The Truth About The Bernina Express: How To Enjoy Switzerland’s Famous Red Train

The Truth About The Bernina Express: How To Enjoy Switzerland’s Famous Red Train
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Last Updated on February 27, 2022

You’ve probably seen the photos and videos of a striking red train weaving its way through the Swiss Alps, past storybook villages and breathtaking landscapes. It seems too good to be true, right?! Well, after reading this post you’ll know whether or not this famous red railway, the Bernina Express train, should stay up high on your bucket list.

Of course, social media shows us the best of experiences, not necessarily the reality. In this guide, I will be revealing what riding on the most famous Switzerland train is really like, sharing practical tips for buying tickets, taking photos, and saving money, and how to best enjoy the experience so it lives up as close to the hype as possible.

Some of these links are affiliate links. This means if you make a purchase through that link, I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Read my full disclosure!

What Really Is The Bernina Express Train

Red Bernina Express train in snowy, mountain landscape

This may seem like the simplest question to address, but you may be surprised by the answer, as I was to find out in person.

The Bernina Express operates on the Rhaetian Railway, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the most scenic train rides in the world. It’s a panoramic train, meaning the carriages have windows that stretch up to the ceiling and have no breaks – just an expansive panel of glass, so nothing obstructs your view.

But you may be surprised to know that the whole train is not full of these panoramic carriages. Most of the trains, in fact, have only two to three Bernina Express carriages, while the rest are made up of regular train carriages.

The regional trains operated by the company who also operates the Bernina Express, RHB, are all red – so, already, you can see there is a bit of an illusion going on here.

You wouldn’t get as expansive views taking the regional train, but you would save money on your ticket. You still have a window and, a major plus to me, is that this window can be opened so you can take clearer photos.


Bernina Express Routes

Pop quiz: did you know there is actually more than one route on these famous panoramic trains?

The company actually has a suite of scenic trains that go through the Swiss Alps. These include:

  • Bernina Express
  • Glacier Express
  • Grand Train Tour of Switzerland

The Bernina Express route travels from Lugano, through northern Italy to Tirano, and up to Chur past the famous Landwasser Viaduct in northern Switzerland. The most popular segment of this route is Tirano to St. Moritz, which is it what I personally traveled.

Traveling from Italy: Many will find it much easier to get to Milan than Tirano. You can take the regular train from Milan to Tirano, and then get on the Bernina Express. If you’re worried about managing the different legs of the journey, you could also book a tour that handles the whole day trip from Milan for you.

Traveling from within Switzerland: If you are not driving in Switzerland, it is easier for you to reach the Bernina Express from a larger city. Make your way to Zurich and take the train to Chur. Then take the Bernina Express to Tirano, the bus to Lugano, and the train from Lugano back to Zurich. If you have specific questions about this method, leave it in a comment on this post!

The Glacier Express travels east to west, from St. Moritz to Zermatt, the village of the Matterhorn. The Glacier Express is significantly more expensive, and a longer journey, at 190€ a person for a normal, 2nd class ticket.

The Grand Train Tour of Switzerland is the most expensive option, as it combines many legs of the panoramic rail journey through Switzerland over a series of days.


The Best Time To Go On The Bernina Express

The Bernina railway has the pro that any time of year is a beautiful time to experience it. In the winter, you’ll glide past frozen waterfalls and lakes and endless amounts of snow. In the summer, mountain meadows, gushing waterfalls, and turquoise waters await!

The only time in terms of weather that I would avoid is late October-November. It can be quite foggy and rainy, so you run a higher risk of not having clear skies.


How To Buy Tickets

For the Bernina Express tickets can be bought online on Rhätische Bahn (RhB) website or through a booking partner online. It also included on the Eurail pass.

One of the more confusing parts about calculating the cost of your experience is that the round trip ticket is a base fee of 65€, while the seat reservation fee in the panoramic carriage costs an extra 24€ each way. But you must reserve a seat in order to sit in the panoramic carriage – they do not sell open tickets.

