2.5 Weeks in Italy and Switzerland: Planning Part 1 – Transportation

When planning our 2019 summer vacation, we decided to travel with my parents.  One of their favorite vacations was our 2011 trip, where we went to Europe with them and our (at the time) 4 and 2 year old boys. Back then, we wanted to take our little boys to Europe, and it felt more do-able with Grandma & Grandpa along to help.

What really stood out for them was the Jungfrau region of Switzerland, and they had a longing to go back. Given that it is one of my favorite vacation spots, I had no problems with readily agreeing.

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Looking at what might make a good combination, we considered both France and Italy. Ultimately, we decided that Italy would be of more interest to my parents; they had never been there and it’s an easy place to love.  John was thrilled when he discovered that we had picked his two favorite international destinations.

Our next few posts will start with some of our planning decisions and process for this trip, then will go into the specifics of what actually happened.

Airport Decisions

When planning a transatlantic trip, getting inexpensive tickets in and out of your destinations of choice is quite helpful. This year we had some constraints, e.g. we can’t travel shoulder season like we did with the kids years ago.

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Generally, we prefer to travel to Europe in the first part of the summer, since many European kids are in school until July, and crowds are a bit lighter. Europe tends to be busiest in August. Our kids have school constraints too, but they’re out of school by mid-June, so typically some time between mid-June to mid-July is the sweet spot for us.

That said, mid-June can still be borderline early for the Swiss alps, so given an itinerary to Italy and Switzerland, it seemed to make most sense to visit Italy first.  This would give the snow a bit more time to melt, and then we would spend the tail end of the trip in Switzerland.

Additionally, with work constraints, it seemed best if one of the weeks was over July 4th week, where Jeremy would get to avoid using some vacation days, so that helped set our schedule.

Choosing Rome as a Starting Point

Now we needed to figure out which Italian airport to fly into.  Where would we go in Italy?  There are so many awesome places, but since this was my parents’ first trip there, we decided that they should really see the classic biggies: Rome, Florence, Venice.  It would have been nice to add more, but time is finite.  Plus, can you really say that you went to Italy and didn’t see the Colosseum?

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For what we wanted, the ideal itinerary would give us 4 days Rome, 3 days Florence (with optional day trip to Siena), and 2 days Venice.

Rome would be our starting point!

Choosing Zurich as an End-Point

Time for the exit strategy.  When spending time in the Swiss Alps, you will quickly discover that there are no airports right next door.  Zurich is at least 3 hours by train.  Geneva is a bit further, but could also work.  Basel has fewer flights, but is also worth considering.

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We also had to consider that many apartments in the Jungfrau region of Switzerland are rented from Saturday to Saturday, so we needed to make sure our return flight corresponded to our checkout times.

In the end, Zurich has the most flights available and was the least expensive.  We would spend 7 day in the Jungfrau region, 1 day in Bern, and then fly out of Zurich.

Multiple Itineraries

To complicate things, we would not all be on the same itinerary.  Given some work constraints on Jeremy’s end, we decided that I would be the Italian tour guide and take my parents and the kids to Italy for a week and a half. Then Jeremy would meet up with us for a week in Switzerland.

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3 different itineraries!  To make things a little easier, we decided that the boys and I would fly to my parents’ house, spend a little time there, and then the 5 of us would start our journey together.  We would only split up for the final flight home.  Jeremy would be on his own, both getting there and leaving.

Researching our flight options on Google Flights and other websites, for our main itinerary we opted for an Aer Lingus flight, into Rome and out of Zurich. Since there we 5 of us (not counting Jeremy), we opted for a somewhat cheaper fare that required a 12 hour overnight layover in Dublin on the way back.

One thing we’ve learned when traveling as a family is that flight choices that might make less sense with 1 or 2 people (saving several hundred dollars per ticket, but needing a hotel night) may make more sense when going with a bigger group.  Thus our weird and mildly annoying layover in Dublin.

On the other hand, with a less flexible schedule, you might need to forgo the monetary savings and focus more on time savings.  With Jeremy’s work constraints and limited vacation time, his flight times needed to be a bit more precise. Initially, he was planning to fly round-trip to Zurich, but noticed the fares were sky-high.

The trick he ended up finding was that flying into Milan and out of Zurich was $500 cheaper than a round-trip to Zurich, probably because it made the ticket look more like a tourist itinerary and less like a business itinerary.  Since Milan to Wengen is a similar distance as Zurich to Wengen, he opted for that. Plus, hotels (and most other things) in Milan are somewhat cheaper than Zurich.

Long Haul Train Travel

Trains Inside Italy

Italy is well-connected with high speed rail, and the tickets are reasonably priced if you buy them somewhat in advance. Rome to Florence is only an hour and a half train ride, and Venice not that much longer. We bought our Italy train tickets on the TrenItalia website (use Google Translate), which include the seat reservations. Note: one useful resource for train trip planning tips is the Seat61 website.

Swiss Rail Passes

For Switzerland – the trains are high quality, but you typically need to do some planning to avoid overpaying.  They have an interesting pricing strategy where it makes sense to either buy an appropriate pass, or get a “Halbtax” half-price card ($120 for a one-month card, locals pay much less).  Otherwise, fares add up really quickly.

On some previous Switzerland trips, we’ve gotten a 15-day railpass, which can work well for some itineraries, but doesn’t include many of the mountain trains.

This time around, we got the Halbtax Cards, relied on the “Family Card” to transport our kids for free, and got a regional mountain train pass for the Wengen area.  Make sure that when you buy your Halbtax Card, that you specify how many Family Cards you want.

