Friday 26 September 2014

Travelling in Switzerland with young kids, the boring logistics post

We took a one and three year old to Switzerland for 4 weeks, and this is my cheat sheet for other parents travelling with young kids in Switzerland.  It's based on my own experience and possibly-inaccurate deduction.

Here's our Swiss tourism wishlist map.  We certainly didn't do all of this, but we still covered quite a bit. 

Public Transport: Stroller friendly? Yes

The public transport is excellent, well, it's beyond excellent, it's amazing, and very stroller friendly.

The trains usually have stroller cars, luggage cars, and bike cars, marked with icons on the doors.  The problem is knowing where to stand on the platform: we found ourselves running back and forwards across a long platform a few times.  AFAICT the stroller car tends to be towards one end of the train, but it can be either.  Train platform signs look like this:

A, B, C refers to areas marked on the platform.  This train has 1st and 2nd class (2nd, 1st, 2nd) cars that will pull up to the B section, so that's where you need to stand.  1st and 2nd class are marked with 1 and 2 on the cars, and 1st class also has a yellow line running across the car (sometimes only part of a car will be 1st class).

Dear SBB: it would be great if the sign above also marked the location of stroller/bike/luggage cars.  We were never the only people madly pushing a stroller around the platform.

We had no trouble getting our double side-by-side McLaren through the train doors of the stroller/luggage/bike cars (they all seemed pretty similar).

Trams are a little more tricky, some are stroller friendly, some aren't.  To avoid a last-minute panicked stroller-collapse and kid-grab, look for the wheelchair symbol on the platform display:

If it's there, part of the train (sometimes the end, sometimes the middle) will be at the level of the platform and you can wheel right on.  Again, the double side-by-side McLaren fitted easily.  Once you're on a stroller friendly tram you will be able to wheel off at any station.

If the disabled sign isn't there it means all the carriages have steps and a metal hand rail in the middle, so you definitely need to collapse the stroller, which is sometimes better than waiting.

Public Transport: Half Fare Card

If you plan to use the trains to travel any significant distance, you should get consider getting a Swiss Half Fare Card as soon as you arrive, to get maximum return on your investment (it also covers buses, trams, and lots of special tourist trains and gondolas).

We bought ours from Zurich HB (on a Sunday, the train station is just about the only thing open on Sundays), and it cost 120 CHF, which sounds exorbitant, until you see the price of long distance train travel.  There's a rather bewildering array of Swiss travel card options, and note there's also a SBB half fare card which is for locals and requires a passport photo and is more expensive.  All you need for the tourist version is a passport or drivers license.  Note that the "card" (it's a paper ticket) is tied to your ID, so unless you want to carry your passport everywhere, you should ask the SBB office to photocopy it for you and carry that, or use ID that you will carry around all the time.

We almost made our money back just doing two return trips from Zurich to Lucerne, but definitely made it back after doing some of the expensive tourist rail trips (like Grindelwald to Jungfraujoch, which was 170 CHF full price return) and riding lots of gondolas to the top of mountains.

We also got pretty good value out of the Saas Fee Citizens Passport, but that's only because we spent quite a bit of time there.


Zurich has amazing playgrounds, and the zuriplay website has all the info you need to scope them out (QT Enge was probably our favourite - it has a cafe! I sorely wish we had one of these at home).  In fact we were impressed with many playgrounds all over Switzerland.  They were often unique, lovingly crafted with cool themes, and came with free sand toys for everyone to use.  Very few cookie-cutter plastic blobs.

A few restaurants with outdoor terraces also had playgrounds attached in the alpine resort towns, at which we threw money for a meal with adult conversation and quiet kids.

A number of gondola routes in the mountains have excellent playgrounds with mindblowing views at halfway stations: KreuzbodenWinteregg, and Bort in particular.


Are expensive.  We mostly rented places with kitchens and cooked for ourselves.  Migros and Coop are the major supermarkets, don't try to find alcohol in Migros.

Minimum Age for Tickets

Kids under 6 seem to consistently get free admission/travel for pretty much everything in Switzerland: public transport, museums, tourist attractions etc.

The one exception to this rule seems to be accommodation.  It seems to be relatively common to have a base rate, then pile on charges per-person (tourist taxes, cleaning etc.) which apply no matter how old that person might be.  Watch out for this on VRBO, where it is very difficult to accurately price compare, or sort by price, due to all these hidden charges.

Car Hire

We tossed up trying to use trains and public transport exclusively to get around Switzerland, but decided it was impractical with young kids. Trying to haul a cot, a stroller, two kids, 3 large bags and two backpacks in and out of trains would never have worked. Not to mention that we'd also have to organise taxis with car seats unless our destination was literally right at the train station.

