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Need guidance for swiss travel, is Grand Train Tour a good idea?

Hi, We (family of 4, 2 teenage boys (22,14)) are planning a trip to switzerland. We have an option to travel mid-march or early-june. I really wanted to travel in December and experience the snow-covered landscape (we live in warm climate, so 'snow' has a 'wow' effect on us). However given current situation in Paris we thought it might not be a good idea. I have a few questions and would appreciate some guidance from locals or experienced swiss travellers. Thanks much in advance.

1) I am given to understand that in mid-march we will still be able to see snow-capped mountain peaks even if the entire landscape is not covered in snow. Will there be snow on the ground in general during that time or only on the peaks or not at all ?
2) Is switzerland better experienced in summer (june july timeframe)? or is march a grade balance between winter and summer months?
3) We are planning for the 8-day Grand Train Tour of Switzerland. Is that a good idea or is it just too much ""on-the-train"". I mean to ask, is that a good way to see/experience the varied swiss landscape?
4) We probably will miss the Gotthard Panaroma express as it starts after april 19. Do you think its really worth and we should try to travel in june to ensure we can travel on it? I am thinking we are anyways enjoying the GoldenPass line, Glacier Express and the Bernina express...so maybe one less panaromic train might be ok. any thoughts?
5) If we decided to add a couple of nights where wud you recommend we stay and why? for eg i read in forums interlaken a lot, but not quite sure what i can experience in interlaken more with additional stay.
6) Is English spoken enough so that we wont have trouble with communication?
7) Typically if there is lot of travel should I just go for the swiss travel pass? I mean, is it worth going thru all of the calculations (costs of all trains, bus etc) to decide if i should go for the half-fare card v/s the swiss travel pass ?

any other pertinent guidance will be greatly appreciated.
thanks in advance.

Posted by
15399 posts

I was in Switzerland in mid-March of this year and traveled on the GoldenPass and Glacier Express at that time.

1) You'll see plenty of snow on these routes and around the mountain resorts, although at some elevations it could be melting and slushy underfoot, depending on the daily temperature. Lower-elevation cities did not have snow on the ground during my visit. Some days also were actively snowing and blowing, so cloud cover and visibility were lower.
2) Depends on whether or not you want to hike.
3) It can be a lot of train time. Balance that with time at your destinations, which your kids will probably enjoy more, unless they're really sedentary individuals. I love trains, but even my butt was getting tired after 8 hours on my Glacier Express day.
4) Gotthard is not worth waiting for in this case, generally the least popular of the marketed scenic routes. By going as far as Pontresina/Samedan/St. Moritz on the Glacier Express, you're already half-way through the Bernina route and may not really need to see the whole thing.
5) Not actually Interlaken, but Lauterbrunnen, Muerren, or Wengen, closer to the mountains. On one of my recent visit days, the Mt. Schilthorn lift was closed in the afternoon due to high winds. It's better to have a couple of days, just in case.
6) Yes.
7) You're thinking about covering a lot of ground and I consider the 8-day Swiss Travel Pass a good value for this much travel. Be sure to count your actual days in country/on the train to make sure they fit. You can quickly compare some ticket prices at https://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/transportation/trains/switzerland-rail-passes.

However given current situation in Paris we thought it might not be a
good idea.

I’m not sure why you think the situation in Paris would impact on a trip to Switzerland. Am I missing something? - say that you’re planning to include a short trip to Paris as part of the journey.

Posted by
546 posts

I agree with Laura. Sitting on a train too long is not the best way to see Switz. I love the trains, and the scenery is great, but everything passes by you at 50mph or so. If you see a nice view, it's gone within a minute. It's nice, but sort of like watching TV for 8 hours. Plus you can't pet cows, take great pictures, or change plans depending on the weather.

Instead, stay 5 or more days in Lauterbrunnen, or Murren, and hike easy trails. Click on my name and you'll see our dozen favorite trails in the area, with maps and pics. My kids loved them as teens and again returned as adults to the exact same trails.

In June the highest trails, like those around First, will have snow on them--maybe even impassible. (Check with Tourist Info in town.) More snow than you'll know what to do with up at the Jungfraujoch summit.

So going in June allows train scenery in getting there, on the ground activities, and a mix of snow and hikes.

Posted by
5 posts

Thanks Laura and Shoe for taking the time to respond in detail.
Jane, yes, that is what I had in mind. To bundle Paris and Switzerland. Didn't want to add any more cuz then it sorta gets tiring for teenagers and they go "when are we going back home" rant! Learnt that lesson over the years.

If I may add a few more questions:
I read somewhere that train from Paris to Basel or Zurich is covered by the swiss rail pass (or was it partially-covered). can you please clarify?

As i am constantly browsing thru forums I recently read that there is snow even till June in some parts of switzerland! That was really surprising to read. And helpful as well, cuz if for some reason March doesnt pan out then I still have option to go in June around the 6th. and hopefully we can still get to see snowy landscape is some parts and possibly some lush meadows in other areas. Is that a reasonable assumption?

