Is it worth hiring a car in Zürich? Is anywhere more iconic of Switzerland’s obsession with clockwork precision timed trains than Zürich’s Grand Central Station (Hauptbahnhof)? So why would anyone even consider hiring a car in Zürich?
Do I need a car in Zürich? Introduction
Why rent a car in Zürich?
When is it worth hiring a car in Zürich?
- Costly trains — trains in Switzerland, and particularly in and around Zürich might well be superb, but they can also be outrageously expensive. Even though car hire at Zürich airport is not cheap either, sharing a car with a group of people might work out cheaper than going by train.
- Train booking hell – the trains might be great, but finding the best deal is a complete nightmare (see below). You might find it easier just to book a car!
- Scenic drives — the trains may be excellent, but they are, as Jeremy Clarkson might say, a bit pedestrian. Hit the A3 out of Zürich, and you will soon be heading into Switzerland’s finest driving country. For many (but not all, as some of the rail routes are away from any roads) of the train routes listed below, it might be just as (or almost as, ed) secenic to take the car – and you have the usuals of exploring at your own pace and going off the beaten track.
- Stelvio — of all the roads in Europe, the Stelvio pass was rated by Top Gear as the best driving experience. To enjoy this at its fullest, drive to Davos and then continue to Zernez, before going through the Ofen Pass to Sluderno. The Stelvio Pass is actually in neighbouring Italy en route S38 towards Bormio. From here, you can head back through the La Schera tunnel, or through the Bernina Pass, taking a similar route to the Bernina railway line.
Why not? Visiting Zürich without a car
There are too many outstanding rail routes which can be taken from Zürich to mention them all, so here are a few highlights:
- Value train tickets — Swiss rail tickets can seem outrageously expensive, but there are numerous ways to get a better deal. Firstly, you can book in advance on some of the trunk routes, just like advance purchase tickets on British trains – although the value tickets are only on sale on selected routes, no more than 15 days in advance, and often you can only get fares on direct train services. Unfortunately, although Switzerland may have many Brunel accolites, the fares manual and website have come firmly from the stable of Brittas.
- Travel passes – The best option for travelling around is to get one of the Swiss travel system passes. These provide unlimited travel on a set number of days, and this includes all mainline rail services, together with lake cruises and connecting buses. However, you will still have to pay for some mountain railways and cable cars, although you will at least get a partial discount. Note that due to currency fluctuations, the cost of even these passes has risen sharply – I last bought one in 2007 for around £100, now you will only see £5 change from £200! Note – if you have an unlimited train pass, you may find cheaper flights to Geneva or Basel instead of Zurich.
- Pass discounts. At the time of writing, a 30% discount offer is available for Swiss flexi-passes, although this expires at the end of November 2011. Worth keeping an eye out for future offers (we will try and update when we hear anything).
- Regional Passes – if you don’t fancy travelling around the whole country, you can get a regional pass to cover a smaller area. However, these aren’t cheap either – for example the Bernese Oberland pass comes in at a whopping £170 for 3 days travel in 7 (half price on other days) – and you still only get 50% off the Jungfrau and Schilthorn excursions. This is what happens when there is no other way of getting there – and however costly, these routes are truly priceless!
- Mountain add-ons. Add a mountain railway ticket at the time of booking a Swiss Rail pass, and the cost is just about bearable – £25 for Murren or £27 for Schilthorn. The Jungfrau line doesn’t even get a mention – you will need your own Swiss bank account to pay for that one (£128 day return from Interlaken).
- Jungfraujoch discount – discounts are available with most passes, and you may be able to start your ticket from Kleine Scheidegg, and get an early or late ticket to pay a lot less – potentially as little as £32, if you accept the restrictions. Either way, good luck trying to drive a car to the ‘Top of Europe!’.
- Swiss transfer ticket – Another option if you’re just travelling between the airport and one destination is to get the Swiss transfer ticket, which gives you free train travel anywhere in the country on the day you arrive and on the day of your return journey. This must be bought outside the country, and currently costs £95.
- Relative cost — car hire in Switzerland is more expensive than any other country in Europe, apart from Scandinavia. There are no bargain car hire deals at Zürich airport to be had, just expensive and even more expensive, and you still need to pay for petrol. So, even if you think the Swiss trains are expensive, car hire is unlikely to be much of a cheaper option, unless three or more people are travelling together.
- Famous resorts — the world-famous resort of St Moritz, Davos and Klosters are within easy and stunningly scenic train ride from Zürich. Slightly lesser known is Arosa, home of the Tschuggen Grand spa resort, where stunning modern architecture meets an equally impressive alpine backdrop.
