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Car or Train in Southern Germany and Switzerland

Had to scrap Italy this year for obvious reasons, and it turns out the family has changed their minds anyway. Now they want the great outdoors of the European alps. High on the list are fairy tale small towns, expansive valleys, tall mountains, gondola rides, and cows. It seems they have settled on southern Germany and Switzerland, so the detailed planning will start soon.

The immediate question on everyone’s mind is: train or car? I’d love to hear your opinion. A few facts that might influence your answer:

  • It’s a two-week trip
  • There will be five of us (mom, dad, 22-year old son, 18-year old daughter, 7-year old daughter); however, my son can only make it for one of those weeks
  • Can fly in/out of the same city or do open jaw
  • Would rather not change accommodations too often
  • One of the things we enjoy most is the scenery between points A and B
  • We are the types that will say, “This place looks interesting…let’s check it out”


Posted by
1202 posts

Rent a car so you can see what you want to see on your own schedule. Plus, with 5 it should be cheaper than buying all those train tickets. In 2017 I drove a car through Switzerland, Germany, etc. for 20 days with no problems except finding an overnight parking space in Zurich. Last December I drove through the Black Forest with no problems.

Posted by
3262 posts

Sorry, but I just have to ask. You scrapped your upcoming Italy trip "for the obvious reasons", but you're planning a new trip for the same time; just different countries? Please say the trip is for NEXT year.

And I agree, a car will be more practical as long as you aren't spending time in any cities. Just get a big one- that can handle 5 people plus all the luggage- likely a van.

Posted by
2263 posts

With your family situation, a car is a good idea. We took our 3 kids to Europe in 2011, and rented a car. It was not a big car, and the kids were crowded in the back seat. We would call it, in the USA, a small sedan.

1) Can you drive stick? If not, your costs will go up.
2) Before choosing the car, choose the itinerary. Where will you go? Car trips of more than 4 hours are wearying if the car is small.
3) Luggage limits are very tight with cars, even tighter than RS standards. 1 bag/person is the limit.
4) I have never been on a European trip in a car where I did not get a ticket. Automated speed cameras are common.

Posted by
5555 posts

Have you actually looked at prices for Switzerland? I'm imagining the shock in your eyes once the bill comes for your sit-down meal for 5. Unless the sky is the limit, I suggest you look into a Germany/Austria visit instead.

Both countries - especially Germany - offer heavily-discounted day passes for 5 persons traveling together.

For your focus area, click on Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg (the two most southerly German states) using the map at the page above.

Baden-Württemberg is home to some great places, including the Black Forest...




The scenic Black Forest Railway bisects the Black Forest on its way from Offenburg (near Strasbourg, FR) to Lake Constance (Swiss Border area.) Gengenbach and Gutach are just two of several nice stops on this route:

You want to stay in a limited number of places; Gengenbach makes for a good base town in the Black Forest as its just a few miles from Gutach and enables guests to make easy day trips by train to Schiltach, Strasbourg FR, Freiburg, and other places on/near the Black Forest Railway. A stay of 4 nights there would not be too many.

A big plus of visiting the Black Forest is that your whole family can use the trains for free throughout the BF provided that you stay in "KONUS" towns (where guests get a KONUS ticket for rail travel for their entire stay.) Gengenbach is one of those many towns.

If you split your time into 3 base towns, then two more stays, one in Bavaria and another in Austria, would make for a nice visit. I suggest you look into Mittenwald for Bavaria and perhaps Werfen or some other nice place near Salzburg.

Mittenwald - mountain lifts, nature, near Oberammergau,Garmisch and Innsbruck Austria for day trips:

Werfen (Hohenwerfen Castle w/ falconry show, Eisriesenwelt ice cave experience, Sound of Music Trail, day trip to Salzburg?)

Posted by
16760 posts

Remember, you need a vignette to drive in Switzerland, at least on autoroutes (limited access highways). If you rent the car in Switzerland, it will already have a vignette attached. But if you rent in Germany, you will have to buy one at the border. 40 CHF in 2020 and expect it to go up a smidgeon in 2021. Same applies for Austria, although you can get a short term one for less than the Swiss vignette, which is annual.

Also, open jaw is problematic with car rentals, as renting a car in Switzerland, say, will have a big drop charge in Germany and vice versa.

Posted by
268 posts

Maybe I am stating something obvious, but you can also have train and car. Meaning that you can do a lot by train (especially in Switzerland with its excellent public transport), but having a car e.g. for one of the two weeks would give you more flexibility. Maybe try to figure out more concretely what you would like to see, so we can advice about the train connections for a specific itinerary.

