Switzerland’s Glacier Express is one of the greatest train journeys in the world.
Over eight hours, the so-called slowest fast train in the world chugs its way across 180 miles of spectacular Alpine scenery. For me, it was a travel dream fulfilled and 100% worthwhile.
To help you have the best experience, I am excited to share my top Glacier Express tips. I’ve also included practical information on how to book tickets for the Glacier Express, essential money-saving tips and a few recommendations for where to stay in Zermatt and St. Moritz.
This guidance in this article is based on my journey on the Glacier Express from St. Moritz to Zermatt in first class.
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Glacier Express Route
The Glacier Express starts in St. Moritz and finishes in Zermatt (or the other way around, depending on the direction in which you are travelling). During the course of its 300km journey, the Glacier Express travels through three different cantons of Switzerland – Valais, Uri and Graubünden – and seven stations between Zermatt and St. Moritz:
- Filisur (for Davos)
- St. Moritz
Chur is the starting point for the fabulous Bernina Express which runs to Tirano (I have also done this train journey which I recommend).
After leaving St. Moritz, the dramatic Rhine Gorge – the “Swiss Grand Canyon” – gives way to the Oberalppass and the highest part of the journey at 2033 metres. Clattering through the Valais region, on the approach to Zermatt, you are greeted with mile after mile of larch woods and vineyards tumbling into the valleys below.
During the course of its eight-hour journey, it passes through 91 tunnels and trundles across 291 bridges, including the famous Landwasser Viaduct.
Glacier Express route map
Top Glacier Express Tips
In no particular order, here are my top tips for riding the Glacier Express.
1. Book well in advance
The Glacier Express is extremely popular. Therefore, you need to book well in advance, especially if you are after a prized window seat.
You can make seat reservations for the Glacier Express 93 days in advance.
When I checked availability six weeks before I was due to leave for Switzerland, I was astonished to discover there were only a few window seats available over a booking window of three days. I booked there and then.
There’s all you need to know about booking tickets for the Glacier Express later in the article (here).
2. Don’t stress over which side of the train to sit
As you will have no control over which way the train will be facing, you will not know on which side you will be sitting until you board the train.
Broadly speaking, if you are on the left-hand side of the Glacier Express from St Moritz to Zermatt you will get a better view of the Landwasser Viaduct. When the train reaches Chur, it travels back along the track. Now, the old right-hand side is the new left-hand side, from which you will get better views during the latter half of the journey.
Does this make sense?
But on whichever side of the Glacier Express you are sitting, the panoramic cars of the train are enclosed in glass, giving you 180-degree views.
3. Board the train early
You can board the Glacier Express at any time before departure. Stewards will guide you to your seat and check your lunch reservation.
I recommend you board the train at least 20 minutes before its scheduled departure time. This gives you plenty of time to settle into your seat and stow your luggage.
If you are boarding the train at St. Moritz, the Glacier Express may be coupled to a regular train between St Moritz and Chur. In this case, the Glacier Express coaches will be displayed on the train indicators.
4. Don’t plan on taking great photos
Sweeping landscape shots? Forget it.
My advice is to put your camera away and immerse yourself in the landscape unfolding outside your window. This is coming from a complete shutterbug and is why you don’t see many images included in this post.
A combination of hazy reflections of fellow passengers in the windows and the movement of the train are likely to kill any chances of capturing a decent image.
5. Consider using a rail pass
The Glacier Express is not cheap.
The cost of a ticket for the full journey is 152 CHF for second class and 268 CHF for first class (August 2023 prices). In addition, there is a compulsory reservation fee of 39 CHF (49 CHF in high season). Reservation fees are less for shorter journeys.
This is where a rail pass is a gift that keeps on giving. A trip on the Glacier Express is included in the Swiss Travel Pass and Interrail and Eurail passes, subject to payment of the reservation fee.
More about this later (here).
6. Don’t expect the Glacier Express to be a luxury train
Make no mistake. This is not going to be like the Orient Express so manage your expectations.
Whilst it is very comfortable, it is not plush, with matching levels of service.
7. Dine onboard the Glacier Express
This is one of the great rail travel experiences and is not the time for frugality. The Glacier Express is an eight-hour journey and you will need sustenance.
Of course, you can assemble a packed lunch and eat that on board. However, feasting on a dish of Beef Stroganoff, washed down with a glass of Blauburgunder, with the changing alpine scenery as your backdrop is an unforgettable experience.
You will need to make a reservation at least one day before the day you travel if you wish to order the special of the day or the two, three or four-course menu. Do this at the same time as booking your ticket or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also order à la carte on the Glacier Express.
