Public Transport

Zürich consistently makes it into the top 5 cities around the world for “best place to live” and one of the reasons for that is the public transport system. Luckily for us, this extends beyond Zürich and into Switzerland as a whole. So it is good to know how to make the most of this facility and how to buy tickets to make it as cost effective as possible. There are various ticket options and don’t forget if you have a dog or a bike going with you, they need tickets too! You can save money if you know the choices available. Luckily there is lots of useful information on the internet and also people and places to go for help and advice if your travel plans are a little more complicated. You can buy tickets online, on your smart phone, at machines and also at stations and ticket offices. One of the key things to know is that the whole of Switzerland operates on a ‘self-check’ (selbst-kontrolle) basis, which means you are responsible for having purchased a ticket before you board the train or tram as there are no ticket barriers. Buses have the option of paying the driver when you board. Routine ticket checks are made on the trains and random inspections are made on trams and buses.
This is the “selbst-kontrolle” icon that reminds passengers that they are responsible for paying in advance of boarding. Penalties (Bussen), minimum CHF100, apply if you are caught without a valid ticket, so don’t take a chance and travel without.
This article covers using machines, online information and services as well as seeking direct help and advice at the SBB customer travel offices (Reisebüro) and the ZVV (buses and trams) customer service shops (Kundendienst). SBB stands for Schweizerische Bundesbahnen in German and refers to the whole Swiss train system. ZVV is the Zürcher Verkehrsverbund, for the whole of the Canton of Zürich and includes the S-Bahn trains. The local and the countrywide transport is very integrated and once you start using it you will notice how the bus, tram and train times are often coordinated enabling you to use them all relatively seamlessly! The co-ordination goes beyond timings. As long as your ticket is valid for all the zones you travel in, then you are free to use bus, tram, train and in some cases, boats and mountain side trains (Seilbahn), all on the same ticket. There isn’t space to cover all aspects of ticket buying so I will focus primarily on tickets for every day travel. I strongly advise that if you are making a more complicated journey, or you want to undertake international travel to the neighbouring countries of France, Germany, Italy or beyond, or you have visitors and you plan to travel with them by train, then visit the travel office (Reisebüro) at the main station (Hauptbahnhof). I have always found the staff to be extremely helpful in helping me to buy the most cost-effective tickets for guests and for our own international travel. International travel can be cheaper if you plan well in advance as there are sometimes special offers, for example on the TGV from Zürich to Paris for as little as CHF 32 one way.
Buying tickets at the vending machine.
Let’s start with the ticket machines that you will see almost everywhere there is a tram or train stop. Some city bus stops have machines too, but if you are at a bus stop without a machine, then you can pay the driver when you board the bus. Knowing how to use the machines saves time. There are rarely queues at ticket machines. However, the options can be confusing. For example, knowing when you need a ‘short distance ticket’ (Kurzstrecke) or a connecting/top up ticket (Anschlussbillet) to extend a ticket you already have or when to buy a 24 hour ticket as well as what zones your ticket needs to cover. These are all essential bits of information that help you save money and buy the correct ticket to avoid penalties. On the machines you will also see options for the 9 o’clock day pass. This is a very useful ticket, valid between 9 am to 5 am the following day for the whole of the ZVV network: great for days out anywhere in the Canton as long as you travel after 9am. The Day Pass is a 24 hour ticket. You can specify how many zones you want the ticket to cover, which is useful if you need to travel before 9am and/or the distance you are travelling is much less than Canton-wide. Reference to the zone maps that appear on the machines will help you to decide which is you best option. The newer machines offer language options and this helps with buying the best ticket once you know something about ticket variations.
Single journey tickets (Einzelbillette) – regardless of how may zones – are valid for just one hour, either from the time of purchase or from the time of validation (see below). If you want to make multiple journeys then get a 24 hour ticket (Tageskarte)– the cost is usually the same as two journeys within the given zones, but during the 24 hours you can make as many trips as you like. If you frequently make single journeys you can buy a card with 6x1 hour tickets (Mehrfahrtenkarte) to be validated (see below) at the start of each journey, this also saves money.
Handy to know:
Kurzstrecke – a short distance and/or top up ticket is for travelling roughly five or less stops. It is valid for 30 minutes, which is immediate, unless you specifiy an advance purchase ticket. The list of stops shown on the ticket machine indicates how far you can travel from that point. To buy multiple Kurzstrecke in advance, select the Kurzstrecke option and proceed as above for the multiple in advance options. Don’t forget to validate (see below) just before you get on the bus or tram.
