Swiss public transport 101 – the ultimate guide

You know the feeling.

You land in a new country. You get the stamp in your passport. You grab your bag from the conveyer belt. And you make it through customs without having to unpack your whole life in front of everyone.

So far so good. But now what?

The next step is to make your way into the city. But with a million different options to choose from, you’re overwhelmed. And you realise that you don’t really know how public transport works where you just landed.

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 does a travel pass work out cheaper? Are tickets always the same price regardless of when you buy them?

So many questions.

And so much effort to find the answers.

That‘s where this guide comes in. By the time you’re done reading this monster, you’ll know just as much, if not more, than the average Swiss about our public transport system. But for those of you who feel lazy and can’t be bothered to go through 4’000 words, just skip ahead and download a summary of this post instead.

1. Introducing one of the densest transport networks in the world

Public transport in Switzerland is efficient, punctual,  and all over the place. The map below gives you an idea of how dense the network is.

Those red, yellow and white lines – standing for trains, Postautos and ships – are far from complete. If you could zoom in, local lines would be popping up all over the country, revealing the 29‘000 km that make up the Swiss public transport. Click here to get a more detailed map.

Swiss Public Transport

The Swiss public transport network

2. Means of public transport

2.1 Trains

Trains are the fastest and most convenient way to get around Switzerland. With Intercity, Interregio, Regio, suburban trains and mountain railways operating the 5’300 km of tracks, the Swiss railway network is one of the densest in the world.

The major train company is the SBB, short for Swiss Federal Railways. (CFF in French and FFS in Italian, to be politically correct) Apart from this railway giant, over twenty extra companies ride up and down those red lines.

Switzerland has one of the densest railway networks in the world

2.2 Long distance buses

Long distance buses, as you might have seen them in Australia, Canada or South America, don’t exist in Switzerland. The Swiss are a (proud) nation of train riders.

However, several bus companies offer cheap long haul services all over Europe. While you can’t use those buses to travel between Swiss cities, entering Switzerland by bus is definitely an option. Click here or here for further information.

On a side note: Those budget coach services seem to be on the move. Rumour has it that they’re trying to get the government’s approval to operate between Swiss cities. As soon as this happens, you’ll be the first to know.

2.3 Postautos

Postauto buses are iconic for Switzerland. They’re yellow, they’re shiny, and they’re all over the place. They serve cities, the suburbs, villages as well as remote places. No village is too small to have a Postauto passing through.

Back in the day, Postautos were solely used to transport mail. Hence the name. Over time, they gradually started carrying people as well, which nowadays is their only purpose.

The yellow lines on the map above, which stand for the Postauto lines, only show a fraction of their territory. To find details maps for a specific region, visit this website.

Those shiny, yellow Postauto buses take you anywhere

2.4 City buses

As soon as you get off the train, you’ll find yourself surrounded by buses. In addition to Postautos, cities and bigger villages have their own network of local buses connecting their surroundings to the centre.

City buses tend to run quite frequently. 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 addition to buses, a handful of cities also have trams roaming about their streets. The cities with the densest tram networks are Zurich, Basel and Bern.

A tram in front of Zurich main station

2.6 Ships

With all those lakes and rivers, it seems natural that ships are another means of transport. Check the white lines on the map to see where you can find passenger ships and ferries.

While ships aren’t the most efficient way travel, they’re perfect for slowing down the pace and seeing Switzerland from a different perspective. Even without the dolphins and sea lions.

2.7 Cable cars

Technically speaking, cable cars aren’t part of the public transport system. That’s because most of them don’t get any financial support from the government. So to use a cable car, you have to buy an extra ticket. And those are usually not cheap. But with all those mountains, it’s handy to know that there’s a lazy alternative to hiking up every peak.

Means of public transport in Switzerland are...

  • Trains
  • (Long distance buses)
  • Postautos
  • City buses
  • Trams
  • Ships
  • Cable cars

3. Everything you need to know about tickets

3.1 You pay for the journey, not the company or means of transport

Unlike in many other countries, it doesn’t matter which company 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.

This means that comparing prices won’t get you anywhere in Switzerland. Even if you use different companies to complete your journey.

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 the SBB, while the second part belongs to the MGB (Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn). But with a ticket from Zurich to Zermatt, you’re covered for both companies.

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

3.2 Tickets aren’t tied to a certain connection and never sell out

Tickets are valid for a certain time span and not for a specific connection. This means 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.

As a result, tickets aren’t limited. Whether you buy it two days or two minutes in advance, you’ll get one for the exact same price.

