As diverse as Switzerland's public transportation network is, the jungle of the ticketing landscape is correspondingly seemingly dense. It can be overwhelming to know every detail, and as a former transportation planner who worked in the industry, I can tell you this: Sometimes not even the professionals agree 100% on what exactly works how now.
(Those were always the most entertaining and discussion-filled work sessions...)
In this article, I'll try to give you an overview of the tickets available. Are you ready for an expedition through the thicket?
Wonderful. Then let's start right away with some basics.
In Switzerland, the following applies: One trip, one ticket. No matter who you're traveling with
For example, if you are traveling from Zurich to Zermatt, you take the SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) from Zurich to Visp. In Visp you change to the MGB (Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn) train and travel to Zermatt. Although you use two different transport companies on your journey, you pay only one, fixed price.
The same applies if your trip includes a bus or Postbus ride. (I explain the difference between these two means of transport in this article.) So you can travel from Bern to Heiden in Appenzell Ausserrhoden with only one ticket. To do this, you first take the SBB from Bern to St. Gallen and change there to the Postbus.
It gets a bit more complicated if you want to use the local bus network, but we'll get to that later..
Whether you buy a ticket for next week or your train leaves in two minutes, the price doesn't change. Of course, there is an exception to this rule - otherwise it would be boring. But basically it is irrelevant when you decide to travel. So you can plan to take the train in an hour and change your mind shortly before for a later connection
On intercity trains, you have the option of buying a ticket in the vehicle from the conductor. However, this will cost you more than buying a ticket from a ticket machine, the Internet or other sales channels. Therefore, I recommend that you do this before departure if possible.
Seraina's tip: If you board a self-checked train, you will not be able to get a ticket on the train and will pay a fine of 100 CHF. Provided you are checked on the journey, which is not always the case. You can recognize the trains with self-control by the following signs:
With the most important principles in our pocket, let's get down to the nitty-gritty in the next step.
When you buy a ticket in Switzerland, it will fall under one of two categories: Route or Zone. Here, too, there are possible combinations and subcategories, which I'll explain in more detail later. To begin, let's start with the two main categories.
If you travel between two places that do not belong to the same fare association, you need a Streckenticket. This is valid for one trip between your starting point and your end point. You may interrupt your journey as often as you like.
For example, if you travel from Basel to Lugano, but want to stop in Lucerne and spend the afternoon at Lake Lucerne, you can do that. If you continue your journey on the same day and arrive in Lugano on the last train at the latest, this is no problem
Whether you buy a one-way ticket or a return ticket, your one-way ticket is valid for a whole calendar day. Here, too, it is irrelevant whether you have to change trains for your entire journey or even change the means of transport
This brings us to the next candidate.
Switzerland is divided into about 20 regional transport and tariff associations. These all operate their own fare system, within which you travel with a zone ticket. While a route ticket is valid for one route, you can move freely within one or more zones with a zone ticket
Depending on how long your trip is, your ticket is valid for longer or less time. This also varies from tariff association to tariff association
For example, if you travel from Zurich airport to Zurich main station, you move in two zones of the ZVV (Zürcher Verkehrsverbund). If you buy a single ticket, you can travel for up to two hours in the respective zones
The validity period is always indicated on the ticket. If you are making more than one trip, it may make sense to buy a day ticket, depending on the fare association. This is then valid for a whole calendar day and you can use all means of transport within the purchased zones
Most core zones, i.e. those that encompass the center of a city, are usually charged twice. This means that if you buy a ticket for the center of Zurich and there is only one zone on the ticket, you pay the price of two zones. This is indicated on the zone map with a * next to the zone number
You can buy the zone ticket either online via the SBB Website, the SBB App, the website or app of the respective tariff association, at the ticket counter or at a ticket machine. Most tariff associations have their own vending machines where you can also buy a ticket. However, the SBB vending machines also carry the zone tickets in their range
Now it gets interesting
Of course, it is also possible to combine the route and zone ticket. This fusion is called City-Ticket. The idea is that you combine the city zone either at your starting or end point with the route ticket
Explained with a concrete example, it looks like this
You want to make a day trip from Bern to Lausanne. Since you will spend the whole day in Lausanne and don't want to do everything on foot, you will use the local public transport. Thus, on the one hand, you need a route ticket to travel from Bern to Lausanne, while in Lausanne you need a zone ticket for local transport
One option would be to buy both tickets separately. But if you choose the combination in the form of the city ticket, you save some money, because the SBB gives you a discount of 10%
You can find out which towns and cities have a City Ticket on the SBB website.
This may sound a bit complicated at first, but it is a very helpful invention.