Anschlussbillet – these ‘connecting/extension’ tickets are useful when you already have a ticket but it doesn’t extend as far as you need at that moment. A good example would be having a city zone ticket, 110 (this is already a 1-2 zone area) and needing to get to the airport which is in zone 121. Select the Zone Upgrade in English (Anschlussbillett in German) either for a short time (Kurzzeit) or 24 hour. You can then upgrade an extra zone or more. in the case of the airport from Zürich, you would choose the 1-2 zone option.
Zürich Card 24 or 72 hour (ZürichCARD)
This can be a cost effective option for getting around the city of Zürich and the surrounding area (do check that the zones covered by this ticket include where you plan to travel. This ticket covers the immediately neighbouring zones to the central 110 zone). The additional advantage of this ticket is that it includes discounts and entrances to some Museums and other Zürich attractions as well as restaurants and shops. It also includes some of the shorter boat trips on the lake and the riverboat from Landesmuseum to the Zurihorn and back. Full details here or at the train stations and tourist office.
This can be a useful ticket when you have visitors if most of your explorations involve the city and attractions nearby. It includes travel to and from the airport. If you plan to travel further afield than the city area and have no plans to visit Museums etc, then other options might be better.
ZVV Network-Pass – NetzPass
If you travel a lot throughout particular zones (from just 1-2 through to all zones in the ZVV network) on a regular basis then you might want to consider getting an annual Netzpass. This enables you to travel as much as you like within the zones you have pre-paid to cover. You can also get a monthly NetzPass if you don’t need a whole year. These kinds of tickets are called Abonnement (Abo) or subscription passes paid in advance. You will receive a credit card type pass with an identification picture and additional details to show to inspectors but you won’t need to bother with buying tickets in advance or validating as long as you travel within the zone(s) for which your NetzPass is valid. If you occasionally travel beyond those zones, simply buy an Anschlussbillet (see above) for that extra journey.
Night time Network – NachtNetz
If you need to travel on the ZVV network between the hours of 1am and 5am (when the trams and normal buses are not running, you will need to pay a night supplement (Nachtzuschlag) of CHF 5 per single journey. These tickets are available at the machines and via the ZVV-Ticket-App or via SMS. Note that these night time tickets are IN ADDITION to the normal daytime ticket for the relevant zones. (Note that night supplements also apply to SBB trains. For example services running 1.35am – 5am between Zürich-Zug-Lucerne.)
Validating Tickets: Remember to validate (time punch) advance purchase tickets so that they are time stamped. Not having a validated ticket is also subject to penalties. You can validate your ticket at any ticket machine. For the trains, you will find orange boxes with the Selbst-kontrolle icon and a picture of how to validate your ticket. Note, that train tickets with seat reservations or online tickets, which are purchased for a specific journey on a specific date cannot be validated in these orange machines but will be checked and validated by the train conductor. If your ticket matches the shape shown on the validating machine, (see image below), then it needs validating before you board the train, bus or tram. There are no validation machines on board trains, trams. The validation process for busses varies so check with the driver if you are unsure.
Tickets on your phone
More recently the SBB has developed an App for buying tickets that are then downloaded to your phone. You download the App, fill in the appropriate personal and payment information and you are good to go! You must buy your ticket before you start your journey or you face the prospect of penalties if you are found without the correct ticket at the start of the journey. The ticket will show a QR code or Glyph (confirmation of a valid ticket code) on your phone which the ticket conductor/inspector handheld machine can read electronically.
Tickets for travel beyond Zürich
Half Fare Cards and GA Travel Card
If you are going further afield then you will need to use the SBB trains and become familiar with train ticket options. If you travel a lot on the train beyond the Canton of Zürich then it is well worth considering a Half-Fare Card (Halbtax Abo) which means you pay just half price on all the tickets you buy throughout Switzerland or maybe the GA Travelcard (Gerneral Abonnement), the Swiss Pass card that means you have paid in advance for all you travel throughout Switzerland and rarely need to think about buying tickets at all. (The exceptions are privately run mountain trains or boats, though you sometimes get a 50% discount on these with a HalbTax or GA.) Half Fare and GA Travel cards are available as either annual or monthly cards. If you buy a GA Abo and you and your partner are married and you both travel relatively frequently by train, you will get an extra discount if you buy your GA Swiss Pass together. You will need to provide your marriage certificate to show that you qualify for the ‘Duo’ discount.
