Last Updated on February 18, 2023
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.
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What Really Is The Bernina Express Train
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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I hope you have found these tips and the sharing of my experience on the Bernina Express train helpful in planning your own visit!