Scenic rail journeys - Switzerland

Hello - Our family of 4 (2 adults, 2 kids - ages 11 and 9) will be travelling to Switzerland for 12 days during late March and 2 days in Apr, we purchased 1st class tickets. We were wondering if anyone has taken (or know of someone that has taken) any of the scenic rail journeys with the large panoramic windows during our travel period ("shoulder" season) and waited until the day prior (or just 2-3 days prior) to the actual scenic trip to buy a reservation (we know regular trains cover the actual trips, but we want the train car with the actual large panoramic windows, particularly for our kids). We want to keep our flexibility at maximum, we don't feel comfortable reserving a date just yet since our plans may change. Other than the fact that we know we are staying the first 3 days in the Berner Oberland and the last day in Luzerne, everything in between is open. We want to do all scenic train rides: Golden Pass, Glacier Express, Bernina Express and William Tell. If we don't reserve way in advance, are we risking not getting any spots in the trains at all? Or is the major risk not being able to sit together? Any advice and/or recommendation is greatly appreciated. Thanks so much.
Alex

Posted by Michael Schneider
New Paltz, NY
6841 posts

During the shoulder season it shouldn't be a problem getting panoramic reservation once your are in Switzerland; it can be done at any rail station. If it makes you feel any better, last May I was doing the Golden Pass, and there were only two passengers in the entire Panoramic car.

Posted by Alex
Flemington, NJ - New J, United States
10 posts

Thanks Michael!... That's my impression too, that it's not going to be crowded at all... Also, do you know if we need to pay the full reservation fee even if we do a shortened leg of the trip? For example, Rick suggests just doing the Brig - Dissentis portion (or viceversa, for 3 hours) as opposed to the full 8 hours from beginnning to end, for the Glacier Express. With younger kids, they'll be climbing on the walls after a while...
Thanks!

Posted by Michael Schneider
New Paltz, NY
6841 posts

You're welcome. As far as I know there is just one reservation charge regardless of the duration.

Posted by Alex
Flemington, NJ - New J, United States
10 posts

Did you take any of the other scenic rail journeys? Our goal is to use the scenic rail journeys to take us from point A to B, but if we have superb sightseeing in the meantime, even better.
Thanks again Michael!

Posted by Judy
Adelaide, SA, Australia
802 posts

We travelled on both the Bernina Express and William Tell in early April last year. We booked in advance. However, both trains had plenty of spare seats. If you catch the Bernina Express and you plan to travel on from Ticino to Lugano via the Bernina Express bus, be aware the bus doesn't run all year round. We were okay. From memory it started running to Lugano in early April. Check out the schedule on the Swiss Rail website. They were both amazing journeys. If I had to choose one, it would be the Bernina Express hands down.

Posted by Alex
Flemington, NJ - New J, United States
10 posts

Thanks Judy - The consensus seems to be that in the "shoulder season" there is no need to book reservations way in advance. That's very comforting for our trip planning. It seems based on what I've read from Rick and your responses, that both the Glacier Express and the Bernina Express are the best of the scenic rail journeys. Close behind is the Golden Pass and finally the William Tell (which may be taken more like a quick return north to either Luzern or Zurich on a regular passenger train without reservations). Do you agree?
Thanks!

Posted by Judy
Adelaide, SA, Australia
802 posts

Yes, agree, the William Tell Express like any regional train will get you to Lucerne. The main difference and highlight, as long as you manage to get off the train at Fluelen, is the boat trip from there to Lucerne. We were met by a William Tell Express rep when we boarded the train in Bellinzona. She checked our tickets for the boat trip which included lunch and advised us of the procedure re boarding the boat in Fluelen. I thought this is lovely, we can sit back, relax, enjoy the scenery and will be advised when to disembark the train in Fluelen. Wrong!!!! For the first time in many, many miles of European train travel, I hadn't bothered to print out the list of stations prior to our getting off stop. We were following along this lovely lake for a few miles, only to discover it was Lake Lucerne.
The Swiss Rail rep had obviously had forgotten to let us know when to get off the train. Very disappointing and an extremely erxpensive train ride to Lucerne.

Posted by Alex
Flemington, NJ - New J, United States
10 posts

Sorry to hear about your failed boat ride! Even Rick says that one should not go out of its way to do this trip, according to him the boat ride itself is "more pastoral than thrilling", so probably you didn't miss much. Are there any particular places that stood out in your visits in Switzerland? Thanks!

Posted by Jon
Cincinnati, OH, USA
241 posts

Alex:
We took the Golden Pass in early May 2011. We debated on whether or not to book the panoramic car, in the end we didn't and we don't feel we missed much, particularly since there were clouds covering the higher peaks. Since you have some flexibility on your date of travel, consider the weather when making your scenic journey. We didn't have any flexibility on our date of travel, and, while it would have been great to have had unlimited visibility, it was still quite a lovely trip and we're glad we did it. If you're planning a trip on a gondola to go higher in the mountains, be very certain of the weather. We met a couple in Luzern who had taken a gondola on the same day as our Golden Pass journey, and they said they couldn't see the ground beneath them let alone the peaks.

