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Switzerland

Getting around

Despite a headline-grabbing three-hour power outage in 2005, and disruptions after that year's terrible flooding, Switzerland's fully integrated public transport system is one of the most efficient in the world. The Swiss think nothing of coordinating schedules with only a few minutes' leeway between arrivals and departures. Missing a connection through a late arrival is rare.

Travel within the country is expensive, however, and visitors who are planning to use public transport on inter-city routes are strongly advised to consider one of the Swiss Travel Passes.

Timetables often refer to Werktags (work days), which means Monday to Saturday, unless there is the qualification 'ausser Samstag' (except Saturday).

Boat

All the larger lakes are serviced by steamers operated by Swiss Federal Railways (SBB/CFF/FFS), or allied private companies for which national travel passes are valid. Lakes covered include Geneva, Constance, Lucerne, Lugano, Neuchâtel, Biel, Murten, Thun, Brienz and Zug, but not Lago Maggiore. Railpasses are not valid for cruises offered by smaller boat companies. The Swiss Boat Pass (Sfr35; valid for 1 year) gives you a 50% discount on travel on the country's 14 largest lakes.

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Public transport

All local city transport is linked via the same ticketing system, so you can change lines on one ticket. Usually you must buy tickets before boarding, from ticket dispensers at stops. Very occasionally you can also buy from machines on board.

In some Swiss towns, single tickets may give a time limit (eg one hour) for travel within a particular zone, and you can only break the journey within that time. Multistrip tickets may be available at a discount (validate them in the on-board machine at the outset of the journey), or one-day passes are even better value.

Inspectors regularly check for people travelling without tickets. Those found without a ticket pay an on-the-spot fine of up to Sfr80.

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Bus & tram

Bus

Yellow 'postal buses' (Postbus in German, Car Postal in French, Auto Postale in Italian) supplement the rail network, following postal routes and linking towns to the more inaccessible mountain regions. They are extremely regular, and departures tie in with train arrivals. Bus stations are invariably next to train stations. Travel is one class only.

For a flat fee of Sfr12, your luggage can be sent on ahead to a post office and picked up later - especially useful for hikers relying on the postal bus network.

For those schlepping home late from a club or rushing to make a red-eye flight, there are several Nightbuses (0900 100 201; mct.sbb.ch/mct/nightbird in German & French) on weekends.

Costs

Postal bus fares are comparable to train fares. All-day scenic journeys, for example, can cost between Sfr35 to Sfr85.

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Car & motorcycle

If you're deciding whether to travel by car or motorcycle, you should consider the effect your exhaust emissions will have on the Alpine environment. You might also find it frustrating to have to concentrate on the road while magnificent scenery unfolds all around. Public transport is excellent in city centres, where parking can make cars an inconvenience.

Fuel

Unleaded (bleifrei, sans plomb, senza plombo) petrol is standard, found at green pumps, but diesel is also widely available (black pumps). At the time of writing, unleaded fuel cost Sfr1.58 per litre, diesel Sfr1.68. For the latest prices, go to www.theaa.com and search for 'fuel'.

Hire

Car rental is expensive, especially if hiring from a multinational firm. It's cheaper to book ahead from your own country, but you're still looking at Sfr350 to Sfr500 per week. The minimum rental age is usually 25, but falls to 20 with some local firms, and you will always need a credit card. It is possible to drive Swiss hire-cars into most EU countries, including the 10 member states that joined in 2004. However, you cannot take them to Greece. Other off-limits countries include Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine.

National (local rate) and international reservation numbers and web addresses include the following:

Avis (0848 811 818; www.avis.ch)

Europcar (0848 808 099; www.europcar.ch)

Hertz (0848 811 010; www.hertz.ch)

Holiday Autos (www.holidayautos.com) Australia (1300 554 432); Switzerland (056 675 75 85); UK (0870 400 0099); USA (1-800 422 7737)

Sixt (/0848 884 444)(www.sixt.ch)

Thrifty (Australia 1300 367 227; www.thrifty.com.au; New Zealand 09-309 0111; www.thrifty.co.nz; UK 01494 751 600; www.thrifty.co.uk).

Urban parking

Street parking in the centre (assuming traffic isn't banned, as it often is) is controlled by parking meters during working hours (8am to 7pm Monday to Saturday). Parking costs around Sfr1 to Sfr1.50 per hour, with maximum time limits from 30 minutes to two hours. Central streets outside these metered areas are usually marked as blue zones, allowing a 1½-hour stay during working hours, or as (increasingly rare) red zones, with a 15-hour maximum. In either of the latter two cases, you need to display a parking disc in your window indicating the time you first parked. Discs are available for free from tourist offices, car-rental companies and police stations.

