Are you planning a trip to Switzerland but are unsure which of the most iconic train journeys to take – Glacier Express or Bernina Express?
During my Interrail trip to Switzerland last summer I had a chance to try out both: the Glacier Express from Zermatt to St Moritz and the Bernina Express from St Moritz to Tirano. Read on to find out more about my experience and which one I recommend most!
Switzerland is known for its watches, orderliness, and of course its trains. Few train routes are more iconic than the famous Glacier Express but there are several others that are on many bucket lists – especially the Bernina Express.
When travelling to Switzerland it can be difficult to decide which of those train routes should be on the itinerary. With limited time (and limited budget) choices have to be made. This is not easy – but information helps.
I know I had a hard time deciding between these two train routes when I was planning my trip to Switzerland last summer. As I had an Interrail Pass (which meant the train tickets would be significantly cheaper though not free), I decided to do both journey.
So what did I think?
The Glacier Express
What exactly is the Glacier Express?
The Glacier Express is the iconic train with upscale panorama wagons that runs from Zermatt in the Southwest of Switzerland all the way to St. Moritz.
Now, Switzerland is not a very large country so even though the route basically crosses the entire country, the distance is a little under 200 miles. That is about the same distance as between New York City and Boston or London and Manchester.
Even though the train is called the Glacier Express it is not a fast train. Lovingly called the slowest fast train in the world it takes almost eight hours to travel the entire route.
Planning a trip on the Glacier Express
The Glacier Express runs most of the year. You can choose between two daily trains in the winter season (December to May) and three daily trains in the summer (May to October). There will be no Glacier Express from October 16, 2023 to December 9, 2023 though.
The departure times vary a bit depending on season and direction but generally trains leave St. Moritz/Zermatt around 7 am (S), 8 am (W), 9 am (W&S) and 9:45 (S).
As the ride takes close to 8 hours you will get to the other end of the line between 4:30 pm and 9 pm (you will find the exact times in the actual time table).
Where do I get tickets and how much does it cost
You can easily buy tickets online – during the purchase process you can choose your seat.
Important considerations for booking the Glacier Express
As the Glacier Express is a popular attraction for tourists, seats do sell out early, especially in the summer.
If you are travelling during a busier time, it is therefore important to book as early as possible or you may be disappointed. You can buy the train ticket itself two months prior to your travel date; however, you can make seat reservations up to 93 days ahead.
You can choose your seat online when you buy your ticket/reservation. I highly recommend a window seat (definitely for solo travellers as it would be rather awkward to lean over strangers in order to get a good view). I would even go so far to say that it may be worth juggling your itinerary a bit (different day or different time) if necessary to reserve a window seat.
Booking early is especially important if you will be travelling with an Interrail/Eurail/SwissRail Pass as sometimes less availability is allocated for those.
Cost of riding the Glacier Express
Riding the Glacier Express is not cheap. The train ticket in second class for the regular experience costs CHF 152 per person at this time. The obligatory seat reservation will be an additional CHF 49 so that you will pay around CHF 201 for the eight hour train ride.
Tickets in First Class are quite a bit more – CHF 268 per person (plus the CHF 49 seat reservation fee).
If you are planning on using the train more often during your trip, you are probably best off with either an Interrail/Eurail Pass or a Swiss Rail Pass. With either one of those the train ticket is already included; you will however have to pay the CHF 49 for the seat reservation (obligatory).
There is also an upscale version called Excellence Class with the impressive price of CHF 738 (First Class Ticket plus Surcharge). Not cheap even though it does include a five course meal!
What will I see during the Glacier Express Journey?
If you decide to travel the entire route, you will start your journey in Zermatt. The first section of the trip is quite impressive but you will likely have seen it already when traveling to Zermatt (there is only that one route to the town).
While pretty enough, not the entire trip is stunning. Much of it is typical for any train ride in Switzerland. I was impressed by these rugged green mountains though:
One highlight of the Glacier Express is the section through a large gorge. It reminded me of the Western USA.
The last section of the Glacier Express is the most impressive, definitely for train aficionados. You will pass over various viaducts and through a number of tunnels.