So we hired a VW touran automatic for 12 days for about 1000CHF, which was pretty reasonable. Great car: enough room for all our stuff, LATCH mounts for car seats, and even enough space for an adult to sit between the two carseats comfortably. Better than what we have at home! For some reason it was about 200CHF cheaper to pick it up at the airport, so I took a train ride out there. The car comes with a motorway toll sticker.

The roads are excellent, signposting is good, and we had no trouble with using Google maps for navigation, even in the more remote country areas.

Mobile Phone SIM

We picked up a prepaid Orange SIM each for 10CHF, which gave us 2GB of data per month (although apparently I had to ask for this, otherwise I would have been capped at 20MB/day or something!?). Just enough for the time we were there without being too stingy and combined with some free wifi. There is an Orange storefront in the mall at ZRH airport. Coverage and data speeds were reasonable everywhere we went.

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Gruyères: cheese and bloodthirsty aliens, Bern

Last real tourist day, on the way back to Zurich we stopped in at Gruyères (of cheese fame) and Bern.

The approach to Château de Gruyères
View from the top of the castle
The strangest thing about Gruyères, is that the HR Giger Museum is right inside the castle.  If that name isn't familiar, perhaps this photo will give you a clue:

An alien-themed bar is not what I expected to find here.
So in the middle of all this medieval-ness there's a whole lot of chest-bursting alien sculpture.  It couldn't be more incongruous. Slate calls it a biomechanical dystopia hidden inside a Swiss medieval village.

So, onwards to Bern, for a whirlwind stroll though the old town.

Looking over the Aare

Park complete with bikes for kids to ride that you can borrow.  The swiss have amazing parks.

Parliament building

Fountains outside parliament

Bears living next to the river!  Zoomed out view of their habitat below.

This brewhouse bar next to the bear enclosure looked amazing. time, have to get back to Zurich, flying out tomorrow.
And so concluded the switzerland adventure.

Monday 22 September 2014

Creux-du-Van: a navigation disaster

With our final countryside day I really wanted to see the Creux-du-Van, which we were calling "the hole in the ground".  It's a huge amphitheatre-shaped circle of rock.

Unfortunately we had a terrible time getting there, which made it a stressful trip and not much fun.  I'll spare you the full horror story (see my review on maps if you want it), but basically Google maps took us a way that probably should have worked except at one point the road was blocked and only available to bikes.  We took a really long way round to fix that, only to find the road blocked again due to a car crash, necessitating taking an even longer way round.  This turned a one hour drive into more than three :(

We did eventually make it and the views were impressive. The cliff face is just a short muddy walk through a cow paddock (not really a path to speak of) from the cute little restaurant.  There's a stone wall to stop the livestock falling off the cliff, but to see the view you need to be on the other side where there is no barrier, which made us nervous with the two young kids in tow.


To top it all off, the weather was cold, wet, and windy, which made us all fairly miserable.  We abandoned ship, and drove home.

More really pretty vineyards on the way home was a nice bonus.  I think these were actually more beautiful than Lavaux, and certainly far less people around.

Sunday 21 September 2014

French-speaking countryside, Montreux, Lavaux vineyards

After the epic Jungfrau trip and dinner in Grindelwald we drove 2 hours to a tiny little rural village called Peney le Jorat, somewhat near Lausanne and Lake Geneva in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.  After winding our way through small roads in the countryside in the dark I was starting to doubt my idea of ditching the cities for an airbnb place in the middle of nowhere, but once we finally arrived around 10pm, I knew it was going to be great.

The owners had a son around the same age as our kids, which meant all sorts of luxuries, like heaps of age-appropriate toys, some new books to read, a sandpit, kids shampoo, and stairs protected by stair gates! It's amazing what gets me excited about accommodation these days..The only downside was that the kids were so excited by the toys that it was really hard to get them to sleep.


The other great thing, which wasn't apparent until the next morning, was that the area was amazingly pretty.

Rolling hills of the dairy farm (the village fromagerie was literally over the fence) from our front door.
View from the bathroom
Taking a stroll around the neighbourhood.  The kids loved checking out the cows, goats, sheep and chickens.
Double rainbow!

The first day we stocked up on food and basically had a rest day, strolling around the local area and letting the kids play in some parks. The next day we drove to Montreux, mostly to see the legendary castle on the lake.

Chillon Castle

Seeing the castle was interesting, but also very very long with two little kids that needed to be carried up all the stairs.  There are 40+ different areas to see, so budget a few hours.
Afterwards we drove through the very unimpressive Montreux old town (didn't even take a picture) then headed into the Lavaux vineyards, which march in lines spectacularly into Lake Geneva.  Sadly kids killed our wine tasting aspirations.
And when we got home, the view from our front door had gotten even better. 

