Zürich🇨🇭 to Lucerne🇨🇭 by train 🚆- the fast or the slow option?

Lucerne and Zurich are two unique Swiss-German speaking cities that are highly likely to be on your itinerary as a visiting tourist to Switzerland. To travel between the two there is a fast, comfortable, direct train that serves the two cities operated by SBB in as little as 41 minutes.

Those who know this part of the world could well be asking “which slow option?”. Well this is very much an off-the-beaten-track route and one I’ve very much devised on my own, taking three trains instead. Why not just take the fast train you ask? I’ll show you why I think the slow option made for a more memorable experience and in my opinion is not worth missing if you can spare the time. But first, what’s the fast route like?

Fast Option – Direct

Journey LegDurationTrain TypeOperator
Zürich <> Lucerne41 minutes*InterRegio [IR]SBB
*based on a journey taken departing Zürich at 11:10 on 29th August 2021. Journey durations may vary slightly on different departure dates / times of day

The direct route from Zürich to Lucerne is well served with two trains per hour using comfortable, modern double-deck SBB InterRegio trains. The route travels via the aptly named town of Zug, though the name doesn’t refer to its railway heritage but its fishing past.

The route takes as little as 41 minutes on the fastest trains and up to 50 minutes on the slightly slower trains. The Swiss offer fantastic dining cars on many routes, but not this one – the journey is too short to offer such a luxury. Simply grab your morning coffee at the station beforehand.

If you’re looking for views then this route will most likely disappoint, especially if you’re used to Swiss standards. There is some token scenery in the form of two lakes en route to take in however.

Slow Option via Interlaken

Journey LegDurationTrain TypeOperator
Lucerne <> Interlaken Ost1 hour, 49 minutes*InterRegio [IR]Zentralbahn
Interlaken Ost <> Bern52 minutes*InterCity [IC]SBB
Bern <> Zürich HB56 minutes*InterCity [IC]SBB
*based on journey taken departing Lucern at 15:06 on 29th August 2021. Journey durations may vary slightly on different departure dates / times of day

Now for the scenic route I’ve devised from Lucerne to Zurich which goes via Interlaken – perfect if you’ve got some extra time and want to enjoy some spectacular Swiss scenery.

This route travels via Interlaken with hourly departures. It’s worth noting that there are three trains to catch instead of one on this route but you won’t find yourself waiting around in stations as the connections are short. If missed connections are a concern, we experienced first-hand a delay to our first train and much to our delight the second train waited for our arrival. Should the train not wait, there are certainly worse places to spend an hour in both Interlaken and Bern before continuing your journey on the next train.

It’s worth noting that the journey time for this route is considerably longer, taking 3 hours, 52 minutes in total however if you’re like me and love gazing out the window and dining on the move time will fly-by – all three of these trains had excellent Swiss dining cars. There’s no need to reserve these in advance – just show up whenever you feel like it. Here is a summary of each leg of the slow option. This journey can also be taken in the reverse direction with a similar journey time.

Leg 1: Lucerne <> Interlaken Ost

First up, from Lucerne to Interlaken via the jaw-dropping scenery of the Luzern-Interlaken Express by Die Zentralbahn. This route is full of character from start to finish with steep ascents, the magical Brünig mountain pass and no fewer than five lakes – all to enjoy at your seat through the window. Sitting on the right hand side departing Lucerne is recommended for the best scenery and staying on that side when the train reverses at Meiringen.

This is a regional train but with a bistro! Our train was formed of two trains coupled together, one without a bistro – so if you would like to take advantage of a cuppa on the move make sure you sit in the train set that has one.

Our train managed to rack-up a small delay of five minutes – which would have been enough to miss the connection at Interlaken Ost should the onward train have departed on time. Much to our surprise there were many customers switching trains and our next train was held back for our arrival despite being different operators – impressive work from the Swiss railway companies!