And of course you will end your journey in St Moritz which was much more beautiful than I had expected (at least the lake).
What else is included in the Glacier Express?
Aside of your train ride you have the option to order a meal. If you are interested in this I would pre-order as they do run out. I went without and just ate some crackers I had brought as I don’t love the idea of eating in moving vehicles (cruise ships are an exception!) so can’t speak for the quality/taste of the food. Unfortunately, the bar was closed during my trip.
You do get earphones (like on an airplane) to listen to an audio track. Unfortunately, the audio did not give a lot of practical advice – I wish it would say something like: “In a couple of minutes you will see the tunnel x so keep your camera ready.”
As it was we were never quite sure when to expect anything noteworthy. But looking at the poor quality of pictures that I managed to take through the window I am not sure it mattered much after all.
There was also a small chocolate given out towards the end of the trip.
Is the Glacier Express worth it?
To be completely honest, I thought the Glacier Express was slightly underwhelming.
While it was an upscale experience, the service wasn’t THAT special. Perfectly fine but nothing extraordinary (I assume it may be more impressive in the more expensive categories).
You have a great view through the large windows but the panorama wagons are not ideal for taking pictures as you can’t open the window so have to shoot pictures through the glass – and you will end up having glare on the photos as you can see on this page.
The views were nice but for the most part not spectacular. The last section between Chur and St. Moritz had some nice bridges and tunnels but for the most part the ride was no more impressive than pretty much any other train ride in Switzerland or Austria.
Is there an alternative?
If you want to travel between Zermatt and St. Moritz the Glacier Express is the only train going on that direct line I believe.
You can however travel by rail between the two towns by going via Visp/Bern/Zürich/Chur Or Visp/Zürich/Landquart. This is slightly faster than the Glacier Express (taking about 6.5 hours) but it is of course a lot less convenient as you have to change trains three or four times. So with luggage the Glacier Express will be an easier option.
The Bernina Express
What exactly is the Bernina Express
Bernina Express is the name for the special wagons with panorama glass that are part of trains running from St. Moritz in Switzerland to Tirano, Italy.
Planning a trip on the Bernina Express
Trains between St. Moritz (or Chur) and Tirano run pretty much all year. However, you can only take the actual Bernina Express during the summer (May 13 to October 22, 2023).
A small difficulty is that the train will end in Tirano, a quaint little town in Northern Italy. Unfortunately, transportation options from there are somewhat limited so it is important to plan your onwards travel ahead of time.
Your main options are:
Return to St. Moritz on the Bernina Express
Take the morning train around 9 am, spend a couple hours soaking up the atmosphere in Tirano, and then return on the 4 pm train which will get you back to St. Moritz around 6:30 pm.
Continue on with the Bernina Express Bus to Lugano
This is an excellent choice itinerary-wise. Unfortunately, I could not make this work with my ticket so had to find another option.
Take the bus to Colico and continue by train from there
From Colico you can get trains in different directions. This is the option I chose – using my global Interrail Ticket I took several trains and made my way to Lake Como.
Where do I get tickets and how much does it cost
Similar to the Glacier Express, you will need both a ticket and a seat reservation for the Bernina Express. Luckily, the Bernina Express is quite a bit cheaper (of course, the train ride is also significantly shorter).
A train ticket in second class one way from St. Moritz to Tirano is currently CHF 32 with the seat reservation another CHF 24 for a total of CHF 56 for the 2.5 hour long ride.
A First Class ticket runs CHF 56 for a total of CHF 80 (the seat reservation costs the same as for second class).
As this is quite a bit cheaper than the Glacier Express, the Bernina Express on its own probably does not make an Interrail/Eurail Pass or a Swiss Rail Pass worth it. But if you are planning more train rides and get a pass, you can use it for the Bernina Express as well. This would save you the ticket fare but you will still have to pay for the seat reservation.
Just as for the Glacier Express, seats can sell out early so make sure to book ahead. You can buy the train ticket itself two months prior to your travel date; however, you can make seat reservations up to 93 days ahead.
You can choose your seat online when you buy your ticket/reservation. Just as with the Glacier Express, I highly recommend a window seat!