There are other savings to be made if you don’t travel enough to justify a GA or a Half-Fare Card. For example: The 9 o’clock Travelpass with the SBB (as distinct from the ZVV Canton pass, see above) is valid with a Half-Fare Card and enables you to travel anywhere in Switzerland on that day/evening from Monday-Friday. You can buy multipacks to save even more. If you wish to travel before 9am, then get the single day travelpass or multipack, also only valid with a Half-Fare Card or GA Swiss Pass.
Going on holiday and not using your GA for a while? You can ‘deposit’ your GA for up to 30 days in any calendar year your GA is valid. Either go to a ticket office to arrange to ‘suspend’ using your GA for you selected dates (don’t forget that you don’t want to suspend the GA before you have got to the airport or left the country! And you want it to restart the day you return.) The GA will be deactivated as valid for the selected dates and automatically reactivated on the day it is booked to restart. The savings from ‘depositing’ the card (you don’t physically deposit the card these days) is then credited to the next time you renew your annual subscription or refunded if you cancel your GA card at a future date.
City Ticket
Another way to save money when you purchase a ticket to another part of Switzerland is to buy a City Ticket, which includes a 1 day pass for local transport in the city you are visiting – very useful for visits to places like Bern, Basel, Geneva and many more. That will enable you to hop on and off all the local buses and trams for the duration of that days visit.
Bikes, Dogs, Seat Reservations
International Travel: The SBB has discount arrangements with neighbouring countries, i.e. France, German and Italy. So when you book a train ticket to travel to these countries you will also qualify for a small discount on the trains there too if you have a GA or Halbtax! Some long distance routes, international trains to France, Germany and Italy may require seat reservations for travel. For others, you can sometimes make a reservation for a small extra charge via the online shop, in person or the smartphone app. You will need to have a ticket for your dog and for your bike. If you are taking your bike look out for the special carriages that have spaces for bikes. There are limitations on the number of bike spaces available on some routes and at peak times, so check before you head out.
For online information about tickets for the whole train system, go to:
Here, you will find lots of information in English and a guide to the full range of tickets you can buy and the methods of purchase including online, smart phone and MMS tickets as well as special tickets for guests. Note: for your visitors to Switzerland, if they plan to travel a lot around Switzerland while they are visiting, they should probably purchase special visitor Swiss Passes BEFORE they arrive. Foreign visitors to Switzerland can buy tickets at special rates if they buy these tickets in their own country. An alternative is to buy a one month Half Fare Card for CHF120 and get half price on everything including boat tickets all over Switzerland in the same way as residents.
Check for online Supersaver Tickets, if you can plan in advance you can save up to 50% on a ticket! These discounted tickets are limited in number so you need to be an early bird! You will need to specify the route, the departure time, the name and date of birth of the passenger. Make sure to carry ID to confirm the name and DOB for ticket checks.
Discounts for Children: There are lots of special discounts for children. Children under 6 accompanied by a person aged 12 or above holding a valid ticket can travel everywhere for free! From the age of 6-16 children travel half price and there are lots of other special tickets including monthly and annual travel cards for children as well as young adults. See the SBB website for more information. Look out for the special “Family Coaches” on some trains. The double-deck long distance trains include a “Ticki Park’ coach, a playground on a train! A great way to keep the little ones who don’t want to sit still entertained! How cool is that?
For Zürich Kanton tickets, the online information is here.
The website is in English and German. In addition there are many ZVV customer service shops (Kundendienst) at various train stations in the city or main tram interchanges such as Bellevue, Paradeplatz, or Albisreidplatz for tickets and help in English.
So ditch the car and the worries about where to park, the traffic jams or who will drive home after a fun night out! Public transport is also great for hikers, as all the ZIWA hikers know. We never need to worry about needing to get back to where the car is parked or our starting point – and if the weather changes or you run out of energy it is quite likely you can connect with a Post Bus, even up in the mountains! However, do check what the options are before you go! Get acquainted with how easy it is travel anywhere in Zürich or even the whole of Switzerland. Then you can relax with someone else doing the driving!
The information contained was up to date when published. Elaine Vautier 21-05-2020

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