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Train

The Swiss rail network combines state-run and private operations. The Swiss Federal Railway (www.rail.ch, www.sbb.ch/en) is abbreviated to SBB in German, CFF in French and FFS in Italian. All major train stations are connected to each other by hourly departures, which are normally between 6am and midnight.

Long-distance trains usually have a dining car. Smoking is banned on all trains and train stations.

Costs

Ordinary fares are relatively expensive, at about Sfr30 per 100km. A national travel pass will undoubtedly save you money.

Return fares are only cheaper than two singles for longer trips. Special deals are sometimes available in the low season.

All fares quoted in this guide are for 2nd-class travel unless stated otherwise; 1st-class fares average 50% to 65% higher.

Information

All stations, large and small, can provide advice in English, and free timetable booklets are invariably available. There's a Switzerland-wide number for train information (0900 300 300); calls are charged at Sfr1.19 per minute.

Train schedules are revised every December, so double-check all fares and frequencies.

Luggage

Train stations invariably offer luggage storage, either at a special counter (usually Sfr8 per piece) or in 24-hour lockers (Sfr3 to Sfr4 for a small locker, Sfr4 to Sfr6 for a large one).

Nearly every station allows ticket-holders to send their luggage ahead - yes, even after 9/11 - where you can dispatch your bag before 9am and collect it at your destination station after 6pm. This is especially useful if you're visiting several different locations in a day before your overnight stop. This 'fast baggage' service is Sfr20 per item (up to 25kg) and your luggage will be screened.

Platforms

Station announcements, in German, French, English and frequently Italian, state on which track (Gleis in German, voie in French, binario in Italian) a particular train is due. Station platforms are quite long and are divided into sections, A to D. Pay special attention to announcements, as sometimes small rural trains wait at the furthest end of the platform.

Reservations & tickets

Seat reservations are advisable for longer journeys in the high season and usually cost an extra Sfr5.

Some smaller, rural rail routes, marked with a yellow eye pictogram, have a 'self-control' ticketing system. On these routes, be sure to buy a ticket before boarding, or you'll risk a fine. Ticket inspectors do appear quite frequently.

Single train tickets for journeys over 80km are valid for two days. It is possible to break the journey on the same ticket - but tell the conductor before your ticket is punched.

Return tickets over 160km are valid for a month and similarly allow you to break your journey.

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Travel documents

Reservations

Tickets are usually purchased from the driver, though on some scenic routes over the Alps (eg, the Lugano-St Moritz run) advance reservations are necessary. See www.postbus.ch for details.

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Tours

Numerous day trips can be booked through local tourist offices. The country is so compact that excursions to major national attractions are offered from most towns. A trip to Jungfraujoch, for example, is available from Zürich, Geneva, Bern, Lucerne and Interlaken.

Most of these tours represent reasonable value. They are good if you are pressed for time and sometimes cheaper than organising it yourself.

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Air

Internal flights are of little interest to most visitors, owing to Switzerland's compact size and excellent rail transport. However, Swiss International Air Lines (www.swiss.com) does serve all major hubs, such as EuroAirport, Geneva and Zürich airports. Return fares start from about Sfr250.

Some mountain resorts have helicopter operators offering flights around the Alps. There are also scenic Zeppelin airship rides over Lakes Lucerne and Constance.

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Bicycle

Hire

Rent A Bike (www.rent-a-bike.ch in German & French) hires out bikes at around 100 train stations. Prices start at Sfr23 for a half day, and Sfr31 for a full day, and there are discounts for Swiss travel pass-holders. Counters are open daily, usually from the crack of dawn until some time in the evening. If you inform staff beforehand, you can return your bike to any other station with a rental counter, but it costs Sfr6 more. There's a huge demand for these rental bikes during summer, so try to reserve your bike at least a day or two ahead.

Many SYHA Hostels (www.youthhostel.ch) also now rent out bikes, even to nonguests. Prices are Sfr10 for a half day and Sfr15 for a full day, although you will have to leave a Sfr100 deposit. Booking is also necessary.

There is free bike rental in Bern, Geneva, Zug and Zürich.

Transport

One bike per passenger can be taken on slower trains, and sometimes even on InterCity (IC) or EuroCity (EC) trains, when there is enough room in the luggage carriage (Sfr15, or Sfr10 with valid Swiss travel pass). Between 31 March and 31 October, you must book (SFr5) to take your bike on ICN (inter-city tilting) trains.

Trains that do not permit accompanied bikes are marked with a crossed-out pictogram in the timetable. Sending your bike unaccompanied costs Sfr16 to Sfr32, depending on its size.

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