There is another variant of the City-Ticket, where you add the local zone at your starting point instead of your end point
In our case, this would mean that you use the local public transport in Bern and then travel to Lausanne. Instead of Lausanne, in this variant the means of transport of the core zone in Bern are valid
The combination of the City Ticket at the starting point as well as at the end point used to be called the City-City Ticket. In the meantime, SBB has removed this tongue twister from its product range and integrated it into the normal City Ticket for the sake of simplicity.
When buying this combination, you can add the local zone at the starting point as well as at the end point and again get a price reduction of 10%. For our example, this means that you have a day ticket for the city zone in Bern as well as in Lausanne and can use the means of transport in these zones for a whole day as you wish
If you decide to buy the second or third version of the City-Ticket - i.e. the ones where local transport is valid at your starting point - it only makes sense to buy it via the app or the website. Once you get to the ticket counter or ticket machine at the station, you already don't need the bus or streetcar.
In my opinion, one big advantage of the ticket system in Swiss public transport is its flexibility. Whether you want to travel at 8:02 or at 16:32 does not matter. You buy your ticket and you are taken care of for the day
This principle does not apply in the case of the saver ticket
As the name suggests, this ticket costs less than the regular tickets. The savings vary greatly and range from 5% to 70%. However, there is only a certain contingent of saver tickets available and when they are gone, they are gone. Basically, the earlier you book, the more likely you are to find a good deal
Of course, nothing is given to you here either and these price reductions come with certain restrictions. Here are the features and rules that apply to the savings ticket
Seraina's tip: With economy tickets, it can happen that the 1st class fare is lower than the 2nd class fare. It's rare, but when booking a saver ticket, it may be worth comparing the 1st class fare as well.
Missing your connection is a hassle in almost every case. But it really gets annoying when you travel with a saver ticket.
If you bought a saver ticket with a transfer, for example from St. Gallen to Bern with a change in Zurich, and you miss your connection in Zurich because your train from St. Gallen was delayed, you have to take action. Ask the conductor of the delayed train to confirm that the train was indeed delayed.
With this confirmation, board the next train to Bern. When you are checked and show your saver ticket, which would have been valid for the previous train, you show the confirmation of the delayed train to the control staff. Then the whole thing is no problem
Without confirmation it becomes risky and it depends on the goodwill of the control staff whether they tolerate your "excuse" or not. The same applies if you don't board the next possible train and decide to spend a few hours in Zurich. So don't dawdle too long and make sure you get to Bern.
The RailAway Ticket is aimed at leisure travelers and offers the possibility to combine the admission to a leisure facility with the arrival and return journey. As with the City Ticket, a price reduction is granted.
On this page you will find a comprehensive overview of the institutions that can be visited at a reduced price with RailAway
To explain to you how the RailAway ticket works exactly, I will make another example
Let's say you are in Chur and want to visit the zoo in Zurich. You can buy a one-way ticket from Chur to Zurich and a zone ticket from Zurich main station to the zoo. Or you buy a RailAway ticket and get the train ticket between Chur and the zoo with 10% discount and the entrance ticket for the zoo with 20% discount
The discounts are not always the same and depending on the trip you save a little more or less. How much you benefit with the respective offer, you can see when buying either on the Internet or at the counter
The Snow'n'Rail Ticket works in the same way as the RailAway Ticket. You benefit from a discount if you combine the journey by public transport with the entrance fee.
In this case, you guessed it, it is about the combination with ski passes
You can find the participating ski resorts here on the SBB website. Also with Snow'n'Rail, the price reductions vary, depending mainly on these three factors:
Again, you'll see how much you'll benefit with this offer when you purchase either on the Internet or at the counter
Seraina's tip: With Snow'n'Rail you not only get a price reduction on the trip and the ski pass, but also on the rental of your equipment. So if you need a pair of skis or a snowboard, buying a Snow'n'Rail ticket pays off twice, because SBB has an agreement with Intersport Rent. Other discounts, such as on the transport of your luggage, will also be shown to you at the time of purchase._
You may now be rightly wondering what your options are if you don't just want to buy a one-way ticket and travel quite extensively on public transport in a day. Good news: The route ticket, as well as the zone ticket, is of course also available in an extended version.
To get around the entire public transport network in Switzerland during a day, there is the so-called Day Ticket. This entitles you to free travel on this very extensive jumble of trains, buses, post buses, boats and certain mountain railroads. So with the day pass you can get on wherever you want and have access to any public transport that travels in Switzerland.
However, you can only buy a day pass if you have a Half-Fare Card. You can find more detailed information on the SBB website.
There is also a Spartageskarte, which includes the same offers as the day pass just described and is also available for people without a Half-Fare Card. Spartageskarten are available in limited quantities and usually sell out quickly. Especially the low prices are very popular and only available for a short time. So if you know when you're traveling, it's worth looking around for a Spartageskarte as soon as possible. You can find them up to 60 days before the day of travel here in the webshop, together with further information about the saver day ticket.