Leg 2: Interlaken Ost <> Bern

Next up, after the (rather unnecessary) drama of rushing to catch this InterCity train we were hungry. It was time to eat at the dining car for our 52 minute journey to Bern. The SBB InterCity trains on this route have a whole dedicated dining carriage with a mix of table sizes from sitting two people up to five with one host looking after what turned out to be a full carriage. He impressed us with his speed and managed to serve us a delicious warming Thai Green Curry and chilled wine within minutes of departure. They arrived just as we were passing the glorious Lake Thun on our right. Bliss. There’s something truly special about dining on the move.

Leg 3: Bern <> Zürich HB

We arrived into Bern a few minutes behind following our late start from Interlaken. No time to waste we headed straight over to catch our next SBB InterCity train to Zürich, this time a more modern double-decker variant for our final leg of the journey to Zürich.

We had room left for dessert so headed again straight to the dining car which is on the upper level. The train was busy, however we were able to share a table with a friendly Swiss couple playing a board game. Enjoying some more wine and a tasty Schweizer Apfelküchlein, the conductor checked our tickets. It was our last date of travel on our train passes and she commented sympathetically “last one” – our two weeks travelling on Swiss trains was drawing to a close and what a way to spend our last day in this beautiful country with our three-train adventure. We enjoyed every minute.

Tickets

There are whole host of ticketing options for train travel in Switzerland including point-to-point tickets for a one-off journey (more expensive per journey), to cheaper travel if you’re planning more journeys for example using the half-fare travelcard or InterRail tickets if you live in another European country. Reservations are not required to travel on non-tourist trains in Switzerland such as these journeys featured in this blog post.

As you can see in the table below if you’re planning the direct train from Zürich to Lucerne and not making any other journeys in Switzerland a point-to-point ticket might be cheaper for you. If you’re planning the trip via Interlaken, then a day pass might be cheaper for you (SBB Saver Day Pass or InterRail) or purchasing a half-fare railcard for point-to-point tickets from SBB. It all depends what else you have planned.

Ticket Type – Available to the PublicFull Price one wayPrice (half-fare travelcard) one wayReservation Fees
Zürich to Lucerne Point-to-Point (2nd Class)
– valid for one journey, bought in advance
from CHF 13.80from CHF 7.60Not Required
Zürich to Lucerne Point-to-Point via Interlaken (2nd Class)
– valid for one journey, bought in advance
from CHF 92.00from CHF 46.00Not Required
SBB Saver Day Pass
– valid throughout Switzerland, bought in advance
from CHF 52.00from CHF 29.00Not Required
Swiss InterRail Pass (e.g. 5 days in 1 month, 1 Adult)
– valid throughout Switzerland
€56,50 per dayN/ANot Required
Fares correct as of 30th October 2021

If you work for the rail industry in a European country, as I do, you can take advantage of FIP free and discounted travel across Europe – again no reservation fees for these journeys.

TrainJourney LegFIP Facilities UsedFIP Facilities Reservation Fees
InterRegio (SBB)Zürich HB to LucerneFIP Free Coupons (SBB)Not Required
InterRegio (Zentralbahn)Lucerne to Interlaken OstFIP Free Coupons (SP)Not Required
InterCity or EuroCity (SBB)Interlaken Ost to BernFIP Free Coupons (SBB)Not Required
InterCity (SBB)Bern to Zürich HBFIP Free Coupons (SBB)Not Required
Details correct as of 30th October 2021

This article was first published in October 2021

All aboard one of the final Hamburg 🇩🇪 to Copenhagen 🇩🇰 train-ferry 🚆🛳 services and the Schwebebahn 🚟 in Wuppertal 🇩🇪

One weekend in Germany and a lot to fit in! To add to the schedule, we had planned to take the slower, more interesting and relaxed route from the UK to Germany and Denmark exclusively by train. This is all perfectly do-able in a long weekend taking Friday off work and two full days on Saturday and Sunday. Our plan was to kick things off with the direct Eurostar service from London to Amsterdam…

London to Amsterdam by Eurostar

But luck wasn’t on our side… We had booked several weeks in advance on one of the three direct train options from London St Pancras to Amsterdam Centraal stations with operator Eurostar. I wanted a repeat of this smooth journey I had completed in April 2018 where the train passes through four countries seamlessly. Also I wanted to spend the time in Standard Premier class where you can enjoy a couple of small bottles of wine and a light meal and snack… bliss. On this train you don’t even notice the border crossings thanks to pre-travel check-in in London and with France, Belgium and the Netherlands being in Schengen Area. See my earlier blog post from 2018 here.

