One of our favorite things about being in Geneva is how quick and easy it is to travel around Geneva, Switzerland, and all of Europe. Just be sure to plan ahead – you’ll get much better train and airline prices that way.
Inside Geneva Outside Geneva Immigration
It’s super easy to get around Geneva by foot or bus, and I highly encourage walking around early on to get a good idea of how everything connects.
A single bus ticket costs CHF 3, which is good for 60 minutes, but you can also get day passes. If you buy a day pass after 9am, it’s discounted. Almost every bus stop has a kiosk for buying a ticket. You can also buy tickets through the TPG app, which is also a great way to track incoming buses. Nearly everything you’ll do in the Geneva area is Zone 10 (everything in the Urban map here), but if you ever need to go beyond Zone 10, you’ll need to pay more.
You can buy an unlimited Geneva transportation pass, and the annual pass is CHF 500. You’ll need to go to one of the TPG offices to apply for your first pass. They’ll take your picture and payment, give you a receipt to use as a temporary pass, and send you a SwissPass card in the mail. The annual pass will also get you discounts around the area, including places like Pathe! cinemas. (Note: you won’t need a Swiss ID card to get it, but be sure to take your passport.)
Swiss public transportation is on an honor system – there’s usually no checking tickets or anything like that. When the bus stops, let people off first, and then everyone boards using all doors. There’s no need to show your ticket to the driver, and you cannot buy a ticket from the driver – you must have it before boarding. They do conduct random checks, but I’ve still never had it happen to me. (7/25/19 update: I finally got my ticket checked!)
A single trip ticket, day pass, and annual pass gets you access to all public transportation inside the zones you paid for. Aside from buses, it allows you to travel to local areas using trains from Cornavin (such as the airport or local Geneva canton communes – just be sure to check the map to ensure you’re not going outside the zone you paid for), as well as the little boats (“mouettes”) that carry passengers across Lake Geneva.
IMPORTANT: Geneva buses do not always stop at every stop. If you’re wanting to board a bus, you’re supposed to hold out your hand to notify the driver that you intend to board. When you approach a door to board, you may need to press a button on the side of the bus to get the door to open. When you are ready to get off the bus, you must press one of the dozens of red buttons to signal that you need to get off. Pressing that button will also ensure the door nearest to you will open – doors only open at each stop when someone presses the button. A green light will light up above the door to signal that someone has already pressed the button, and that door will open at the next stop.
Through Genèveroule, you can rent a variety of bikes from locations across the city by the hour.
One of the best things about living in Geneva is how quickly and cheaply you can get to so many other places. Use the opportunity to explore parts of the world you never envisioned you’d travel to. And let’s face it, with Geneva prices, it’s often about the same price to travel to another country and it is to eat out multiple meals here over a weekend. Just for fun, let’s take a look at a sample budget with prices very similar to our actual Warsaw trip:
|Airfare (x2 people)||–||120|
|Hotel Room (x2 nights)||–||100|
|Total||CHF 250||CHF 310|
While Warsaw is a good example of a place that’s significantly less expensive than Geneva, we’ve had terrific experiences throughout Eastern Europe including Bratislava, Budapest, Belgrade, and Bucharest (yes, we’ve been to a lot of cities that start with “B”!).
Generally, flying is going to be your cheapest option for getting anywhere, not to mention the quickest. Discount airline EasyJet flies direct to pretty much every major city from the Geneva Airport, allowing you to travel roundtrip for as low as CHF 50, depending on the time of year.
Do you know about Google Flights? If not, be sure to check it out. It works two ways: (1) you put in dates you want to travel, and it shows a map of all of the places you can go, along with prices, and (2) you put in a to: and from: city, and it shows you a calendar with pricing so you can pick the cheapest dates to fly.
SBB/CFF/FSS (Swiss national rail system)
First of all, the reason for the three acronyms here is that the Swiss national rail system has three names – in each of German, French, and Italian, respectively. Although Geneva is in the French area, you’ll still commonly hear people just referring to it as “SBB”.
