Tag Archives: Swiss rail passes

Geneva Car Hire Advice – yes or no?

Switzerland has a reputation for outstanding public transport, and there are clearly innumerable fantastic train rides which can be taken out of Zürich. However, Geneva is surrounded on three sides by French territory, and is also the gateway for many French ski resorts. So, are the trains as good as they are further east, or are you better off with a hire car?

Why hire a car in Geneva?

  • French connection — Geneva is mostly surrounded by French territory, but there is only one main rail line heading out of Geneva’s Cornavin station into France, so you will find it much easier to get around in a hire car. Note — there is an additional line to Annemasse, but you will have to cross over to the Eaux-Vives station to use this (a project is under way to link the two stations).
  • Changes, changes — even if train services are available to a number of French ski resorts, you often have to transfer at least three times to get there. If you are carrying equipment, this is simply too much hassle.
  • Cost — it might be much easier to find cheap flights to Geneva compared to Zürich, but Geneva is some distance away from many major Swiss ski resorts. This can make train transfers expensive if you don’t have a discounted ticket (see below).
  • Walking — for walking holidays when resort transfer services are not so widely available, a car can often be a better option, although it is also just as easy to take a train, bus or cable car to the start of a walking route, and then to take similar public transport back from the end of your walk, allowing you to continue in one direction, rather than in a loop back to your car.

 Why visit Geneva without a car?

  • Value – with a Swiss Rail Pass, you don’t have to worry about your mileage, just sit back and enjoy the view. See our Zurich page for more advice on getting the best value out of Swiss trains.
  • Scenic routes — heading east out of Geneva, you can enjoy great views of Lake Geneva, all the way to Montreux. From here, you can continue across to Gstaad, and then on to either Bern or Interlaken, and the route is classed as scenic virtually all the way. Heading to any of the resorts above the Rhône valley, including Diablerets, Chamonix Mont Blanc, Verbier (bus from Martigny), and Crans-Montana, will also mean taking a scenic route virtually all the way.
  • Lowlands – even when out heading into the Alps, you can still take the scenic route to Basel via Neuchâtel (one of my personal favourite scenic spots).
  • Lake Geneva — if you have an unlimited pass, any of the ferries on Lake Geneva are included in the price.
  • Direct trains — trains heading east to Lausanne and on to Bern and Zürich start at Geneva airport, so no change is needed. For other destinations, regular trains are available between Geneva airport and the main Cornavin station..
  • Scenic French routes — heading west from Geneva, venture south at Bellegarde for a range of scenic routes around Chambery. Even if you just want to get to the French ski resorts, the train will take you right up Val D’Isere to Bourg St Maurice for a mountain train transfer to Les Arcs.
  • Mont Blanc circuit — there are two ways of reaching Chamonix for Mont Blanc – or for just enjoying a superbly scenic train journey across two countries. The Swiss route runs clockwise around Lake Geneva before dropping south from Montreux to Martigny. From here, the Chamonix line climbs sharply up the valley before heading south west via Vallorcine. At Chamonix, you can take the mount on line to Montenvers. From Chamonix, head to La Roche sur Foron and change for a local train back to Geneva Eaux-Vives.
  • Resort shuttle transfers are also available as well is trains, and these will almost certainly work out better value compared to driving.

Summary — there are plenty of excellent train journeys which can be taken from Geneva, although much of the best stuff is further east, as listed on our Bern, Basel and Zürich pages. Someone who spent a long weekend traversing the rail routes around Geneva might come back saying they saw some interesting things, but they are never going to reach for the same superlatives that a visitor doing the same thing around Zürich or south of Bern might say. Maybe we are simply too spoilt for choice around Zürich, and even more so around Bern. So, when it comes to Geneva, we just revert back to the usual cliche that a hire car will give you more freedom and flexibility to enjoy the scenery at your own pace.

 Verdict — yes

Bern

The Swiss capital is often overlooked by people who just want to change trains and head for the ski resorts, but this is a great shame as this tightly packed UNESCO world Heritage city has so much to offer. Having said that, this is of course the capital or Switzerland, so public transport is naturally outstanding, even if it is unlikely you will need it. What about the surrounding area?

(Read our advice on our Zurich page before booking Swiss Rail passes)

Why hire a car in Bern?

  • There are very few reasons to hire a car in Bern, unless you are on a business trip to multiple suburban locations, or are visiting family, and sticking to the Swiss Lowlands.
  • Swiss bank account — when you see the prices of the train up to the world-famous Jungfraujoch top of Europe, you may well wish that you had your own Swiss bank account, because this is the most expensive railway in the world on a mile for mile basis. However, even if you wanted to drive, you just can’t — this, together with several other places in the Bernese Oberland, is simply unreachable on four wheels.
  • Share and save – depending on where you are going, it may be cheaper to travel together in a group, and save on train costs. However, Swiss Travel Centre often have discounted offers on their passes, including some 2 for 1 offers, so check these out before booking a hire car. Remember that car hire in Bern is expensive too, as is petrol!
  • Still good for driving — even if some of the results in the Jungfrau region are off-limits for cars, there are still plenty of great places to go driving, especially during summer. Drive to resorts such as Gstaad, or continue to Les Diablerets, which is much easier to get to by car, compared to the very circuitous train ride from Bern.
  • Scenery – just because the area around Bern is famous for some stunningly scenic train ride doesn’t mean that you can’t go for an (almost) equally scenic drive too. Photographers may well prefer the freedom of a hire car.
  • No airport station – unlike Geneva and Zurich airports, there is no station at Bern-Belp airport. To reach the local train network, you will have to go by bus, and these are infrequent, so you may end up needing a (very expensive) taxi.