This can mean that you might not always get a seat. But if you avoid travelling during rush hour (7:00-9:00 and 17:00-19:00), this shouldn’t be a problem. Technically, you could reserve a seat but I don’t know anyone who does that.

3.3 Buy your train ticket before you get on

Once you get on a train, it’s crucial to have a valid ticket in your pocket. It’s possible to pay the ticket collector directly for an extra fee but I only suggest doing that in an emergency.

Keep in mind that this is only an option on intercity trains. If you see the sign below on the train, it means you’ll get a 100 CHF fine if they catch you without a ticket.

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

 

Things to keep in mind...

  • You pay for the journey, not the company or means of transport.
  • Tickets aren’t tied to a certain connection and never sell out.
  • You need a valid ticket in your pocket before you get on

4. All the tickets you need to know

4.1 Long Distance Ticket


What is it?

If you travel long distance, meaning between cities that aren’t part of the same fare system (more about that further down), you need to get a Long Distance Ticket. This allows you to catch any train running between your origin and destination, either one way or return. It’s valid for a whole day and you don’t have to use it for a specific train.

Once you begin your journey, you can get off along the way.


Example

With a ticket from St. Gallen to Bern, you can get off in Zurich and hop back on once you’re ready to move on. You’re free to add on as many stops as you like. As long as you don’t miss that last train to Bern.


Where can you buy it?

At the ticket counter: To ease yourself into travelling through Switzerland, the best place to buy your ticket is at the counter. They’ll sell you almost any ticket your heart desires and it’s the perfect place to get general information about public transport.

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

Online: In case you prefer buying a ticket online, the SBB website is what you’re looking for. Creating an account will speed up future bookings but isn’t required to buy a ticket.

Once you’re done, you can either print your ticket or display it in the SBB app. The app will ask you to create an account, though.

Through the SBB App: The SBB app is a very helpful tool which I recommend to anyone travelling through Switzerland. It lets you buy tickets, display any tickets you bought online and it also comes with an extensive timetable feature. The timetable doesn’t only show you SBB connections but literally any connection in the whole country. Trains, ships, buses, trams… Anything.

If you buy your ticket through the app, you need to set up an account and register your credit card. This process is very straightforward and will only take a few minutes.

On another note, make sure you buy the ticket before the scheduled departure of the train you get on. If they catch you buying the ticket once you’re on the train as soon as you see the ticket collector, you’re in for a lovely 100 CHF fine.


Best for you if you are…

  • Travelling between cities,
  • Not using public transport on a regular basis or
  • Only in Switzerland for a short amount of time and a multi-day travel pass wouldn’t pay off.

4.2 Zone Ticket


What is it?

Switzerland is split up into over 20 fare networks. Each of them makes up a system of its own and consists of several zones. If you travel within one of those networks, what you’re after is a Zone Ticket instead of a Long Distance Ticket.


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.

But since the situation is a little more complicated when it comes to fare networks, you have some more options.

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. The driver will either sell you one or direct you to the vending machine on board if there is one.

Trams

Since trams don’t come with vending machines and you can’t buy a ticket from the driver, every tram stop has a vending machine.

Ships

Ships are a little different. 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 any tickets you have so they can give you your cheapest option.


Best for you if you are…

  • Using local transport within a fare system.
  • Only in Switzerland for a short amount of time and a multi-day travel pass wouldn’t pay off.
  • Staying in the same area and not visiting any places outside the fare system.

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 with a local journey.

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 you for both rides.


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.


Best for you if you are…

  • Using local and intercity transport in the same journey.
  • Not using public transport on a regular basis or
  • Only in Switzerland for a short amount of time and a multi-day travel pass wouldn’t pay off.

4.4 City-City Ticket


What is it?

The City-City Ticket takes the City Ticket one step further by letting you use some more local transport. To illustrate what this means, let’s go back to our example with Lausanne and Bern.


Example

While the City Ticket is valid for the train from Lausanne to Bern and the bus/tram in Bern, the City-City Ticket also lets you use the local transport in Lausanne.


Where can you buy it?

Unlike the previous tickets, the City-City Ticket is only available online or through the SBB app. Again, the saving potential isn’t huge but it still saves you a few bucks.


Best for you if you are…

  • Using local and intercity transport in the same journey.
  • Not using public transport on a regular basis or
  • Only in Switzerland for a short amount of time and a multi-day travel pass wouldn’t pay off.

4.5 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 up to 50% off.

The catch? The Supersaver Ticket is tied to a specific connection. You lose the flexibility of getting on 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’s a good idea to check for Supersaver Tickets right away. They’re available 30 days in advance.

