An Easy Guide to Switzerland’s Magical Glacier Express

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Looking for a practical guide on the world-famous Glacier Express train in Switzerland? This guide will tell you everything you need to know! Read on for insider tips and important must-knows before you book.

Picture this: you’re gliding like a majestic swan across some of the most idyllic views on planet Earth. Somewhere deep in your brain, ‘Fancy’ plays on repeat as you browse a menu studded with picks like caviar and cheese fondue. Did I mention you’re on a moving train? Yeah, that’s also happening.

…. ahh.

That my friends is a slice of life on board the Glacier Express train, a scenic 8 hour crawl across Switzerland known as the slowest express train in the world.

This swanky train ride, made complete with glass panoramic carriages and glittering Swiss landscapes is, for good reason, one of the most famous train rides in the world… and one I recently got to enjoy during a recent binge of scenic train rides around Switzerland!

It was a magical ride indeed, but (honestly) not for everyone.

So, in this post, I’d love to walk you through everything you need to know about the Glacier Express train in Switzerland, including the journey route, ticket prices, how to snag your own tickets and of course, how to get the best deal!



First: A Quick Introduction to the Glacier Express

The Glacier Express is a famous Swiss train that runs between Zermatt and St Moritz. End to end, it’s an 8hr journey that takes you past some of Switzerland’s most scenic landscapes, from snow-dusted mountains and terraced vineyards to rocky gorges and ruined castles. It’s definitely not a quick ride, but it’s a luxurious experience sure to turn any train addict into a raving fangirl.

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The Glacier Express Route

The Glacier Express (in its entirety) takes you to three different cantons of Switzerland: Valais, Uri and Graubünden.

The two ends of the route are the swishy ski resorts of Zermatt and Saint Moritz, known of course as preferred winter playgrounds among the rich and famous.

Pretending to be swish in Zermatt

You can start your trip at either end of this baller journey, or hop on/off at any of the following Glacier Express stops: Brig, Andermatt, Disentis, Chur, Tiefencastel, Filisur and Samedan.

If you take the entire journey, you’ll be on the train for 8 hours, passing through 91 tunnels and 291 bridges along the way. The variety of landscapes you see during this time is truly stunning. In a single ride from Zermatt, I got to chug past snow-dusted alpine villages, bold rocky mountains, layer upon layer of vineyards and even the Rhine Gorge (AKA the Swiss Grand Canyon) at the end, with its white rockfaces and bright turquoise river.

While I ended my Glacier Express journey in Chur, I technically have seen the entire route since I hopped on the Bernina Express the next day and got to see many of the landscapes that are part of the last leg of the Glacier Express from Chur to St Moritz. This final stretch takes you over the Landwasser Viaduct and through a lush landscape dotted with castles and pretty towns.

If you want to see a Glacier Express route map that details the exact route it takes, here is one.



The Glacier Express Timetable

The number of departures depends on the season, but you can access an up-to-date Glacier Express timetable from the official website here.



The Glacier Express Cost Info

Okay, now time for some bad news…

The Glacier Express is, in truth, eye-meltingly expensive. (At full price anyway!)

But I have some tricks up my sleeve. You can scroll a little further down to read my tips on how to get the best deal possible on Glacier Express tickets, including how I scammed my way into only paying about 50 euros total for my 1st class ticket WITH reservation, AKA almost 200 euros worth of savings…

BUT first let me explain the mildly confusing Glacier Express ticket system. In short, when buying tickets for the Glacier Express, you need to pay for both a base ticket and a mandatory reservation fee.

The base ticket cost depends on A) how far you are travelling (i.e. the entire route between Zermatt and St Moritz or only a portion of it) and B) what class you’re travelling (1st or 2nd). Base ticket costs do NOT change according to season.

On the other hand, the reservation fee (which once again, is 100% mandatory unless you’re a kid under 6 who doesn’t require a seat) depends on A) the season (low, mid or high season) and B) class (1st, 2nd or the new excellence class, which is just next-level).

So, remember, your total Glacier Express price that you pay will always include both a base ticket and a reservation fee.

NOTE: Base tickets are covered by promotions like the Eurail, Interrail, Swiss Pass and Swiss Half-Fare Card. If using these, all you would need to pay is the reservation fee (more on this later…)

Click here to see the current prices of the Glacier Express (as of March 2019).



