Tourist travel passes
When visiting Switzerland, the most enjoyable way to get around is to use the superb public transport system. If you plan to make more than a couple of trips by public transport then buying a travel pass could save you a lot of money. This is a guide to the main short-term passes that are available.
Although most people will use these passes mainly for train travel, they can all be used on post-buses, boats, and a lot of city transport. To find out how much individual tickets between certain locations cost, go to the SBB website. All pass prices listed here are accurate as of November 2006. Only 2nd class prices are listed to keep the number of figures contained in this document reasonable; 1st class versions of each pass are approximately 50% more.
The main web-site for all of the national passes is the Swiss Travel System website.
One Month Half-Fare Card
The simplest pass is the one-month version of the half-fare card (halbtax / demi-tarif) which costs 99 CHF. As the name suggests, it is good for a 50% discount on nearly all boats, trains and post-buses in the country, special prices on some cable cars, and discounts on most city buses and trams, and it applies for both 2nd class and 1st class tickets. See this map for range of applicability. If you need a pass for more than one month or will visit more than once during the year then you should also consider the one-year version of the half-fare card for 150 CHF. These can be purchased at most train stations and from agents outside of Switzerland.
Swiss Transfer Ticket
This is good for one trip from the airport or border to anywhere in Switzerland and then one trip back to the airport or border a maximum of one month later (each of which must be completed within one day). It is only available from agents outside of Switzerland. This isn't a good deal for most people, though, because it costs 124 CHF, and so each one-way ticket to/from the airport/border would need to cost at least 62 CHF at the full fare to make it worthwhile.
This is a direct combination of the one month half-fare card and the Swiss Transfer Ticket. It is good for a free trip from and to the airport/border plus half-fare travel throughout Switzerland for the period in between, which can be up to one month (it has a slightly wider applicability than the half-fare card, see this map). It is only available from agents outside of Switzerland. It costs 178 CHF, which means that in order for this to be a better deal than the basic half-fare card, it would need to cost at least 79 CHF full-fare to go each way from/to the airport/border – if the tickets would be less than this, then just get the one month half-fare card.
Swiss Pass and Swiss FlexiPass
Both these tickets allow for a certain number of days of unlimited travel, and also give free entrance to over 400 museums and exhibits. They are only available to people with a permanent address outside of Switzerland, but in addition to being available from agents outside of the country, they can also be bought within Switzerland at most major train stations. Before the passes can be used, they need to be validated at an SBB ticket counter. If two or more adults will be travelling together, the second and further tickets can be purchased at a 15% discount.
The Swiss Pass is valid for 4, 8, 15, 22 days, or 1 month of unlimited travel on consecutive days. It costs 250, 362, 440, 508, or 558 CHF, respectively. These prices are reduced by 25% for people between 16 and 26 (a deal called the 'Swiss Youth Pass').
The Swiss FlexiPass is valid for 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8 days of unlimited travel with one month, consecutive or non-consecutive, with all other days in the month at half fare. It costs 240, 292, 338, 384, or 450 CHF, respectively. There is no youth discount.
Without a pass, children under the age of 6 can travel for free when accompanied by a parent (otherwise, they pay half-fare), and kids aged 6-15 pay half-fare (accompanied or not). With the Swiss Transfer Ticket, the Swiss Card, the Swiss Pass, or the Swiss FlexiPass, if your visitors ask for a 'Family Card' at the time of purchase then kids up to 16 years old can travel for free when accompanied by a parent. The Family Card doesn't cost anything, but they do need to ask for it when they buy the pass. If they have the basic half-fare card then they can buy a junior card (junior-karte / carte junior) at a cost of 20 CHF for one child and 40 CHF for two or more children, which enables kids up to 15 years old travel for free when accompanied by a parent and it's valid for one year.
Most of the regional passes give free travel for a certain number of days within a certain period; for example, 3 free days of travel within 7 days; and the other days are half-fare, they also give special prices on some cable cars. However, the free travel only covers a certain region of the country and the half-fare travel a slightly larger region. These passes are also available at a reduced rate if you hold any other travel pass (e.g., the half-fare card, see links below for details), and so they can also be good deals for people living here permanently who want to explore one region of the country for a short period. There are probably regional tourist passes available other than the ones listed below; if you know anything about those then please add a comment to this thread including the relevant info if possible.
Bernese Oberland Regional Pass
The cost is 220 CHF for 3 free days plus 4 half-fare days, or 265 CHF for 5 free days and 10 half-fare days. Children's tickets (6-16 years old) are available at half these prices. It is only available from May until October. Ticket info. Network map.
Lake Geneva Regional Pass
The cost is 89 CHF for 2 free days plus 3 half-fare days, or 107 CHF for 3 free days and 4 half-fare days. Children's tickets (6-16 years old) are available at half these prices. It is available year-round. Ticket info and network map.
Graubunden Regional Pass
In summer (May thru October), the cost is 120 CHF for 2 free days plus 5 half-fare days, or 150 CHF for 4 free days and 11 half-fare days. In winter (November thru April), the applicability is slightly more limited and it costs 90 CHF for 2 free days plus 5 half-fare days. Children's tickets (6-16 years old) are available at half these prices. Ticket info. Network map.
Upper Valais Regional Pass
This is a little different to the other regional passes. It gives a certain number of free days that can be used at any time within a month, but no travel discounts on other days. It costs 89 CHF for 2 free days, 119 CHF for 3 free days, or 169 CHF for 5 free days. Family passes for 2 adults and up to 3 children (up to 16 years old) are double these prices. It is available year-round. Ticket info. Network.
Comparing the Passes
Here are some general guidelines regarding which pass is best in which situations. If you plan to only use a small amount of public transport, then don't worry about a pass. If you plan to do several trips that are all within one of the regional passes, then these can often be ideal, but if you want to go outside of the region even just once or twice then often the half-fare card is better.
If you want to do a lot of travelling all over the country then the Swiss Pass or Swiss FlexiPass can be good deals. However, make sure that you do the comparison to the basic one-month half-fare card. For example, the Swiss FlexiPass for 4 days costs 292 CHF, which is 193 CHF more than the basic half-fare card. So, only if you expect to travel enough to warrant the extra cost in those 4 days (at half-fare prices) should you get this pass, otherwise the half-fare card and then buying tickets as you go will be better.
As stated above, the Swiss Transfer Ticket is rarely less than buying individual tickets, and the Swiss Card rarely works out better than just the basic half-fare card. In summary, the half-fare card is often the best deal, but there are exceptions.
One more thing to keep in mind when choosing a pass is that having a pass rather than just a half-fare card has advantages above the possible economic reasons. First, having a pass means that you don't need to worry about buying tickets all of the time – you can hop on and off any transport without worrying about the costs or always having the correct ticket (except to make sure that it is within the validity of your pass). Second, if you have the pass then it may encourage you to travel further because you've already spent the money, whereas if you have to think about the cost of each ticket then you may travel less and so enjoy the trip less.