pass

What is it?

The National Day Pass is great if you’re covering a lot of ground in one day. It costs 75 CHF and is only available for Half Fare Card holders.

To make most of this pass, you really have to travel far, though. Unless you cut across the whole country in a day, you’re better off buying a normal ticket.

With the National Day Pass, you have access to every means of public transport in Switzerland.

The National Day Pass is best for you if you are...

  • travelling long distances within one day (long in terms of Swiss relations 🙂 )
  • a Half Fare Card holder
  • not using public transport on a regular basis
  • only in Switzerland for a short amount of time and a multi-day travel pass wouldn’t pay off.

Where can you buy it?

You can buy the National Day Pass online or at any ticket counter.

5.2 Saver Day Pass

What is it?

In September 2017, the supersaver version of the National Day Pass was released. Prices vary and if you have a Half Fare Card, the Saver Day Pass costs between 29 CHF and 59 CHF. 

Without a Half Fare Card, expect to pay between 52 CHF and 106 CHF.

Sales open 60 days in advance and since this pass is so popular, the cheapest options sell out quickly.

The Saver Day Pass is best for you if you are...

  • travelling between cities
  • well organised and know ahead of time what day you’ll be travelling
  • not using public transport on a regular basis
  • only in Switzerland for a short amount of time

Where can you buy it?

You can buy the Saver Day Pass online.

5.3 Regional Day Pass

What is it?

The Regional Day Pass is basically a Zone Ticket that's valid for a whole day. As usual, you get 50% off with the Half Fare Card.

Most fare networks give you a discount on your Regional Day Pass if you set off after 9 am. To find which network has a 9 o’clock pass, check their website.

Where can you buy it?

Like the Zone Tickets, you can buy the Regional Day Pass online, at the counter, the vending machine (at the train station, inside the buses or at the tram stop), directly from the bus driver, the SBB website or the SBB app.

The Regional Day Pass is best for you if you are...

  • using public transport within one fare system several times a day
  • only in Switzerland for a short amount of time
  • staying in the same area and not visiting any places outside the fare system

5.4 Swiss Travel Pass

What is it?

Apart from including every means of public transport across Switzerland, the Swiss Travel Pass also serves as a ticket to over 500 museums.

This pass is available for 3, 4, 8 or 15 consecutive days and you don’t need a Half Fare Card to get one. If you’re under 26 years old, you get a 15% discount.

My personal recommendation is to buy this pass for at least eight days. Anything below that ends up too expensive on a daily average and there are cheaper alternatives for shorter stays.

I also don’t suggest using the Swiss Travel Pass right after you buy it unless you travel far. Once you validate it, every following day counts. If you land in Zurich and spend your first days in the city, a Zone Ticket works out cheaper than using your Swiss Travel Pass from the get-go.

Swiss Travel Pass

The Swiss Travel Pass gives you unlimited travel in Switzerland.

The Swiss Travel Pass is best for you if you are...

  • are using public transport on a regular basis
  • are planning on seeing every corner of Switzerland without having to worry about buying tickets
  • are travelling several days in a row
  • like museums

Where can you buy it?

You can buy the Swiss Travel Pass either at the counter or online.

5.5 Swiss Travel Pass Flex

What is it?

The only difference between the Swiss Travel Pass and the Swiss Travel Pass Flex is the fact that the it's a little pricier and doesn’t require you to use it on consecutive days. Instead, you can travel on 3, 4, 8 or 15 days of your choice within a month.

It also comes with a 15% discount for under 26-year-olds and serves as a museum ticket on your travel days.

The Swiss Travel Pass Flex is best for you if you...

  • are using public transport on a regular basis
  • are planning on seeing every corner of Switzerland without having to worry about buying tickets
  • don’t want to travel every day but rather keep your itinerary flexible
  • like museums

Where can you buy it?

You can buy the Swiss Travel Pass Flex either at the counter or online.

5.6 Interrail Pass

What is it?

This popular rail pass for Europeans comes in two versions: the Global Pass and the One Country Pass.

Both allow you to use all SBB trains as well as several other companies. Certain private companies, like for example the BOB between Interlaken and Grindelwald, aren’t included, though. But they offer a 25% – 50% discount to pass holders.

Since the Interrail is a popular train ticket, you’re on your own when it comes to local transport. Buses, trams and most ships aren’t included. 

On a plus side, Interrail gives you several benefits. Like a free bus ride from Munich to Zurich, 15% off 43 selected Swiss Youth Hostels and much more.

The Interrail Pass is best for you if you are...

  • European
  • not staying long enough to make a Swiss Travel Pass pay off
  • mainly using the major railway companies
  • planning on seeing every corner of Switzerland (that's accessible by train) without having to worry about buying tickets

Where can you buy it?

You can buy an Interrail Pass through your travel agency at home, ticket counters across Europe or online.

Depending on the pass you buy and with all the restrictions it comes with, Interrail works out 40% to 50% cheaper than the Swiss Travel Passes

5.7 Eurail Pass

What is it?

Eurail is the equivalent to Interrail for non-Europeans. With the difference that Eurail doesn’t offer a One Country Pass for Switzerland. Instead, you can get a Global Pass for your Swiss trip.

The Global Pass covers 33 European countries for different time spans. Starting at 4 days within a month and ending with three months continuous. 

As with Interrail, there are a few restrictions and certain private companies, like for example the BOB between Interlaken and Grindelwald, aren’t included. But they offer a 25% – 50% discount to pass holders.

The Eurail Pass is best for you if you are...

  • non-European
  • not staying long enough to make a Swiss Travel Pass pay off
  • mainly using the major railway companies
  • planning on seeing every corner of Switzerland (that’s accessible by train) without having to worry about buying tickets

Where can you buy it?

You can buy your Eurail Pass through your travel agency at home, ticket counters across Europe or online.

6. Decision time

Congratulations. You now know just as much, if not more, than the average Swiss about your ticket options in Switzerland. The only thing that’s left to do is pick your best match.

To take that painstaking and time-consuming process away from you, I've created a quiz that will help you decide which ticket or travel pass best suits your personal itinerary. 

Bon voyage 🙂

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How to buy a ticket from an SBB ticket machine – step by step
The 5 most popular scenic train rides in Switzerland
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  1. Nice compendium. I think it might be helpful to mention the specific restriction of Eurail Pass on the Berner Oberlandbahn which only gives a 25% discount on purchased tickets. It is a popular area, and Eurail pass holders are always shocked by the notice at Interlaken Ost station that their pass is not valid for onward journeys to Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald and beyond.

    1. Thanks for that input Sam. I did mention in the post that there are restrictions to the Eurail and Interrail Passes and linked to the sites that list those exclusions. But maybe it’s not obvious enough. I’ll update the post just to be sure that people don’t get stuck on the BOB without a valid ticket. Thanks for the tip.

  2. Excellent guide on Swiss Transportation I must say!!! You have covered each and every single thing from different transportation options to their ticket & pass-details. Helped me preparing my overall transportation budget for Switzerland. Thank you.. Keep sharing these kinds of articles.

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment. I’m glad my post has been helpful for your planning process 🙂

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