In case you need to change trains but you miss your connection due to a delay, let the ticket collector know. They’ll give you a piece of paper which you can show on the next train along with your Supersaver Ticket.

If you spontaneously decide to catch a different train, you can get a refund. However, going through this process costs 10 CHF and is a bit of a hassle.

To receive your refund, buy a regular ticket for the same journey, get on the train and tell the ticket collector that you’ve bought a Supersaver Ticket that you didn’t use. They’ll give you a confirmation paper which you can hand in online to get your money back


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 they’re still available.


Best for you if you…

  • Are travelling between cities.
  • Know ahead of time when exactly you’ll be travelling.
  • Don’t mind losing the flexibility of hopping on any train you like.
  • Aren’t using public transport on a regular basis or
  • Are only in Switzerland for a short amount of time and a multi-day travel pass wouldn’t pay off.

4.6 Swiss Transfer Ticket


What is it?

The Swiss Transfer Ticket costs 146 CHF and is valid for one month. It covers the most direct journey from your point of entry (airport or train station at the border) to your final destination and back. Buying this ticket only makes sense if you stay in the same place for the whole time and if your destination isn’t anywhere near your point of entry. Otherwise, you’ll be better off with a Long Distance or a Zone Ticket.


Where can you buy it?

If you decide to buy a Swiss Transfer Ticket, you need to get it before you enter Switzerland. You can either go through the SBB website or your travel agency at home.


Best for you if you are…

  • Only using public transport to get to your destination after arriving in Switzerland.
  • Not staying too close to your point of entry.
  • Staying in the same are during your visit.

4.7 Half Fare Card


What is it?

Strictly speaking, the 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 one for a month. The visitor version costs 120 CHF, which seems like a lot for a discount card. However, if you catch the train from Zurich to Bern, it already saves you 25 CHF. Or if you go from Interlaken to Zermatt and back, you save more than 40 CHF each way.

Catching the occasional bus, tram and ship adds up as well. So in case you’re going to use public transport frequently, the Half Fare Card is something I highly recommend looking into.

By the way, most cable cars accept the Half Fare Card as well.


Where can you buy it?

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


Best for you if you are…

  • Using Long Distance Tickets, Zone Tickets, City Tickets, City-City Tickets or Day Passes on a regular basis but
  • Are only in Switzerland for a short amount of time and a travel pass wouldn’t pay off.

All the tickets you need to know when you're in Switzerland...

  • Long Distance Ticket
  • Zone Ticket
  • City Ticket
  • City-City Ticket
  • Supersaverticket
  • Swiss Transfer Ticket
  • Half Fare Card

5. Everything you need to know about travel passes

5.1 National Day Pass


What is it?

The National Day Pass is ideal for you if you’re covering a lot of ground in a day. It costs 75 CHF, under the condition that you have a Half Fare Card. To make most of this pass, you really have to travel far. Unless you cut across the whole country in a day, you’re better off buying a normal ticket.

The slightly cheaper version of the National Day Pass, the 9 o’clock Travel Pass, costs 58 CHF. As the name suggests, you can only use it after 9 am. You also need a Half Fare Card to buy it and they’re going to stop selling this pass by the end of 2017. The reason for that is the newly released Saver Day Pass, which I’ll introduce you to in the next chapter.

With the National Day Pass and the 9 o’clock Travel Pass, you have access to every means of public transport in Switzerland. This includes every line on this map, except the cable cars.


Where can you buy it?

You can buy both passes online or at any ticket counter.


Best for you if you are…

  • Travelling across the whole country within one day.
  • Not using public transport on a regular basis or
  • Only in Switzerland for a short amount of time and a multi-day travel pass wouldn’t pay off.

5.2 Saver Day Pass


What is it?

In September 2017, the Supersaver version of the National Day Pass was released. Prices vary but the cheapest it gets is 29 CHF with and 52 CHF without the Half Fare Card. You can buy this pass 30 days in advance. But hurry up, they sell out quickly.


Where can you buy it?

You can buy the Saver Day Pass online.


Best for you if you…

  • Are travelling between cities.
  • Know ahead of time what day you’ll be travelling.
  • Aren’t using public transport on a regular basis or
  • Are only in Switzerland for a short amount of time and a multi-day travel pass wouldn’t pay off.

5.3 Regional Day Pass


What is it?

The Regional Day Pass is the same as the Zone Ticket. Except it’s valid for a whole day. You can either buy it for a select amount, or for all zones within a fare system. 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 out if the network you’re travelling in 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 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.


