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The Bernina and Glacier Express Swiss scenic trains – and the DIY alternatives

The Bernina and Glacier Express Swiss scenic trains – and the DIY alternatives

A Swiss scenic train journey means a procession of lakes, snow-capped mountains, dramatic gorges, Alpine meadows and pretty villages, all seen from the comfort of your train carriage seat. But along with its reputation for stunning scenery, Switzerland also has an equally well-deserved reputation for being one of Europe’s most expensive countries to visit.

Two of the country’s scenic train journeys – the Bernina Express and Glacier Express – travel through Switzerland’s finest scenery in special tourist trains with glass-walled observation carriages. But they’re also both run by local train companies and travel the same lines as regular services. So when I was planning a European rail trip I looked into whether the special trains were worth the price or could you do it cheaper yourself – and if so was it worth the hassle?

Read more: Jungfrau Railways: Switzerland’s scenic mountain trains

Switzerland's scenic train routes

The routes of the Glacier and Bernina Express scenic trains

The Bernina Express

The real version… The Bernina Express runs between Chur to Tirano, just over the border from Switzerland in northern Italy. The train journey takes around four hours and crosses 196 bridges, goes through 55 tunnels and passes 20 of the most beautiful villages in Switzerland.

The route starts at the historic city of Chur and follows the River Plessur past a series of hilltop castles. It then crosses the spectacular Landwasser Viaduct – which curves around in a semicircle so you get a great view of the train as it travels over – and passes through the Landwasser tunnel into the Engadin valley, home to the St Moritz ski resort.

From St Moritz it changes onto the Bernina Line and climbs up into the Upper Engadin, with views over to the Morteratsch Glacier, right up to the highest point 2253 metres up at Ospizio Bernina. From there it descends 2000 metres back down to Tirano where the route finishes.

Bernina Express trains

Bernina Express trains

If you want to travel on into Italy then there’s a connecting bus from Tirano and Lugano or you can catch a regional train to Milan. Tickets for the Bernina Express between Chur and Tirano cost 63 CHF (£49/€58/$65) one way in second class or 111 CHF (£87/€102/$114) in first class, which has bigger windows and wider seats. This is for an open ticket valid on any train.

There’s also a compulsory seat reservation fee of 16 CHF in summer or 10 CHF in winter. So a summer ticket will cost a minimum of 69 CHF (£54/€63/$71) in total. Swiss Passes, Interail and Eurail passes are all valid on this route, but you’ll need to pay the reservation fee.

Views from the Glacier Express scenic train in Switzerland

Mountain villages along the route

The DIY alternative… It’s easy to do the Bernina Express route on normal local trains, and although you don’t get the panoramic carriages, instead you can open the train windows which is much better for taking photos. It does normally involve a couple of changes along the way though, but Swiss trains are very reliable and the stations are tiny so they aren’t too difficult.

The first change is at Samedan, which is near St Moritz and almost two hours from Chur. Then it’s a short seven minute journey from Samedan to Pontresina where you change onto the train to Tirano. The whole journey takes about four hours and 20 minutes.

A supersaver ticket from Chur to Tirano costs around 50 CHF (£39/€46/$51). You can book tickets on the Swiss Railways website, though double check the routing as some include a bus and some use the Bernina Express trains (marked PR), so are more expensive and subject to a seat reservation fee. Swiss Passes, Interail and Eurail passes are all valid on this route.

Winter on the Bernina Express scenic train in Switzerland

The Bernina Express in winter

The Glacier Express

The real version… The Glacier Express is known as the ‘world’s slowest express’ and takes almost eight hours to travel the 180 miles between the Swiss ski resorts of Zermatt and St Moritz. The journey starts beneath the Matterhorn in Zermatt, then descends over 1200 metres to the towns of Brig and Visp using a cogwheel railway to work its way down the steep slope.

It then follows the Rhone Valley to Andermatt and then climbs up to the windswept Oberalp Pass, the highest point of the line at 2033 metres up. Next it descends again to Distenis, where you change from the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn to the Rhätische Bahn. From Distenis the train travels through the steep Rhine Gorge and from Chur it follows the same route as the Bernina Express – crossing the spectacular Landwasser Viaduct on its way to St Moritz.

Glacier Express scenic train crossing the Landwasser Viaduct in Switzerland

Crossing the Landwasser Viaduct

Tickets for the Glacier Express from Zermatt to St Moritz cost 152 CHF (£119/€140/$156) one way in second class or 268 CHF (£210/€248/$275) one way in first class. Both have panoramic windows and you can order meals and drinks at your seat. There’s also a compulsory seat reservation fee of 43 CHF in summer, 33 CHF in spring/autumn or 23 CHF in winter.

So a summer ticket cost a minimum of 195 CHF (£153/€168/$195) in total. Swiss Passes, Interail and Eurail passes are all valid on this route, but you’ll need to pay the reservation fee.