Unfortunately, one week prior to departure, Eurostar informed us that our train was cancelled due to a French General Strike affecting flights as well as the railway. It was just part and parcel of travel and the sometimes unexpected fun of having to think on your feet.

Naturally, in order to continue with the rest of the trip myself and my friends Mike and Ed had to find an alternative way to travel from the UK to Amsterdam. So I obtained a Eurostar refund and booked a flight with easyJet from Edinburgh to Amsterdam for £29 – not bad for one week before the time I wanted to travel. The flight served its purpose but was quite boring, there’s something truly special about travelling by train instead of flying as well as the environmental benefits.

I arrived in Amsterdam to meet my friend Mike who had flown to Amsterdam from a different airport and Ed was joining us later in Hamburg. We headed for the cosy Cafe Pollux for a few beers and then next door to our hotel, the Hotel Mansion, which was very comfortable.

Amsterdam to Düsseldorf by NS/DB ICE train

The following morning we set off early to catch the 08:08 InterCity Express (ICE) train from Amsterdam Centraal bound straight to Germany, operated jointly by state operators Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) and Deutsche Bahn (DB). The train was booked to be two trains coupled together for its journey to Basel in Switzerland, however our bad luck continued as due to a train fault one of the trains wasn’t there and that included our reserved coach.

Not to worry, we found some staff for advice on the platform and were advised to find any unreserved seats. Much to our delight we found several unreserved in the panorama coach… yes on the DB ICE 3 trains you can sit behind the driver and the cab with a glass screen between!

We arrived in Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof (Main Station) in good time and as we weren’t meeting Ed until the evening in Hamburg, we were able to take full advantage of our flexible pass to travel virtually anywhere in Germany (European rail staff FIP free coupon, but similar to flexibility of publicly available InterRail passes), being able to be spontaneous.

We opted first for a trip to Wuppertal to ride the recently re-opened Schwebebahn, only 20 minutes from Düsseldorf Hbf by DB operated Regional-Express (RE) train.

Riding the Schwebebahn 🚟

Built as a means to get city dwellers from one part of Wuppertal to the other is the Schwebebahn – the world’s oldest electric elevated railway with hanging cars. It was closed for eight months due to an accident in November 2018.

The Schwebebahn is fast and efficient and during our visit it was very well utilised by the locals with our carriage soon filling to capacity. We joined at its southwestern start in Oberbarmen and travelled the full length to Vohwinkel Schwebebahn in the northeast. The full journey time is 25 mins with the train covering 13.3km with 21 stops in total. It weaves its way through city streets then the river Wupper up to Wuppertal Hauptbahnhof.

Next up we boarded an ICE headed for Cologne. We went to the Bordrestaurant for a drink and shared a table with a gentleman travelling to work. We asked for recommendations of where to go and he recommended Bonn so we headed there changing at Cologne for a regional train to Bonn Hauptbahnhof. We spent a few hours here before ultimately heading to Hamburg.

Bonn, one of Germany’s oldest cities, did not disappoint. We enjoyed a walk around the old town, perusing the Christmas markets, supped some beer at the Brauhaus Boennsch, with its famous non-symmetrical curved glasses, and grabbed some pastries for the road from a local bakery before continuing our journey north.

We headed from Bonn to Cologne on a National Express regional train and then changed onto our ICE up north. There was a direct InterCity train from Bonn but we wanted to ride in the more comfortable ICE.

Koeln Hbf to Hamburg Hbf via DB ICE trains

In order to travel by ICE trains we would have to change trains in Hannover.

Our next leg was from Cologne to Hannover was on a DB ICE 2 train, taking 2 hours and 40 minutes.

We were hungry so instead of finding an unreserved seat we headed straight to the Bordrestaurant, the DB dining car. We started with some beers, Erdinger wheat beer was a very tasty choice. We then tucked into the German speciality currywurst followed by a rice pudding with the choice of cinnamon or sugar as a topping. Absolutely delicious and reasonably priced!