I have a question on the Hotels. In the US its easy cuz mostly they are chain hotels , so you typically book in advance via website. However it appears to me hotels in Switzerland are mostly mom-pop owned (in smaller towns) or locally owned (instead of international chains) in bigger cities. My question is: Would you advise booking much in advance or just a month or 2 should be fine?

Finally, cash. I would hate to use US credit card as the exchange rate they offer is extremely low. I was planning to carry some swiss CHF around for day-to-day restaurant and other use. Is cash accepted most places or they require a credit card?

thanks again for all your guidance.

Posted by
10103 posts

The high peaks like the Schilthorn and the Jungfrau have snow on top year-round, so you can see snow whenever you go to Switzerland.

"I would hate to use US credit card as the exchange rate they offer is extremely low."

Not sure where you get this impression. Actually, credit cards offer the best exchange rates available, although some of them levy a 1-3% surcharge for foreign use. That's true if you use them for purchases. If you use them for cash advances, they have much higher fees. Use your debit card to get cash.

"I was planning to carry some swiss CHF around for day-to-day restaurant and other use. Is cash accepted most places or they require a credit card?"

Cash is accepted everywhere. On my first trip, I paid my hotel bills with it, because my debit card had no fees for foreign use, while my credit card charged 3% for foreign use. Now I have a Capital One credit card, and a TD debit card tied to my Premier Checking account, and neither one charges fees, so I use both cash and credit in various situations.

For more money tips, read all the links in Rick's money page, and you'll be an expert: https://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/money

There's lots of spoken English, particularly if you're going to the typical places a first time visitor goes (Luzern, the Berner Oberland, etc). You won't have any trouble making yourself understood.

Yes, it's worth going through all the rail pass calculations, if you want to be sure to get the best deal. If you're looking for a shortcut, remember that the Half Fare Card gets you 50% off of everything that moves in the whole country, from a local tram to the Jungfraujoch. Since it currently costs 120 CHF (Swiss Francs), if you're taking more than 240 CHF of transit, you can't lose. For the Swiss Travel Pass, you have to check the validity for routes 2019 (it changes a bit every year). For instance, some years the trip up to the Schilthorn is fully covered, other years it's 50% off above Mürren. It always covers trains from Basel to Zurich and the like; the only variable is the routes up mountains (cogwheel trains, cable cars, etc).

Posted by
546 posts

I would NOT go in March. You could hit some windy just-above freezing days where walking around is muddy and slushy, you may not have the right clothes for it, and too much snow and cold gets old VERY quickly. Trust me, I'm from Michigan.

Since you can be in snow as much as you wish all year round by taking the train to the Jungfraujoch, why not have the best of both warmer and snow by going in June? I remember being there on July 4 one year and the Schynige Platte to First trail was closed due to snow, and the First to Bachalpsee trail was passable but mostly snow-covered. Lower trails were open but with patches of snow around. That's likely what you'll find in June.

You should not wait until 2 months before to reserve rooms. Starting in January, some of the best deals/places start to fill up. You can start by looking at Booking.com, or with a family, VRBO.com or AirBnB.com to rent an apt.

Posted by
15399 posts

I recommend buying a separate train ticket from Paris to Basel, with advance-purchase discount, if including Paris, or all the way to Zurich only if you're returning from Paris to Zurich to fly home. Otherwise, most of your destinations are not via Zurich. Basel is the border point for Swiss Travel Pass coverage.

You should reserve ahead in March for popular mountain resorts. I found Zermatt to be pretty booked up on a weekend in March, and many skiers are reserving there for a whole week, therefore I skipped it (having also been once before). (I connected from Lauterbrunnen to the Glacier Express on the same day.) Options in my price range were more easily available in Luzern, Lauterbrunnen and Pontresina, but I still did book before leaving home.

Switzerland has now confirmed no significant changes to the pass coverage next year. The Schilthorn lift remains fully covered.

Posted by
10103 posts

I just realized why you might have gotten a bad exchange rate when using a credit card. You are often asked in Switzerland if you want to be charged in USD or CHF, for both credit cards and ATM withdrawals. Having the transaction done in USD is called Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC), but the real name should be Rip Off! If you accept DCC, they set the rate, and it's often much worse than the one the credit card would set. Then, in addition, you are still charged any applicable foreign transaction fees!

So, if you are ever offered a chance to be charged in dollars (or anything other than Swiss Francs) while in Switzerland, always decline, and make sure the charge or withdrawal is processed in CHF. Sometimes it's phrased in sneaky ways, such as, "do you want to lock in a rate of XXX.xx US dollars for this withdrawal?"

Posted by
4107 posts

I found, about two years ago, that Swiss credit card machines offered the DCC option first, and you had to consciously choose the CHF option. Not hard to do -- just click on the second button -- but something to be aware of in case that's still how the machines work.