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Train travel: How you can save on first class upgrades in Switzerland

A worker climbs into an SBB train somewhere in the beautiful country of Switzerland
How do you get yourself a SBB first class upgrade? Here's what you need to know. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
First class train travel at second class prices in Switzerland, even at peak times? Here’s how to go about it.

While nothing in Switzerland is particularly cheap, with prices much higher than standard second class or supersaver fares, first class train travel has felt unattainable for many of us. 

Switzerland’s SBB has announced a range of new first class upgrades at a fraction of the normal cost. Some first class upgrades are actually cheaper than a point-to-point ticket. 

“The primary goal is to make better use of trains that are under-utilised,” said Thomas Ammann, spokesman for the public transport industry organisation Alliance Swisspass.

READ MORE: Why are Swiss train passes so expensive?

“Currently, the demand on long-distance trains is below average because of the corona pandemic. This means that there are currently supersaver tickets on trains that are not available anywhere else.”

The discounts in the ‘savings class change’ program are so good that the SBB has come under fire. 

How do I get the tickets and how much can I save? 

As the promotion is designed to prevent trains from being under-utilised, it tends to work on a spontaneous basis – i.e. you may not be able to upgrade your travel for the next year. 

The ‘spur of the moment’ promotion “allows you to travel in 1st class on one route or for one day” the SBB said. 

Whether an upgrade is available and how much you will save will depend on your particular route. 

Analysis by Swiss news outlet Watson showed that you could save up to 75 percent on class upgrades and that many were even available at peak times. 

Upgrades on several routes were available, including some of the most popular routes taken by Swiss commuters. 

Where can I get it? 

The upgrade is available basically everywhere that tickets are available. This includes the SBB app, at the ticket counter or in the ticket machines at the station. 

The main thing however is that the upgrades are spontaneous. You can upgrade one fare for a specific route. 

You do not need to have a GA travelcard in order to get an upgrade, i.e. you can upgrade basically any second class ticket. 

As at mid-December, the spontaneous upgrades are not incredibly spontaneous, in that you cannot upgrade once you are already travelling, i.e. if your second-class carriage is full. 

You will need to buy the upgrade at least one hour before the journey starts, although the SBB said this will be changed from January onwards so that you can buy the ticket when your trip is already underway. 

You can also order a class upgrade for an entire day, or for multiple days. You can do this on the SBB website. 

People with GA travelcards can also decide to upgrade for a month. 

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How to find cheap train tickets in Switzerland

Why is the SBB being criticised? 

While it might be hard to find reasons to knock a cheaper train fare or a more equitable use of the first class area, some have criticised the offers. 

Swiss passenger advocacy group Pro Bahn said the discounts are not transparent enough and may create inequalities among passengers. 

“What we don’t support, however, are special offers or non-transparent tariffs. Or ticket offers with massive discounts that result in an imbalance between the passengers,” a spokesperson told Watson. 

As much of the public transport networks are publicly funded, Pro Bahn said offers should be clearer and more equitable, otherwise train travel will too closely resemble airline travel, where ticket prices for seats next to each other can vary widely. 

“Free pricing in line with aviation is therefore not justifiable from our point of view,” the spokesperson said. 

More information about the free upgrade system is available at the SBB website here. 

Are there any other options? 

Switzerland’s Supersaver fares were designed to encourage public transport usage while helping commuters save money. So why is the SBB making them difficult to find?

A story emerged in early 2022 about the Switzerland Federal Railways (SBB) hiding cheap first class fares from travellers in its online platforms. 

Instead, the cheapest second class fares have been shown, which are often more expensive than those in first class, particularly when the second class supersavers are sold out. 

More information about this – and how to make the most of the loophole – can be found at the following link. 

READ MORE: Is Swiss rail hiding cheap first class fares?


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