Many savings options and discounted tickets are available for traveling in the panoramic cars of the Bernina Express trains through the Alps in Switzerland. All Swiss Railways discount cards and deals can be applied including the Swiss Pass, half-fare and junior cards. The Graubünden Pass can also give spectacular value for holidaymakers in this lovely Alpine canton of Switzerland. The obligatory seat reservation fee is never discounted but can be avoided altogether by using regular regional trains on the same tracks. In winter, the luxury panoramic cars may be used for only a small surcharge.
Reservations for the Bernina Express Train Panoramic Cars
Traveling in the luxury Bernina Express trains with its huge panorama windows always require seat reservations. This reservation fee – currently CHF14 in summer (CHF10 in winter) is always charged, even for children, Swiss Pass, Junior Card, and other passes.
The reservation is per seat, per train – interrupting the journey requires a second reservation if another Bernina Express train is used. Similarly, a separate reservation is needed for traveling on the Bernina Express Bus between Tirano and Lugano.
Reservations can be made up to minutes before the actual departure or well in advance. It is easily done online at Rhaetian Railways, where the exact seat may be selected from the diagram. Note that the direction of travel of the train is not guaranteed, although the first class wagons are usually at the front.
The reservation and ticket purchase for the Bernina Express can be done in two separate transactions. Reserve in advance to guarantee a seat, but if the weather turns out absolutely miserable, simply don’t buy a ticket for travel. (The reservation fee is of course lost forever.)
Sample Fares on the Bernina Express Panoramic Trains
The price of tickets for traveling on the Bernina Express trains is the same as for traveling on regular regional trains using the same tracks – sometimes the Bernina Express panoramic cars are even attached to the rear of a regular train. The only difference in price is the obligatory reservation fee (CHF14) for the Bernina Express.
Sample fares without the reservation fee for the Bernina Express in 2016 in second class (first class) are:
- Chur to Tirano – CHF62 (CHF109)
- Davos to Tirano – CHF50 (CHF88)
- St Moritz to Tirano – CHF31 (CHF55)
- Tirano to Lugano by bus – CHF33
Travel to Poschiavo is around CHF8 cheaper.
Savings Fares and Discount Tickets for the Bernina Express Train
Although the Rhätische Bahn is a separate company from Swiss Railways, all regular Swiss Railways discounts and savings passes may be used. The half-fare card, which cuts virtually all public transportation fees in Switzerland in half, is often the most useful. Special short-term, one month, international half-fare cards are available for non-Swiss residents.
Two special regional travel passes are only valid on public transportation in Graubünden:
- UNESCO Welterbe Pass – unrestricted travel on two days (within four) on trains on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage listed railway line between Thusis and Tirano, excluding travel on the Bernina and Glacier Express trains. The price is CHF70 (CHF115 first class) – for CHF107 (CHF176) the return journey from any Rhätische Bahn station is included.
- Graubünden Pass – valid for 3 days (within 7) or 5 days (within 14) – this pass cover almost all trains and buses within the canton Graubünden (or in a cheaper version for smaller regions). The full canton version is CHF129 (CHF187) for three days and CHF160 (CHF232) for the five-day version. It may be used for travel on the Bernina Express (but not on the Bernina Express Bus to Lugano).
The Rhaetian Railways sometimes have special deals for travel on the Bernina Express (and other trains in Graubünden) making it worth a peak at its website before booking. Swiss Railways also often have RailAway package deals with discount combination sightseeing admission or event tickets that may offer further savings on train travel.
Many travel agents offer package deals combining Swiss train travel with hotel reservations in package deals, which can offer considerable savings over separate bookings. In the off-season, free upgrades to first class travel if often available in such package deals.
Several British travel agents specialize in train travel and have package deals cheaper than booking various trains and hotels separately. Some of these group journeys use train travel from Britain to Europe while some fly travelers to Switzerland.
Some of these agencies include:
Swiss railway passes and train tickets can also be bought in the USA from RailEurope – exchange rates and foreign credit card charges can sometimes make a difference in prices.
Children Travel (Almost) for Free on Swiss Trains
For travelers with children 6 to 16, the Junior Card if often the best public transportation deal in Switzerland. It cost CHF30 per year but allows the child to travel for free when a parent (very broadly defined) has a valid ticket. It pays for itself on a Chur to Tirano journey.
The Junior Card can be added for free to almost any international Swiss Railways travel card, in which case it is referred to as a family card. However, the child’s name must be added at the time of purchase – it cannot be added at a later stage.
Children under 6 travel for free on public transportation in Switzerland
The CHF14 reservation fee for the Bernina Express and other trains or buses are not discounted for children.
Cheaper Bernina Express Trains in Winter
However, more interesting for savers, is that from mid-December to end March, the panoramic cars of the Bernina Express are attached to the regular regional trains running from St Moritz to Tirano and St Moritz to Chur. These more comfortable seats may be used without a reservation but a surcharge of CHF5 is payable (directly to the conductor).
Cheaper Regular Regional Trains on the Bernina and Albula Lines
The fares for regular regional trains on the same routes as the Bernina Express trains are the same, except for saving the reservation fee. Regional trains stop more frequently – allowing sightseeing at more sites – but are hardly slower than the Bernina Express. On longer journey, e.g. Tirano to Davos, train changes may be required on regional trains but even these hardly add to the overall traveling time.
A good option, when planning sightseeing along a return journey, is to enjoy the convenience of the direct Bernina Express one way and to return with sightseeing stops en route on the regional trains.
The express in “Bernina Express” indicates that the train does not stop very frequently – its actual speed is no faster (or slower) than regular trains using the same tracks.
Regional trains in Switzerland are generally very comfortable too. The exact train and seats will be known only when boarding the train – many travelers find the seats in the older wagons more comfortable. In contrast to the always air-conditioned panoramic cars of the Bernina Express, some regional trains only have heating but windows can be opened for great views and non-glare photos too.
First or Standard Class on Swiss Trains
On the Bernina Express panoramic window cars, seats in second class are comfortable and usually spaced two on each side of the aisle, often making seating for a group of four. First class seats are a bit wider with two seats on one side and only a single seat on the opposite end of the aisle.
The Bernina Express trains do not have a restaurant car or at-seat restaurant service as on the Glacier Express. A trolley with coffee and snacks usually operates on the train but it may take hours before it comes by. Bringing a picnic and own drinks is a cheaper (and generally much better tasting) option. Swiss Railways coffee is surprisingly good but comes at a price.
A few points to keep in mind when picking seats:
- The reservation map will indicate the exact position and grouping of seats.
- Being in the first or last wagon of the train gives the best views of the train on sharp turns and switchbacks.
- The Davos trains change direction after stopping in St Moritz. Other trains generally maintain the direction of travel for the entire journey.
- The direction of travel of the train is not guaranteed. The first class wagons are usually at the front but may end up at the rear on the day of travel.
In winter, the final travel may be in the dark on the northbound trains, which truly ruins the views.
- Traveling on the Bernina Express Trains for more on this remarkable UNESCO World Cultural Heritage listed railway line.