How to Buy Glacier Express Tickets

Wanting to get your own Glacier Express tickets? Here are your options:

OPTION A: From the official Glacier Express website

Buying Glacier Express tickets from the official website is actually kind of confusing. A few things to note: you can only buy base tickets up to two months in advance, but you can buy your reserved seat up to three months in advance. How weird is that? Anyway, to buy Glacier Express tickets this way…

Step One: Click here to access the Glacier Express shop.

Step Two: Click Glacier Express and scroll down to enter your information like Departure Point, Arrival Point, date and class. Again, you can only book actual tickets up to two months in advance, but you can book reservations up to three months in advance.

Step Three: Click on your desired journey/departure time, then scroll down to the seating chart to select your seat. Your selected seat will be in green.

Step Four: Enter your information, press Next, pay, and you’re done! All the details will be sent to you by email.

OPTION B: Book a tour

If you’re looking for someone to take care of everything for you, or perhaps if you want to do the Glacier Express trip starting from another city you’re travelling in, then maybe booking a tour is a good idea. There are many companies that offer tour packages which include transport from main cities (e.g. Zurich, Bern, Basel) to a Glacier Express stop, and also take care of your reservations, tickets, lunch all for one package price. Of course, this will be more expensive than organizing everything yourself, but you do get a lot more ease of mind.

Booking a tour is ALSO a great trick for ensuring you get tickets, even more than 3 months in advance. This is important if you’re travelling from far away to do this ride!

So, if you’re interested in booking a tour, here are a few options:

Glacier Express Tour from Zurich

Glacier Express Tour from Bern

Glacier Express Tour from Basel



How to Get the Best Deal on Glacier Express Tickets

As I mentioned before, one of the pretty obvious drawbacks to just dropping everything and riding this train to infinity and beyond is that… well, duh: Glacier Express train tickets are, as some might say: eye-gougingly expensive. At full price, you’re easily spending 200+ CHF for a ride in 1st class, a hefty lump of dough to drop on a single journey, no matter the levels of fancy.

But if you’re a sneaky dealhounder like me, there definitely ARE ways to score cheap Glacier Express tickets. Here are a few ideas.

1. Travel in the off-season

While base ticket prices for the Glacier Express don’t vary according to the time of year, reservation fees DO change depending on whether you travel in the off, mid or peak season. If you want to get the cheapest ride, go in the off-season which A) means guaranteed snow!! and B) half the price on a reservation, AKA more money for fondue.



2. Take advantage of a rail pass

True story: using a Eurail pass is how I managed to scheme my way into only paying 30 euros for my 1st class Glacier Express ticket!

Long story short, Eurail/Interrail passes allow you to waive the base ticket fee which means you only need to pay for a reservation. As such, I paid 306 euros for a Eurail global 10 day pass, (I got a free 1st class upgrade thanks to a sale they were running). I then used 1 travel day on the Glacier Express, which evens out to only about 30 euros spent for this gorgeous ride (plus the 23 CHF reservation fee). Still an incredible deal, and by far the cheapest way to do it.

If you are travelling around Europe, getting a Eurail pass might be a good idea, because Switzerland is certainly where you get the best bang for your buck!



3. Consider a Swiss Travel Pass

A Swiss Travel Pass is similar to the Eurail/Interrail passes except it gives you unlimited transportation on trains, buses, boats and free public transport + museums). If you are travelling only around Switzerland, this might be a good option. It is expensive though, so make sure to do the math and see if getting one would really be worth it.



4. Consider getting a discount card

The Half Fare Travelcard is a very popular card that you can buy which (true to its name) gets you half price tickets. In 2019, this card is 120 CHF for one month. This sounds like a lot, but it could be worth it if you are spending an extended amount of time in Switzerland and plan to take multiple trains. For what it’s worth, if you were to use this card for the Glacier Express alone, you’d already be breaking even so if you take more trains on top of that, then you’d definitely save a good amount of money.

All that said, I still think buying a rail pass would work out to be cheaper though in most cases.



