Of course, the Glacier Express train from St. Moritz to Zermatt had to be included in our 2 week Swiss train itinerary. This iconic scenic train ride that crosses Switzerland east to west over the high alps and links two of the world’s famous ski resorts is a must-do for anyone interested in train travel or beautiful scenery.
However, while booking our train journey I hit a bump when I wanted to get tickets for the Glacier Express. They were sold out! 3 months in advance and I couldn’t get a single ticket for my desired travel dates. Not in first class and not in second class. I searched for alternatives to ride the Glacier Express and found a number of solutions. During our trip, we ended up experiencing them all. Here is my breakdown of my experiences riding the Glacier Express in Switzerland.
Glacier Express Switzerland
Opened in 1930, the 291 km (181 miles) train journey on the Glacier Express connects the alpine villages of Zermatt and St. Moritz. On one day, you can see the Matterhorn and the mountains around it and explore the glamorous ski-resort of St. Moritz.
Known as the slowest express train in the world, the Glacier Express takes 8 hours to complete. Not so fast, but it’s a one-train ride from St. Moritz to Zermatt. On the route, you’ll cross 291 bridges, go through 91 tunnels and pass many isolated Alpine villages.
Glacier Express train
The Glacier Express train is a poster child of what panoramic trains should look like. The big, bright dome-shaped windows offer a 180-degree view of the landscape. The carriages on the Glacier Express in first class are luxurious with leather seating, tray tables, and air conditioning. The catering service makes sure to serve you on-board cooked lunches and they serve a range of drinks (Champagne anyone?).
Each carriage is equipped with information booklets and you can plug in your headphones to hear the information in different languages. The stewards on board the train might help you and function as a tour guide if you have any questions.
Our train journey from St. Moritz to Zermatt
We were based in St. Moritz because we took a ride on the beautiful Bernina Express. After exploring St. Moritz, it was time to cross Switzerland and go to Zermatt and explore the Matterhorn area. We took the train in September and traveled on a Sunday.
3 Months before our trip, I wanted to reserve seats on the Glacier Express but it turned out that all seats were taken. There are 3 Glacier Express trains a day in summer but all of them were completely booked.
Both first and second class were full and I couldn’t get a ticket anymore. As our time in Switzerland was very limited and I’d already booked other trips, we had to travel on this specific day.
I ended up booking the early morning 7 am ticket from St. Moritz to Chur and then we decided to book the extra late afternoon train from Chur to Zermatt on the Glacier Express.
It would mean a 5-hour layover in Chur, but I decided to book it. When we arrived in Chur, all tired and a bit overwhelmed by the long day ahead of us, we decided to take the local train from Chur to Zermatt.
It was wasted money for the reservation but in the end the right decision. We took the local train and followed the same route as the Glacier Express. We saw the same views and still managed to complete the route in 8 hours. Here is what it was like.
St. Moritz seems to be best known for the rich and famous that make it their ski resort in winter. In summer you can take breathtaking hikes and enjoy the views. We stayed 2 nights in St. Moritz which was a bit too much and too posh for our taste. We couldn’t wait to leave St. Moritz and travel to Zermatt by train.
We took the 7 am Glacier Express to Chur which was beautiful. The sun was rising and trying to peak over the mountains. The good part was: we had the whole carriage to ourselves. We could switch from the left side to the right side and walk around freely.
I think I wasn’t fully awake yet. We just came out of the Filisur tunnel and while the train chugged over the famous Landwasser Viaduct I suddenly realized with a shock: this was it! The famous Landwasser Viaduct. This 6 stone arch viaduct is iconic of scenic train travel in Switzerland and the massive viaduct is a true masterpiece of engineering.
The Landwasser Viaduct was built in 1902 and measures 65 meters (213 ft) in height and is 136 meters (446 ft) long! Exciting facts but it was more exciting to ride over it!
We meandered for a good 2 hours through the green landscape. You could clearly see we were descending to 545m (1,919ft) to Chur. Once we reached the Rhine River, we knew Chur wasn’t that far away anymore. We gathered our bags and left the train. We now would need to find a place to store our luggage and find a way to kill the 5 hours before our 2 pm Glacier Express train to Zermatt.
After ditching our bags, we took a moment to use the free WiFi at the train station. We were both sleep-deprived and calculated what time we’d arrive in Zermatt. It would be around 8 pm before we would get to Zermatt on the Glacier Express train. We didn’t really look forward to waiting that long to continue our train day. Also, the prospect of having to eat on the train didn’t appeal that much, as it was well over our budget.
