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When is the Swiss Train Pass Worth the Price Tag?

June 5, 2014 at 2:29 PM | by | ()

One of the biggest decisions that U.S. travelers to Europe have to make is whether to purchase a pre-planned rail pass or to wait and buy single-journey tickets on the go. On our recent trip to Switzerland with a focus on the greater Zurich area, we used a Swiss Pass to travel between the small towns and villages.

Below, we break down the cost versus the benefits of the pass.

What's included?

· The Swiss Pass comes in a variety of formats that differ based on the number of days it allows you to travel. The straightforward version gives you 4, 8, 15, 22, or 30 days of consecutive travel, and the Swiss Flexi Pass is valid for 3, 4, 5, or 6 nonconsecutive days within a 1 month time span.

· All variations include unlimited train, tram, bus, and boat service within the country.

· Free travel on the panoramic and scenic route trains

· Free access to approximately 470 museums.

· Free travel for children under 16 (no max, but must be immediate family members) so long as they are accompanied by at least one parent.

· 50% discount on aerial cable cars

What does it cost?

· The price for the regular Swiss Pass (second class) starts at $301 for 4 days of consecutive travel and $288 for 3 days of nonconsecutive travel on the Flexi Pass.

· A Swiss Saver Pass is also available for two or more passengers traveling together, which provides the same benefits as the passes above but with a 10% discount for purchasing two (or more) at once, bringing the starting rates of the Swiss Pass and the Swiss Flexi Pass examples down to $271 (4-day Swiss Saver Pass) and $259 (3-day Swiss Saver Flexi Pass), respectively.

When does it make sense?

The decision about whether or not to buy a pass rests on the amount of moving and shaking you plan to do within the country, including train, bus, and ferry segments as well as museum visits and the number of children you have. Let's take our recent trip as an example. Here is our itinerary, along with the approximate cost of the individual second-class train tickets, price per person:

Zurich Airport to St. Gallen (one-way): $32

St. Gallen to Appenzell (round trip): $8

St. Gallen to Rapperswil (one-way): $13

Rapperswil to Lucerne (one-way): $16

Lucerne to Zurich Airport (one-way): $32

That's a total of $101 for the train rides, not including public transportation (buses) within the town. It also does not include scenic rides, such as the ferry on Lake Zurich in Rapperswil, which costs about $10 per person. Still, given the Swiss Pass is about $300, you're still not getting your money's worth. You'd have to visit a lot of museums and take a few scenic train rides to make up the difference.

So when does it make sense? Definitely when you're traveling with kids under 16. If a single parent traveling with two kids bought the proposed train itinerary above, it would cost them as much as the Swiss Pass (3 people * $101 versus $300 upfront with kids free).

Also, if you plan on traveling long distances (as opposed to the above itinerary which stays in the greater Zurich area), the Pass becomes a legit option. A train ticket from Zurich to Geneva, for example, costs about $98 one-way, per person. Obviously, the farther you plan to travel by train, the more the pass makes sense. It seems that the distance is what will make the Pass worth it, as the prices of the short little segments don't add up fast enough in 3 or 4 days. Having kids under 16 helps.

If you want to approximate the cost of your proposed journey, you can plan your trip through Rail Europe. Questions? Feel free to write us.

Will was on assignment for another publication when visiting Zurich, but all opinions are his own.

[Photo: Swiss Pass]

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