8. But also bring your own water and snacks
Dining on board the Glacier Express is wonderful but it’s not going to sustain you through an 8-hour journey. As buying drinks and snacks on the train will cost a pretty penny, pack a bottle of water and light snacks to sustain you.
9. Tune in to the commentary
To make the most of your journey, take advantage of the commentary on board.
When a chime sounds, this is your cue to listen to the pre-recorded commentary through headphones plugged into the side of your seat. This guide provided interesting facts relating to the section of the route through which you are travelling.
Although earbuds are provided, you may want to use your own.
10. Consider alternative ways to travel the Glacier Express route
As I am waxing lyrical about the Glacier Express, offering alternatives may seem a bit weird.
However, you can travel the same route using regular trains, albeit involving more changes. There is no significant difference in the time that it will take you to travel the route.
The advantage of doing it this way is that you will not need to book your tickets in advance and you will be able to break up this long journey, stopping at places of interest. This gives you greater flexibility.
Alternatively, if you are short on time, why not pick just one section of the Glacier Express route? Many people plump for the super-scenic St. Moritz to Chur section, which includes the Landwasser Viaduct.
Travel Classes on the Glacier Express
There are three classes of travel on the Glacier Express:
- Second Class
- First Class
- Excellence Class
What are the differences between 1st and 2nd Class on the Glacier Express?
There is more space in 1st class.
In first class on the Glacier Express, seats are in a 2-2 configuration facing each other on one side of the carriage, and a 1-1 configuration on the other side (i.e. three seats across). As a solo traveller, you are therefore able to reserve a solo seat.
Seats in 2nd class are in a 2-2 configuration on both sides (i.e. four seats per row).
Both 1st and 2nd class have panoramic cars.
Is Glacier Express Excellence Class worth it?
If you really wish to splurge, there is the Glacier Express Excellence Class. For a significant premium, you get a guaranteed window seat plus the following:
- Exclusive access to the Glacier Bar
- Tablet with Bordinfotainment
- Concierge as host in the Excellence Class
- Welcome-Desk & personal check-in on the platform
- Luggage transport in dedicated lockable sections aboard
- Coffee, juice, soft drinks
- Starter plate with Champagne
- Seasonal, regional 5-course menu including wine
- Tea Time in the afternoon with goodies
- Snacks throughout the day
To my mind, you would need to eat and drink a lot to justify this extra charge.
Glacier Express Ticket Prices
Switzerland is rarely the home of the travel bargain and riding the Glacier Express is no exception. At full price, this is an eye-wateringly expensive train journey.
To travel on the Glacier Express you need two things:
- a base ticket
- a seat reservation
The base ticket cost is determined by the distance you travel and in which class (1st or 2nd). This cost does not vary according to season.
Base tickets are free with Eurail, Interrail and Swiss Pass, and 50% off with the Swiss Half-Fare Card.
The reservation fee also depends on the class in which you are travelling and the length of the journey (long and short). Unlike the base ticket cost, it is season-dependent.
To travel in Excellence Class, you pay a flat reservation fee (which does not vary according to season or distance travelled) plus the price of a 1st class base ticket.
It’s a little confusing. You can check ticket prices for the Glacier Express here.
As a guide, in 2023 it will cost you 208 CHF for a high-season 2nd Class ticket, 321 CHF for a 1st Class ticket and a whopping 742 CHF to travel in Excellence Class.
How to Save Money on Glacier Express Tickets
This is a lot of money to pay for a train ticket, however scenic the journey. But the good news is that there are a few ways to save money on the Glacier Express.
1. Use an Interrail / Eurail Pass
This is my top Glacier Express money-saving tip and how I did it.
Using an Interrail Pass, I needed to only pay the seat reservation fee for my 1st class ticket. With just one ride on the Glacier Express, an Interrail ticket almost pays for itself.
It really is the gift that keeps on giving.
You can check the current prices of Interrail passes here. They come in a number of different flavours so pick the one that is going to be most useful to you.
If you live outside Europe, it’s the same story with the Eurail Pass.
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2. Use a Swiss Travel Pass
Alternatively, the Swiss Travel Pass gives you the same deal on the Glacier Express.
As it provides unlimited transportation on trains, buses and boats plus discounts on museums and mountain excursions, it may be a good option if you plan to travel in Switzerland only. Just do your sums to make sure that it will be good value for you.
Check the current price of a Swiss Travel Pass here.
3. Use the Swiss Half Fare Card
This pretty much does what it says on the tin.
For 120 CHF (October 2023 price), it gives you a 50% discount on most journeys by train, bus and boat, as well as most mountain railways for one month. You also benefit from half-price public transport in urban areas.
