Picture this: you’re a 21-year-old American tourist traveling on her own for the first time, without a lick of German or French in her vocabulary beyond s’il vous plaît and Danke schön.
You can pick one museum or castle experience max per place you visit, and you’re prepared to soak in every minute detail of each exhibit to get your money’s worth. A one-way train ticket costs more than the six-bed dorm you’ve booked in downtown Interlaken. And there’s no room for mistakes unless you’re prepared to drop another 70 francs, which, no, cannot happen.
This was my reality before I acquired a first-class Swiss Travel Pass for the last 15 days of my trip.
It sounds dramatic, but it’s true: the moment I held this printed QR code in my hands, I had an elated air of confidence. I could breeze into pretty much any museum that I happened to walk by on a whim.
Took the wrong train by mistake? No problem. Train rides felt like an occasion on their own, with the cushiony first-class seats greeting me at every expedition. I felt a rush when the train conductor asked for my ticket, ready to practically throw it at him the moment I saw him enter my car. “Not a problem sir, how’s your day going?!” I would ask with an almost too-chipper deposition.
I felt different - all I needed was a black Americano from the little dining car and I was someone. Yes, I’m in first class, and yes, I belong here. But I digress. For those on a budget, the Swiss Travel Pass can definitely seem like a large chunk of money. So, let’s break down what it is, whether it’s worth it, and how I used it to my advantage.
What is the Swiss Travel Pass?
The Swiss Travel Pass is a transportation pass specifically designated for tourists who are not residents of Switzerland or Liechtenstein.
It is ideal for those who like all-in-one solutions: the pass covers all train, bus, and boat travel for 3, 4, 8, or 15 days at a time. Starting in 2022, there will also be a six-day Swiss Travel Pass (Flex) version.
A run-down of the benefits
Swiss Travel Pass holders enjoy unlimited travel by train, bus, and boat, along with free public transport in more than 90 towns and cities.
Have I mentioned the many premium panoramic trains that are hop-on/hop-off courtesy of the Swiss Travel Pass? And the bucket-list mountain excursions to Rigi, Stanserhorn, and Stoos which are entirely covered?
Tickets for countless other mountain railway lines are available at half price - or better. SBB RailAway offers for day trips, events, and other holiday opportunities, come at a 30 percent discount for pass holders.
And finally, the pass also covers admission to over 500 museums across Switzerland that are part of the Swiss Museum Pass.
How to redeem the benefits?
Here’s one of my favorite parts about the Swiss Travel Pass: you do not need to continually print out transportation tickets. All you need is your printed copy of your PDF, plus your passport, and you can hop on any train without worry. There is also an e-ticket for your Wallet.
Swiss Travel Pass vs. Swiss Travel Pass Flex
The traditional Swiss Travel Pass is only available for a block of consecutive days. The Swiss Travel Pass Flex is the perfect alternative for those who want to allocate certain days of the month for unlimited travel.
For example, a four-day Swiss Travel Pass Flex would grant you benefits on any four chosen days within a 30-day window. Both passes come with all the additional benefits, such as the Swiss Museum Pass.
Second class or first class?
You’re bound to run into tremendous natural beauty when you’re aboard public transport in Switzerland, regardless of your first-class or second-class train ticket status. But there can be benefits to choosing a seat in either class.
Most train lines offer first- and second-class coaches, each designated by a number “1” or “2” near the doors. In most cases, a first-class upgrade comes with a set of unbeatable perks, such as additional leg space or restaurant service.
And many of Switzerland’s specialty train lines present even more benefits. The Glacier Express, touted as the slowest express train in the world, offers exclusive table service in first-class coaches. Oversized panoramic windows are available to everyone lucky enough to ride along, though.
On the Gotthard Panorama Express, a first-class ticket serves as admission to the steam boat’s upper deck. Look out for the quaint Queens Salon for a most memorable ride.
Then, on the rail section from Flüelen to Lugano, the first-class train coaches feature some of the largest windows on any train service. A personal travel concierge is also along for the ride, explaining sights and pointing out photo ops.
But on some lines, the regular second-class coaches have benefits over first-class. (And not to mention, they are the more affordable option.) For example, on the Bernina Express or GoldenPass lines, you can still pull down the windows on second-class coaches, which is great for taking glare-free photographs.
Who is the Swiss Travel Pass best for?
In short: it’s for the tourist who wants to move around. The Swiss Travel Pass, in my experience, can easily make transportation the cornerstone of how one goes about their time in Switzerland.
The pass can encourage spontaneity, as you may feel enlightened to take day trips to different Swiss cities, board scenic train routes, or pop into any exhibit as you tour museum-heavy cities like Bern, Zürich, or Lucerne.
How to make the most of the Swiss Travel Pass
I viewed my Swiss Travel Pass as a window of opportunity to explore parts of Switzerland’s rich arts & culture scene, natural beauty, and metropolitan cities that I wouldn’t have had the chance to see otherwise.
On days when I’d wake up without a particular plan, I knew my Swiss Travel Pass had me covered for any experience I may run into during town strolls. It’s how I ended up on a 1906 steamboat on Lake Thun, in the Swiss National Museum when it was pouring rain in the streets of Zürich, and in the car-free mountain village Mürren.
My advice for making the most of your Swiss Travel Pass: say yes! to any opportunity you run into. Take a train ride for a train ride’s sake, and soak in the natural wonders of Switzerland that pass you by.