Then an easy 8 minute change at Hannover and we continued our journey on a brand new ICE 4 to Hamburg Hauptbahnhof… in the bar of course.

Hamburg to Copenhagen via train-ferry 🚆🛳

Until December 2019 there were three departures each day each way connecting Hamburg Hauptbahnhof and Copenhagen Central Station with a direct EuroCity train operated jointly by DB and Danske Statsbaner (DSB). What was very special about this international rail route is that the train boards a commercial Scandlines ferry as part of the schedule for its journey from Puttgarden to Roedby! This was one of three routes in Europe that has such an operation of a train going onto a ferry.

This route has now been changed so the train-ferry no longer runs and the train from Hamburg to Copenhagen goes on an overland route to the west which is longer in distance but is a similar journey time to what the ferry option was. In the coming years a tunnel will be built between Puttgarden and Roedby calling an end to the future of the train-ferry service.

Luckily, we managed to fit in the penultimate weekend of operation of the train-ferry in December 2019…

We set off on train ‘EuroCity’ 33 from its origin Hamburg Hauptbahnhof and were travelling to its terminus of Copenhagen (Kobenhavn) Central Station. The train was an DSB owned IC3 variety. There were two of these trains coupled together to make a 6-car train and even then every seat was taken, but this could’ve had something to do with the penultimate weekend of operation. The train didn’t have a dining car, but did have a vending machine selling some expensive Coca Cola which didn’t tempt me unsurprisingly.

I don’t know whether the ferry related quotes on the wall will survive once the route has changed!

The scenery wasn’t much to write home about and there wasn’t much life along the route – though there was plenty of sea on the approach to Puttgarden. At one point the train was surrounded with views of the sea from both sides.

As the train went onto the ferry, there was a thorough announcement by the conductor in three languages, Danish 🇩🇰, German 🇩🇪 and English 🇬🇧, asking customers not to remain on the train once it boards the ferry – the train would be locked shut.

See below the video of the train boarding the ferry complete with the announcement!

Train EC33 boarding the ferry en route from Hamburg to Copenhagen for one of the final times

Once we had boarded the ferry the capacity issues had become apparent – the train was practically touching both ends of the ferry – some impressive train driving going on there!

The ferry was large and had a number of amenities from a restaurant to a supermarket. You could tell it was a Scandinavian ferry by the eye-watering prices onboard, however the deck space was free for some fresh Baltic sea air.

The train arrived into Copenhagen and what a beautiful historical station it was with red and black checkered tiles and a very grand wooden roof.

Copenhagen city itself was a great place to finish the trip with some beautiful historical buildings and churches. The Christmas market was on and who knew the Danes were as crazy about Christmas as we Brits are? There were many places to buy ‘gloegg’ (mulled wine) at the market, and we were able to try ‘snaps’, a local floral-flavoured spirit traditionally served with a meal.

Tickets

TrainFIP Rail Staff Travel FacilitiesPublic Fares
(purchase online at DB Bahn)
London to Amsterdam (Eurostar)£44.50 in Standard / £62.00 in Standard PremierFrom £35.00 in Standard / From £79.00 in Standard Premier
Amsterdam to Duesseldorf(NS/DB ICE)NS/DB Free Coupons + 4,50 EUR Optional ReservationFrom 18,90 EUR bought in advance in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation

From 29,90 EUR bought in advance in 1st Class (inc. seat reservation)
Duesseldorf to Wuppertal (DB RE)DB Free Coupon
Wuppertal to Cologne (DB ICE)DB Free Coupon + 4,50 EUR Optional ReservationFrom 13,90 EUR in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation

Cheaper RE trains also available.
Cologne to Bonn (DB RE)DB Free Coupon
Bonn to Cologne (DB RE)DB Free Coupon
Cologne to Hannover (DB ICE)DB Free Coupon + 4,50 EUR Optional Reservation23,90 EUR in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation

Cheaper IC trains also available.
Hannover to Hamburg (DB ICE)DB Free Coupon + 4,50 EUR Optional Reservation From 12,90 EUR in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation

(through tickets from Cologne to Hamburg from 27,90 EUR in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation)
Hamburg to CopenhagenDB/DSB Free Coupons + 4,50 EUR (on train-ferry)From 28,90 EUR in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation on current IC train route (non-ferry).