How to Make a Glacier Express Reservation

If you are travelling with a pass that covers the cost of your base ticket (e.g. Eurail, Interrail, Swiss Travel Pass), then you won’t need to purchase a ticket, only a seat reservation.

Step by step, here’s how you do that.

Step One: Click here to access the Glacier Express shop.

Step Two: Click Glacier Express and scroll down to enter your information like Departure Point, Arrival Point, date and class. Again, you can only book actual tickets up to two months in advance, but you can book reservations up to three months in advance.

Step Three: Click on your desired journey/departure time, then scroll down to the seating chart to select your seat. Your selected seat will be in green.

Step Four: Enter your information (first/last name and birthdate), then click on the Reduction menu and find your specific discount. If you’re using a Eurail pass for instance, select that. After you do so, the ticket price should be taken away from your cart and you’ll only need to pay the reservation fee. After that’s done, press Next, pay, and you’re all set! The details will be sent to you by email.



What to do if Glacier Express Tickets are Sold Out

If you’re booking for peak season, you might find that your dates are sold out. Before you panic though, here are some options:

OPTION A: Check travel agencies/websites for organized tours

There are many companies that offer tour packages which include transport from main cities (e.g. Zurich, Bern, Basel) to a Glacier Express stop, and also take care of your reservations, tickets, lunch all for one package price. Of course, this will be more expensive than organizing everything yourself, but you do get a lot more ease of mind.

Booking a tour is ALSO a great trick for ensuring you get tickets, even more than 3 months in advance. This is important if you’re travelling from far away to do this ride!

So, if you’re interested in booking a tour, here are a few options:

Glacier Express Tour from Zurich

Glacier Express Tour from Bern

Glacier Express Tour from Basel

OPTION B: Do a DIY route with regional trains

Regional trains operate on the same railways as the Glacier Express, which means you can get the same views if you just take regional trains instead. The main inconvenience is you’d have to stop/transfer multiple times, but if you only want to do a portion of the ride, or don’t mind the switching, then this is a great way to still “do” the Glacier Express even when tickets are sold out.



What to Pack for Your Glacier Express Trip

Headphones: There’s audio commentary available on board and I found the in-ear buds provided to be really uncomfortable. If you’re interested in plugging in to hear the commentary, bring your own comfy headphones!

Sunglasses: Even in the wintertime, the sun gets blindingly bright, certainly when it reflects off the snow. Make sure you have sunglasses!

Polarizing filters: If you’re a keen photographer, know that reflections will probably get in the way of your shot. One way to get around this is to buy some polarizing filters. While they won’t get rid of the reflection 100%, it will be much better than not using a filter of any kind. Click here to find some cheap ones on Amazon.

Layers: When the sun is out, the panorama cars get super hot. I would advise dressing in layers so you can adjust to the changing temperatures.

Water bottle: Water on board is expensive! Bring your own 🙂

Drinks/snacks: Likewise, snacks and drinks cost a fortune on board. Don’t forget to pack some snacks for the trip. You’re allowed to!



Final Tips for Riding the Glacier Express

Alright, ready for one of the most magical train rides in the world? Here are some final tips to keep in mind…

1. Reserve your seat ASAP

This is especially true in peak season. At the time of writing this post (April 2019), all the window seats for trips in mid-June are already booked out!

So, as soon as you know the date you want to do this ride, please go on the website and reserve your seat! You can do this up to three months in advance.

I am not a great planner and so only decided to go reserve my seats before I left for Switzerland (about 3 days before the ride). I was shocked to see that even in off-season, there was only ONE seat left in 1st class. I was shaking as I booked that, hoping nobody swooped in at the last second. I did end up getting a reserved seat, but I nabbed literally the last possible seat available and it was (of course) sadly an aisle seat!

2. … But don’t despair if you can’t get a window seat

I was honestly SO bummed when I didn’t get a window seat, through no one’s fault but my own.

But while I soon became the silliest, mopiest mess, I realized once I boarded and the train began moving that it wasn’t that big of a deal. The windows are massive and you get a great view regardless. The only iffy point is photography as it’ll be quite tough to capture any photos without someone else’s face in it, BUT as I’ve noted above, getting good photos on the train is tough anyway, so it’s not a huge problem!

… And then everyone eventually got off earlier than me so I had a million window seats all to myself! Yay.

