Switzerland is an expensive country to travel. Lucky for us, they have this wonderful package for all would-be travellers to this country of theirs — the Swiss Pass. Unfortunately, the Swiss Pass offers numerous options, including the Swiss Pass, Swiss Flexi Pass, Swiss Card and the Swiss Half-Fare Card, making your selection a major dilemma.
While I was researching for my trip, I found out that there are people from around the world equally perplexed with the Swiss Travel System. I am, by no means an expert, having only been there once, which was just a few weeks ago. Neither did I visit all the various places offered by the Swiss. But I hope my insight (from the POV of a fellow traveller) would provide some assistance in your choice.
Having said that, the best way is to list down all your likely travel routes and calculate them one by one. Because one man’s meat might be another man’s poison. There are just too many variables during the calculation. I hope that after answering a few questions posted here, you could come to a decision without having to go through some mathematical equations.
For discussion purposes, I have only included the Swiss Pass and the Swiss Half-Fare Card. The rest of the options are pretty much self explanatory on the Swiss Travel System website.
First up, a few questions to ask yourself.
This is a major factor when it comes to deciding which pass to buy. The Half-Fare Card (HFC) lasts for a month at a price of CHF120 (in 2013), and as the name imply, you pay half-fare for all public transportation in Switzerland, including the privately owned funiculars, cable cars and trains.
As for the Swiss Pass (SP), it offers a few choices, including a 4-day, 8-day, 15-day, 22-day and a 1-month pass. So if you are planning on a shorter trip, you could choose accordingly.
IMHO, those that could afford a month of stay in Switzerland would be pretty flexible with their schedules and the HFC will definitely pay itself during that period of time. I bought the 15-day Pass for my 13-day stay in Switzerland
2) Where in Switzerland
Most people have a specific area in Switzerland that they are visiting. Some might prefer the Bernese Oberland regions, others the skiing resorts of Zermatt and maybe some are for the bigger cities like Geneva and Zurich. Why did I mention this? Although the SP supposedly covers all of the public transport in Switzerland, it only offers 25%-50% off on the privately-owned lines. These privately-owned lines are usually in the mountainous region. Whereas the HFC still offers 50% on all of these lines. And to make things confusing, there is also a Jungfrau VIP Pass (valid for a year) which offers 50% reduction on the mountain passes.
So for those who are heading up to the mountains, the HFC seems like a better choice. But then again, I have here an example of my trip up to Mount Rigi. I took the boat from Lucerne to Vitznau, then up to Rigi Kulm, before coming back down via Arth-Goldau. The journey would have cost me CHF121 but with the SP, it cost me nothing (despite being a trip up the mountains). The HFC would cost you CHF60.
Do a little research on the ticket prices if you’re planning on a mountain excursion during your stay in Switzerland. Here is a PDF (1MB) on the various lines that are free and those that aren’t.
3) Staying Put
For those who dislike having excursions and prefer to stay local, then you’re in for a treat! Since you will be paying a tourist tax for every day of your stay in Switzerland, the local government has decided to make things easy for you. You will be entitled to a free transport card for the city/town that you will be staying in, for the duration of your stay. I know that this applies to all hotels but I am not sure whether those who are doing couchsurfing/AirBnB would have the same thing or not. But as long as you get your hands on the free transport card, your travel in that particular city would be free. The Lucerne version is stapled onto their travel brochure, which you could obtain from any participating travel vendor. The rest were given when I checked into the hotels.
This is good if you’re on a business trip or that you are only planning to stay put in one place. Or two, if you have plans for another change of hotels. But remember, it is only good for that city alone, intercity travel still cost money! Most cities offer a day-pass for all public transport, usually ranging from 6-9am until 12 midnight and they cost less than CHF10 per pass. You could still rely on your own two feet if you’re stingy.
The added benefit of the Swiss Pass (SP) is that it offers free entry into 470 museums throughout Switzerland. So if you are the museum type, then the SP is for you. Unfortunately, the famous Verkehrshaus (Swiss Transport Museum) in Lucerne is only a half-price discount. This offer is not available for the HFC.
My experience? The Swiss Pass (SP) saved me CHF125 in total plus a CHF15 discount on the Verkehrshaus.
This is different from duration, albeit related some what. Having a SP, you don’t have to queue up at the ticket counters, you don’t have to carry small change to use on the vending machines, you could even be as lazy as we were! Each time we pass by a bus stop or a tram stop, we would look at the timetable, if there was a bus/tram arriving, we would hop on it and hop off at our destination, even if it was just a single stop! I know, to most travellers, this would cut down on the fun of exploring the place by walking. Imagine hopping on the tram at Zurich Bahnhofstrasse and four stops later, arrive at Zurich Bürkliplatz, then going back home and telling everyone that you have been to the world famous Zurich Bahnhofstrasse.
IMHO, we were on a 13-day whirlwind tour of Switzerland, covering Geneva to Zurich. So time was of the essence. A HFC would have slowed us down and probably stopped us short of just hopping onto any tram/bus when our legs were tired, take a ride into the suburbs to enjoy the views and then back to where we started without a worry.
6) Travelling Party/1st or 2nd Class/Reservations
This is only a small footnote, mostly related to the SP. If you’re travelling a couple, you get a small discount on the Swiss Pass (CHF476 alone), uniquely entitled Swiss Saver Pass (CHF405 per person). All families with children less than 16 years old go free on both the HFC and SP.
The HFC also covers First Class, as long as you pay accordingly whereas for the SP, you would have to decide on it early. Meaning, you can’t change classes with the SP. If you have bought a 2nd Class Swiss Pass, then for the duration of the journey, you’re stuck with it.
There are certain scenic railways that require reservations, such as the Bernina Express. Both HFC and SP would have to pay the required reservations with no added benefits. The only benefit is that for the SP, the train ticket is covered while it is only half paid if you’re on the HFC.
I travelled with my wife on a 2nd Class Swiss Saver Pass for 15 days. This is the general breakdown of the costs saved per person.
Swiss Saver Pass CHF405
Total Spent (if without SP) CHF888
And a further breakdown in the spent portion:
Museums Entry CHF125 + CHF15 (Verkhershaus)
Free Hotel Pass Travel CHF52.50
If we had gone for the Half-Fare Card, we would have to pay an extra CHF483 for our travels, but maybe we would have not visited the museums that much, so that would be around CHF343, bringing it to a total of CHF463 as compared to the CHF405 with added benefits.
Swiss Half-Fare Card CHF120
+ Museums CHF140
+ Public Transport CHF343 (not including mountains)
Total Spent CHF483