From 54,90 EUR in 1st Class including seat reservation

This article was first published in January 2020.

Belgrade, Serbia 🇷🇸 to Bar, Montenegro 🇲🇪 by sleeper and direct day train

Having seen pictures of this journey, I was inspired to take this train journey when myself and a friend decided to visit Montenegro for a week. This journey features in a number of those ‘Top 10’ railway journeys in Europe books for its amazing scenery through the mountains so we were excited to experience this journey for ourselves.

There are two options for travel between Belgrade (Serbia) and Bar (Montenegro) – one day train and one night train which are both operated jointly by state-owned Serbian Train (Srbija Voz, “SV”) and Railway Transport of Montenegro (Željeznički prevoz Crne Gore, “ŽPCG”). Both trains run in both directions every day all year round.

There are two train sets which comprise the day train, running in the opposite direction each day. One is formed of Montengrin compartment cars, the other a mix of Serbian compartment and open saloon cars. What you get is a mystery for the day of the trip itself. The sleeper train is more uniform, with both train sets comprising a mix of Serbian and Montenegrin cars.

We decided to take the sleeper train from Belgrade to Bar, enjoy a week in Montenegro and then take the day train back to Belgrade one week later. Although our return train starts in the port city of Bar, we planned to depart from the capital of Montenegro, Podgorica.

Our itinerary looked like this:

Journey TrainDuration
Leg 1Belgrade
Topčider 🇷🇸 to Bar 🇲🇪
Sleeper (433 Lovćen)10h58
Leg 2Podgorica 🇲🇪 to Belgrade
Topčider 🇷🇸
InterCity (430 Tara)10h10

Belgrade Main Station (Železnička stanica Beograd Glavna)

All services to/from Montenegro now depart from Belgrade Topčider which is 4km+ from the centre of Belgrade. The old Belgrade Main Station has been closed since June 2018. We decided to visit and this is its current condition – only a few offices remain open (including a ticket office) and no more tracks… sad times. It is worth a visit though, especially as there is the impressive locomotive from Tito’s Blue Train still stabled outside.

Also, in the old booking office, we noticed that the railway timetable is being kept up to date for the other Belgrade stations which was good to see  – a number of services blanked out with stickers because of track work north of Belgrade on the line to Hungary.

Belgrade Topčider

Also built in the 1880s (and still open thankfully) is Belgrade Topčider station which is some 4km from the main centre of Belgrade. This is the main station in Belgrade now where to catch international trains to/from Montenegro. In terms of facilities, there is a waiting room, ticket office and toilets.

All aboard the night train, Lovćen

The sleeper train had 12 coaches which consisted of a combination of Serbian and Montenegrin sleeper coaches, 1st and 2nd class couchette coaches and seated coaches. Also there were two motorail coaches for carrying cars at the rear of the train.

There was no Cafe Bar or catering provided on the train so it was good to take bottles of water and food. We packed some M&S emergency biscuits for the trip before leaving the UK, but ate them all straight away on this train.

Toilets on the train were of varying cleanliness. Some had soap, some had toilet roll, and some had paper towels, but none had all three! Plus, supplies of loo roll and paper towels were not re-stocked during the journey so our top tip is to bring your own supplies – as nothing can be guaranteed especially towards the end of the journey.

We opted to travel in a private sleeper berth with two bunk beds and were reserved in Coach 406 which was a former carriage from the communist era. It featured its own TV room and had a map on the wall of Yugoslavia – a real blast from the past! 

The beds in the sleeper berth were very comfortable and clean bed linen was provided. The room however was not air conditioned and despite the window being wide open it was very hot before the train departed.

Once the train started to move the air came through which was delightful but the slide down window had a habit of closing itself with the draft. My friend risked a pair of his socks in the corners of the window to keep it open. This was a complete success for us as the socks stayed in place and the window didn’t close on its own accord any longer. This resulted in pleasant cool conditions onboard.

