The anticipation in the train carriage was almost palpable.
Without exception, all of my fellow passengers had their noses pressed against the window, necks craned in unison, to catch their first glimpse of the mighty Matterhorn. This was the final stage of the Glacier Express’s journey from St Moritz, in Eastern Switzerland, to Zermatt.
The self-proclaimed slowest fast train in the world, deservedly considered to be one of the great railway journeys of the world, had been on my travel bucket list for quite some time. During the course of its eight-hour journey, it passes through 91 tunnels and trundles across 291 bridges, including the famous Landwasser Viaduct.
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.
This is train travel at its best.
Those are just a few reasons why you should take a trip on the Glacier Express at least once in your lifetime. To help you have the best possible travel experience, here are my top seven tips for riding on the Glacier Express.
But before we dive into these tips, let’s first take a look at where the Glacier Express stops and some general information about the train. Towards the end of the article, you’ll find 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.
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Glacier Express Route
In 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
Glacier Express Map
Boarding the Glacier Express
You can board the Glacier Express at any time before departure. Stewards will guide you to your seat and check your lunch reservation.
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.
Tips for Riding the Glacier Express
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 reservations for the Glacier Express 93 days in advance.
When I casually looked at availability six weeks before I was due to leave for Switzerland, I was astonished to discover that there were only a few window seats available over a booking window of three days. I booked there and then.
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 the time of boarding.
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 now the new left-hand side, from which you will get better views during the latter half of the journey.
Does this make sense?
But whichever side of the Glacier Express you are sitting in, the panoramic cars of the train are enclosed in glass which gives you 180-degree views.
3. 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 in the windows and the movement of the train are likely to kill any chances of capturing a decent image.
4. 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 (2021 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 …
5. 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.
6. 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 or at least one day before the day you travel if you wish to order the special of the day or the 3-course menu. Do this at the same time as booking your ticker or via email to email@example.com.
You can also order à la carte on the Glacier Express.
7. Consider alternative ways to travel the Glacier Express route
In a post that is waxing lyrical about the Glacier Express, it may seem a bit weird to offer alternatives.
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 St. Moritz to Chur section, which includes the Landwasser Viaduct.
Buying Glacier Express Tickets: Prices & Reservation
Switzerland is rarely the home of the travel bargain and riding the Glacier Express is no exception.
At full price, the Glacier Express is eye-wateringly expensive. However, there are a few tips and tricks to bring down the cost of tickets.
Glacier Express ticket costs
This is where it gets a little complicated but stick with me and you’ll be on the right track.
When travelling in first and second class, there are two costs associated with total Glacier Express ticket price: the base ticket price and a mandatory reservation fee.
The base ticket cost is determined by the distance you are travelling 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). However, unlike the base ticket cost, it is season-dependent.
When travelling in Excellence Class, you pay a flat reservation fee which does not vary according to season. There is no base fare associated with an Excellence Class ticket.
Check the current prices of Glacier Express tickets here.
Making a Glacier Express reservation
Tickets are available from the official Glacier Express website. You can check the Glacier Express timetable here.
When you enter the Glacier Express shop, first select your travel class: 1st or 2nd Class (Classic Glacier Express) or Classic St. Moritz – Zermatt (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. At this point you can apply the reduction from your travel pass.
The only step remaining is to pay for your ticket, which you can then print at home.
How to Save Money on Glacier Express Tickets
A minimum of close to 200 CHF 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 cut these costs.
1. Use a railcard to travel on the Glacier Express
This is my top Glacier Express money saving tip.
Using an Interrail Pass, I needed to only pay the seat reservation fee for my 1st class Glacier Express ticket. If you take a ride on the Glacier Express, an Interrail ticket almost pays for itself. It really is the gift that keeps on giving.
It’s the same story with the Eurail Pass and the 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.
2. Use the Swiss Half Fare Card
The Swiss Half Fare Card pretty much does what it says on the tin.
For 120 CHF (2021 price), it gives you 50% discount on most journeys by rain, bus and boat and most mountain railways for one month, in addition to half-price public transport in urban areas.
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.
3. Travel in low season
Finally, 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.
Does the Glacier Express Operate Throughout the Year?
Glacier Express trains do not run between mid-October and mid-December.
What Are the Differences Between the 1st and 2nd Class on the Glacier Express?
The main difference between these two classes of travel on the Glacier Express is that you have more space in 1st class.
In first-class, 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 newly renovated panoramic cars.
Is the Glacier Express Excellence Class Worth It?
If you really wish to splurge, there is the Glacier Express Excellence Class, introduced in 2019. For a whopping 420 CHF (420 USD) reservation fee 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, champagne & brioche
• Apéritif & amuse-bouche
• Seasonal, regional 5-course menu incl. wine accompaniment
• Coffee & digestif with a coffret of chocolates
• Tea Time in the afternoon with goodies
• Soft drinks & fruit juices
• Snacks throughout the day available
To my mind, you would need to eat and drink a lot to justify this extra charge.
Is There a Luggage Limit on the Glacier Express?
There are luggage racks near the carriage doors where you can leave your backpack or suitcase at the special luggage racks near the outside doors. There is limited room for smaller bags near your seat.
Is The Glacier Express Worth It?
I adore train travel and have taken a number of memorable rail journeys, from exploring Provence by train to an unforgettable journey through the lush tea plantations of Sri Lanka to the homegrown Settle to Carlisle Railway. The Glacier Express is as good as it gets.
In my view, riding the Glacier Express route is not just that well-worn cliche: a once-in-lifetime experience. Whilst it’s true that you should make this journey at least once in your life, 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, but if you are on a budget you can travel the same route on one of the cheaper local trains. Ultimately, it’s all about the sensational Swiss landscape revealing itself to you as you press your nose up against the window, and you will experience this whichever train that you choose to take.
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 Unique Hotel Eden, which offers an excellent balance between comfort and affordability. This superb hotel is in a great location and a generous breakfast is part of the deal.
Where to stay in Zermatt
Zermatt, home of the mighty Matterhorn, is one of my favourite places in 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.
Planning Train Travel in Switzerland
Packing a good guidebook to help you to plan train travel in Switzerland, and to explore the country whilst you are there, can be a smart move. I can recommend this excellent Bradt guide which I used when I was visiting Switzerland. This is easily the best guide to exploring Switzerland by public transport on the market.