Train across the Alps 🗻 – Zürich 🇨🇭 to Vienna 🇦🇹 via the scenic Arlberg Pass

It would certainly be quicker to fly for the 787 kilometre journey connecting Switzerland’s largest city with the capital of Austria, but there would be a lot to miss out on too. In April 2022, as restrictions were being lifted from the COVID-19 pandemic, I took a trip on one of the two hourly departures direct from the centre of Zürich to the centre of Vienna.

Most of these trains are operated by the RailJet, the modern flagship intercity train of the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) capable of travelling at 230 kilometres per hour (143mph) known for its three classes of travel and dining car – so I opted for one of these. More specifically I took the 12:40 departure that starts its journey in Zürich and is bound not just for Vienna, where I was headed to, but actually finishes its journey in Bratislava, Slovakia. One for another trip.

This seven hours and forty minute journey to Vienna crosses more borders than you might think – four in fact! Firstly the border from Switzerland into Liechenstein, which you wouldn’t realise unless you checked with no station stops here, then into Austria, then the RailJets opt for a brief crossing into Germany (also non-stop), before Austria once again for the final stretch. This had the potential to cause much confusion with a cocktail of COVID-19 restrictions and mask-wearing requirements at the time, where masks in Austria were required. However, for simplicity travel rules were subjected to Austria’s requirements east of Buchs St Gallen station, and there was a helpful announcement in German and English reminding customers to wear a mask for the rest of the journey from here.

If you’re flexible with timings, there is also the EuroCity Transalpin that takes in the same route as far as Wörgl Hbf and then a more scenic route towards Graz, with connections available to Vienna. It departs at 08:40 and offers one of the best travelling environments in Europe, the Swiss panorama car with its large windows, available for First Class ticket holders.

Onboard the ÖBB RailJet

The modern ÖBB RailJet boasts three types of accommodation on board – Economy, First and Business, with Business being more premium than First Class. There’s also a Dining Car onboard, called DoN’s, and hosts serving the Dining Car menu to tables in First and Business classes.

First Class Accommodation

For this journey I had booked First accommodation that has 2+1 seating in a variety of configurations (airline style and opposite seating at tables). A menu was provided soon after departure and shortly followed by the first of many ‘check-ins’ with the host to see if we wanted anything from the Dining Car menu. The service on our trip was second to none – the host was very attentive throughout the journey, which was impressive considering the length of his shift – he didn’t stop in the nearly eight hours. Safe to say he got a much deserved tip at the end.

Catering Options

As mentioned already there is a Dining Car on the RailJet train situated between Economy Class and First Class. This is open to all customers, however, there is little reason in moving to sit here from the comfort of a First Class or Business Class seat with the at-seat service provided. The menu isn’t the cheapest, but the food very enjoyable. I enjoyed a Wiener Schnitzel for mains, followed by Griesflammerie for dessert and all washed down with a very good bottle of Reisling – this set me back a total of 31,20€. Highlights from the menu are pictured below.

The Dining Car was first-come-first-served and did get busy at times. Otherwise meals can be taken back to your seat for customers in Economy Class.

Economy Class Accommodation

There are four carriages of Economy Class on a RailJet which is arranged in a 2+2 configuration and offers a mixture of airline style and table seating. There are power sockets available at each seat. WiFi is available throughout the train.

Business Class Accommodation

The most premium accommodation on the train is Business Class. For 15,00€ customers with a ticket for First Class accommodation can upgrade to a very comfortable Business Class, this includes a specific seat reservation if booked in advance. Not only that you are able to take advantage of a complimentary welcome drink of wine or fruit juice as well as being able to take advantage of the Dining Car menu from the host. This would’ve been a no-brainer for me travelling for such a long journey – however it was fully reserved for much of the journey.

Scenery

The dramatic scenery on this route was a feast for the eyes for most of the journey. On departure from Zürich, the train runs along two lakes, Zürichsee and Walensee, before starting the ascent to the stunning Arlberg Pass, reaching a modest 1,310 metres above sea level. To add to the magic, in April time there were snowy landscapes thrown in. The snow on the ground increased as the train reached the highest part of the line, then the train travels through the short Arlberg Tunnel before descending into Innsbruck, and eventually Salzburg and Vienna.

Booking and Fares

Booking this journey on my specific date in April would have actually cost more by purchasing a point-to-point ticket direct from Zürich to Vienna direct from the Austrian Railways (c.120,00€) subject to availability as fares change according to demand. By purchasing a Frankfurt to Vienna and typing in “via Zurich” into the DB Bahn website the fare reduced to 60,90€. As it happens I was travelling from Frankfurt, but you could get away with needing to turn up for the first leg. A full day’s worth of travel for this price isn’t bad in First Class!

Journey LegEconomy ClassFirst ClassBusiness Class
Frankfurt to Vienna via Zürich (bought from DB Bahn)from 37,90€from 49,90€First Class +15,00€ (upgrade bought from ÖBB or on train)
Vienna to Zürich (bought from ÖBB)from 39,90€from 54,90€from €69,90

This article was first published in December 2022

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 and Bern – 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