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.

Travel Trends from Frommer

As I mentioned in my last post, Arthur Frommer gave one of the talks at the LA Travel Conference last weekend. The topic was travel trends and hot destinations, which are two topics that often change year after year, so we were excited to see what he had to say. Some things came as a surprise or were new to us, while others were expected but nonetheless interesting to hear about.

 Travel Trends:

  • Substitution of apartments and homes for hotel rooms.  Not only can you save some money, but often apartments and homes will be more spacious (with extra amenities such as kitchens) and you might be able to score a great location.  Some sites to check out include vrbo, airbnb, and Endless Vacation Rentals.  While we have yet to use one of those sites, we did choose to rent an apartment in Paris, and loved the experience!
  • Nickel-and-diming of airline passengers.  While this isn’t necessarily new information, it does serve as a reminder to check for hidden fees when booking flights.  
  • Rise in operation of cheap intercity buses.  BoltBus (operates in the northeastern US) and Megabus (operates in US and Canada, as well the UK) offer an alternative to driving, taking the train and flying between big cities.  The best part – prices are very competitive and as low as $1 for a trip!
  • Rise in popularity of European river cruises.  They stop right in the heart of each city, but can be a bit pricey.  Frommer has been on several and noted that the majority of travelers were older (and those that were young appeared to be bored).  I’ve always wanted to try out a river cruise, so I’ll keep this in mind before booking.
  • Walking tours.  But not just any walking tour – book a tour by specialists or someone in academics to ensure accurate information.  Some of the recommended sites: Vayable, Urban Adventures, and Context Travel.  Many of the walking tours guarantee small groups, which usually means a much more enjoyable experience.
  • Rise in popularity of “learning vacations.”  For a different type of vacation, check out summer programs at top universities that are open to more than just the students.  Not only can you take classes with interesting subject matter, but the packages include accommodations and dining – both at the college.  Frommer mentioned courses at the following universities:  Oxford, Cambridge, and St. John’s College.  
  • Increase in free accommodations.  Stay for free on someone’s couch!  Couchsurfing,   Global Freeloaders, and US Servas offer similar services – connect online through the site and find a host in the desired city.  This isn’t for everyone, and not something I would try on my own, but for some people in certain situations, this is a great way to cut down on travel costs. 

Hottest Destinations:

  • China.  Frommer revealed the unbelievably low prices for week-long tours of China through China Spree – as low as $899, all inclusive (flights, too!), during the winter months – and we were shocked!  Asia, and specifically China, has officially been added to our list of places to visit in the near future.  (We looked through the China Spree site, and while we couldn’t find any of the rock-bottom pricing mentioned by Frommer, there were several different tour options with very attractive pricing.)
  • Ireland.  Cheap airfares and even vouchers for transportation and accommodations through Aer Lingus make Ireland a hot destination this year. 
  • India.  The currency conversion between the US dollar and the rupee is advantageous at this time.  While the flight there may be expensive, staying in India will be cheap!
  • Dubai.  This is the perfect location for luxury, but possibly not much else.  Frommer brought up the lack of culture, so this may not be the top destination for all travelers. 
  • Miami and Miami Beach.  Always a hot destination, with plenty of authentic South American restaurants without leaving the country!
  • Colorado and Washington.  In all honesty, I’m not sure if these two actually made the list, or if Frommer was making a joke.  The reason they made the list is the recent legalization of marijuana in the two states.

So there is it – the list of trends and hot destinations straight from Arthur Frommer.  My favorite bits of information from the talk include the learning vacations and China as a cheap destination.  Frommer was very lively and clearly enjoys travel – it gives me hope for when we are older and still want to travel the world!

LAX to London on Air New Zealand’s Sky Couch

There are no shortage of options for flying between LAX and London.  We always focus our search on direct flights offered by Star Alliance carriers, given our membership in United’s Mileage Plus.  We were intrigued when Air New Zealand (a Star Alliance member) offered the cheapest fare for our trip to London, and also offered a reasonably priced upgrade option to their economy “Sky Couch“, a block of 3 seats that include footrests that fold up for a bed.  Although we’ve flown together to Europe 3 times, we have always arrived in the evening.  For our London trip, we were arriving in the morning with a full day ahead of us.  We figured the extra investment for the Sky Couch to improve our chances of sleeping would be a good investment.

Air New Zealand’s Sky Couch.  Photo courtesy Air New Zealand.

We were very impressed with Air New Zealand from the moment we boarded.  Air New Zealand operated their London-LAX-Auckland route with brand new 777s with very sleek interiors.  The personal televisions (PTVs) in economy class are the most sophisticated we’ve seen, with extraordinary entertainment selection (literally hundreds of shows/movies) and the ability to order snacks and drinks.  We even enjoyed the safety video, which was filmed using Lord of the Rings characters.  Before takeoff, the flight attendants demonstrated how we could raise the footrests and use the special “Sky Couch” safety belt, which would allow us to lay across the seats securely.

The meals offered in flight were surprisingly unique.  Instead of the usual fare of fettuccine alfredo and meatloaf, we were offered things like provencal beef with white bean salad and beef madras curry.  And they weren’t bad!  Like many European carriers, Air New Zealand offers free wine in economy class, before, during, and after the meal (and available through the PTV order system!).

The “Sky Couch” itself was not as comfortable as our bed at home, but definitely an improvement over a standard economy seat.  I’m convinced that we squeezed in at least 2 more hours of sleep then we would have without the upgrade, and it was also nice not worrying about sharing a row of seats with a third person (e.g. asking to go to the restroom in the middle of the flight).  After we arrived in London, we actually had plenty of energy for an ambitious day of adventure, including our first pub grub lunch, a ride on the London Eye, and an Indian dinner–all manageable with just a short cat nap in the early evening.

Our only real disappointment with Air New Zealand was the revelation a month later that we did not earn the 10,000+ United Mileage Plus miles we expected from the trip.  Even though our airfare was not “killer”, we found that we were booked with booking class “K”, which is not eligible for United mileage accrual (see reference here, just one code up, “T”, earns 100%).  Although we have always chosen a Star Alliance carrier for our trips to Europe, at least partly due to incentive of earning United miles, I’m not absolutely certain our decision would have been different if we had known.  At least now, we are aware that mileage accrual through Star Alliance is often dependent on booking class.  In planning future trips, I have been checking the booking class associated with the fare and researched the mileage eligibility on United’s website.

We’ve already discussed using Air New Zealand again on our next trip to London, and I expect we will get the “Sky Couch” again if it remains a good value.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to book in a class that earns United mileage.

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.


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.