Posted by
3197 posts

Maybe I am stating something obvious, but you can also have train and
car. Meaning that you can do a lot by train (especially in Switzerland
with its excellent public transport), but having a car e.g. for one of
the two weeks would give you more flexibility.

This is the best answer so far. "Train or car?" is the wrong question to ask, what you should ask yourself is which mode of transport is best for a certain part of the trip. A car can have its uses, but will just be an expensive headache in larger towns and cities. And especially in Switzerland a car is of limited use since the public transport network is excellent and takes you pretty much anywhere, including places where the car can't go.

In general: First find out where you want to go and what you want to see (roughly), then find out what is the best mode of transport to get there.

As for the cost, the German Ländertickets are usually very good value if you want to explore the area and hop on and off as you want. And while an open jaw ticket makes sense in your case, e.g. flying to Zürich and out of München, renting a car in Switzerland and returning it in Germany will not be cheap.

Posted by
1764 posts

I strongly recommend staying in apartments - ferienwohnung. More room, cheaper than getting 2 hotel rooms. In the town of Gengenbach which Russ mentions, I love staying at the ferienwohnung of Dr. Wink -

Posted by
1322 posts

"I have never been on a European trip in a car where I did not get a ticket. Automated speed cameras are common."

I have driven all over Europe (many trips) and never have gotten a ticket. I guess the secret is to obey the laws.

Posted by
5555 posts

"And especially in Switzerland a car is of limited use since the public transport network is excellent..."

The same is true about Germany's transport network.

The issue you face with the train is a fairly simple one, but it's not really one of convenience or efficiency - it's just that you will need to secure accommodations within easy walking distance of the train station. If you are staying several days in one place and doing outings, and you have booked somewhere outside of the town center, it quickly becomes very inconvenient if you must make a long walk to the station (Bahnhof) - or take an additional bus ride - at both the beginning AND at the end of your outing.

Fortunately, for the vast majority of towns, the station is near the town center, and accommodations in "Bahnhofsnähe" (proximity to the station) tend to be readily available. Be sure to check location carefully when booking.

A "Ferienwohnung" can be a good choice for families, as Stephen points out, and they are very common in smaller towns where people like to visit. My family has used them often all around Germany. These rentals exist within and outside of town centers. But many are built just for couples; if you want one for a larger group, if you have specific wants/needs, and/or you are traveling by train, you should look and book early.

"We are the types that will say, “This place looks interesting…let’s check it out”

I suppose you already know that you cannot stop the train just because you find something pretty or interesting outside your train-car window. Whether you go by car or by train, doing a little studying up in advance of your trip should help you identify places that would be interesting to your particular group. Pre-planning also helps you visit places that aren't closed or otherwise inaccessible at the hour or on the day you happen to be passing by. You don't have to pre-plan every moment of your trip if you are staying for several days... Just gather up your personal mini-catalog of things to see and do before you arrive - then do your outings as the mood/weather strike you. If your outing involves the train just buy your day pass at the station and head out.

Posted by
27713 posts

20 years of driving in France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands.

1 or 2 flashes of the cameras every couple of years. No tickets.

Until last year. In 2 days I got 3 flashes in Germany. 2 tickets.

Driving the way I always do, on cruise control, at the speed limit (my dashboard converts to metric).

All 3 times to the little stumpy cameras at the beginning of temporary lanes. On the worst one I saw the signs, several of them, on a steep downhill, telling LKW (trucks) to slow to 60, but missed any signs for speed restrictions for PKW (cars), came around a corner at 130 kph and saw 3 lanes into 1 and leaving the highway for a back roads jaunt, guarded by old stumpy. Threw out the anchor and got a €60 ish fine when I got home. I still think that that one was a little tricksie, with no yellow signs warning of an umleitung - at least none that I saw, and I know what to look for..... oh well.... Easily paid, and put it in the experiences bucket.

Posted by
850 posts

I drive. Four adults and a child with luggage in Germany and Switzerland probably means a van. A van is generally not a problem, but if you are coming from the US bigger is not better. Be prepared for small parking places and in parking garages the height of the van may be too much. Some mountain roads to highlights and apartments/hotels are one car width, with turn offs here and there and wider road once in a while. I don't like to get into backing situations on one lane mountain roads. If not from Europe you will have to learn the rules of the road and signs. For Southern Germany and Switzerland home basing is not a problem and for scenic rides a good idea. Be prepared for many holiday apartments asking for a minimum stay. In popular regions make next years reservations this year if possible. In Switzerland and the Alps in general understand that you will have to drive around, up and down with hair pin turns sometimes, or through mountains (more time and toll tunnels) in some places to get where you want. Zermatt you need the train. Gasoline/Diesel is much more expensive in Europe than the US. I like Austria too. Take a look at a topographic map and the Inn river valley through Innsbruck and also Osttirol Lienz area and Northern Italy Südtirol Pustertal. Get a good Navigation device with real-time updates either in the vehicle or a separate mobile device (European frequencies). Just drive the speed limit, you don't have to worry about the cameras then, but you do need to know speed limits when they are not posted like inside the city limits!