3. Get to the train early

I would advise getting to the Glacier Express 20-30 minutes early (assuming you are getting on at the first stop, that is!).

This is because luggage space is limited and it’s a little awkward trying to find your spot/space for your bags when the carriage is already half-full. It’s much less stressful if you just get there before everyone else, and then you can shamelessly take photos before everyone gets in too!

3. Know where to put your luggage

Swiss trains are pretty ingeniously designed with lots of “hidden spaces” to put your belongings.

On the Glacier Express, you can slot your bigger suitcases in between the backs of seats and there are also little nets behind each seat that allow you to leave your coat, smaller purse, etc. For bigger suitcases, there are racks at the end of the carriage.

4. Bring headphones

Part of the on-board program is an optional commentary that you can plug into when a bell chimes.

Think of them as airplane headphones – you just plug into a jack on the side of your seat. While complimentary headphones are provided, they’re in-ear buds and not the most comfortable. To make the most of your ride, I would recommend bringing your own because the commentary actually is really interesting!

 

5. Check out the route map at the back of the brochure/info pamphlet

When you board, every table will have a few info pamphlets along with the free headphones. Don’t just ignore it – it’s actually full of good information if you’re curious about the route you’re taking!

At the very back of the pamphlet, you’ll find a route map with numbers that correspond to the audio commentary I mentioned above. I found that it was very helpful to keep an eye on this map while following the commentary so I had a rough idea of where I was.

6. Don’t miss the “gong”

With the audio commentary, they tell you that the signal is a “gong” sound, which alerts you to put on your headphone and listen. Guys, it is SO not a gong!! I missed the first 6 pieces of commentary (oops) because I assumed it hadn’t started. In reality, the sound is a very subtle sort of chime, kind of like what you would hear on a regional train before they make an announcement. It really isn’t that obvious, so be sure to keep an ear out for this sound, and an eye on the electronic board at the end of the train as it will have a headphone symbol along with a number when there is audio commentary going on.

7. Dress in layers

Even during my Glacier Express trip in the winter, I found the panorama car got really hot because of the sun shining into the glass. I would advise dressing in layers that are easy to remove just in case you start overheating like I did.

8. Bring sun protection

Again, even in the off-season, the sun was SO bright and when it reflected off the powdery white snow, it was borderline blinding. Definitely don’t forget your sunglasses (and other sun protection if you’re sensitive to the sun).

9. Don’t forget water and snacks!

The Glacier Express does have a great menu but it’s expensive, certainly for basic things like water (which I paid 6CHF for a sparkling bottle of!) This is totally an unnecessary expense, so bring your own water and some snacks if you wish. You’re free to bring anything you want on board so you can even bring your own lunch and have a picnic on board.



Frequently Asked Questions About the Glacier Express

Still have more questions about the Glacier Express? Hopefully you’ll find your answer below.

Does the Glacier Express run year-round?

Unfortunately, the Glacier Express does not run year round and actually takes a resting period from mid-October to early December. Don’t worry if your trip falls during this period though, because regular regional trains will continue to operate, so you can ride those to get the same landscapes/views.

What are the differences between 1st and 2nd class on the Glacier Express?

While I enjoyed my 1st class ride, I’ve compared notes with friends who have rode in 2nd class in the past and it seems the main difference really is that 1st class has slightly more space. There are only three seats per row in 1st class (a 2-2 configuration facing each other, and 1 a 1-1 on the other side), but 4 (2-2 configuration on both sides) in the 2nd class. This gives 1st class passengers a bit more space, and solo travelers like me a chance to sit on your own without awkwardly sitting next to a stranger. Otherwise though, I believe 2nd class carriages enjoy most of the same perks, including table service.

Also, seats in first class are red while seats in second class are blue (a highly unimportant detail, but just for your information!)

So, considering the price difference, I’m not sure it’s worth it to pay that much more for first class, unless you (like me) are leeching off of a great rail pass.

Can I bring my dog with me on board the Glacier Express?

Unfortunately, pets aren’t allowed on board, but guide dogs are.



Any other questions about the Glacier Express?

I hope you enjoyed that lengthy guide on the glorious Swiss Glacier Express. If you have any more questions, let me know in the comments!



 

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