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 is deservedly considered to be one of the great railway journeys of the world, and 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.
So there are just a few reasons why you should take a trip on the Glacier Express at least once in your lifetime. But how can you make it the best possible travel experience? Without further ado, here are my top seven tips for riding on the Glacier Express.
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. 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
The first thing to say is that you will have no control over which way the train will be facing. Therefore, you will know which side you will be sitting only at the time of boarding. Besides which, the panoramic cars of the train are enclosed in glass which gives you 180-degree views.
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 the better views during the latter half of the journey. Does this make sense?
3. Don’t plan on taking great photos
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.
4. Investigate using a rail pass
The Glacier Express is not cheap. The cost of a ticket for the full journey is currently 153 CHF ($155) for second class and 269 CHF ($274) for first class. In addition, there is a compulsory reservation fee of 23 – 43 CHF, depending on the season.
5. Don’t expect it 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
This is one of the great rail travel experiences and is not the time for frugality. It 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 unforgettable.
7. Consider alternative ways to travel this 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 time difference.
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.
Whichever way you decide to travel this route, do make this journey at least once in your life. I did it in September but I am already thinking about when I might be able to repeat at least part of it in the winter when the landscape will look utterly different.