Posted by
2263 posts

I never get tickets in the USA. But I do in Europe. Rules are different in Europe, and the "unwritten rules" are different. In the USA, the unwritten rule is "the real limit is 9 MPH over the posted limit". In 50 years, I have never gotten a ticket for 9 MPH over. In France I got 2 tickets for 2 MPH over the limit.

In addition, in specific countries, there are more specific rules. In Italy, there are ZPG zones (which I think are city-center restricted travel zones). These have very steep fines.

The most important reason for NOT driving is that it takes one more worry off your plate. If you rent, you need to park. Parking in Europe is not like in the USA - where do you even do it for many towns? You need to decide "Collision-damage waiver or not". Of course, your insurance will cover, but you may have a massive amount on your card until the payment clears.

When I rented in 2011 with 5 people, we drove from Vienna to Budapest, Budapest to Eger, Budapest to Zagreb/Plitvice Lake/Split, Split to Ljubljana, Ljubljana to Lotz, Lotz to Vienna. 5 trips on a 26 day rental. Thus, for 21 days of 26, the car was parked. It probably still was a good deal with 5 people, but if there were fewer, it would have been better to train.

Posted by
21050 posts

Keep in mind that when you drive through gorgeous mountain scenery, the driver really, really needs to keep his eyes on the road. On a train, you can all enjoy the scenery.

Posted by
1322 posts

"On a train, you can all enjoy the scenery."

But you can not stop and photograph it. There is no way to get an excellent photograph from a moving vehicle, especially through glass.

Posted by
3197 posts

But you can not stop and photograph it. There is no way to get an
excellent photograph from a moving vehicle, especially through glass.

You can't always stop and photograph with a car either. The roads can be narrow with no place on the side to stop. And the locals with not be happy with tourists blocking the road just to take some photos. But at least you can roll down the window.

Posted by
44 posts

Lots of helpful responses. Thank you!

I imagine we will do a mix of both. Probably driving in Germany and trains in Switzerland.

My guess is we will fly into Munich and out of Zürich.

Lots of people suggesting Austria, which I’d love to do, but it just comes down to how much one can - or should - cram into two weeks. Three countries feels like too much, though...

Several mentions of prices in Switzerland. I’ve only been once, but my experience was fairly reasonable lodging with really expensive everything else. Is that still the case.

Posted by
75 posts

I went to Switzerland and Germany in October 2018 and only used the train, but it was just me. I think your choice to use a car in Germany and the train in Switzerland sounds like a good decision. Germany is the part where I maybe would have liked a car - although the regional trains got me everywhere I wanted to go! Having a car would have allowed me more opportunity to go to out-of-the-way places and I do like just seeing where a road will take me (like you)! The train rides in Switzerland were beautiful and I didn't feel like I needed a car to see everything. Once I got to my destinations, there was plenty to see without needing a car as local transport worked so well (and no stress with finding places to park or pullover). I stayed in Lucerne and then Murren and really enjoyed riding the cable cars, trains, gondolas, boats, etc. That was actually a huge part of the overall Swiss experience. Switzerland was expensive but I was able to find some decent priced lodgings (for a solo traveler) - but if you're going during the prime tourist season, the prices may be different. Of course, everything will be different going forward from this pandemic. As a family, I think you might be able to find some guesthouses, airbnb's, etc that will help with costs. Those types of places tended to be too pricey for 1 person. My trip was exactly two weeks and I spent 2 nights in Lucerne, 4 nights in Murren, 4 nights in Gengenbach, 3 nights on the Rhine and 1 night in Frankfurt due to a very early flight home. I LOVED it all and did lots of sightseeing via public transport and walking/hiking. I am sure you will also have a great time in those 2 fabulous countries.

Posted by
62 posts

I always go for public transport myself where possible it makes me feel better when I try to curb the environmental impact of my holidays as much as possible. If you opt for renting a car however be sure to inform yourself on the german road rules and what you could get fined for, Germay have "umwelt" fines that you should also be conscious of they´re listed here