The absolute worst thing to do is to wait until you’re about to get on a train to get a ticket. The cost can be upwards of 10 times the price for doing that. If you search on SBB’s website for tickets, do know that there are several options for travel:
- A ticket for a specific train (or
series of trains if you have a connection).
- If you buy these tickets early, SBB releases a number of “super saver tickets” (look for the % sign when searching), which can be very affordable. For example, you can often get weekday tickets to Lausanne for as little as CHF 3.
- If you miss your train, you have to buy a new ticket at the last-minute price.
- A ticket for travel on a specific
day (through 5am on the following day). Last-minute day passes are CHF 75,
which entitles you to a full 29 hours of unlimited travel on basically all
Swiss public transportation. You can travel on all SBB trains throughout the
day, and in each city you stop in, you can travel on their local transportation
as well. Supposedly there are some local transit options that aren’t included,
but I’ve yet to find one. Learn more here.
- SBB also offers a “Saver Day Pass”, which is a reduced fee version of the other day pass, going as low as CHF 52, depending on the day.
You also have the option of purchasing an SBB Half Fare Card, which entitles you to receive up to half off on purchases of Swiss transportation tickets. The Saver Day Pass, for example, goes as low as CHF 29 with it. You can also get discounts on local transportation with it, such as a Geneva bus ticket marked down from CHF 3 to CHF 2. Note: the Half Fare Card renews automatically, so be sure to cancel in time if you no longer want it.
Do know that SBB trains do not have Wi-Fi. Also, you’re welcome to bring on and consume your own food and beverages, including alcohol. Just don’t forget your corkscrew!
A few SBB trains, though I don’t know which, have assigned seating for some passengers. You may not be offered an option to choose a seat, and then you get on the train to find that other passengers selected theirs. Be sure to look above the seats where there’s a little slot that may contain a piece of paper. If nothing is there, the seat is free for the taking. If it has an itinerary and the seat is empty, you can only sit there while the passenger with that itinerary isn’t on board.
SNCF (France’s national rail system)
First, know that if you ever take an SNCF and it’s more than 30 minutes late, you’re generally entitled to a credit or refund of up to 100% of your ticket price. Learn more here.
SNCF has a weekend discount pass for sale that allows discounts on most trips that include either a Friday or Saturday overnight stay. If you buy the card, it gives you a free companion ticket at the same price. Note: it doesn’t apply to TER trains, which is what you’ll take on short regional trips, such as to Annecy.
Also, when you’re pricing SNCF trips, do know that you can often get a 25% discount if you travel in a group of four to seven.
Be sure to check out if/when the French are striking before you book your trip and just before it begins. Last summer, I had two very delayed trains because of strikes, though many trains were just outright cancelled. And one day, on a flight from Geneva to Barcelona, we had delays and ultimately had to fly around France completely because their air traffic controllers were striking.
Traveling inside the Schengen Zone
Prepare to have your mind blown with this one – depending on which airline you fly, it’s entirely possible that you will never show any form of identification when traveling. You won’t show it at security, nor will you show it when you board the plane.
That’s because of the rules for the Schengen Zone, of which Switzerland is a part. Basically, there are open borders for most of Europe. You can walk, drive, or fly from one country to the next without ever having to go through an immigration check. That includes going across the Swiss/French border, though they do some random checks.
See the list of countries here, which unfortunately doesn’t include Ireland or the United Kingdom (though, if you aren’t aware, US citizens now get quicker entry into the UK and no longer need to fill out landing cards).
Traveling outside the Schengen Zone
For travel to or from non-Schengen countries, you will have to go through Swiss immigration when you enter or exit the country. Once you get your carte de legitimation, be sure to show it to immigration officials each time you enter or exit Switzerland. It’ll speed up the process, and it also prevents them from stamping your passport – saving up your precious pages for all of the travel you need to do. When entering or exiting other Schengen countries, you can also show your CDL, though you’ll usually still get a passport stamp. Sometimes other European countries will even ask for it, so have it ready just in case.