You can find more information here.
Considering the minimum cost of a Glacier Express ticket, you’d just need a few more journeys to break even with a Swiss Half Fare Card. As ever, do the maths.
4. Travel in the low season
As the seat reservation fee for the Glacier Express is season-dependent, you can save some money by travelling in the low season, usually between December and May.
However, this will only save you 10 CHF on the seat reservation fee, which is marginal considering the total cost of the ticket.
Making a Glacier Express Reservation
Buying a ticket for the Glacier Express is a game of two halves. Tickets are available from the official Glacier Express website.
STEP 1: MAKE YOUR SEAT RESERVATION
Seat reservations for 1st and 2nd Class open 93 days ahead of the date of travel.
Buy this as soon as you can after sales open. The Glacier Express train is extremely popular and prized window seats sell out rapidly.
Excellence Class seat reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance.
When you enter the Glacier Express shop, first select your travel class: Classic Glacier Express (1st and 2nd Class) (Classic Glacier Express) or Excellence Class. You will then need to enter your departure and arrival points, date of travel and class of travel (for (Classic Glacier Express)
The next screen will show you seat availability and allow you to select your seat.
On the next screen, enter your personal information and pay for your seat reservation.
STEP 2: BUY YOUR BASE TICKET
Base tickets go on sale 60 days ahead of the journey.
If you have a Swiss Travel Pass, Interrail or Eurail pass, you are good to go. If you don’t have a rail pass, you will need to buy this point-to-point ticket.
Select the “Ticket only” option from the Glacier Express shop and you will be directed to this page to complete your purchase.
What to Do if Glacier Express Tickets Are Sold Out
All is not lost if there are no seats available for your dates of travel.
OPTION 1: BOOK YOUR TICKET VIA A TOUR OPERATOR
It’s worth checking the availability of day tour packages from one of Switzerland’s major cities (e.g. Bern, Zurich or Lucerne).
This will be a more expensive way of doing it but the tour company will do all of the heavy lifting, and you can start your Glacier Express trip from another city. This is also the only way that you will be able to secure Glacier Express tickets more than 3 months in advance.
A word of caution though. Some Glacier Express tickets booked as parts of organised day tours do not include the entire route. Check the description carefully.
OPTION 2: THE DIY APPROACH
Perhaps a better option – and certainly a cheaper choice – is the cover the same route using regional trains. Although you will need to change trains, it’s a more flexible option.
These local trains may not have the panoramic cars of the Glacier Express, but standard Swiss trains are far from shabby.
Does the Glacier Express Operate Throughout the Year?
There is no Glacier Express service between mid-October and mid-December.
In the winter, there is one daily Glacier Express between Zermatt and St Moritz. Additional services run from May to October. You can check the timetables here.
Taking Luggage on the Glacier Express
You can take luggage on the Glacier Express.
There are luggage racks near the carriage doors where you can leave your suitcase or backpack. You’ll also find limited room for smaller bags near your seat.
Where to Stay in Zermatt and St. Moritz
If you are taking a journey on the Glacier Express independently, chances are that you will need to stay overnight in either Zermatt or St. Moritz, or both.
Where to stay in St. Mortiz
The resort town of St. Moritz is enchanting but does not come cheap.
I stayed at the Soldanella, which offers an excellent balance between comfort and affordability. This traditional hotel is in a great location, overlooking the lake.
>>> CHECK RATES & BOOK A ROOM HERE
Where to stay in Zermatt
Zermatt, home of the mighty Matterhorn, is one of my favourite places in Switzerland.
READ THIS NEXT: Best Things to Do in Zermatt, Switzerland
This small alpine town punches above its small weight in terms of accommodation options, many of which have great character. I stayed at the Hotel Ambiance Superior, a friendly hotel, which is a 10-minute walk from the train station and five minutes from the town centre.
>>> CHECK RATES & BOOK A ROOM HERE
Is The Glacier Express Worth It?
I loved my journey on the Glacier Express and would do it again in a heartbeat. This is train travel at its best and much more than that well-worn cliche: a once-in-lifetime experience.
The landscape changes with the season, the green pastures of summer giving way to winter’s snowy valleys. Therefore, there is a strong argument for taking this train ride in different seasons.
The cost is staggeringly high but using a rail pass will make this more affordable. If you are on a budget you can travel the same route on one of the cheaper local trains.
Bridget Coleman has been a passionate traveller for more than 30 years. She has visited 70+ countries, most as a solo traveller.
Articles on this site reflect her first-hand experiences.
To get in touch, email her at email@example.com or follow her on social media.