After much deliberation (it was a hard decision) and researching all our options, we decided to collect our bags again and take the local train!
Chur to Disentis
When you take the local train that follows the Glacier Express route, you have to change trains a number of times. First in Chur and the 2nd time in Disentis. From Chur, you follow the Vorderrhein river as it meanders through the landscape. The left side is definitely the preferred side to sit on at this stretch of the journey. I was glued to the window, taking in the mountains and river views. On several occasions, we crossed the river, and because the train was almost empty, we switched seats to make sure not to miss a thing.
We arrived a little late in Disentis, but luckily for us, the train to Andermatt was actually waiting for us! Although we’re not on the actual Glacier Express, the route with local trains is well connected and easy to follow this way.
Disentis via Oberalp Pass to Andermatt
In Disentis we changed to a train from the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn; the local railway service. These trains are equipped to haul up the higher mountains and can even switch to a rack railway system to ride up against steep mountains or make descents with big inclines.
The ride from Disentis to Andermatt was all about the climb! We were backtracking, making loops and climbing up to the Oberalp Pass, the highest point on the Glacier Express route.
Oberalp Pass on the Glacier Express
The Oberalp Pass, at 2.044 meters (6,706ft) altitude is the highest point on the Glacier Express route. The train stop at the edge of the Oberalp Lake provided a stunning view. Especially because we had to wait for the upcoming train: the Glacier Express from Zermatt to St. Moritz!
There we were, sitting in our empty carriage, devouring our store bought (cheap) picnic lunch, while we looked at the Glacier Express passing by. It was fully packed to the brim with tourists who were having their 50€ lunches. It looked crammed, noisy and everyone was busy eating and taking Instagram pictures of their food, instead of looking out of the window. We felt blessed to be on a local train that fitted better with our travel style.
After the Oberalp Pass, it went downhill to Andermatt. A spectacular mountain descent where we backtracked and looped a couple of times to make it down the hill safely. Rolling into Andermatt I felt like looking at a scene of the Sound of Music. Rolling green hills, wooden iconic houses and wood stack barns. It looked lovely.
Andermatt to Visp
From Andermatt, we continued to Brig and Visp. The first part was really nice with the green Alps around us, going down the mountains and taking in the scenery. But the weather got worse and the train seemed to take forever. By now, we’d been on the train for almost 5 hours and it seemed we’d seen the best views already.
After the little station of Gletch, we traveled through the broad valley of the river Rhone, but we couldn’t see the river. We passed some impressive mountains but we couldn’t see them. Maybe with better weather, I’d have stayed awake but I might have dosed off a bit.
Once we arrived in Visp, it was time to switch to our last train of the day. We were getting a bit tired by the amount of time on the train and all the trains seemed to stop at every little hamlet. Although it took us just as long as the actual Glacier Express and you follow the same route, it felt by now that we were not getting anywhere.
The last hour from Visp to Zermatt was on a panoramic local train again. Bright windows gave us stunning views of the valley, the mountains, and the river. We followed the river which has some surprising twists and turns and impressive bridges.
Finally, we arrived in Zermatt. The weather was a bit overcast, so we didn’t see the Matterhorn from the train arriving in Zermatt but I was sure to see the famous mountain eventually. As we hauled into the train station, everyone exited the train excitingly. It had been quite a journey but the destination turned out to be 100% worth it.
Cute, car-free Zermatt is an exciting mountain village. It was lively and vibrant, bars and food stalls on the side of the street, day trippers mixed with mountaineers and the occasional summer skier. I instantly fell in love with Zermatt.
That love even grew larger when we settled into our comfortable airbnb apartment and hiked the 5 Lake Route in the mountains.
What if Glacier Express tickets are sold out?
3 Months before our travel date and all options were sold out. The first train, the 2nd and the 3rd train of the day all were sold out. No tickets in first class and even 2nd class was fully booked. We had to travel on the Glacier Express that Sunday, so how did we do it? I found some alternatives to the Glacier Express schedule.
Early morning route St. Moritz to Chur
The only available option for that day, to leave St. Moritz on the Glacier Express train was at 7 am. This train takes 2 hours to get to Chur. As this is one of the least favorite options for tour groups, this time was still available. The 7 am departure from St. Moritz is only available in Summer and doesn’t go all the way to Zermatt.