Posted by Alex
Flemington, NJ - New J, United States
10 posts

Thanks for the comment Jon- Had the weather been perfect, do you think having the panoramic windows would have made it a better experience? The more I read, the more the sense I get that the panoramic windows are great, but they are not the end-all be-all of our journey. In fact, with clear weather, it seems to me that the rides up the mountain to Jungfraujoch and Stilthorn may be better for the views (and all that section of the Berner Oberland). I'm leaning towards just having the panoramic windows on the Glacier Express, particularly for the Brig to Disentis portion. And perhaps the Golden Pass given that it's relatively short distance, great for our kids. Rick Steves says taking the local trains instead of the Bernina Express is the way to go, because we can hop out and back on the train during our trip (the Express trains goes all the way to the end without stops). We wouldn't be missing that much without panoramic windows. The same goes for the William Tell, Rick is pretty adamant about not going for the express package, something tells me it may not be worth it. Do you agree with this? Any additional comments/suggestions are appreciated.
Thank you - Alex

Posted by steven
white plains, ny, usa
650 posts

Alex, Allow me to toss a few things your way . We made a number of trips in that area of Switzerland this past fall . While we did not ride the Golden Pass cars ( or other trips ) in carriages with panoramic windows ,the views from the regular windows were superb . My logic for NOT using the panoramics was that it was my understanding that they do not open ,and I felt that the reflective glare would impinge on my ability to get clear camera shots . This is something to consider in your choice. That said , We rode the Golden Pass leg between Interlaken and Luzern which was stunning ! Of course up to the Jungfrau and the views of the Aletsch Glacier will pop your eyes . One day in Luzern ? NAH ! Lots there , charming city and a highlight is the Lake steamer out to Vitznau and the Rigi bahn to the top of Rigi mountain . If you do , there are 5 or 6 restored lake paddle steamers , and you should try to ride at least one way on one . They leave from the Bahnhof Quai . Two other items to whet your appetite : On You Tube , " Changing Trains " from 1978 presented by Eric Robson , in 4 fifteen minute segments , a travelogue , shows a good taste of this . Secondly ( Thanks to Michael Schneider ( post above ) who told me about it ) " Great Continental Railway Journeys " presented by Michael Portillo , part 4 - Switzerland . will leave you wanting more !! Also try to see the huge transport museum in Luzern , it's a trainspotter's paradise !

Posted by steven
white plains, ny, usa
650 posts

One other point , there is a lady named Lola ,from Seattle who often posts here , and is extremely well versed about Swiss travel , hopefully , she will check in on your plans .

Posted by Alex
Flemington, NJ - New J, United States
10 posts

Thanks Steven,
You sure gave me a bit of homework! (the good kind though!)... The video by Michael Portillo is long, so I'll take my time to watch it with my wife, as well as the Eric Robson series... This is exactly the kind of stuff one needs to know in advance of a trip, so that you won't feel you missed out on some incredible stuff! Hopefully, the lady you mentioned Lola, may throw in some goodies for us to chew on before our trip. Glad I found this blog... Thanks again - Alex

Posted by Judy
Adelaide, SA, Australia
802 posts

Lots to do in and around Lucerne. We took the regional train from Lucerne to Engleberg to do the trip up to Mt. Titlis. The bus to take you to the Mt. Titlis Rotair leaves from the station. Regarding the scenic trains, I agree there was a problem taking photos. However, I would do the Bernina Express again.
We spent some time in Lake Lugano, which we really enjoyed.

Posted by Jon
Cincinnati, OH, USA
241 posts

Alex:
You've received loads of good information from folks who've clearly traveled in Switzerland more than we have. That said we always enjoy the ability to hop off and on a train, so the less "express" the better for usparticularly in the mountains. Allow me to note that we also enjoyed our day in Luzernit was a beautiful crystal clear day with magnificent views of the Alps. But then again, we've never visited anywhere in Europe we didn't enjoy. Our expectation is always just to be in the place and take things in. We simply walked around the city, seeing the Chapel Bridge, Water Tower, Water Spike, Musegg Wall and climbing up several of the Nine Towers. We would have enjoyed visiting the KKL, and the boat excursions looked great, but didn't have the time for either.

Posted by Alex
Flemington, NJ - New J, United States
10 posts

Well, I've watched Michael Portillo's railway journey in Switzerland and it's just extraordinary! He follows the path of a 1913 author who travelled through Switzerland during that time. Thanks to all for your comments! I'm still researching castles in and around Montreaux, such as Chateau de Chillon, the Chateau at Aigle, Sion, Schloss at Thun, etc. Also thinking of the Roman ruins in Avenches. Thanks.

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
8761 posts

I'm one of those who regularly use the "normal" or "regular" or "local" trains on the Swiss scenic routes. I've never spent all the money on the Panoramawagon. I don't drink so the idea of a wine glass that stays straight up on a hill doesn't appeal. Nor does being in a greenhouse surrounded by tourist groups, and window glass reflects when I'm taking pictures. So I ride around in second class with windows that open surrounded by individual tourists who when they want a drink have a swig from their water bottles and for food dig in their backpack for nibbles acquired before the journey. When I see a view to photo I pull down the window and stick the camera out - and I can look forward and back, too. We often get off and walk across a bridge or viaduct to look back and catch a view or photo of the train and the scenery, or walk up towards a forest, or perhaps a glacier, and grab another bite from the station buffet or the cheese and sausage shop. I'm sure that different people ride the trains differently - that is just my way. How your family would I dunno. Happy planning!!! Do be aware that as early in the year as you are going the air outside the mountain trains is likely to be chilly.