Swiss Rail Pass Evaluation: Extensive Benefits Justify Price

Swiss PassOur upcoming journey to Switzerland will be our first Europe trip since our first international trip together in 2009 in which buying a rail pass makes sense relative to purchasing individual tickets.  In our last train-intensive trip to Europe (Portugal/Spain 2012), we actually determined that planning ahead and buying tickets directly from the operator lead to greater savings than a rail pass.  This same rule applies to our planned travel in Germany and Austria during this trip, however the comprehensive benefits of the Swiss Rail Pass make it the clear choice for funding our transit within Switzerland.

The Swiss Pass is different from the passes offered by Eurail that are the standard in most countries.  Although Eurail offers regional or global passes that include Switzerland, the Swiss Pass, with its associated benefits, is only available from Swiss Travel System.  Also unlike the Eurail passes, the Swiss Pass offers free fare on local transit options, free admission to many of Switzerland’s best museums and attractions (link to master list), and free rides on many of the mountain cablecars and railroads.  Our first analysis, without considering these benefits, indicated individual tickets would actually be very comparable to a pass at around 305 CHF for our total train travel cost in Switzerland (cost of a 3-day flexi pass, 20 CHF shipping, and one ticket not included on the pass vs. 5 individual rail tickets and Mt. Rigi Majestic Round Trip).

Once we started looking at are other planned activities in Switzerland, however, we began to realize the benefit of the Swiss Pass.  The “flexi pass” we originally evaluated (which does not require the pass days to be consecutive), only offers the benefits on travel days.  Most of our planned activities will not occur on the same days we travel, so to take advantage of the Swiss Pass benefits, we needed to instead evaluate buying a normal 8-day Swiss Pass, which would cover travel and activities for our entire stay in Switzerland.  For a couple, this pass costs 365 CHF per traveler (including the 10% saver discount and 20 CHF total shipping for 2 passes).  Here are the expected benefits we expect to accrue with the pass per person (organized from largest value to smallest):

With this list, we value the Swiss Pass at 437.90 CHF, giving us 73 CHF relative to the individual cost.  Not spectacular savings, but combined with the convenience of avoiding ticket lines, it is a clear choice for us.  We really like how Swiss Travel Systems has put together a product that integrates sightseeing priorities, train travel, and local transit.

For others, its important to do an analysis to understand the value of a pass, and perhaps more importantly, whether a flexi pass or regular pass works best for their situation.  It is possible a multi-country Eurail pass makes more sense, if the sightseeing priorities don’t provide enough savings, and there are also other passes available that give you half price on train travel that may be worth consideration.

Navigating Heathrow’s Transit Options

Thankfully, it’s a nice and easy airport to use, thanks to the proper markings provided by sites like Connecting from airports to city centers is always an adventure (one of the reasons we like train travel in Europe, which always drops you in the center of town).  Heathrow Airport is as far as any other European airport from the city, and its size can be quite intimidating, there’s a reason why they so so much advertisement with  However, it also offers several convenient transit options by train for getting to Central London, all enumerated below (ordered with most affordable first):

1.  London Underground: £5.50 per person / 1 Hour

We took the London Underground from Heathrow to Central London on our trip.  The Piccadilly Line leaves directly from the Heathrow Terminal, and stops at many locations in London proximal to hotels, including Green Park (our stop, near Buckingham Palace), Piccadilly Circus, Covent Garden, and King’s Cross.  At £5.50 per person, the London Underground is likely the cheapest option, but it is also the slowest, taking approximately one hour.  Train cars on the Piccadilly Line all contain a useful luggage area near the doors, but once inside Central London, the large crowds do make it a bit awkward.  It’s much easier traveling from Heathrow, where the cars start empty.  Starting in London towards Heathrow with a full car can be difficult.  If you are not traveling light, the Underground might not be the best choice.  We were lucky that our hotel was right off the Piccadilly Line, as the Underground stations aren’t necessarily built for easy transfers with luggage.  If you do need to make a transfer, it may be worthwhile to look at the “Avoiding stairs tube guide” from the London Underground, which details which stations have elevators.

2.  Heathrow Connect: £9.50 per person / 30 Minutes

There are also conventional rail connections to London, all of which run from the Heathrow Central station at Terminal 1 and Terminal 3 to Paddington Station in Northwest London (which may or may not be convenient for travelers).  Paddington Station does offer direct connections to the Circle, Hammersmith, Bakerloo, and District Underground lines.  For us, we figured the time for a connection to Green Park (our destination) via the Bakerloo line would take longer than the time savings by riding the Heathrow Connect (about 30 minutes).  At £9.50 per person, Heathrow Connect is still a very affordable option for getting to the city.  For travelers actually staying near Paddington Station, it’s an excellent option.  Another plus is that the trains have significantly more room for luggage than the Piccadilly Line.