- Glacier Express — Clarkson might be right about this one, it is the slowest intercity train in the world, but why would you want to go fast, when the views are so impressive at every turn? This runs from Zermatt to St Moritz, taking in the world-famous Landwasser viaduct on the way.
- Just incase the Glacier express isn’t enough, you can continue onward from St Moritz on the Bernina line into Italy and along the shores of Lake Como, terminating in either Bergamo or Milan. The flight home from here might even be slightly cheaper — or do it the other way round, so you don’t miss out on your duty-free allowance which is available on flights from Switzerland. This route takes in the amazing Brusio Spiral Viaduct.
- Better connections – Compared to Geneva, Zürich airport has better connections to the Bernese Oberland and Zermatt, although Bern is closer still. Needless to say, the railway routes here are superb too, and there are many places where you can’t even take a car — see our separate Bern page for more details.
- Cento Valli – A personal favourite Swiss rail route is the Cento Valli, it literally 100 valleys line between law Carno Locarno at the top of Lake Maggiore, and the Italian town of Domodossola. This can be done as part of a long circuit from Zürich — the main lines on either side are superb too, although it is actually closer to Milan. See our Milan page for other scenic rail routes in southern Switzerland and Lombardy.
- Southern Germany — Zürich isn’t just Gateway to some of Switzerland’s finest scenery, there are also a whole host of scenic lines to explore in south-west Germany, especially around the Upper Donau nature park. There are also various scenic routes around Lake Constance to the North East of Zürich.
- First-class trams — in Zürich, following abandoned plans to build an underground system, the trams are designed to operate at extremely high frequency, to integrate with other lines, and not to be hindered by traffic. This ‘Zurich model’ has been emulated in other cities that have since developed tram networks, with varying degrees of success. So if you have trams in your city that aren’t as good, blame it on Zurich – or at least attempts to emulate this model. Over 60% of journeys to work in Zurich are made by public transport, compared to less than 20% by car.
- Even the hotels have their own trains — or at least the Dolder Grand, recently redesigned by British architect Norman Foster, has its own private train.
- Lake cruises — take a cruise on Lake Zürich, another part of the integrated Swiss travel system.
- Sunday shopping — Swiss law prevents Sunday trading, except for shops which are inside railway stations. Therefore, Swiss railways developed the ‘Railcity’ concept of turning their major stations into genuine destination shopping centres, featuring high-quality shops and eateries, rather than just having the overpriced convenience food and impulse shopping that most British railway stations have. Both Zürich Hauptbahnhof (Central) and Zürich airport stations are impeccably designed retail centres as well as being major interchange points.
- Superb stations — whereas Zürich airport and Zürich Hauptbahnhof both impressive architectural feats in their own right, the big name station design is in Zürich’s secondary station of Stadelhofen. This is designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who also designed the new frontage to the main station in Lucerne.
- Europe’s crossrails — from Zürich you take the fast ICN tilting train to Bern, Geneva and other major cities in Switzerland, the ‘train formerly known as Cisalpino’, now just Eurocity to Milan, the German ICE train to Stuttgart, Frankfurt and beyond, and the French TGV to Paris. Express trains are also available to Liechtenstein, and on through Innsbruck towards Vienna in Austria. Few other cities in Europe offer this kind of connectivity.
- Genuine airport rail hub — even if you are not heading on one of Switzerland numerous scenic routes, Zürich airport is a genuine integrated rail hub, with services to numerous other Swiss cities, and not just to the centre of Zürich itself. For example, trains to Geneva start at Zürich airport, and direct services are also available to Basel, St Gallen and Romanshorn on the edge of Lake Constance.
Conclusion — Is it worth hiring a car in Zürich? Clearly, this is a long list of superlatively scenic train journeys (with a price to match) which can be taken from Zürich, a list which is expanded further still on our Bern page for central Switzerland, and our Milan page for southern Switzerland. This list might be written by a rail enthusiast, but this is undoubtedly a part of the world where anyone will appreciate these are unmissable train rides. So is it worth it to hire a car in Zürich? However, petrol heads will also believe that mountain scenery that makes a great train ride makes it even better drive, and there might well be some truth in that – as long as you are driving in areas that have through roads! So even though our recommendation is still to make the best possible use of the ruthlessly efficient Swiss travel system, the driving is amazing too, especially as drivers won’t experience quite the same level of mountain restrictions as there are around Bern (see Bern page).
Verdict – no (strong)