Best for you if you are…

  • Using local transport within a fare system for several rides in one day.
  • Only in Switzerland for a short amount of time and a multi-day travel pass wouldn’t pay off.
  • Staying in the same area and not visiting any places outside the fare system.

5.4 Swiss Travel Pass


What is it?

The Swiss Travel Pass is basically the National Day Pass on steroids. Apart from including everything that the National Day Pass does, it also serves as a ticket to over 500 museums. Unless you’re going to stick around the same area for two weeks, this pass is gold.

Unfortunately, with everything that’s included, it doesn’t come cheap.

Passes are 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. Check this website to find the latest prices.

My recommendation is to buy this pass for at least eight days. Anything below ends up too expensive on a daily average. 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.


Where can you buy it?

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


Best for you if you…

  • Are using every means of public transport imaginable on a regular basis.
  • Are planning on seeing every corner of Switzerland without having to worry about buying tickets.
  • Are travelling on consecutive days.
  • Don’t mind spending some extra money on an all-inclusive travel pass.
  • Like museums.

Swiss Travel Pass

The Swiss Travel Pass gives you unlimited use of every means of transport in Switzerland

5.5 Swiss Travel Pass Flex


What is it?

The Swiss Travel Pass Flex is very similar to the Swiss Travel Pass. The only difference is that it’s a little pricier and it 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.


Where can you buy it?

Like the Swiss Travel Pass, you can buy the Swiss Flex Pass at the counter or online.


Best for you if you…

  • Are using every means of public transport imaginable 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.
  • Don’t mind spending some extra money on an all-inclusive travel pass.
  • Like museums.

5.6 Interrail Pass

What is it?


What is it?

If you’re European, you’re eligible to buy an Interrail Pass. This popular rail pass comes in two versions: the Global Pass, which is valid for 30 countries, and the One Country Pass.

The One Country Pass for Switzerland covers most of your train journeys for 3, 4, 6 or 8 flexible days within one month.

The Interrail Pass allows you to use all SBB trains as well as several other companies. Certain private companies that aren’t included offer a 25% – 50% discount to pass holders. Click here to find out which companies are included.

Depending on the pass, Interrail works out 40% to 50% cheaper than the Swiss Travel Passes. Unfortunately, this comes with a few restrictions. Since the Interrail is a popular train ticket, you’re on your own when it comes to local transport. Buses, trams and most boats aren’t included.

The Interrail is a great option if you’re either not staying long enough to make a Swiss Travel Pass count or mainly travelling on the included train companies.

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


Where can you buy it?

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


Best for you if you are…

  • European.
  • Mainly using the major train companies.
  • Planning on seeing every corner of Switzerland (that’s accessible by train) without having to worry about buying tickets.

5.7 Eurail Pass


What is it?

Eurail is the equivalent to Interrail, but for non-Europeans. The difference between the two is that when it comes to Switzerland, Eurail doesn’t offer a One Country Pass. Instead, it gives you the choice between the Global Pass and the Select Pass. So unless you’re visiting several European countries, this probably isn’t for you.

The Eurail Global Pass is almost the same as the Interrail Global Pass. The only difference is that Eurail doesn’t cover Great Britain and the UK. For whatever reason… Otherwise, the two are identical.

In addition to the Global Pass, Eurail also offers the Select Pass. It covers you for two, three or four bordering countries of your choice during 5, 6, 8 or 10 flexible days within two months. Regardless of how many countries you pick, the price will always be the same.

As with the Interrail Pass, there are a few restrictions. Find out here what’s included.


Where can you buy it?

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


Best for you if you are…

  • Non-European.
  • Visiting at least one neighbouring country during your trip.
  • Mainly using the major train companies.
  • Planning on seeing every corner of Switzerland (that’s accessible by train) without having to worry about buying tickets.

All the travel passes you need to know when you're in Switzerland...

  • National Day Pass
  • Saver Day Pass
  • Regional Day Pass
  • Swiss Travel Pass
  • Swiss Travel Pass Flex
  • Interrail Pass
  • Eurail Pass

7. Decision time

Congratulations!

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

Unfortunately, I can’t take that away from you since every itinerary is so individual. What I suggest is whipping up a spread sheet, working out a rough itinerary, figuring out how much single rides would cost you and weighing up those costs against those of travel passes.

I have faith in you 🙂

PS: Would you like a summary of everything you just read? Click here to download the PDF version of this post. I also included an overview of the travel passes so you have them all in one place to support you with your decision making.

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