Spring in Zermatt, Switzerland

Spring in Zermatt

The DIY alternative… As with the Bernina Express, there are also local trains running all the way along the route of the Glacier Express. But this one does involve a few more changes – though again small stations and reliable trains stop it being too complicated. The whole journey takes just over eight hours, so is only 20 minutes slower than the Glacier Express.

You need to do four changes along the way though – at Visp, Andermatt, Disentis/Mustér and Reichenau-Tamins (just outside Chur). A saver day pass ticket from Zermatt to St Moritz costs around 70 CHF (£55/€165/$72). You can book tickets on the Swiss Railways website.

Make sure to add ‘via Andermatt’ when you search as otherwise you’ll get taken on the quicker but less scenic route via Zürich instead. Some use Glacier Express trains (marked GEX) so are subject to seat reservation fees. Swiss Passes, Interail and Eurail passes are all valid on this route.

The view from the train on the Glacier Express, Switzerland

A combination Glacier Express and local train

The verdict

As you can see, the DIY versions do save you money – particularly for the Glacier Express where it can be almost a third of the price if you book local trains in advance. Though the changes en route do make it more hassle. But where the local trains really come into their own is if you don’t want to take the whole journey in one go. If you want to break up your trip on the Bernina or Glacier Express, you have to pay an additional seat reservation fee for each section.

On the local trains you can break the journey up as much as you like – stop off for a night or do some walking between one station and the next before continuing on the train. Often the train fares aren’t much cheaper in advance so you can be flexible and buy them at the station.

The view from the train window between Chur and St Moritz on the Glacier Express

The view from the train window between Chur and St Moritz

If you want to take one of the scenic routes as part of a longer journey and are travelling on to (or coming from) another European country, you may also be able to save money by booking with their train company instead of Swiss Railways (try OBB for Austria, Trenitalia for Italy or Deutsche Bahn for Germany). For example, the Seat61 website has a clever way to save money on the cost of the Bernina Express by booking a train from Singen – which is just across the border in Germany – to Tirano for €19.90, with children under 15 going free.

With limited time in Switzerland, we chose a relatively short section from Chur to St Moritz for our first Swiss scenic train experience. This spectacular stretch is part of both Glacier and Bernina Express routes and is short enough to do a return trip in one day, or to add on as a diversion to longer rail journey. It takes two hours without changes and costs 34 CHF (£27/€31/$35) one way – so you can get a DIY taste of Swiss scenic trains on a budget.

Celerina near St Moritz, Switzerland

The train station in Celerina, just outside St Moritz

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Switzerland's Bernina and Glacier Express are among Europe's best rail journeys. But are the Swiss scenic trains worth the cost or can you do it cheaper? #GlacierExpress #BerninaExpress #Switzerland #train #railtravelThe Bernina and Glacier Express in Switzerland are two of Europe's more spectacular rail journeys. But are these Swiss scenic trains worth the cost or can you do it yourself cheaper? #GlacierExpress #BerninaExpress #Switzerland #train #railtravel

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Yvonne Hellyar

Monday 26th of January 2015

Oh my gosh, I have been Googling the Bernina Express and I found you lovely blog. My children are living in Zug, and I am going over to visit them in June 2015. We are planning on travelling on the Bernina Express so I was very interested to read your editorial. I am so excited as I am from Africa and this sort of scenery is like something out of a fairy tale book. We are also planning to do a two week road trip from Zug to Amalfi via Rome. Kind regards Yvonne

Lucy

Wednesday 28th of January 2015

Hi Yvonne, sounds like a fantastic trip you have planned! I was in the Amalfi Coast last October and it's just beautiful, and the scenery along the rail route through Switzerland is spectacular. Hope you have a great trip!

FRVision Photography

Saturday 27th of September 2014

Thanks Lucy for this post? I am planning a trip here and the info you shared will be very useful

Lucy

Monday 29th of September 2014

You're very welcome – hope you enjoy the trip, the scenery is just beautiful!

Shikha (whywasteannualleave)

Tuesday 2nd of September 2014

I went on the Glacier Express when I went and it was all booked so last minute that I didn't really research it too much otherwise I might have figured out these DIY options so I'm relieved to see it's not a huge difference! :)

Lucy Dodsworth

Tuesday 2nd of September 2014

Yes it was really not too much of a difference for the Glacier Express and the lack of changes compared to the DIY route would definitely be a bonus!

Dale

Wednesday 27th of August 2014

I think you made the right decision to take the local train, if only for the option of opening the windows to take your great shots :)

Lucy Dodsworth

Thursday 28th of August 2014

Being able to open the windows was great – I've never managed to get very good shots through glass and because the train was fairly quiet I got to alternate between the different sides too and get shots in both directions!

JP Chartier

Wednesday 27th of August 2014

Hello! I really loved this article. I want to take a train ride through the Alps soooooo bad!!

Lucy Dodsworth

Thursday 28th of August 2014

Thanks, it was a fantastic journey – hope you get to try it our yourself one day!