The train departed promptly at 21:10 but encountered unexplained delays en route which meant the arrival into Bar was two hours late. Having read reviews in advance, this seemed to be normal practice, so we gave ourselves plenty of time to wait for a train back up the line to Podgorica to collect our hire car for the week.

Onboard the train we had our passports checked twice on the journey, once by the Serbian police at 03:14 at Prijepolje (the last stop in Serbia) and once by the Montenegrin police at 04:28 at Bijelo Polje (the first stop in Montenegro). Each stop is scheduled for 30 minutes, however there is no need to get out of bed – the border police will come to you in your cabin.

We enjoyed the views waking up in Montenegro that morning after a relatively comfortable night’s sleep – note the expert positioning of the socks in the left corner of the window!

Admiring the view from the sleeper berth window

All aboard the day train, Tara

The train left Bar at 09:00 and we joined the train at Podgorica at 10:00, albeit 20 minutes late in arriving. Our journey would take over 11 hours.

This train consisted exclusively Montenegrin compartment carriages (all air-conditioned which was a treat) and one Motorail coach. The only non air-conditioned passenger coach was the Cafe Bar carriage in the middle of the train. There were five passenger 2nd Class coaches in total, some were marked 1st Class coaches but weren’t and didn’t differ at all from the other compartments marked as 2nd Class.

The Cafe Bar’s menu was limited, so we were glad to have brought our homemade sandwiches featuring the much-loved prosciutto in Montenegro. There was however the very nice Montenegrin Nikšićko beer available for €1.50 so we made several trips to the bar to keep our supplies up!

As per the outward train journey there were passport checks conducted at the last station in Montenegro and the following station in Serbia, each stop lasting 30 minutes. The stations were Bijelo Polje (Montenegro) – the same as the night train in the other direction and Vrbnica (Serbia), a different station this time.

The Montengrin officials checked passports within the compartment, but the Serbian officials took the passports away to another compartment for stamping. The Montenegrin officials were supposed to stamp our EU British passports but didn’t despite us asking. So, officially we’re still in Montenegro! I hope I can go back one day.

A Serbian lady, Vesna, joined us in our compartment at the border, after her trip to her holiday home, and we soon made friends raising a can of beer or three and taking lots of pictures of the view. Here are some of the sights we enjoyed… absolute bliss.

Generally each compartment was occupied all the way to Belgrade, but not all seats were taken meaning there was plenty of space to stretch out.

As per the outward train, this train was also delayed arriving into Belgrade Topčider 1.5 hours late. It did mean we could enjoy the sun setting over the countryside from our comfortable compartment.

Safety expectations

The train maybe old, but it did feel safe. Journey speeds were very slow for most of the journey, but faster towards and through the two capital cities. This enabled us more time to take in the beautiful countryside!

A different sight to the UK was witnessing rail staff drinking beer together on the night train and people smoking on the train, though people generally seemed to respect other passengers and smoke at the ends of the carriages.

Tickets

To travel on the direct international trains from Belgrade to Bar, customers are required to purchase a ticket as well as a compulsory reservation. These range from €3.00 for a seat to €45.00 for a single berth cabin. The options illustrated are the 2-berth “double” sleeper on the night train and the 2nd Class seat on the day train.

Belgrade <> Bar FaresFIP Rail Staff Ticket PricePublic Ticket Price
Day Train€10.50 each way€21.00 each way
Night Train€10.50 each way€21.00 each way
Fares updated April 2020
Belgrade <> Bar Reservation Fees2nd
Class seat
6-berth couchette4-berth
couchette
3-berth
“tourist” sleeper
2-berth “double” sleeper1-berth “single” sleeper
Day Train+€3.00N/AN/AN/AN/AN/A
Night Train+€3.00+€6.00+€9.00+€15.00+€20.00+€45.00
Fares updated April 2020

A note about language

English is widely spoken in Belgrade and across Montenegro which made being an English tourist easy, though it’s always fun to try and speak a bit of the loco lingo.

My understanding is that both countries have the same language but different pronounciations for some words. The Serbians however prefer to use the Cyrillic alphabet while the Montenegrins prefer to use the Latin alphabet, though both is taught in schools in both countries.

This article was first published in July 2019 and updated in December 2019.