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.

Planning a Machu Picchu Day Trip from Ollantaytambo

For us, Machu Picchu was the catalyst for planning a trip to Peru.  Although we later learned of Lima’s revered cuisine and the spectacular views in the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu is still the most important stop on our itinerary.  Accordingly, a lot of research and thought went into our ultimate plan for a day trip to visit Machu Picchu from Ollantaytambo.

Seeing Machu Picchu at sunrise was an important consideration in our planning.  Many visitors accomplish this by staying the night at Aguas Calientes (the town right below) the night before and catching the first 5:30am bus up to the site.  However, most of the lodging in Aguas Calientes is very expensive, and the town itself is described as run-down and devoid of character.  This realization, combined with reports of extensive fog in the morning and the discovery that trains from Ollantaytambo leave as early as 5:07am (arriving in Aguas Calientes at 6:34am), led to our decision to do a day trip from the Sacred Valley, as opposed to doing an overnight stay at Aguas Calientes.

Trip reports from others stress the importance of planning ahead of time.  There are a limited number of trains that run to Aguas Calientes, and it is sometimes impossible to make plans once arriving.  Even over 2 months ahead of our trip, we found that several train options (including one we figured would be the most convenient were already booked).  Additionally, the park itself limits the number of visitors to 2500 per day, and only 400 per day (in 2 time slots) for climbing Huaynapicchu (a popular hike within the park).  Two months ahead, there were still 167 slots in the later afternoon climb and 2450 for general admission, but I did notice that in the current month, several days had no availability.

Luckily, both train and park tickets can be obtained online.  Although visitors can also go through tours or travel agencies, it is usually more affordable (and I think more fun) to plan independently.

Train tickets are available through 2 companies: Peru Rail and Inca Rail.  Most trains leave from Ollantaytambo, which is a great base for exploring the Sacred Valley.  Four trains per day (including the luxurious Hiram Bingham train) leave from Poroy near Cusco, traveling through Ollantaytambo on the way.  We decided to take the earliest train, the 5:07am from Ollantaytambo, to enable to us to get as early of a start as possible.  We selected the 6:22pm return train, given that it wasn’t long after the 5:30pm closing time for the park.  Besides the Hiram Bingham, Peru Rail has two different classes of train: the Expedition and Vistadome, but we paid more attention to the times than the type of train.

Booking on the Peru Rail website is fairly straightforward.  As with train operators in Europe, Peru Rail recommends you use a Visa card registered in the Verified by Visa program.  Unfortunately, fewer and fewer cards are participating in this program (I just read confirmations that Chase cards dropped out of this program).  We decided to try our luck with our United Mileage Plus Explorer Card from Chase, even though it’s not in the Verified for Visa program, because it now has no foreign exchange transaction fees.  To our surprise, it worked!  However, we later learned that because it was not a Verified by Visa card, we need to pick-up paper tickets at a Peru Rail office when we arrive in the country.  Verified by Visa transactions can get e-Tickets.  We are going to try and contact Peru Rail to see if there is a way around this limitation, because the hours and locations of their offices are not the most convenient.

Tickets to the Machu Picchu park are available on the website administered by the Ministerio de Cultura.  Despite frustrating lag time, Flash, and unreliable language selection, we were able to secure our tickets.  The first step is to select “MACHUPICCHU” in the left drop down and the desired admission (general or a Huaynapicchu time slot) and then you can view availability on different dates.  This is all done with the “Reservas” or “Reservation” tab selected on the top.  After inputing information for participants, you are actually granted a reservation without paying.  The next step is to select the “Pagos” or “Payments” tab to use pay for your reservation.  You’ll need the reservation code from the first step.  Unlike Peru Rail, cards with Verified for Visa registration appear to be mandatory on this site.  We were unable to get our Chase card to work.  After paying, the last step is to use the “Check-in” tab to enter the reservation code one last time to retrieve e-tickets that can be printed-out and used for entrance.  

Expect to pay a lot for the Machu Picchu experience.  The combined cost of the train tickets and site admission cost us $368 ($184/person). That price does not include the cost we expect to pay for a bus fare once in Aguas Calientes ($12 R/T).  However, it is nice to have the peace of mind that our transportation and admission are guaranteed before leaving.

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.


Traveling on RENFE Through Spain

Back in July, I posted on our positive and money-saving experience of booking tickets online before our trip.  I figure I’d post a follow up on our success with using the online tickets, as well as our experience on riding RENFE’s trains.  We bought tickets for 3 individual journeys online to connect Barcelona, Sevilla, Granada, and Madrid.

Our original plan was to collect paper copies of our tickets from the self service machines at each train station.  Our desire was to get “real” tickets that my wife could use to scrapbook, but we brought along paper copies from our printer at home as backup (which work just as well, as far as the conductor is concerned).  It’s good we brought along the printouts, because the self service machines at the Barcelona train station did not have a clear option to change languages and certainly no option to print tickets from an advanced purchase (although this is supposedly available).  With little time before our departure, we decided to forego the “real” tickets and head straight to the train. Continue reading

Direct Online Booking of RENFE Spain Train Tickets

Renfe LogoIn our past two trips to Europe, we have taken two different approaches to train travel in Europe: buying a Eurail pass or buying tickets in person once arriving in the country.  For our upcoming trip to Spain, we are taking a new approach by booking the tickets directly from the train operator (RENFE in Spain).  I wanted to share our experience, because we are realizing considerable savings, in addition to the added convenience of having digital copies of our tickets that can be printed before we even depart the United States, allowing us to directly board the train before departure.

The original plan for our trip was to buy 3-day Eurail passes.  In comparison to the normal train fares, this seemed like a good value at $219 per person for 2nd class.  Unfortunately, with rail passes, reservation fees are often required for the faster trains.  We plan on taking the high speed AVE from Barcelona to Sevilla and the ALTARIA from Granada to Madrid, both which require reservation fees (10 Euros and 6.50 Euros).  Only one planned trip, a direct from Sevilla to Granada, did not have a fee for pass-holders.  At today’s bargain USD/Euro exchange rates, we figured our train travel expenses would be about $240 per person.  This fit our budget, but I was concerned with procuring a reservation for the Barcelona-Sevilla trip.  There is only one direct AVE from Barcelona to Sevilla in the morning.  Although we had no issues getting reservations on the past trip, seats are limited for pass-holders, and I didn’t want to risk waiting till we arrived in Spain to make a reservation on a popular train with few back-up options.  The only option for getting reservations for pass-holders ahead of time is through the USA-friendly website, but they charge additional shipping fees that drive-up the cost.  I started looking for alternatives. Continue reading