This means you will have to choose your seat while you are booking. Seats are typically situated in groups of four, two seats facing each other around a small table.

While there is no bad seat, I recommend sitting somewhere in the middle so you have as wide a view as possible. On the way to St. Moritz, the left side of the train seemed to have better views, and on the way back to Tirano, the right side of the train seemed to have better views. But this is a very subjective observance – both sides ultimately have great views the whole way.

Pro Tip: Print your tickets. I noticed parties with mobile tickets were having more trouble with the steward that comes to check them!


Arriving At The Train

One thing I noticed about the Bernina Express trains are that they wait for nobody. The schedule runs so smoothly, like clockwork. We arrived and left every stop at the exact time we were supposed to, every time!

So, that being said, there is no wiggle room for arriving late! Leave early to get to the train and arrive early for your return journey.

Once on the train, a steward will come around and check your tickets, both on the way there and the return journey.

Make sure you get on the right carriage – there will be a small electronic screen next to the carriage doors with a number on it. You may have Carriage 10, Set 40, so make sure the carriage you board is number 10!

If you’re taking the train from Tirano: You can park at the train station (but it’s paid parking) or you can park in any white spot nearby – white parking spots are always free in Italy, for any amount of time. Here’s exactly where we parked for free: 46°12’47.8″N 10°09’43.7″E (The intersection of Via Maggio and Via Industriale.)


What To Expect On Board

Once you board the train, you’ll first notice there is some extra space in the carriage for where you can put suitcases (not a lot of space, so I wouldn’t board with three checked bags, for example). People often used this more open area to get up and take pictures.

The 2nd class seats in the Bernina Express train are comfortable, yet quite narrow. There are hooks next to the window to hang jackets and the space beneath seats is wide open to store things like a backpack, for example. The table comes out in front of the people at the window seats, with a map of the journey printed onto it and a small trash can.

The 1st class seats are a bigger and more comfortable, and they also have pairs of two single seats facing each other available rather than just a group of four seats, so the carriage has more space overall.

The windows are huge and also come with a blind that you can lower if the sun is too bright.

The Bernina Express train has Wi-Fi. You’ll have to connect, receive a code by message, and then input the code to enable Internet access.

You can order food on the Bernina Express, but it is overpriced. I recommend instead packing snacks and definitely bringing a water bottle.


How The Journey Works

Red train in front of old town, St. Moritz, Switzerland

Woohoo the journey has begun! Here I will speak mostly from my experience traveling from Tirano to St. Moritz and then back all in one day.

The journey between these two places takes around two and a half hours on the train. You then have a couple of hours in St. Moritz to explore, and then you’re making your way back.

In winter, if you are only doing the day trip, you’ll notice it may seem like not a lot of time to explore St. Moritz, and really, it’s not. But, the train is the main event and the reason it comes back so “early” in winter (around 4 pm) is so that it does not get dark during your train ride. I found dusk to actually be the most beautiful part of the train journey.

So, the train makes various stops along the way, like the highest point Ospizio Bernina or the scenic and isolated Alp Grüm, because it is picking up people using the normal regional train. You can also get off, but you lose your seat (and in essence, your money.) If you want to get back on, you’ll have to buy tickets for the normal regional train.

Stone building with red shutters with sign reading "Ospizio Bernina"

Personally, as beautiful as the stops were, I wouldn’t prioritize hopping on and off or enjoying the panoramic ride. If you want to hop on and off at each spot to look around, then look into point-to-point tickets that are valid for the day on the normal regional trains and skip the panoramic Bernina Express.


How To Get The Best Photos

Red train crossing circular viaduct

One of the things that most frustrated me about this experience was the difficulty of taking photos. I had always seen those Insta-perfect pictures of people sticking their heads out of the train with beautiful landscapes as their background or the gorgeous turn on the Brusio circular viaduct that is spread across all of the Bernina Express marketing materials.

Well, the windows don’t open on the Bernina Express, meaning they create a particularly terrible glare and reflection that makes photographing the landscapes incredibly hard!