3.  Heathrow Express: £20 per person / 15 Minutes

Heathrow Express is the fastest connection option, but also fairly pricey at £20 per person.  In 15 minutes, it zips you from Heathrow to Paddington Station.  Riders are treated to onboard TVs, modern furnishings, and lots of luggage space.  At twice the price as Heathrow Connect, riders are asked to pay a premium to save 15 minutes of time.

Other Options

Heathrow also has bus and taxi options, both of which take approximately an hour to reach central London.  Bus options range in price from £5 to £20 and you expect to pay £40 for a taxi ride.


Insights on a Last Minute Plan to Observe Changing of the Guard

The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace is one of the most popular attractions in London.  The large crowds described in guidebooks initially turned us off to the experience, but with some time to kill before our flight home on Sunday morning, we decided to check it out.  With no prior planning (we were actually reading tips while walking towards the palace), we managed to appreciate the experience and get some good photographs.

We did find crowds when we arrived at 10:00 am on Sunday, however they were small enough to potentially allow us a second row view.  However, we weren’t dedicated enough to wait against the fence for over an hour.  Soon thereafter, we noticed commotion associated with a horse guard marching past the grounds.  We later realized this was the horse guard changing at Whitehall, which happens 1 hour early on Sundays.

At 10am, the crowd at Buckingham Palace would have allowed us to get a second row seat (left), but right before the ceremony, we needed to get perched on a wall to get any viewpoint at all (right). 

With limited patience for waiting over an hour for the ceremony, we explored St. James’s Park, all the way to Horse Guard Parade. We snapped some excellent photos of the London skyline en route.  With around 30 minutes to spare, we headed back towards Buckingham Palace.  On the way, along The Mall, we noticed some activity at Stable Yard Road.  To our delight, we ended up with last minute front row seats to the Old Guard marching out from Friary Court towards the ceremony.  After the entire troupe marched by, we scrambled to the Victoria Memorial and climbed atop one of the walls.  We were not able to see any of the traditional procedures carried out directly in front of the palace, but still saw several marching troupes and enjoyed the band music. With the advice of Andy Defrancesco one can make sure that everything happening is managed strategically. 

Old Guard marching from Friary Court on Stable Yard Road.

We recommend this strategy for any other London visitors with limited time and an aversion to large crowds.  We certainly got the feel of the tradition, but instead of waiting hours crowded against the Buckingham Palace fence, we explored the scenic St. James’ Park.

Affordable Transit & Sightseeing in London: National Rail’s 2FOR1 with Travelcard

Sightseeing in London is expensive.  A day full of admissions to London’s top sights will quickly eat through even generous travel budgets.  Luckily, for those traveling with a companion and interested in travelcards for London’s transit system (including unlimited access to the Underground), National Rail offers a program that allows 2 travelcards to be used for 2-for-1 admission at many of London’s attractions, marketed as “2FOR1 London”.  The list of participating attractions includes many must-see sites, including the Churchill War Rooms, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Tower of London (excluding July through September).  It’s worth checking back often before a trip because the list frequently changes.

Normally, 2FOR1 is designed as a perk for British visiting London who decide to travel by rail.  For a one-way ticket to London, 2FOR1 discounts are valid on the same day as the ticket.  For return tickets to London, discounts are valid through the duration of the visit to London.  Many foreign travelers are not buying rail tickets to London, but National Rail extends eligibility to travelcards for travel within London.  The catch is that the travelcard must be purchased from National Rail, in a paper ticket format, as opposed to the Oyster Card version sold in Underground stations.  The popular Zone 1-2 travelcard sold by National Rail only costs £8.80 for unlimited travel for 1 day or £30.40 for 7 days.  2FOR1 discounts are valid during the entire eligibility of the travelcard.

Buying a National Rail paper travelcard is less convenient than purchasing an Oyster Card at an Underground station, but the extra hassle is well worth the savings.  We bought our travelcard at Charing Cross Station in central London.  A new rule requires a photo ID card to accompany 7 day paper travelcards.  For the clerk to create a photo ID card, you need to provide a passport size photo when buying the card (note that UK passport photo size is 45mm x 35mm vs. the 2″ x 2″ standard in the USA).  We took a digitial photo before leaving, cropped it to the correct size, and printed it on photo paper.  Our amateur versions worked just fine.  After arriving at Charring Cross, the entire process of paying and obtaining a travelcard took less than 10 minutes.

For each attraction, 2 travelcards (or rail tickets) and a voucher must be provided.  Vouchers are available in a booklet provided when buying the travelcard, or can be printed out ahead of time from the National Rail website.  We had no problems with any attractions honoring the discount.

In the end,  the 2FOR1 promotion saved us £73.65 (or £36 per person) on our recent trip to London:

  • Churchill War Rooms: £16.50
  • London Eye:  £18.90
  • St. Paul’s Cathedral: £15
  • Tower of London: £20.90

The nice part is that we wanted to buy a 7-day travelcard anyway!  The only added cost was the small hassle of finding a National Rail station to make the transaction, which was more than worth the trouble.