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Zurich to Varenna via Bernina Express or local trains?

Good day, lovely travelers --

In Sept, we are finally getting the chance to take a Northern Italy trip originally scheduled for June 2020 (yeah, bad timing). In our original planning, we learned about the Bernina Express and thought taking it would be a beautiful way to start the trip, so we booked our inbound flight to Zurich arriving 08:55 on 06Sep23. In reading some of the forums, I saw references to taking local trains instead of the Bernina Express - same tracks, less crowded, no reservation fees, etc. Is this really as nice an experience? I know there would be no panorama cars on the locals, but that's not a show-stopper. I also wondered if the schedule might be more flexible with the local option since we are planning to start the one-way train journey In Zurich the morning of 07Sept and would like to end up in Varenna that afternoon. Lastly, I've also read that we may want to utilize a day rail pass. Is it worth it to do so for this journey? We are seniors - 64 and 65 years young - but initial investigation hasn't turned up senior pass. Am I just missing it?

Input from those who have taken this trip would be most appreciated.

Posted by
20316 posts

The Saver Day Pass saves you quite a bit, but you must buy it 60 days in advance of your journey to get the best price. Normal price on regular trains from Zurich Hbf to Tirano is 92.60 CHF pp. Looks like you can get the Saver Day 60 days ahead for 52 CHF pp.

With the Saver Day Pass, you are locked in to the day of travel, but not the schedule or stopovers.

Right now, you could leave at 9:38 am from Zurich Hbf and arrive in Tirano at 15:00 with only 2 train changes at Chur and St Moritz. At Tirano you must buy an Italian train ticket to continue on to Varenna. Ticket cost is 7.70 EUR pp. There is a train at 15:08, but you have to walk across the piazza to the Italian train station, so that connection is a bit tight. You way wish to take the 16:08 train and relax a bit in Tirano. There are a couple of pizzerias by the station.

https://www.sbb.ch/en/travelcards-and-tickets/tickets-for-switzerland/day-pass/saver-day-pass.html

Posted by
1453 posts

Go on one of the local trains as they run every hour. Many prefer them over the “panoramic trains” because the windows open ( the panoramic train’s windows do not open) which lets you take in the alpine air and also take photos that won’t be affected by reflections or distortion that the windows on the panoramic trains can cause. For the best views. sit on the right side of the train when traveling southbound. You can take a train directly from Zurich’s airport ( Zurich Flughafen) to Chur. Just that train ride costs at least $35 so getting to ride all the way to Tirano for about $55 with a Saver Day Pass is a good deal.

Posted by
5004 posts

I took the advice offered here and we used the regional trains. Yes, there is more flexibility on times. It was a fantastic journey, and because our train was so empty, easy to jump across the aisle as the scenery changed. I told my husband it was the most exercise I ever had on a train ride. You're in for a real treat!

Posted by
31 posts

Alas - I found a recent thread on this.

I do have reservation on the Bernina Express. I did find the time very restrictive. I have purchased the day pass.

I am starting to read that the regional trains are much better? The seats are not reserved, so I am not guaranteed to get a window seat?

So far what I did is... Chur to St. Moritz- regional train. St. Moritz to Tirano- Bernina Express.

Posted by
5004 posts

The regional trains are much less crowded, so I would expect getting a window seat is not a problem. On Our 2121 trip the regional cars aware almost empty, but that was coming out of COVID. I have not read a report here describing any crowded regional trains for this route.
Safe travels!

Posted by
897 posts

Regional trains will have multiple stops with people getting on and off. You should have no trouble garnering a window seat.