Venice, Italy to Wengen, Switzerland

To actually get to Wengen, you will discover that it’s not particularly close to any airports. If you want to take a plane, rather than a train, you might fly into either Zurich or Basel, but getting to Wengen will still require several hours of trains to get to your final destination. We did quickly look into whether there were flights from Venice that might make sense, but in the end they wouldn’t save any real time compared with taking the train. Plus, the countryside is beautiful, so a long train ride was actually a bonus.

Looking at train routes, many required a train change in Milan. Since Jeremy was  going to be staying in Milan his first night, we decided to meet up there. The 5 of us had tickets from Venice, stopping in Milan, and going to Spiez, Switzerland. We then booked Jeremy in the seat next to us on the Milan to Spiez train.

From Spiez forward, we would just be taking the local Swiss trains, where basically nobody does seat reservations. We needed to make minor changes in Interlaken, and Lauterbrunnen, but since the trains run every 20-30 minutes, it would not be a big deal if we missed a particular train.  The tickets we bought would be good for the entire day.

Car Travel

We did not want to rent a car for this trip.  Jeremy doesn’t mind driving overseas, but Italy has a reputation for aggressive drivers.  The public transportation is so good that there is little reason to do so unless you will be out in the countryside, and even then, you might want to check what your public transportation options are.

One problem that you will quickly find when traveling with more than 4 people is that taxis are much harder to come by.  Most of them will fit 3 people in the back and one in the front.  With 5-6 people, we would need to either take a van-type taxi or split up and take 2 taxis.  With the language barrier, we were a bit nervous about both taxis ending up in the same place, so we minimized this type of travel.

In Rome, we did pre-arrange a 5 passenger transfer to our apartment, using Booking.com. This is quite handy when you’re jet-lagged and have luggage. And a similar cost to taking the Rome airport train if you have a group of 4+ people. After leaving customs, we simply looked for a person holding a sign with our name on it. So nice just to walk off the plane and have someone guide you to your apartment!  Plus, the drive into the city was amazing.  Not something that you would get on the train.

The only other place we took a car was in Dublin.  Cabs are inexpensive, 5-6 passenger vans are reasonably easy to come by, and with a 12-hour layover it was easiest to just take a cab to/from the airport to the hotel.  We did need to have our hotel arrange a van cab to pick us up in the morning, but that was as simple as telling the front desk what time to have it arrive.

Local Transportation

Rome, Italy

In Rome, we decided to stay near the Barbarini Metro stop for convenience.  As it turns out, that metro stop had been closed for the past six months.  Apparently the escalator collapsed and they needed to do some “maintenance” repairs.  Yeah.  So much for convenience.

The good news is that I figured out the bus system and it ended up working out much better than the metro would have.  The metro stations require a lot of walking simply to get to/from the train.  If you have to change lines, the steps adds up, particularly if you are traveling with small children or elderly.

Buses are a little less frequent than the metro, but they go everywhere and tend to pick up and let off a little closer to your destination.  The main downside is that you often have to wait in the hot sun.  My parents were a bit disappointed about the lack of benches at the bus stops, but it was still better than the long walks through the train stations.

A pleasant surprise was that the buses really weren’t very crowded and there was only once or twice that my parents were unable to get seats.  We probably could have pointed at the handicap/elderly signs and pushed the issue, but we didn’t since most buses were less than 10 minutes.

Typically, you can get bus tickets at machines in the metro stations, but since the station was closed, this was a problem.  Fortunately, you can also buy tickets at tobacco (tabacchi) shops and newspaper stands.  Be aware that there may be closures on Sundays.  I bought a bunch to carry in my purse and used them as needed.  Unless you are riding the bus at least 4-5 times per day, a pass doesn’t make financial sense.  Kids 10 and up need a ticket, so no discounts for us.  Google maps on my phone would tell me where the closest bus stop was at.

Florence, Italy

While in this city, we traveled completely by foot.  Our apartment was less than half a mile from the train station, which is easy to walk.  We thought about taking two cabs (remember we had 5 people), but my parents thought it would be okay to try it on foot.  Even better, the apartment was just a couple of blocks from the San Lorenzo market, which is great for leather purchases, and close to the Academia.

Venice, Italy

Venice is a very walkable city.  We did take the water bus from the train station, to our apartment by the Rialto Bridge, then back to the train station at the end.  If we would have been there longer, we may have considered getting somewhat expensive multi-day passes for the water bus, but since everything we wanted to see in our short stay was fairly close, we decided to do all of our sightseeing by foot.  We were perfectly happy with this scenario.

Wengen, Switzerland

While in Wengen, we used our “Halbtax” cards – Half Fare Cards – to purchase discounted 6-day Jungfrau Travel Passes.  This covers most of the trains that we wanted to take, with a few exceptions.  For those, we used our Halbtax Cards to get discounts for the adults, and our “Family Cards” to get the kids on for either a discount or for free.

Bern, Switzerland

If you are staying in a Bern Hotel and are paying the tourist tax, your hotel reservation will work as a tram ticket to get from the train station to your hotel.  Once you arrive at your hotel, the front desk will give you a Bern Ticket that will work on most of the city public transportation options.  We took full advantage of this card, using Google maps to locate the various bus/tram stops.

Dublin, Ireland

With a 12 hour overnight layover, we really didn’t have time to do much.  As it turns out, all we did was take a 20 minute taxi ride from the airport to our hotel, sleep, take a quick walk, then take another taxi back to the airport.

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