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“The most famous of Switzerland’s railway lines,” burbles the guidebook. Frommer’s Switzerland is given to hyperbole, and particularly where the Glacier Express is concerned. “The route is one of the most spectacular in the world,” the authors advise.
Yes, the 180-mile journey from St. Moritz to Zermatt is a very fine trip, though hardly the express run implied by the name. The Glacier Express journey takes a shade under eight hours, and the route’s summer season is now in full swing. Departures from St Moritz are twice daily through September 25, with the schedule dropping back to one departure daily until late October, when the glitzy trains with their panorama coaches are shunted off into the sidings for a fall break.
The route: Tunnels, bridges and gorges galore
Travelers have a tendency to flock to well-known sights, and the Glacier Express, which has been particularly heavily promoted in the North American and Japanese markets, now features on the “must do” list of many non-Europeans visiting Switzerland.
Don’t misunderstand us. It is a super journey, but we are far from sure that it is the best on offer in Switzerland. The views while the train is in 191 tunnels are not great. And it would be difficult to contrive a route of similar length elsewhere in Switzerland that is so utterly devoid of lakes. The Glacier Express is very much a route in the mountains, much of it through deep gorges or barren high terrain.
Some who know the route well comment that the two stretches of industrial valley scenery (around Reichenau and later at Visp) come as a rather welcome relief from dark, forbidding crags and brooding snowfields.
Our issue with the Glacier Express is that it is promoted outside Europe as an up-market “exclusive” tourist experience with a price tag to match. That drives away the locals. And there are plentiful local trains that serve exactly the same route which have sensible prices (no hefty tourist supplements, no need to reserve seats in advance) and are often very much less busy than the Glacier Express.
Seven daily departures from St. Moritz on those regular local trains provide connections through to Zermatt in just over eight hours — so just 20 minutes slower than on the so-called “express.” The only downside with the local services is that you do need to change trains along the way, but the connections work perfectly in a way that only the Swiss can manage.
And the big advantage of the local trains is that on some of them you can open the windows (great for photography, and also a chance to enjoy the fresh mountain air).
It is not that locals despise the idea of traveling with tourists. But the prices drive them away. The one-hour stretch of the Glacier Express from Disentis to Andermatt is in our view one of the finest parts of the entire route. The trains chugs up over the wild Oberalp Pass. On the local trains that ply this route, generally once each hour, the one-way fare is 19 Swiss Francs (about $23). But use the Glacier Express — which isn’t any faster on this stretch—for the same journey, and the fare hikes up to 52 Swiss Francs ($62).
The regular second-class fare to ride the full Glacier Express route from St. Moritz to Zermatt this summer is 169 Swiss Francs ($202). This includes the compulsory seat reservation fee.
Travellers with a Swiss Pass may ride the Glacier Express by just paying a 33 Swiss Franc reservation fee. Holders of InterRail and Eurail Passes receive a discount, with fares for travel this summer as follows (always including the seat reservations): Eurail passes 94.50 Swiss Francs ($113), Adult InterRail passes 115 Swiss Francs ($137.50), Youth InterRail passes 74 Swiss Francs ($88.50).
Is it worth the ride?
In our view, it’s a fun day out and certainly a journey through magnificent scenery. If you are tempted, ride the local trains on the same route which have far more character. But eight hours is a long time, and the unremitting diet of gorges and glaciers can pall. There are, we think, other rail journeys in Switzerland which are cheaper, shorter, and—by virtue of being more varied—much more appealing.
Next week we shall review one of our personal favourites.
Have you boarded the Glacier Express?
Share your Glacier Express experience with us in the comments section. How much did you pay for your ticket? Was it worth it?