It seems as though the windows on the normal regional train carriages do open, but from what I could see, I couldn’t access those carriages from where I was sitting.

As for combatting glare, I did my best to find the right angles, or try to keep my lens pushed up against the glass to get as least reflection as possible.

But if you’re a photographer and solely going on this experience to shoot, I would recommend taking the regional train instead. It may feel lackluster compared to the Bernina, but the photos you get shooting through glass will never as good as those without! As a compromise, you could try to do the Bernina Express one-way and then the normal regional carriage on the way back.

Pro tip: I’ve also read that, on some panoramic carriages, there is a window next to the bathroom you can open and take pictures from. I didn’t see one on mine, but you can keep a look out for it.


Budget-Friendly Tips

Last Minute Offers

While I almost always recommend booking accommodation and experiences ahead of time for the best deal, that is not necessarily the case with the Bernina Express!

The company often runs last minute deals to fill up seats, with tickets as low as 49€ apiece.

Monthly Specials

In the off-season months, the company often creates discount packages. I traveled on the Bernina Express on one of these specials that they had going on the month of February – 99€ for two people from Tirano to St. Moritz and back, plus lunch included in St. Moritz.

It was truly a budget traveler’s dream deal!

Check out all the current offers and last minute deals.

Take the Regular Train Instead

If there are no promotions that you can take advantage of, consider taking the normal regional train and skipping the panoramic seats. Sure, it doesn’t get all the hype like the panoramic carriages, but you are traveling on the same route and still with a window.

I would also suggest doing this if you plan to hop on and off the train. You will have to pay for seats again just to get back on one of the normal trains, since your tickets are only applicable to the panoramic train.


Final Thoughts: Is the Bernina Express Worth the Hype?

Despite the struggle for a good photo and the quickness with which the day passes by, the Bernina Express train is absolutely worth the hype.

There is no better, more pinch-me, (budget-friendly if you use a deal) way to experience the Swiss Alps. And it’s also just an epic way to experience train travel.

What I love about it is that it feels like such a luxurious, once-in-a-lifetime experience, yet can be done on a budget. And while the quickness is at times a downside, it also makes the train more accessible as day trip to your northern Italy itinerary or to spice up your Switzerland vacation.

Switzerland’s famous red train is truly a bucket list experience worth checking off.

Have any questions about the Bernina Express train? Let me know in a comment!

Save this guide to Pinterest!

I hope you have found these tips and the sharing of my experience on the Bernina Express train helpful in planning your own visit!

XOXO

Michela

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20 Comments

  1. Clyde Acosta
    April 21, 2022 / 3:48 pm

    hi. good tips on the bernina express. im planning ours for the summer. will be based in milan. my question is-will we miss a great deal of views like the landwasser duct etc if we just do bernina express from tirano to st moritz? should we go tirano to chur? thanks so much!

    • Michela
      Author
      April 22, 2022 / 2:20 am

      Hi Clyde,

      Glad you found the info helpful! It all depends on how much time you have really. If I had more than one day, I would have loved to go on to Chur and the other routes. I believe you’d also have to buy two one-way journey tickets because return tickets can only be used same day.

      But you will have no shortage of views on the Tirano to St. Moritz journey! But you are correct in that you would only be able to see the Landwasser Viaduct if you also went to Chur. 🙂 hope this helps & let me know if you have any other questions!

  2. Pankti
    June 23, 2022 / 6:05 am

    Hi,
    Found this article very useful,thank you! We are planning to buy tickets for Bernina express next week, 29th june. I would want to know if the route on the way back from St Moritz to Tirano is the same as the onward journey. Is it worth taking the train back or taking road ia a good option?

    • Michela
      Author
      June 24, 2022 / 7:46 am

      Hi there,

      I’m glad you found the post helpful! The route is the exact same on the way back as it is to go to St. Moritz. Depending on where you sit, you can have different viewpoints on the return journey, and I still thought the experience worth it to conclude the day with!