Why not?

  • Bern City - many people might just want to change here on their way to ski resorts, but this is a great shame, as in my opinion it is by far and away the finest of the major Swiss cities. Bern is a must for shoppers with its mile of covered arcades, whilst it is equally pleasurable to just wander around the historic city centre. For great views of the Alps behind, climb the tower of the Bern Munster.
  • Double Bond Heaven – James Bond fans will want to head straight to the Piz Gloria revolving restaurant, immortalised in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. However, this is just one side of the absolutely stunning way Swiss engineers have tamed the mountains in the Jungfrau region. Nearby is the…
  • Jungfraujoch Top of Europe experience, which features a spiralling rack and pinion railway which has been blasted through the mountain side. You arrive in a huge cavernous space which very much resembles a Bond villain’s lair, before being lifted up to an open-air view platform, which offers a stunning vista of the Altech glacier. To reach these attractions, take the train to Interlaken Ost (East) first. Heading to Piz Gloria will take you through Lauterbrunnen, and then up a steep cliff to the car free village of Murren, from where the cable car continues to the top of a mountain. To reach Jungfraujoch, you can also head via Lauterbrunnen, from where you can take a train via another car free village of Wengen; or you can go via Grindelwald. Either way, this is one particular part of Bond’s world where the Aston stays in the garage.
  • Zermatt — with the newly built Lotchberg Base Tunnel, Bern is the ideal gateway to Zermatt and the imposing Matterhorn which sits behind it, with one simple change at Visp. Although you can drive to Zermatt, why would you want to, when the trains are so good? Also, what is the point in picking up a hire car and then paying again to take it on the auto-train through the Lotchberg tunnel? Zermatt itself is also car free, although electric vehicles are permitted. You can only get as close as the parking garage on the edge of the resort in a hire car, so why bother?
  • Crans-Montana — the famous resort of Crans-Montana can also be reached by changing Visp and then again Sierre – although this time, you could get there in a car if you really wanted to!
  • Leukerbad, as the name suggests is a spa resort sitting right underneath the southern wedge of the Alpine plateau. This time you will have to get there by bus (from Visp), or better still – hike there from Kandersteg on the other side!
  • Lake Steamers – the Swiss lakes offer numerous opportunities to simply sit back, and relax as the super scenery skims by. There are often included as part of any Swiss pass or local train package. A natural base to enjoy the lakes is unsurprisingly Interlaken, although many travellers prefer to head there for adventure sports.
  • Climb — the Alps offer a breathtaking backdrop to any part of the city, but for the most spectacular advantage point, climb up the tower in Bern’s Munster, and enjoy not just great views of the mountains behind, but also a stunning view of the historic city itself.
  • Look the other way — it is easy to lavish attention on the Bernese Oberland, and other resorts in the Alps, but it is also worth an excursion to the bilingual city of Biel / Bienne, and continuing along the lake to Neuchâtel and Yverdon (see Basel page).
  • Integrated walking and cycling — as you would expect, there are numerous walking and cycling trails all over central Switzerland, and these are always clearly signposted with estimated times. These paths always start and finish near some sort of public transport stop, and many of them will take you over to the next valley, so it is much easier to coordinate with public transport, than to drive somewhere and restrict yourself to having to return to the same spot.
  • Interlaken — Switzerland’s answer to New Zealand’s Queenstown offers any number of high adrenaline activities, or alternatively you can take it easy on one of the lake steamers on either Lake Thun (board at Interlaken West station) or Lake Brienz (Interlaken Ost).
  • Beatenbucht — this lovely village on the northern side of Lake Thun has what must surely be the most scenic swimming pool in Europe, with the trio of Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger as a backdrop. Even a location such as this is easily reachable by bus from Interlaken.
  • Summer downhill — in Switzerland, the fun doesn’t stop when the snow melts, in fact it is even easier to appreciate downhill runs, either on a mountain bike or by picking up one of the scooters (trottibikes), which are available for hire at various cable car or mountain railway base stations. Either way, let the cable or train take the strain, and enjoy the downhill run.
  • Paul Klee Art Museum – back to Bern itself, the Paul Klee Museum features three delightfully sweeping vaults and, just like any art museum should be, is just as much an attraction because of the building as it is because of the contents.
  • Limited flights – the range of flights to Bern is extremely limited, so you are much more likely to arrive into Zurich or Geneva airports in the first place. As these airports have stations onsite, you can easily connect onto the local trains in the Bernese Oberland via Bern Hbf. You may also get half price transfers using the Swiss Transfer Ticket.

Verdictof all the cities featured in Car Or No Car .com, Bern stands out as by far and away the strongest recommendation not to get one. This should be pretty obvious, considering that this is where you come for the best of the best of mountain railways, cable cars and lake cruisers, all integrated into one seamless (if expensive) system.

Considering the sheer expense of hiring a car in Bern, together with the fact that some of the most exciting places to visit are off-limits to vehicle traffic anyway, this really should be a no-brainer.

The only other places where we could recommend not getting a car in even stronger terms would have to be destinations like Hong Kong, whose airport has no car rental facilities (Avis have an office downtown if you really insist), or Bermuda, where local regulations do not permit tourists to hire a car.

Verdict — absolute no!

Personal note I usually like to visit new destinations, but having first visited Interlaken in 2001, I have been back many times since. I have never even considered getting a hire car to visit this part of Switzerland.