Evening train Chur to Zermatt with Glacier Express
As the regular trains from St. Moritz or Chur were not available, the only option left was the afternoon train from Chur to Zermatt. It leaves Chur at 2.16pm and you’ll arrive in Zermatt at 8.10pm. This only runs in summer but depending on the time of year, this might be a good option when the sun is out untill late. Otherwise, the sun will be behind the mountains for the last stretch of the route, which is a shame.
Book a tour to do the Glacier Express
If you’re not able to book your tickets yourself, either for the Glacier Express or one of the alternative stretches of the route, then you can always consider asking a travel agent or tour operator. You won’t join a tour but you’re buying a travel package that includes the train tickets and (optional) other travel-related products like transfers and hotels. Check out some of the options below:
- Glacier Express one day round trip from Zürich or from Basel or Bern
- Glacier Express with a guide from Lucerne
- 5-Day Glacier Express and Bernina Express from Zürich or Geneva
- 3-Day Glacier Express Tour from Zürich
- 4-Day Glacier Express and Bernina Express from Geneva
Local train Chur to St. Moritz
Although I had seat reservation on the Glacier Express for Chur to Zermatt for the afternoon/evening train, we decided to take the local route. I looked at the SBB app to find a route. Originally, Chur to Zermatt was advised to go back to Zurich and via Bern to Brig and Zermatt. As this isn’t the Glacier Express route (but faster), I added some stops on the route.
I picked Andermatt as a stop and then the SBB app gave me the exact same route as the Glacier Express with all the times, the platforms etc. Perfect. I made sure to screenshot it and off we went.
From Chur, we changed trains in Disentis, Andermatt, and Visp to arrive in Zermatt. As we had a 1st class Interrail ticket, we could ride in first class for the whole route which was just as comfortable and not as busy.
Local Train vs Glacier Express: Pros and Cons
In the end, we were very happy to take the local train. Yes, I did feel it wasn’t the real Glacier Express experience, but there were more pros than cons in the end. I’ll shortly list them below:
Pros Local Train St. Moritz to Zermatt
Price Level: The local train, without any discount, from St. Moritz to Zermatt will set you back 161 CHF in 2nd class (284 CHF in 1st class). But there are a ton of discount offers, like the Swiss half pass or a Swiss pass. We used our Interrail pass and traveled for free.
For the Glacier Express, the costs are 152/268 (2nd/1st class) but you need a mandatory reservation fee of 43 CHF (summer, less for spring, autumn and winter). It is much easier to save some money on the local trains. The local train is definitely a budget option to ride the Glacier Express.
Local trains are less busy
We traveled on a Sunday in September. The Glacier Express train was sold out months in advance, but the carriages we traveled in on the local trains were nearly empty. We shared the whole carriage with a maximum of 4 to 6 other people. We could walk around, move sides if the scenery was better on the other side and we enjoyed the quiet time together.
Hop on Hop off local trains
If you’d like to, you could hop off the train in any of the villages and take the next train. The local trains run once every hour and you can easily exit at Oberalp Pass and walk around, sit down and enjoy the view and take the next train. The same applies to any of the stops on the way. You can even stay overnight. If you’d do that with the Glacier Express, you have to pay the reservation fee for each leg of the journey you book.
As we were quite tired that day and carried our luggage, we continued to travel on the train.
No reservation fees
Another great pro for the local train vs the Glacier Express train is that you don’t have to pay the reservation fee. For summer, you’ll pay 43 CHF (33 CHF in spring and autumn and 23 CHF in winter) for each ticket. Even if you have a train pass and travel for free, the reservation fee is mandatory. Not on the local train. You only need a valid ticket but no reservation needed.
Interact with locals
Although the trains were quite empty, we did encounter some locals. We shared Ricola candy with an elderly couple, helped a woman with a baby embark the train and had some nice conversations with the train personnel.
Once an hour during the day instead of 3x on set times
The local trains run every hour. As early as 7 am you can be on your way to Zermatt. In Summer, the Glacier Express runs 3 times a day, but in Winter there is only one train a day. Booked up or missed it? Tough luck! Luckily for you, you can always ride the local train.
Crack open the window for pictures and filming
When we traveled on the Glacier Express train from St. Moritz to Chur, I looked for a window to open to take some pictures without the reflection of the glass-domed window. I couldn’t find a single window. On the local train, it was easy. Every landing between carriages had a window that opened up to take in the fresh Alpine air and shoot some pictures and videos of the scenery.
