7 Essential Tips for Riding The Glacier Express, Switzerland (2020 Update)

glacier-express-train exterior

Updated Post: 07/02/2020 | February 2020

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 300 km 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.

Glacier express route

The Glacier Express stops at the following stations:

  • Zermatt
  • Brig
  • Andermatt
  • Disentis
  • Chur
  • Tiefencastel
  • Filisur (for Davos)
  • Samedan
  • St. Moritz

Glacier Express map

Note that the Glacier Express trains do not run between mid-October and mid-December each year.

 

Is there a luggage limit on the Glacier Express?

The Glacier Express does not have a luggage limit.

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.

 

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.

Within these tips, there is information on the cost of tickets and the use of rail passes.

1. Book 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 about 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 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 the 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 changing and 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.

the Glacier Express travelling throigh a swiss valley
A rare image taken from the Glacier Express

4. Consider using a rail pass

The Glacier Express is not cheap.

The cost of a ticket for the full journey is currently 152 CHF for second class and 268 CHF for first class (2020 prices). In addition, there is a compulsory reservation fee of 33 CHF (43 CHF in high season).

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 / Eurail pass, subject to payment of the reservation fee.

If you really wish to splurge, there is the newly introduced Glacier Excellence Class. 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

Upgraded catering:
• 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.

 

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 on board 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.

Dining on-board The Glacier Express
Dining onboard The Glacier Express

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 salesbahngastro.ch.

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.

 

The Glacier Express: Final thoughts

Whichever way you decide to travel this route, do make this journey at least once in your life. I travelled on the Glacier Express in September but I hope to repeat at least part of it in the winter, when the landscape will look utterly different.

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