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Special Note for Visitors by Car to The Berner Oberland
Mountain Passes and Highway Information
Car on Train Service

If you've not experienced public transport in Switzerland, do take a look at our article. The train, bus, boat and cable services are outstanding and often your best buy.  There are few places in the country that cannot be conveniently and frequently reached by public transport.

That said:

Most Americans will be comfortable driving in Switzerland. 

Speed limits are modest, and more or less observed (automatic radar with cameras by the roadside.) Speed limits and distances are marked in kilometers. The roads are more narrow, and the Swiss may drive them more quickly than you, especially in the mountains and cities. 

The Swiss, however, should not be confused with the Andrettis of southern Europe; Swiss motoring is very similar to the States. We've written a bit more about driving in Germany. Driving in Switzerland is much the same, except for reasonable speed limits on the Swiss Autobahns. As well there are far fewer Mercedes and BMWs clocking 250 km/hr.

You may need time to adjust to European signage, but it's quite clear. European International Road Signs And Conventions is an excellent tutorial you should review before driving in Europe.

Swiss motorways (Autobahns) (equivalent to US Interstates) are few. 

A motorway permit is required for use; most major rental cars hired in Switzerland will have them -- check the left side of your windshield. If you get stopped on a Motorway without one, you'll buy one on the spot, plus pay a fine. The 'vignette' costs only CHF40; the fine is CHF100. You may purchase a vignette near or at most points of entry.

Expect a trip of a given length to take a little longer than you may be used to in North America. City parking is difficult, though better than in many European countries.

Fuel is sold by the liter, and costs $3-4 per gallon. (British AA maintains an up-to-date listing of fuel prices.) 

Good road maps of Europe can be difficult to find in the US.  You can order a Switzerland Road Atlas from Adventurous Traveler Bookstore.  It uses a decent 1:300,000 scale. You'll find the excellent, detailed (1:200,000), Michelin 'yellow' 200-series commonly available throughout Switzerland.

MapBlast! Map!

Brought to you by MapBlast! (Click on map to navigate)
The red cross marks Mürren and the Berner Oberland.

Swiss Car Trips

We've traveled Switzerland extensively by car several times:

Zürich, Stein am Rhein, Schaffhausen and Rheinfells, Einseideln, Solothurn, Murten/Avenches/Freibourg, Gruyeres, Montreux (Chillon), Interlaken and the mountains, Luzern, Zürich. We did that in nine days. Easy driving.

We've set up 'camp' in three locations on a 12 day trip: Glion sur Montreux, Interlaken area (actually Mürren -- the red cross at map center) and Weggis (near Luzern.) Good spots from which to take day trips.

During two weeks based in Vitznau (near Luzern) we spent just virtually every day on day trips. Much - very much - of Switzerland is accessible from here. This is a convenient area from which to take the three pass drive. Weggis is an alternate site to Vitznau.

There are good references for planning a Swiss driving trip:

  • Michelin Green Guide : Switzerland (3rd Ed) Vol 3 - in addition to being an excellent sightseeing fact book it has very useful suggestions for extended tours of the country by car;
  • Driving Tours Switzerland - Allsop - Macmillan - 25 two- and three-day excursions by car. Gorgeous photos and informative if terse descriptions of major stops along the way. The only shortcoming may be that too many minor spots spots are covered and a more sensible use of time would blend several of the tours to hit the more interesting sights. Nevertheless, the most extensive available reference for building a tour of this marvelous country by auto.
  • Daytrips Switzerland: 45 One Day Adventures by Rail, Bus and Car (Daytrips Series) - Renouf - A guidebook with a 'twist' ... namely the notion that setting up base in one or just a few spots and then daytripping to others is a better use of one's time than moving around every day or so. We strongly agree. This book is well-organized to help you plan trips using this concept. Useful whether you're moving about by car, rail or otherwise.

You may find Karen Brown's Swiss Country Inns & Itineraries a useful reference for planning an auto tour.

One of the more interesting 'drives' is to take your car on the train from Kandersteg to Brig. The trip is scenic, and the route provides one of the fastest ways to get from northern Europe over the Alps to Italy.

Three-Pass Drive

This drive is spectacular, and our favorite in the world. The route covers the Susten, Grimsel and Furka passes.

It's not a particularly difficult or nerve-wracking drive, but don't do it if you're not a confident driver. If you're used to staying on the road at home you'll have no trouble here.

It is fun to drive, and the scenery is spectacular. There are several simple mountain hotels/inns/restaurants (usually at a summit) where you can unclench your knuckles (or open your passenger's eyes) and have lunch or refreshments.

You can start at Andermatt, Meiringen or near Wassen; we favor Andermatt, doing the Furka first. The trip takes more or less three hours, depending on traffic, driving skill and number of stops. Four or more is more realistic, though you could actually do it in two we suppose. Add in lunch, a little gawking, perhaps a stroll on a glacier and you'll have a nice easy full day.

warning.gif (151 bytes)Whether your vehicle has a manual or automatic transmission, take descents by using low gears matched to your speed for control.
Brakes are for stopping and emergencies. Continuous brake use heats them. Hot brakes are ineffective. As well, you may damage them to the point that the rental firm will charge you for the abuse.