Cons to take the local train vs Glacier Express
As you can read above, riding the local train instead of the Glacier Express has a lot of advantages. But it wasn’t all glitter and glamour on the local trains. Read here some downsides of traveling by local train.
A lot of changing trains instead of 1 continues ride
We started in St. Moritz, switched in Chur, Disentis, Andermatt, and Visp before arriving in Zermatt. That is 4 changes instead of 1 continuous ride on the same train. It meant we had to be aware of our surroundings, make sure to get off the train, gather all our stuff and get the next train. Although this was super easy, no inconvenience for us and nice to stretch our legs, it might be different for people with huge suitcases or other big luggage.
The train stops at almost every station, making it a rather tedious ride
At some point between Andermatt and Visp, I frustratingly called out: “are we stopping again?!”
I like the continuous movement and sounds of a train riding the rails. But with a stop every 5 minutes, the train never gets to that continuous rocking flow that is relaxing and gives you the feeling you’re going somewhere.
No bright panoramic windows
The train from Visp to Zermatt had panoramic windows again, but the other trains were regular trains. Big windows, but not the dome-shaped panoramic windows of the Glacier Express. We had plenty of room to move around and stand up, sit somewhere else but those big windows are really nice.
No posh leather seating
The local trains were pretty basic. We sat in first class so I imagine the 2nd class would maybe be a little bit less comfortable. The trains were clean and the seats were big, but not the comfy leather seats of the Glacier Express. Especially the train from Andermatt to Visp had hard seats and was not so comfortable for my long legs.
No catering aboard the train
We packed our own snacks and drinks and brought lunch, but we didn’t see any catering aboard the local train. You do need to change at some stations, so there is room to buy some snacks if needed.
The Glacier Express offers 3-course lunches that are cooked on board the train. They come at 43 CHF which is more than we paid for a single dinner in Switzerland. We didn’t feel comfortable spending that much money on food on the train. Add in the drinks and you’re looking at 100+ CHF for a 2 person lunch. Of course, you don’t have to eat it, but if everyone else in 1st class is having their lunch and you’re not, you might feel uncomfortable (the key is to not give a beep but we’re only human!).
Conclusions: Glacier Express vs local Swiss trains
As you might get from above, the cons of riding the local Swiss train vs the Glacier Express were not big issues for us. We were happy to be flexible and travel when we wanted, for less money. In the end, we really enjoyed the Glacier Express route from St. Moritz to Zermatt because:
- The view and scenery is the same
- The route is the same
- The duration is the same
That is right, in the end, the local trains take 8 hours from St. Moritz to Zermatt. Same as the Glacier Express train. We enjoyed the same views because we traveled along the same route.
How to decide if the Glacier Express is right for you?
I hope you are able to make out some of the key differences from my story above. You can pick out the things that are important to you and decide if the pros and cons are a deciding factor to you. If you’re extremely wealthy and don’t care about spending money, then the Glacier Express is perfect for you.
Budget Tip for the Glacier Express
Luxury on the Glacier Express
If you want the luxurious experience, with leather crunchy seats, big panoramic windows, and catering in your seat, then book the Glacier Express!
Travel light or pack a wardrobe
If you haul huge suitcases around in Switzerland, are not really comfortable getting on and off the train, then you might be better off with the one-stop ride on the Glacier Express.
Glacier Express: Photographer’s Dream
Are you looking to take amazing scenic pictures or film the route of the Glacier Express, then the local trains will be your friends. Hop on and off at will and open a window. Do bring warm clothes as the high altitude and the wind from riding the train can get chilly.
Flexibility for Booking the Glacier Express
If you want more flexibility or ride the train last minute, or the Glacier Express is fully booked, then consider the local trains. In the end, we were very happy we did and had an amazing day on the train in Switzerland.
Wow, what an epic post this is. Well, it has been an epic train ride so it deserves a long post. I hope I was able to help you decide what to do when tickets for the Glacier Express train are sold out. Have you taken the Glacier Express? How did you travel from Zermatt to St. Moritz? Share your stories in the comment section below, I’d love the read it!
Images in the post have been taken by myself or my boyfriend unless stated otherwise. Pinterest images above are with special thanks to & copyright by Rhaetische Bahn By-line: swiss-image.ch/
Interrail sponsored me with a Global Rail Pass in first class. All opinions are my own as always.
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