The day ticket is also available in the tariff zones. It entitles you to free travel for one day in the purchased zone. If you make two or more trips in one zone, it may be worthwhile to buy a day ticket, depending on the fare association. This is especially advisable if you are visiting the city and will be making several trips, even if only short ones, by public transport during the day. These day tickets are available at the same places as the zone ticket, either online, at the counter or at all vending machines.
A very important part of the Swiss ticket system is the Halbtax, which is especially worthwhile for frequent travelers. As the name suggests, the Half-Fare Card entitles you to a 50% discount on all public transport tickets. It is available either as an annual subscription or for just one month.
The annual subscription only makes sense if you either live in Switzerland or are here for a longer period of time. It costs 185.- CHF and is available either online or at the counter at any Swiss train station.
If you are in Switzerland for a month or less, there is the Swiss Half Fare Card for you. This is valid for one month and costs CHF 120. During this time you benefit from the same advantages as the regular Half Fare Card. The Swiss Half Fare Card is also available either online or at the counter.
The validity of both Half Fare Cards is the same as for the Day Passes. You can find the detailed overview on this map.
We have almost reached the end of the jungle. However, some low-hanging vines remain for us to finish, to which I would like to draw your attention.
After that, land is in sight again. Promise.
If you want to take your bike with you on your trip, you have two options.
You can have SBB send it to your destination. You bring it to the station, pay CHF 20 and pick it up the day after next at your destination. How this works exactly, you can read here. You can also find out if your two stations have this service on the SBB website
You take it with you and buy a day ticket for your bike. This costs either 14.- CHF or the price of a reduced route ticket. So if you make a trip where the route ticket costs less than 14.- CHF, you can save the day ticket and buy the route ticket at half price instead. This is the case for short trips or for trips by bus.
Seraina's tip #1: Some trains require a reservation for your bike. You can see if this is the case for your connection when you buy your ticket online, on the app, at the counter or at the ticket machine. You can find detailed information about this here. The reason for this is that ICN trains only have a certain number of seats available for bicycles. Therefore you need a reservation on these trains between March and October for 5.- CHF
Seraina's tip #2: If your bike fits in a bag, you don't pay anything to take it with you. If you are looking for such a bag, you can buy one here for just under 100.- CHF. However, to make it worthwhile, you need to take your bike on a long train ride at least five to six times._
If you are traveling with a group of 10 or more, you can benefit from a group rate with a 30% price reduction. The exact conditions can be found on the SBB website and you can buy the ticket either online or at the ticket office
Special is the long validity of the group ticket. A single trip is valid for 10 days, while you can use the ticket for up to 30 days in case of a round trip.
The situation with dogs is similar to that with bicycles. In terms of tariffs.
If his height at the withers is not more than 30 cm and he travels in a bag, you pay nothing. Otherwise you have to buy a reduced ticket or a day ticket, which costs 25.- CHF, for your four-legged friend
The exact rules for Fido to travel with you are described by SBB here
For families, there is the specially developed Family Card. This allows children between their 6th and 16th birthday to travel free of charge with their parents. You receive the Swiss Family Card free of charge when you buy a Swiss Travel System ticket. It is available worldwide at all points of sale that offer Swiss Travel Systems tickets.
If you are in Switzerland only for tourist reasons, this season ticket is not relevant for you. But there is a ticket that is valid for a whole year for all public transport in Switzerland.
It's called Generalabonnement and if you don't travel excessively in Switzerland during one year, as many commuters do, this expensive subscription is not worth it.
It includes all routes that can be travelled on with the day ticket and costs 3'860.- CHF for adults. An ingenious invention, of which you must have heard once but may also forget again immediately. Unless you are secretly planning to emigrate and want to explore every corner of Switzerland.
All this information can be very overwhelming, but you now know the most important components of the Swiss public transport ticketing landscape. However, there is an invention that can make your life much easier.
I'm talking about the Easy Ride function of the SBB app
To use this feature, you need an account in the app and after depositing a payment method, you have the option to check in and check out as you board and exit transportation. The app tracks your trip and charges you for the cheapest trip at the end of the day.
So if you don't want to deal with issues like the city ticket or the validity period of the zone ticket, the Easy Ride function is just for you.
Some tickets, such as the day passes and dog tickets still need to be purchased separately. But for the simple use of public transport, the Easy Ride function offers a very welcome relief
This concludes our expedition through the jungle of the Swiss ticket landscape. I hope you enjoyed the trip and you are a little less confused when it comes to the question of the right ticket
A complete overview of all available tickets, conditions, questions and special cases can be found here. Since the information can change frequently - especially with the current situation regarding the Covid-19 pandemic - I recommend you to consult the SBB website or app in any case.
This article is part of our series on public transport in Switzerland. If you are looking for a general overview of our means of transport and Swiss public transport, you can find the corresponding article here