If you're still uneasy about driving this yourself, or have no car, the Post Bus organization has often run tours including all or some of these passes. Suggest you contact the nearest Post or Tourism Office for information.

Mountain Passes

And speaking of passes, many of them are closed a good part of the year ... sometimes as early as mid-September until as late as mid-May. You can check the status of the principal passes at Swiss TXT - Traffic (look for the Pässe link). You'll find, in German, up-to-date info about road status elsewhere in Switzerland as well.

It's in German, but you can figure out most of it. A few tips: "gesperrt" = blocked, or closed; "offen" = open; "schneefrei" = snow-free; "schneebedeckt" = snow-covered. If you find more that you don't understand use the AltaVista translation facility.

Car on Train

An interesting experience may be enjoyed driving from Spiez to Brig. There is no road on the direct route through the Lötschberg Pass. So you just drive your car on the flatcar waiting for you in Kandersteg (or Goppenstein) and drive it off 15 minutes later. Trains run from a bit after 5 am until midnight, at least. At busy times, on busy days, in busy seasons, the trains run as frequently at four times hourly.

Car Rental in Switzerland

Walk-up rentals usually are (outrageously) expensive (virtually everywhere in Europe, certainly in Switzerland). You can save up to half by reserving in advance from the US. Hertz, Avis and National are represented, and Autoeurope often offers good prices, if not the best.

When booking ahead from home you'll find this a very competitive business. Offers change from day-to-day.

Be flexible, and investigate thoroughly. You may find a one week rental costs no more than, or less than, a three day rental. One day rentals are often expensive when measured on a 'per day' basis.

If you're thinking of renting from one spot and dropping off in another be especially careful. We've found major firms that report having an office (or, more likely an agent) in a city, only to learn that we could drop the car off there, but not rent it there.

You may find your choice of firms is limited if you will be picking up or dropping off your car in other than the largest three or four cities. But then distances are short in Switzerland, so this may not pose a major inconvenience. For example, if you have a car in the Oberland (for some reason) and would want to drop it off in Interlaken, Bern wouldn't be a particularly inconvenient alternative.

Internet Car Reservations



Useful Links
  • Britain's AA European fuel prices.
  • International Road Signs Great pictures of the signs, and extensive ... almost complete.
  • European Road Signs An incomplete (and somewhat confusing) tutorial on road signs and rules. Nonetheless worthwhile for those unfamiliar with the (right) way the rest of the world marks roads.
  • Michelin Felt by many to be the best European route planner
  • Mappy A very decent route planner.
  • reiseroute.de  Offers instructions and links to several European routing planners, including some specifically geared to Germany and Switzerland.
  • Swiss TXT - Traffic Extensive information on Swiss highway road conditions including detours, tunnel status, mountain pass closings, etc. In German, but you'll be able to figure most of it out, and you can always use AltaVista's translation service.
  • Driving In Germany An excellent tutorial on all facets of driving in Europe. Most of the comments including descriptions of road types, signage and laws apply in Switzerland, though, thankfully, the Swiss Autobahns do have speed limits.
  • Lötschbergbahn Time saving route from northern Europe to southern Europe via the BLS car-on-train service.
For those who haven't visited Switzerland...

The public transport system is outstanding. We always use the Swisspass. It's usually at least a break-even proposition, and often a savings, as well as convenient. In some cases, we have a couple of out-of-the-way places we want to re-visit, and a car's just a little faster for these trips. In general, you should consider using the train, buses, boats and cables for your travels. It's cheaper, easier, and usually more fun! 

Auto Visitors to the Berner Oberland

If you will have a car in the Jungfrau region there are several 'rail' passes you should consider, including the Berner Oberland Regional Pass, Jungfrau Railways Pass and the Mürren-Schilthorn pass. Details in Swiss Rail Passes.

The most desirable areas, Mürren and Wengen, are car-free. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy them. Park your car in either Lauterbrunnen or the Stechelberg cable station during most of your stay and use the rails (and cables and funiculars) to get about.

If, for some reason we can't fathom, your car is an important part of your visit here, consider Lauterbrunnen's Hotel Staubbach for your base. On days when you don't need the car leave it at the hotel and use the mountain transport system. (You'll find the hotel described in our Swiss Berner Oberland Hotels page.)

To have your car near at hand, Lauterbrunnen is a better choice than Grindelwald, your other alternative:

  • Lauterbrunnen is less congested than Grindelwald;
  • The views are at least as good, better in some cases;
  • Prices are better;
  • Most of the more exceptional walks and mountain excursions are more near at hand. (Wengen is only 18 minutes away by train, Mürren only 25 by funicular and train.

Switzerland by Train, Boat, Cable, Bus
Switzerland and Beyond - A Primer on Using Swiss Rail
Sample Day and Extended Trips
Swiss Rail Passes
Switzerland On Your Own - A Paradise Full of Trains
Switzerland's Scenic Trains
Switzerland by Rail
Daytrips - Switzerland

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