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Transportation: Riding the Swiss Rails with Chocolate and Cheese is a Picnic

We should never have listened to the kindly British woman riding the Swiss railway. Seeing us clambering aboard with knapsacks, reading material and the kids’ hackysacks (great for free play in Swiss train stations), she struck up a conversation. “Did we know that we had to change trains in Bulle?” she asked as we clacketed through the green velvety mountains near Gruyères. “Oh, but you must change in Bulle,” she said with a knowing look. “Or you won’t get to Geneva by tonight.”

Considering that there are some 13,000 miles of interconnecting train, bus and boat routes in such a small country, we thanked her profusely and left the train. “Where do we catch the train for Geneva?” I asked an official. I should have predicted it. Without consulting either the large hanging train timetable or his clipboard, he pointed to the train we’d just left—now starting to move. We all watched as it picked up speed, whooshed out of the station and disappeared.

Now what? Thankfully, the Swiss train officials speak English, and they worked out a plan to chase down the train. We knew that the Swiss Travel System included lake steamers, mountain postal buses, aerial cable cars and cog railways. But we had no idea that high-speed taxi rides along winding country roads would be part of our great rail adventure through the land of cheese and chocolate. Thankfully, with a little help from our friends, we connected to a train that connected to our original train somewhere down the line.

Switzerland offers the world’s densest public transportation network, and it could arguably be called the world’s best. It’s fast and easy. Families can board the train for anywhere from the Bern or Zurich airports. Send your luggage on ahead or even get your boarding passes for some flights at some train stations. For kids, there are special play cars with toys and play equipment such as spotted creature slides. For parents—special changing facilities for babies and extra space for strollers. For cycling families, more than 4000 bikes await at more than 150 Swiss train stations. Rent them for about $20 per day for adults, $16 for kids including insurance. You can even rent them at one station and drop them off at another.

Best of all, however, is that kids up to 16 travel free when matched with a traveling parent. If you want to bring along one of their friends, non-family members between six and 16 receive a 50 percent discount on all Swiss Travel System tickets. Everyone gets discounts for public transportation systems in 36 Swiss cities and for mountain top excursions. One day, we rode a funicular, a mountain railway and two aerial cable cars up 10,000 feet to the Schilthorn Alp, where we had a view of 200 peaks from the revolving solar-powered Piz Gloria restaurant (featured in a James Bond movie). For those families wishing to embark on this fun, easy and extremely scenic adventure, here’s a lowdown on how to see this beautiful country through a rolling picture window (prices Second Class):

Swiss Pass: Unlimited travel on consecutive days includes scenic rail journeys such as the Heidi Express, lake steamers and discounts for mountain excursions. From $264 for four days of travel. When two adults travel together, the price is about $225.

New Swiss Youth Pass: Discounted travel for youth under 26 years starts at about $198 for four days of consecutive train travel.

Swiss Flexipass: For families not wanting to travel every day, this pass allows three to eight days of travel in one month. Starts at $258 with a discount for two adults traveling together.

Swiss Transfer Ticket: For families planning to vacation around one destination (ski or hiking holidays for example), this ticket offers a roundtrip ticket to anywhere in Switzerland for about $126. Each leg must be completed same day.

Swiss Card: A further 50 percent discount on all further train, bus or boat travel within the country including most mountain top excursions. Valid for one month from $182.

Swiss Travel System Family Card: This is the card families need to allow children up to 16 years to travel free on all of the above. One travelling parent accompanies each child. It’s a great bargain.

One word of caution: make sure to set watches to station time. The Swiss are not kidding when they say that their travel system runs with “perfectly synchronized timetables” and “clockwork punctuality.” We saw funiculars and cable cars counting down seconds before taking flight. The kids loved watching clock hands reach the minute of departure. In the stunning mountain-ridged town of Interlaken, we hiked to the train station. Only three minutes late, but the train had left 180 seconds earlier. It was an hour of impromptu picnicking and hackeysack football until the next train.

For tickets and rail information, visit Rail Europe, www.raileurope.com or consult your travel agent. For family-friendly activities and attractions in Switzerland, call1-800-794-7795 or visit www.myswitzerland.com and click on family.





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