Now with cows!

Friday 19 September 2014

Hello Jungfrau

Today we were scheduled to leave Grindelwald, but the weather looked pretty good, so we decided to execute plan "Last Minute Jungfrau".  This is not a trip you want to make and have it end in cloud, since a single return ticket from Grindelwald is 184 CHF!  I guess they did dig a tunnel through the friggin Eiger and build a mini city and winter Disneyland at 3466 m, so OK....Thankfully we had half-fare cards (you should almost certainly get one if you are going to do this trip) to make it more palatable.  I'd heard some people had made the trip and been unimpressed, and they thought it wasn't worth the money.  They were wrong.

Travel time from Grindelwald to Jungfraujoch is about 1:35 , so this is basically a full day affair once you account for looking around at the top and travel to/from the station.  We had no trouble parking at Grindelwald.  You switch trains at Kleine Scheidegg, where there is somewhat of a panicked rush as people attempt to get a seat on the side with the 'best' view, although it actually matters little because in very short order you enter a tunnel and stay in there till the top.

The first stop of note is at Eigerwand (2865 m), where you depart the train for a few minutes and have the amazing experience of looking out a window down the north face of the Eiger (this is the point of light in the middle of the mountain that you can see in the last photo in my previous post).  Sadly Em and the kids missed this because the youngest was fast asleep in her lap and it was the only chance he would have to nap today.

Looking directly down the face of the Eiger from the Eigerwand windows. This made a huge impression on me.  To get a view that only serious mountaineers and climbers can usually get after years of training, just by sitting on my butt on a train seemed amazing, and also like...cheating.

Looking out from Eigerwand

The windows in the north face of the Eiger

The next stop is Eismeer, same deal, get out and look through the windows.  Em still trapped under kid :(

Em's dad isn't the only guy crazy enough to visit glaciers in shorts.

View from Eismeer

View from Eismeer

Windows at Eismeer

Our train waiting at Eismeer
The next stop is Jungfraujoch itself.  It sits in a col at 3466 m between the Jungfrau (4158 m) and the Mönch (4107 m) and is the highest railway station in Europe.

We're at the top! It's cold outside but not crazy cold.
The Aletsch glacier. The mountain in the distance as the glacier rounds the corner is the Eggishorn, which we were standing on top of 5 days earlier!  In the foreground you can see a party of people crossing the glacier to the Mönchsjoch Hut, which actually sounds like a fairly easy but really fun walk (just crampons required I think, we saw a school group getting ready to do it, this might even be them). 

I honestly don't get people.  I couldn't be less interested in shopping for watches when I could be staring at one of the worlds most amazing views.

View from outside the Sphinx observatory.  It was really windy, so even with warm gear and gloves we couldn't stay out for long, and the kids hated it.  Lucky there is a nice warm glass-enclosed viewing area too.

If memory serves, this is the Mönch

and this is the part of the Jungfrau that was visible

Aletsch glacier

Ice palace.  Honestly this was just not that interesting.  It was way too cold for the kids so we went through in shifts.  It's really slippery ice underfoot, but there is a handrail. 

After a fairly 'meh' spin through the exhibition and the ice palace, we spent quite a while throwing snowballs at each other on the plateau snow play area.  This was probably the highlight of the whole trip for the kids.

On the way back down we got off the train at Eigergletscher.  My original plan was to take the Eiger trail, which hugs the North face of the Eiger from Eigergletscher, rejoining with the train at Alpiglen.  But we were fast running out of time, having a long drive still to do, and Em didn't fancy carrying a kid and a backpack that far.  Instead we opted to walk the shorter but still spectacular Jungfrau Eiger walk from Eigergletscher to Kleine Scheidegg, where we would pick up the next train.

I'd highly recommend doing this, you get spectacular views that are much better than what you can see just from the train.  The walk isn't difficult, it's almost all downhill.

Chocolate and cigarettes, everything you need for the swiss alps

Looking back up towards Eigergletscher station

Sun poking through the clouds and spectacularly illuminating Mürren, where we were the day before.

We spent a lot of time and money looking at these three blobs of rock from many different angles, and I still wasn't sick of it.

A chair with the best viewing angle for each of the 3 peaks! Just beside this is a great little museum that shows you all the different climbing routes that have been taken up the Eiger.
I was amused.

Schilthorn!  (I think anyway).  This James Bond icon is one thing we missed.

Amazing trip.  Worth every dollar.