      It is still about a two and a half hour return journey, whereas by car it is about one hour between the two cities. It could be convenient to return by car because you can spend more time in St. Moritz. I found we were there for quite a short time since we were restricted to the train, but of course, the train is really the experience itself!

      Those are my thoughts & pros and cons, so I hope the info is helpful! Have an amazing trip!

  3. Anne-Katherine
    July 23, 2022 / 8:27 pm

    What regional train returns from St. Moritz to Tirano? Also, do tickets for regional trains needs to be purchased in advance or can you buy them when you’re in Moritz and ready to head back? Do they ever sell out? Thanks for your help.

    Do tickets for the Bernini Express sell out? We are going Oct. 1, and I’m a little concerned about weather and visibility.

    • Michela
      Author
      July 29, 2022 / 12:30 pm

      Hi Anne-Katherine!

      To search for regional trains from St. Moritz to Tirano, you can use this website. I believe you can buy tickets directly at the train station. I don’t believe they would sell out based on the period you are traveling in! In general, I usually don’t see regional trains sell out of tickets.

      Now the Bernina Express train has a higher risk of selling out, so those tickets are definitely best to buy in advance. You are going in the off-season period, which is good in terms of availability and price, but I do understand your concerns about visibility. I believe early October is still safe – it usually starts to get rainy, foggy, and even snowy from mid to late October.

      I hope this info helps and that you have a great trip!

  4. Ahmad Kamal
    July 24, 2022 / 7:47 am

    Hi, thanks for your tips. How do I book the regional train (red train) ticket from St Moritz to Torino? I plan to book the Bernina Express one way from Torino to St Moritz.

  5. soni
    July 30, 2022 / 12:40 am

    Hi,

    Thanks for the information! I was planning to stay one night in Zurich and take the morning Bernina Express. Is Chur better or Zurich? Plus at Tirano, where is the best place to stay in Italy? Can i make it to Milan?

    • Michela
      Author
      August 7, 2022 / 11:33 am

      Hi Soni,

      I’m glad you found it helpful! So, unfortunately, the Bernina Express isn’t connected to Zurich, so in your case, the best situation would be to stay in Chur! You can make it from Tirano to Milan but you will have to switch trains (it’s about a 3-hour-long journey).

  6. Irene
    August 11, 2022 / 7:22 am

    Thank you so much for all the info, this is incredibly helpful! I’m still deciding whether to choose the panoramic train or regional option. How do you know whether or not the windows to the regional train open? I’ve been looking for this information everywhere and have googled the train model, but haven’t been able to fond a clear answer. Thank you!

    • Michela
      Author
      August 12, 2022 / 4:07 pm

      Hi Irene,

      I’m so glad you found it useful! And that is a fantastic question that I WISH I had the answer to!! The truth is, I can’t tell you with 100% certainty every regional train will have windows that open simply because there could be train models in use that vary, which is probably why you also haven’t been able to find a clear answer.

      From the ones that I remember seeing in passing on my trip with the Bernina Express, it seemed like all the windows came down at least halfway in each coach and that there was a couple at the beginning/end of each coach that came down nearly all the way.

      It could definitely be worth it to take the Bernina Express one-way and return with the regional train, especially because you’ll be able to decide on your own time how much you want to spend in St. Moritz/whatever your destination city is. And the other good thing about the regional train is that you likely won’t have reserved seats, so you can pick your spot/move around easier around the train to find the best photo spot/open windows.

      I’m sorry I couldn’t provide a definitive answer on the windows, but I hope this info can help and that you have an amazing trip!

  7. Paul N
    August 11, 2022 / 5:03 pm

    Thanks so much for your article on the Bernina Express.
    FYI, In addition to the BE, I will be taking other trains, too.
    To Wegen for 3 days.
    To Zermett for 3 days.

    Now back to the B.E.
    I will depart from Chur.
    You say, “..take the Bernina Express to Tirano, the bus to Lugano, and the train from Lugano back to Zurich.”

    Instead of returning to Chur, is there a way to go either Zemett or Wengen?

