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Switzerland: by train or by car?

This summer we will be spending about 16 days touring through Switzerland for the first time. We will arrive in, as well as leave from, Zurich via plane. We hope to visit some of the major Swiss cities and a number of the hiking/mountain areas. We are in our early 60s and in good shape. We have the 2014 edition of Rick's Switzerland book and we see that he recommends touring Switzerland via train. However, my wife feels that car travel gives us greater flexibility. We would be delighted if some folks shared their opinions regarding the relative merits of traveling around Switzerland via car vs. via train. Any advice will be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

Posted by
177 posts

It is very easy to drive in Switzerland. You just have to remember that the speed limit is strictly enforced by automatic speed traps. It clearly gives you the freedom to visit remote valleys in the alps or drive over passes if you enjoy that.
Be very mindful when you get the car to note all the dings and scratches. They inspect the car thoroughly when you return it and it can be costly.
If you are more interested in cities then a car is not very helpful and can be frustrating. The number of parking spots is restricted by design in some cities to encourage public transportation.

As a side note, I hope that with 16 days you will deviate from strictly following the RS guide. There are fantastic areas not covered by RS. I am thinking about places like the Kandertal, Lotschenthal, or Anniviers valley. I also enjoy Basel, Schaffhausen (Rhine falls) and Stein-Am-Rhein.

Posted by
328 posts

We almost always travel by car when we visit Switzerland. We like to wander a bit further when we have extra time and enjoy the flexibility a car gives us to explore wherever we want whenever we want. For us, Switzerland is about the countryside so we rarely visit cities, but when we do there is usually some parking available as long as you are willing to walk a little to get to whatever it is you want to see - for example, there is a large parking lot right behind the train station in Bern and lots of metered parking spots along the lakeside in Lausanne. We also like the flexibility a car gives us to try out accommodation that might not be as easily accessible by public transportation. We've stayed in some lovely places with incredible views for lower prices than we would have paid if we were closer to major public transportation routes.

The major trade-off is that the driver will not get as much chance to enjoy the views. The roads twist and turn and will require most of the driver's attention. You will have to stop frequently for the driver to have an opportunity to soak them in (not a bad thing in my opinion). Also, as the previous poster said, there are a lot of speed cameras strictly enforcing the speed limits. Just stay under the limit and you will be fine ... go over the limit even by a little and you will have a rude surprise when you get home.

Posted by
16883 posts

Public transport in Switzerland is more comprehensive, coordinated, frequent, and flexible than in any other country I could name. You can get an overview with the Swiss Travel System Map. To get to some mountain destinations (e.g., Zermatt, Muerren, Wengen), you will park a car and switch to trains and lifts. I enjoyed driving in Switzerland when I had a car on a several-month lease, but have used only public transport on other visits. A car allows you to stop for many photo ops, picnics, etc., at your whim, but a train allows both of you to watch the scenery instead of the road.

Travel style, not cost, will probably be the deciding factor. A Swiss Pass for 15 consecutive days costs about $490 per person, to cover unlimited trains, buses, boats, trams, and most museums (some of which you still would have to pay for when traveling by car) and gives you 50% discounts on most high mountain lifts (or 25% off Wengen-Jungfraujoch).

Posted by
13093 posts

We are a couple your age and have been to Switzerland for hiking/cultural trips four times, 16-17 days each time. We have never rented a car as we feel the public transport offers more flexibility and pleasure. Our favorite places are the car-free villages where a car would be a liability. There are places one cannot reach by car, but there is no place we have wanted to visit that we could not reach by train, boat, bus, or cablecar. ( in the Dolomites! by contrast we rent a car as the public transport is not as comprehensive.).

We like the three -day Flex Pass when we are doing a trip that involves 3 or 4-nights stays at several different bases, with relatively long travel in between. The half-fare feature is good for day trips. One trip,we did use the 15-day consecutive pass and that worked well too.

Posted by
7205 posts

Rob, have you ever tried a vacation without a car? Switzerland is definitely the place where it can be easily done. Heck MOST of Europe can be easily done without a car. But being Americans we just can't help but think that a car is a necessity. Believe me and many many others - it's not! It's actually such a freedom to not have to deal with a stupid rental car - gas, parking, tolls, scratches, fender benders, CDW, Theft, Fire - who NEEDS it! Definitely not me. I get on the train and forget about it.

Posted by
3336 posts

There are so many places in Switzerland that you simply can't get to easily by public transport - little hill towns, glaciers, festivals, hidden valleys...it will save you time to rent a car and you will see so much more. The roads are fantastic in most places and very uncrowded except around some of the larger cities. Haven't done a cost breakdown of train vs. car but, if you do rent a car, just be prepared for sticker shock at the petrol pump. Crazy expensive, like everything else in the country. We had a Volvo SUV last summer and it was $160 to fill it up. We never found parking to be a problem anywhere we went. Lots of lots and garages with ample room.

Posted by
6644 posts

It's hard for the driver to enjoy the beautiful scenery and stay on the road.

Posted by
24 posts

We have had 2 trips to Switzerland where we did house exchanges. The first trip we traded cars and thoroughly enjoyed getting around. However driveing in the mountains on the switchbacks is a challenge and roads are narrow. Also finding parking is sometimes not so easy. Second trip we bought a 3 week Swiss PAss which worked out really well as trains are plentiful and extremely punctual and clean. We all could relax and stopped at many towns and cities and took in all the sites.
perhaps a mix is good.

Posted by
7205 posts

Some of the best places in Switzerland cannot even be accessed by cars...only trains. If trains don't go to your destination chances are SOME form of public transit does. Trains, Gondolas, Funiculars, Buses, Boats, Trams, etc - Switzerland is full of every type of transport imaginable. And it's all linked together seamlessly.