We have visited some pretty amazing destinations over the past two years, but none have met with as much interest as our recent trip aboard the Bernina Express. A lady–a complete stranger–stopped me at the Post Office the other day and wanted details. (Hey, it’s a small community and people talk!) Truth be told, this was not the easiest trip to book, which is why I wanted to get some information up on the blog sooner rather than later. Rather than wax on, I’m just going to get right to the details and fill you in as we go.
Booking Bernina Express Tickets
Unless you want to go through a booking or tour company, Rhaetian Bahn’s www.rhb.ch is the site you’ll want when booking tickets. From there, you can book the Bernina Express, the Glacier Express, a car transporter train, and special tour packages. It’s worth spending some time on the site, just reading and researching the timetables and stops along the way.
Despite using 4 browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and even IE) and both a Mac and a Windows computer, I found RHB’s site to be rather glitchy. I never actually made it to the final screen to book tickets. I finally rang up RHB customer service and spoke to a very helpful lady who was fluent in English. As it turns out, you can’t actually buy the reduced-fare child ticket online, so I would’ve had to call anyway. Booking required a credit card to hold it all, but we paid at the station the day we left.
Ticket Prices and Seating
Compared to the price of regular European train travel, the Bernina Express is expensive. Adult tickets can run as low as CHF 49 one-way (the CHF, Swiss Franc, is roughly equivalent to the US Dollar) and as high as CHF 169. Small children can ride free if they sit on a parent’s lap; older children ride for half the price of the adult fare. All tickets are charged a CHF 29 booking fee. In total, we paid CHF 376 round trip for two adults and two children in second-class seating.
Although the train is divided into first- and second-class cars, there’s very little difference between the two. First-class cars are configured to have one pair of seats per panoramic window facing each other. Second-class cars, on the other hand, are configured to have two pairs of seats (four seats, in other words) per panoramic window. For a family of four, especially one with little kids, the second-class option was much better. The small table in between the seats gave us somewhere to color, play Minecraft (Zoey’s biggest concern), and eat. Seats in both first-class and second-class are assigned. That’s not to say you can’t get up and move around. Our trains were not even close to maximum capacity. You often saw first-class passengers milling around second-class and vice versa. On our return trip, we wound up moving across the aisle for a better view. (More on this after the picture.)
The best side (ie: most scenic) is the left. Because the cars are moved around so much, RHB cannot guarantee sides when you book. You can’t even heavily suggest which side you want…I tried. We sat on the “wrong” side each time but didn’t have any problems moving across the aisle to take pictures. Even the wrong side isn’t so bad, you just aren’t situated to catch the major attractions like the Brusio Spiral, the ice floes, and some of the major gulches.
Refreshments Aboard the Train
The Bernina Express isn’t set up to serve full meals (although you may find a few special dinner passages at times throughout the year). They do offer an acceptable refreshment service, including beers, wines, cocoa, and a few snacks (cookies, olives, and chips). They also allow passengers to bring on food and drinks. Our girls eat…and eat and eat and still get pretty “hangry.” We packed a huge assortment of snacks for them. Eddie brought a couple of beers, too. We did buy cocoa for Zoey and Harper on the way to Switzerland and Eddie bought a Swiss beer. Pricing is astronomical, so I recommend packing a nice picnic basket for yourself unless you just feel like splurging.
Stops, Stations, and Destinations
Travelers originating from Italy have two options when riding the Bernina Express. All RHB trains leave from Tirano, a tiny Italian town located just a hair’s breadth from the Swiss border. If you don’t have a vehicle (or hate driving on mountain roads), RHB does offer a motorcoach from Milan to Tirano. We made the 3-hour drive from our home to Tirano and parked for free at the bus station. Be aware, however, that parking is not plentiful. We actually nabbed the last long-term parking spot and returned to a dinged car door. If you drive, pad yourself with extra time in the event you have to look hard for parking. Incidentally, if you get to Tirano and need a casual spot for pizza and a beer, give La Pecora Nera (The Black Sheep) a try!
There are 9 train stations/terminals along the Bernina route. Where you stop really depends upon your taste in vacation spots. St. Moritz is a bit more cosmopolitan and expensive. Filisur is supposedly where the real train aficionados go because of the multiple tracks and lines. Davos and Chur are the hotspots for sports and leisure–skiing, hiking, etc. We chose Davos solely because we found an Airbnb we loved in that area. The ride to Davos was about 3-1/2 hours.
Staying and Dining
Hotels along the Bernina Express route were either wickedly expensive, had poor reviews, or were a combination of the two. We wound up using Airbnb this time and couldn’t be happier. For around $150 USD per night, we stayed in a rustic-but-lovely apartment attached to a working small animal farm in Davos Frauenkirch. The 2-1/2 bedroom apartment owned by Vreni and Peter was perfect for our girls. We heard the cows and sheep with their bells during the night, then awoke to a whole herd of curious sheep running down a hill to greet the girls.
Frauenkirch itself was tiny…one hotel/restaurant and a number of dairies. Thanks to some advanced information from the son of our Airbnb hosts, we picked up some groceries at CoOp right across from the Davos Platz train station. We chose to pay an extra CHF 10 per person per day for Vreni’s breakfast, which consisted of overnight oatmeal packed with wonderful fruit, local cheeses, bread, Nutella, coffee, and cocoa.
Landhaus Frauenkirch, just across from the Frauenkirch train station, was our go-to spot for dinner. Not knowing how busy they would be, we made reservations ahead of time. When we arrived, they had a lovely, large table reserved for us and had translated the menu. I certainly never expect English menus, so this was extremely kind. I truly got the impression that they don’t get American tourists often and took the time to make the translation for us. Dinner was a bit on the expensive side (about $140 for the family, which included two cocktails), but everything they served was amazing. Eddie had venison; I had a vegetarian dinner with candied chestnuts and winter vegetables.
In and Around Davos Platz
As anyone will tell you (and I’ve said a few times), Switzerland is expensive. We didn’t go with much of a plan to sightsee, choosing instead to feel our way around once we hit the ground. Our hosts provided us the Davos Klosters Card our first morning there. A pleasant surprise, the card allowed us to use the local trains and buses (Filisur, Davos, and Klosters) free of charge during our stay. It also allowed us free passage and entry to and from Jakobshorn, which was an amazing experience. The package details are on the site (linked via the card’s name above). If you happen to be traveling to Davos and have more time, you can potentially turn an expensive vacation into a thrifty one.
As a whole, this trip turned out to be one of our favorites. We typically set a $1000 budget on 4-day holidays. Believe it or not, we stayed pretty close to the mark. It’s always nice to have fun and realize that you didn’t break the bank. If you have any questions on the Bernina Express, please contact me. I could go on another 2000 words easily, and I’ll be happy to fill you in on everything. And if you want to follow our adventures, just “like” me on Instagram @shoemuse. We have some amazing trips coming up–Malta, Sicily, Spain, France, Austria, and England.