Posted by
219 posts

Thank you to all who have responded to this thread. It's been a big help! It's too early for me to check the schedule for our departure of 06Sep23, so I chose a few months earlier (06Jun23) to get an idea of what trains we might take. If we use the regional trains instead of the Bernina Express, here's a schedule created on the SBB site that looks promising:

Zurich HB to Varenna-Esino

TrainInterCity . Departure 12:38 . Arrival 20:34 . 7 h 56 min . 3 changes

  • Zürich HB, Platform 9 . dep12:38 . TrainInterCity 569 (Direction Chur) . arr 13:52 . Chur, Platform 9
  • Chur, Platform 10 . dep13:58 . TrainInterRegio 1145 (Direction St. Moritz) . arr16:00 . St. Moritz, Platform 1
  • St. Moritz, Platform 7 . dep16:48 . TrainR 1649 (Direction Tirano) . arr19:00 . Tirano, Platform 4
  • Tirano FS . dep19:08 . TrainR 2841 (Direction Milano Centrale) . arr20:34 . Varenna-Esino

A couple of questions:

  1. Some of these transfer times are mere minutes, yet this is what the SBB site gave me. Are these timings realistic?
  2. It looks like I can only book a couple of months in advance. How do I determine if these same trains run during September? Not sure if they're summer-only routes
  3. In Tirano, it appears that arrival is into Tirano but departure is Tirano FS. Are these the same place?
Posted by
5004 posts

In Tirano, you arrive on a Swiss train. The Italian train station is across the street, if memory holds .
Mere minutes to change trains is the European, especially the Swiss, way. Have your luggage and be ready to jump off the train as soon as the doors open. Know your platform arrival # ( which you have included) and know your platform departure #. Often there are stairs involved to change platforms, I have no idea how close the lifts could be. So obviously, carry- on luggage works best.
I don't think there are senior discounts, but there could be Saver Day passes, see above..
You are in for a fantastic treat for this journey!

Posted by
20316 posts

Couple things.
1. The transfer at Chur is from Track 9 to Track 10. These tracks are on opposite sides of the same platform, so you just walk out the door of the arriving train and walk the 15 ft across the platform to the waiting train and board. Takes 1 minute.
2. You might want to get an earlier start. The 10:38 am departure will get you to Tirano by 5:00 pm. Then, even if you miss the 5:08 departure to Varenna, there is another train at 6:08 pm that will get you to Varenna by 7:34 pm. You can easily kill the extra hour in one of the pizzerias by the station. You do have to cross the piazza from the Swiss train station to the Italian train station.
3. The Swiss train schedule is already up for Sept 7. It is the Italian schedule that is not released yet, but it probably will not change at all. These are regional trains that run on an hourly basis.
4. If you are confident in your schedule, it looks like you can buy a Saver Day Pass for 52 CH per person 60 days in advance, which will save you 40 CH per person. You are not locked into a schedule, but you are locked into traveling on that day.

Posted by
219 posts

@Pat and @Sam, thank you both for your replies. I feel a better about the situation after reading them. We've taken trains in France and Belgium, but never with such tight turnarounds.

We can try to make the earlier train, though I'm not counting with our scheduled arrival in Zürich is 8:55am. We won't have checked bags, but one never knows about delays. If the Customs line isn't too bad we might make the shuttle train from the airport to Zürich HB in time to get the 10:38, but it's not something I'd bet on.

I'm looking into the Saver Pass for that trip. Does the Italian schedule need to be loaded before I can purchase, or is the Saver Pass just for the Swiss portion?

Posted by
20316 posts

Looks like you are planning on going right from the airport when you arrive. If your plane close to on-time, you should have no problem making the 10:15 am connecting train to Zurich HB. Take an earlier train if you get there sooner, which you probably will. The Save Day Pass is a Swiss product and is not good for Italian trains. The ticket from Tirano to Varenna is only 7.70 EUR. Get the Trenitalia app on your phone so you can buy your ticket before you get to Tirano. That will save you some valuable minutes.

You are liable to be pretty tired that day. Both the trains from Zurich HB to Chur and Chur to St Moritz have a snack car, and you have 45 minute at St Moritz to grab some snacks at the Kiosk store.

Posted by
219 posts

@Sam: Thanks for the tips! Yes, I suspect we'll be tired, though I hope less so than normal. We were able to snag a deal on business class seats using long-saved miles, so we're hoping to get some sleep.