Diccon Bewes: Swizterland's trains at half the cost
All the punctuality, comfort and cleanliness of Switzerland's transport comes at a cost, but there is a way to discount the cost of travel in Switzerland by half.
Swiss transport is certainly excellent but it's also not exactly cheap. All that punctuality, comfort and cleanliness comes at a cost – but there is a way to cut the price in half.
Most foreigners who've been here more than a few months soon realise that almost no Swiss person ever pays the full price for a train or boat ticket. That's because they are clever enough to have a Half Fare Card, known as Halbtax, demi-tarif or metà-prezzo in the various Swiss languages.
The card does exactly what is says on the cover – gives you Swiss public transport at half the price. What a great thing! In fact, it's so worth it that my parents both have one even though they only visit once or twice a year. Go on a couple of mountain trips, or catch the train to Interlaken from Zurich airport, and the card pays for itself very quickly.
Here's how it works:
The Half Fare Card is valid for one, two or three years and gives you 50 percent off almost every train, bus, boat and cable car service in Switzerland, in 1st or 2nd class (click here for a map). It also gives you reduced fares on city trams and buses, but sometimes it's only a few rappen discount because of minimum fares. Of course the card isn't free – it costs CHF 165 for one year, CHF 300 for two, and CHF 400 for three years – but it's easy to get that money back in lower fares.
For example, a return 2nd class ticket from Geneva airport to Bern is normally CHF 104, so that becomes CHF 52 with the card. Or maybe you live in Zurich and still haven't gone up the world's steepest railway at Pilatus: that would cost you CHF 59 return instead of CHF 118. Or a one-way ticket from Neuchâtel to Lausanne is CHF 12.50 rather than CHF 25. A few trips like that and the card pays for itself.
What many people don't know is that there are two other ways to get a Half Fare Card. Swiss residents (including foreigners with a residence permit) can apply for the Half Fare credit card, which costs CHF 135 a year – in other words, CHF 30 francs cheaper than the normal one-year card (though CHF 5 more for three years) and with no credit-card fee either. It's a Half Fare Card and Visa credit card rolled into one, but it does involve the usual Swiss process of applying for a credit card, where they want to know your income. Not everyone wants to reveal that, or even have a credit card in the first place.
The other option is the one-month Half Fare card for CHF 110. It works in exactly the same way as the longer-lasting cards but doesn't involve application forms or passport photos. That makes it perfect for guests visiting from abroad (my sister bought one on her last trip here), or if you just want a stay-cation exploring Switzerland. You can buy one at most railway stations and start using it straight away. Even better for families is that buying the one-month card entitles you to the free Family Card, meaning that children aged 6–15 travel everywhere for free if accompanied by at least one parent.
Long before I moved to Switzerland, I had a Half Fare Card, mainly for the trips from the airport on my regular visits to see Gregor. Once I came here for good, it seemed crazy not to have one. What better way to discover Switzerland than by train (and boat and bus), and this card made it affordable. It was essential – until I discovered the GA travel pass, which I wrote about in a post earlier this year. There is an easy way to upgrade from a Half Fare Card to a GA for just a day, or a month, but that will have to wait for another post.
Diccon grew up in Britain but now lives in Bern. He has spent the last seven years grappling with German grammar, overcoming his innate desire to form an orderly queue and exploring parts of Switzerland he never knew existed. And eating lots of chocolate. He is the author of the bestselling book Swiss Watching.
Photo credit: Eirik Solheim (Swiss train interior).
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