Swiss public transport 101 – the ultimate guide

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 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 our public transport system.

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1. Swiss public transport

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 5.200 kilometres (3.200 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, right?

Including buses, trains and Postato 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

2.1 Trains

Trains are the fastest and most convenient way to get around Switzerland. The red lines on the map above 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 twenty more train companies completing our dense network.

Switzerland has one of the densest railway networks in the world

2.2 Long-distance buses

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 as of 2018, 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. 

2.3 Postautos

Postauto buses are iconic for Switzerland. They’re yellow, they’re shiny, and they’re all over the place. The yellow lines on the map above don't cover their whole territory.

Postauto serves cities, suburbs, villages and remote places up in the mountains. Back in the day, they were solely used to transport mail. But over time, they gradually started carrying people as well, which is all they do nowadays.

To find detailed maps for specific regions, visit the Postauto website.

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 addition to Postautos, cities and bigger villages have their own local bus network.

City buses usually 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

Trams aren't that widely spread in Switzerland. But Zurich, Basel and Bern all have pretty dense tram networks with great services. 

2.6 Ships

With all those lakes and rivers, it makes sense that ships are another means of transport. Where there's a white line on the map above, there's a passenger ship or a ferry.

Services are usually seasonal so before you embark on your journey, make sure you check their timetable.

steamboat

Catch a steamboat...

ship Lucerne

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

2.7 Cable cars

Technically speaking, cable cars aren't part of the public transport system 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 sometimes helps to know that there's a lazy alternative to climbing every peak.

Tickets

3. Tickets in general

3.1 one journey = one ticket

In Switzerland, 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.

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 area of Appenzell. After getting off the train in St. Gallen, you need to change to a Postauto. And your ticket from Zurich to Stein covers your whole journey.

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.

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 a 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 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 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.

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.

The City-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

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.

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 sometimes more than 50% off.

The catch? The Supersaver Ticket is tied to a specific connection. 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 30 days in advance.

In case you miss your connection due to a delay of your previous train, let the ticket collector know. Ideally before you get on the next train. They’ll give you a piece of paper you can show along with your Supersaver Ticket.

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.

To receive your refund, buy a regular ticket for the same journey, get on the train and tell the ticket collector that you 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

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.

4.6 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. 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 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 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 30 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.

Public transport in Switzerland is efficient, punctual, and all over the place. This ultimate guide will help you figure out your way around the country.

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 31 European countries for different time spans. Starting at 3 days within a month and ending with two 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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