Switzerland will spoil you with a fantastic transport system – swift and disturbingly punctual trains, clean buses, and half a dozen different kinds of mountain transport systems, all integrated into a coherent system. The discount options and variety of tickets can be bewildering, from half fare cards to multi-day, multi-use tickets good for buses, boats, trains, and even bike rentals. In general, there’s at least one train or bus per hour on every route. On many routes there are trains and buses running every 30 or even 15 minutes, with city transit services running every 5-7 minutes during rush hours. However, as with everything in Switzerland the transit runs less often, or at least for a shorter period of the day during weekends, and particularly on Sundays and public holidays and in less densely inhabited areas.
Information, routes, fares, policies and schedules for almost all public transport can be found online on the Swiss Federal Railways’ (SBB/CFF/FSS) website which is a must-use resource for any traveller to Switzerland. Information can also been found on posters and screens at any stop, or from a ticket window at any railway station. The integrated timetable is also available as a free smart phone app. At any railway station of any provider you can get information and tickets (at manned ticket counters) for any of the many members of the integrated railways network of Switzerland and most bus systems, in particular PostBus Switzerland which provides an online timetable as well with the same data.
Bus and trains do not and are not allowed under law to compete each other in Switzerland, rather – quite the opposite, they are complementary to each other – besides being coordinated timetable-wise. That way, almost all inhabited villages and towns in Switzerland can be reached by public transport. This is actually constitutionally demanded by the Public Service regulations of the Swiss Confederation. Public Service is a unique Swiss term loosely referring to all kinds of laws, acts, and ordinances, which define the basic supply of public services and infrastructure in particular concerning postal services, telecommunication, electronic media, public transport and road infrastructure.
There are about 20 regional fare networks throughout the country, which incorporate many kinds of public transport (city bus, tram, metro, any kind of train, PostBus, boats, funiculars and others) by many different providers around urban centers into one single fare system, such as ZVV in the canton of Zurich, unireso (see also: Geneva’s tpg) in the canton of Geneva and its French adjacent area, or mobilis around Lausanne in the canton of Vaud at the northern shore of Lake Geneva, passepartout in the cantons of Lucerne, Nid- and Obwalden (keyword: Titlis). Usually these networks sell zone-based tickets valid for a particular time frame (instead of point-to-point tickets) for journeys within their fare network borders. Many of these networks and transit operators provide their own free smartphone apps; sometimes to be found on the major city’s transit company website.
Even if there is no train or city transit available, the comprehensive PostBus Switzerland network gets you there. Where applicable, PostBus Switzerland is part of regional fare networks. You find all timetable information on Swiss Federal Railways’ (SBB) online timetable, but PostBus Switzerland also provides their own free app with the same information as by SBB as well as many additional features.
Public transport fares in Switzerland are usually set for two or more years and can easily stay fixed for ten years. This isn’t surprising as changes in fares are easily a widely discussed political issue and regularly subject to public vote. If the fares do change, then only during the timetable change in December, otherwise the prices are stable.
Therefore, Swiss usually buy their ticket just a few minutes before departure, if they don’t own a travel card or did not buy it online just for the sake of convenience. This is also a reason why you can buy domestic tickets at the earliest only 30 days before the date of travel.
There is however one exception: The supersaver tickets, which are only sold online, are only valid for a particular connection and only available online from 30 days before travel date.
A standard domestic train ticket is usually valid for the entire calendar day until the end of day service (which is 05:00 of the next day), but just for one journey of the selected route. And normally, you are allowed to make intermediate stops and continue later on the same day.
Exceptions are supersaver tickets sold by the SBB, which are only valid for a particular connection.
Often, tickets are sold for a route which includes different providers and/or different kind of transport means. If the start and final destination are not in the same fare network, the previously mentioned validity is applicable.
Tickets sold for routes within fare network borders are often zones-based instead of point-to-point tickets and therefore only valid for any route which stays inside the indicated zones. They are valid for a particular time frame and usually valid for any number of journeys within this frame time (e.g. 1/2 hour, 1 hour, 2 hours for “one-way” tickets, or the whole calendar day, or even for 24 hours). These conditions can differ from fare network to fare network, though they are often very comparable or sometimes even the same, but check them beforehand.
Generally, standard domestic train tickets are always valid for any type of train, even for tourist trains (but it’s possible you must also have a reservation for them) and for international trains as long as these trains take the same route as indicated on your ticket and you travel only between Swiss train stations (including some stops outside of Switzerland).
International tickets for international connections traversing the Swiss border usually have a quite different validity and are also often restricted to particular trains and/or type of trains. But on the Swiss travel system, they usually have at least the same validity as domestic tickets and are often valid even for more than one day. But make sure to check their particular conditions carefully!