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Travel by Train

September 7, 2010 By: Jena Tesse Fox Travel Agent


The Swiss village of Lavertezzo

The Swiss village of Lavertezzo can be reached on a “postal bus.”


While America’s transportation scene has been dominated by planes and automobiles for decades, Europe has seen a different kind of growth. As developments in railway technology continue to evolve, high-speed trains are cornering the city-to-city travel market, in some cases by as much as 90 percent. In fact, many European countries have scrapped short flights altogether and are focusing their resources on high-quality, high-speed public land transportation.

Ticino region of Switzerland

Lugano in the Ticino region of Switzerland has train services to and from Italy.


And, perhaps most remarkably, travelers have responded. Drawn by the convenience (no security lines, and passengers arrive in city centers rather than the outskirts), the environmental benefits and the cost, travelers in Europe are taking to the rails in droves. If one considers the time it takes to get to an airport, clear security, wait for boarding, fly, taxi the plane, disembark, get luggage (once it’s checked), and get from the airport to the arrival city, taking a high-speed train can be much faster, and far more convenient.


Where We Stayed

The focus on this trip was train travel rather than the hotels in each city, but it would be remiss not to at least acknowledge where we stayed. In Milan, we stayed in the middle of town at the Hilton Milan, which is just a block away from the central train station. The rooms were fine, but the service behind the counters was rather aloof. (Word of advice to hoteliers: Being rude to a tour group leader is a good way to guarantee that groups won’t stay in your hotel.) Worth noting: Breakfasts are not included with the rooms, and Internet access is rather expensive.
In Lugano, we stayed at the historical Hotel Du Lac, which is right on Lake Lugano. At this lovely, classic hotel, guests can jump right off the terrace into the lake for a swim, though be advised that the rooms are not air conditioned. (Normally, with lake breezes and in-room fans, this isn’t a problem, but during a heat wave it was a little uncomfortable.) The hotel is in walking distance from a train station, breakfasts are included and Internet access is complimentary.
In Zurich, the Hotel St. Gotthard—whose lobby is undergoing renovation—has lots of old-fashioned charm in its rooms and dark-wood hallways. It is a mere two blocks away from the main train station (and, at that, a 15-minute train ride from the airport). Breakfast is not included (and is prohibitively expensive—for nearly $40, that breakfast should be in bed!). Internet access is likewise pricey. 



As part of its program to give travel writers a firsthand taste of train travel on the continent, Rail Europe invited Travel Agent to spend a week touring Italy and Switzerland—all by public transportation, and mostly by train. 

In Italy, the Frecciarossa (Red Arrow) high-speed train line links Milan, Florence and Naples, and the Frecciargento (Silver Arrow) line covers several other major cities. The Frecciarossa trip between Milan and Florence takes a little less than two hours, making it very easy to stay in one city while making day trips to the other. The first-class cars on the train are spacious, quiet (several seats are divided by glass partitions for privacy) and comfortable (the seats recline to a nice angle). The ticket includes food and beverage service, though this is both a good and bad thing. It’s nice to have the service, of course, but when a cup of coffee is just a shot (and not a shot of espresso—just regular coffee) and breakfast is a cookie, one feels a little cheated. Fortunately, there is a dining car available with more substantial (and tasty) fare.

Using the Swiss Pass

A regular (not high-speed) train took us to Lugano in the Ticino region of Switzerland. (Even on regular rails, the ride was only about an hour.) Once in Switzerland, we discovered the joys of the Swiss Pass, which may well be one of the cooler inventions to come along in travel since the GDS.

When a client has one of these passes, they can use almost any public transportation in all of Switzerland for free, or at a reduced rate. Kids 16 and younger can ride for free on their parents’ passes, and all travelers get free or discounted access to more than 400 museums and attractions all over the country. It’s a great deal, and helps visitors explore more of what the country has to offer. Book it for your clients at, and tell them to hold onto it while they travel. They’ll need to show it often when they board trains, boats or buses.

Taking full advantage of our passes, we took a boat across Lake Lugano, with lovely views of the villages along the shores, and then on a cogwheel train up Monte Generoso for some more spectacular sightseeing and light hiking. (Beware the goats on Monte Generoso—they’re cute, but they make the trails very messy. Tell your clients to bring sneakers they won’t mind getting dirty.) Both rides were free with the Swiss Pass, and the train or bus back into town is also included.

Lugano to Locarno to Lavertezzo


On the Right Track

We met with Hugo Ferrer, the head of Swiss Travel System, who gave us an in-depth presentation on the state of public transportation in Switzerland: After a difficult 2009, the company is witnessing an increase in sales, and the biggest challenge it currently faces is adding enough seats to the existing infrastructure. Longer trains are being developed, and the company has just invested in some double-decker models, which should be delivered in 2013. Perhaps most convincingly, Ferrer said he had lived in Switzerland his whole life, and had never felt the need to own a car.



The next day, we enjoyed a relatively calm tour of two Swiss towns that, despite their distance, are easily accessible via trains and buses. We started on a train from Lugano to Locarno, a somewhat touristy town on the north end of Lake Maggiore. The town has some very nice shopping, especially in the outdoor stalls, where bargain hunters can find new and used products. (Be sure to bring cash—even some of the permanent indoor stores don’t accept credit cards. They do, however, take euros, and will give change in Swiss francs—a nice way of converting currency without going to a bank.)

We caught a “postal bus” to head up into the mountains and the village of Lavertezzo for an authentic Swiss lunch. These popular buses used to deliver mail to the remote mountaintop villages and now serve as public transportation. The ride up into the mountains is scenic, and the bus passes towns that look like they haven’t changed in hundreds of years. The bus also stops at the Verzasca Dam, a popular spot for bungee jumping.

On the final day, we took the Wilhelm Tell Express from Bellinzona to Zurich. In spite of the name (or perhaps with deliberate irony), the Express trains are remarkably slow—in fact, they are designed for sightseeing. The Wilhelm Tell on Lake Lucerne is the only Express route that uses both a train and a boat ride, giving passengers clear views of both Switzerland’s mountains and lakes. With a first-class Swiss Pass, drinks and snacks are included on the train (and seats in the train’s first-class car rotate 360 degrees for maximum viewing), while a full meal is included on the boat.

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By Jena Tesse Fox | September 7, 2010
Taking to the rails in Europe has clear advantages over air— it cuts down overall travel time while enabling sightseeing, and departure from and arrival at city centers.