    Since I will be taking other mountain trains and cable cars, etc, I am not sure wha pass to buy ( I am 71 years old). For example, Swiss Travel Pass 8 days + Top of Europe Travel Pass or Swiss Half-Price Pass.

    Feel free to email if you like.

    • Michela
      Author
      August 13, 2022 / 12:14 am

      Hi Paul,

      One of your options is to take the Bernina Express from Chur to St. Moritz and then take the Glacier Express (still operated by RBH) from St. Moritz to Zermatt.

      You could also book your one-way ticket with the Bernina Express and then utilize regional trains (which you can book at this website) to get to your next destinations, which would be included in your Swiss Travel Pass.

      I think the Swiss Travel Pass is more worth it and gives you more benefits if you are in Switzerland for a short amount of time (up to 2 weeks) but trying to see as much of the country as possible. The Half-Price pass is valid for an entire year, so if you are staying in Switzerland for several months, then I would say that is the better deal.

      If you have any other questions, feel free to let me know!

  8. Bob
    September 15, 2022 / 3:01 pm

    Very informative and thanks for sharing your experience. It really helps us to understand many things.
    I would like to ask, which side we can seat while going from Tirano to Chur.
    And while booking in the RHB site, they show coaches from 1-5. And confused on which side to select and if I am not wrong First coach should be towards Chur or the last One.
    And I heard from many blogs that the Left side offers best views and not sure how to select while booking.
    Highly appreciate your suggestion in this regard.
    Thanks.

    • Michela
      Author
      September 17, 2022 / 1:42 pm

      Hi Bob,

      I’m glad you have found this post useful! The questions you are asking now are the same questions I had when booking my own tickets. The first two coaches of the train are First Class and they are usually at the front of the train. As for the side, it’s best to sit on the left side going from Tirano to Chur and the right side from Chur to Tirano. But honestly, you will have a great experience on either side and get good views from both sides. But as for booking these sides on the train during the booking process, it’s true that they do not make it clear which is left and which is right and they actually say that the direction of the train is unavailable information. I would go with the idea that first class is the first two carriages and that means the train is heading in that direction, so the left-side tickets from Tirano to Chur should be the bottom section you see on your screen. Unfortunately, since the company doesn’t provide this information specifically, I can’t guarantee that it is correct! I still hope this can help you in some way and that you have a great experience!

  9. Jovani
    September 16, 2022 / 1:20 pm

    Hi, this article is so detail and helpful. Thanks so much! But, would you mind to share, is it okay to bring 2 medium luggage on train? Is there any space?

    • Michela
      Author
      September 17, 2022 / 1:10 pm

      Hi Jovani,

      Glad you found it useful! So, technically there’s no limit to how much luggage you want to bring (at least not that I’ve ever seen enforced) and the space you’ll have on the train for luggage depends on what kind of train it is. For the high-speed trains that go across regions (ex. Milan to Rome), there are dedicated storage areas for luggage in the coach as well as overhead luggage space, so you would definitely have enough space with two medium-sized luggage. On regional trains, you will probably struggle for space, as there is usually only some overhead storage! Now there is a chance that also regional trains will have some storage space (I remember seeing this in Emilia-Romagna for example) but in Lombardy I know that there isn’t. I know that’s not the clearest answer but unfortunately, it’s the truthful one!

  10. Jovani
    September 16, 2022 / 1:31 pm

    If I compare between Bernina Express (on its website) vs regular train in Google Maps, why it has different time travel from Lugano to St. Moritz? Which one is close to reality? and do you think worth enough if I take Bernina Express from Lugano to Chur (only). I’ve read and you’ve mentioned that Tirano to St. Moritz are the best. Then what if Lugano to Chur?

    • Michela
      Author
      September 17, 2022 / 1:21 pm

      Hi Jovani,

      I believe the Bernina Express follows its one schedule and since it is a special train and you need dedicated tickets for it, it may not show up on regular trains on Google Maps. I personally did Tirano to St. Moritz, but Lugano to Chur will also include the Tirano to St. Moritz route! It is simply a longer journey, with a stop in Tirano. Hope this helps!

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