What will I see during the Bernina Express Journey?
Your trip will start in St. Moritz with a beautiful view of the serene mountain lake – an unexpected highlight of my trip.
Next, you can enjoy a beautiful mountain panorama as the train keeps going higher and higher. You will notice the vegetation getting more sparse the higher you go:
Eventually, you pass some Alpine lakes with a weird milky turquoise color – they made me think of a witch’s brew. The color was even more surprising than the brighter turquoise in Interlaken.
At the very top, the train will stop and you can get out for a short while to get some fresh air and take pictures without glare from the window glass!
On the way downhill you will notice that the vegetation and the whole atmosphere have changed – from the cool Austrian mountain vibe to a more relaxed Mediterranean atmosphere in Italy.
You will also pass the coolest rail structure of my entire Interrail trip: basically the train drives over a roundabout and at the end passes underneath. It will make you feel like you are living in a kid’s train set scenario!
What else is included in the Bernina Express?
On the Bernina Express you do not use earphones to listen to the audio guide. Instead it is piped into the wagons like a regular announcement.
This had the disadvantage that it was sometimes hard to understand if other passengers were talking too loud (don’t be that passenger!) and of course you had to hear the announcements whether you were interested or not.
But it avoided the problem on the Glacier Express where you would often miss announcements if you didn’t wear earphones during the entire 8 hour trip.
The Bernina Express audio was also a lot more practical (look out to your right to see the tunnel) compared to the Glacier Express that just seemed to spew facts (These tunnels were built…). Personally, I much prefered the Bernina Express audio.
The second extra on the Bernina Express was the short photo/fresh air stop on top of the mountain. So appreciated!
And finally all passengers on the Bernina Express received a small drink (in a box) and a cool metal train box with chocolate inside. Really neat!
Is the Bernina Express worth it?
Absolutely! I loved my trip on the Bernina Express!
The scenery is stunning. You will start in St. Moritz with its serene mountain lake and then cross the mountain with wonderful glacier views. After a quick photo stop right at the top (finally some pictures without glare!) you cross into Italy and can admire the Mediterranean vibe! A wonderful experience.
Is there an alternative to the Bernina Express?
Yes! And it is a pretty good one.
The Bernina Express is actually not a separate train but just the name of several wagons with large panorama windows that are attached to a regular train. So you will see exactly the same views as on the Bernina Express when riding the regular train from St. Moritz to Tirano.
The regular wagons don’t have the large windows but their regular windows can be opened which is better for taking pictures as you can avoid the glare I struggled with (as I am sure you noticed on my photos).
I don’t know if you would hear the audio announcements in this part of the train and presumably the regular train may be more crowded and a bit less comfortable (and you won’t get the goodies).
It is up to you whether the savings and the chance of taking photos without glare are more important than the bigger windows/audio/goodies. But if the Bernina Express is sold out taking the regular train is definitely an excellent alternative.
What is better – Glacier Express or Bernina Express?
Well, if you read the entire post and didn’t just jump to this conclusion you will already know the answer – I vastly prefered the Bernina Express to the Glacier Express.
The Bernina Express is cheaper, takes less time, has more perks (better audio/photo stop/goodies), and offers much better scenery.
If you are interested in trains/tunnels/bridges, need a convenient way to transfer between Zermatt and St. Moritz, want to maximize the value of your Interrail/Eurail/SwissRail Pass or just hope to check off a bucket list item, the Glacier Express is a good option.
However, I strongly recommend you do not miss out on the Bernina Express. It is a great experience and one of my top experiences in Switzerland.
My Top Tips for the Glacier or Bernina Express
- Make your seat reservations as early as possible
- If time or cost is an issue, consider riding only a smaller segment on the Glacier Express
- An Interrail/Eurail/SwissRail Pass may save you money – these trains are expensive (but remember that you will still have to pay for the seat reservation even if you do have a pass)
- If taking pictures is your main motivation for the trip, you may be better off taking the regular part of the Bernina Express (you will also save the money for the seat reservation)
- A window seat is crucial – it may be worth it to rearrange your trip slightly if you otherwise would be stuck without a window seat