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Switzerland - Alpine Tour

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Tour de Alps - Switzerland

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Madison Wisconsin, USA

Pre-trip and Flights to Zurich, Switzerland Wednesday, September 14, 2005
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Madison Wisconsin
St. Moritz
St. Moritz
Zermatt
Zermatt
Zermatt
Zermatt to Berner Oberland
Murren
Lauterbrunnen - Interlaken
Engelberg
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Zurich - Madison

Swiss Alps
Trip Planning

After watching the 2005 Tour de France, I was enamored by the alpine scenery. I was actually in the Engadine Valley in 1969, and have always wanted to return. Originally I looked at some of the river tours through Europe, but decided on a alps only vacation. This could easily be done as a pre or post cruise trip if you are in Europe. My last cruise on the Radisson Voyager actually had a post trip stay in Lake Como, so the mountains are close by to most cruise ports in Europe.

I began the trip trying to figure out the best time to go. Between work and contemplating the popular tourist season, I decided to arrange the trip in September. This is the tail-end of the tourism crowds in Europe, and is a lovely time to travel. Having a clear and well thought-out methodology in planning a trip like this will lead to smooth transitions in flights, rail and touring.

Northwest Airlines Website
RailEurope Website

Arranging Flights
Itinerary
Swiss Rail System
The first step was arranging flights. I almost exclusively book my own flights online, unless special circumstances dictate the use of a travel agent.
I have found that the prices (on a whole) are less expensive than going through an agent, unless you are traveling with a large group, or are using a consolidator. I looked at Travelocity, Expedia, and finally booked through Northwest.
I used 200,000 miles for one Business Class ticket, and paid full fare for the other.
Economy prices to Zurich were around $1,000 round trip from Madison, Wisconsin (via Detroit and Amsterdam).
Business Class fares were around $2,500. While there were a few charter airlines available, I chose standard flights so that I had alternatives in case of airline delays.
The next step was planning an itinerary. This was the most difficult part of the pre-trip process.
Choosing a method of transportation really can dictate your itinerary and how you get around. I chose to purchase a Swiss Pass which allows 15 days of travel on any of the transportation systems.
This is the most flexible and hassle-free way to get around Switzerland. A Eurail Pass was on some of the Swiss system, but it's better to get selective if you're only doing in-country travel.
There are small surcharges for cable-car, or cog rail segments to mountain summits and passes, but overall, it's a great value.
You get a further discount if you travel with two or more. Cost: $395 for 15 days of unlimited travel.
You get added bonuses of discounts on bike rentals, tours and lodging.
The Swiss transportation system has a very detailed website ( www.sbb.ch ) which includes options to purchase tickets or passes online, along with links to information and timetables.
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I ordered my tickets online from www.raileurope.com
Northwest Airlines Website
Study where you're going in advance and plan out the first few days.
Swiss Rail System

Swiss Rail System
Reservations
St. Moritz Station
There are other commercial websites that offer online purchase of the Swiss Pass along with add-on tours, such as the ( www.glacierexpress.ch )
Glacier Express which is a train that goes from St. Moritz to Zermatt (Matterhorn).
I chose from several additional rail/cable car trips which really dictated the backbone of the trip.
I made all my train reservations in advance, including specialty routes like Schilthorn and the Glacier Express from www.raileurope.com which makes it very painless to order tickets from the internet.
They charge a $15 UPS delivery fee, so combine as many tickets purchases as possible in one order online.
Reservations can be make three months in advance (highly advised) and the dining car reservations also need to be made.
For train reservations out of St. Moritz, contact the station there at:
Rhatische Bahn AG / Rhaetian Railway AG Bahnhofstrasse 25 CH 7002 CHUR / Coira St. Moritz Station 7500 St. Moritz
Tel. +41 (0)81 288 56 40 - Fax +41 (0)81 288 56 31 - http://www.rhb.ch/
Or go to the Glacier Express website at: http://www.glacierexpress.ch/en/3fahr_3.php
Glacier Express Website
You can make most of your rail reservations before you leave - all online.
Glacier Express - Reservations Page Online

Reserving Seats on the Glacier Express

Even though I was over a month out, the Saturday I wanted was fully booked for first class - I ended up making a reservation on www.raileurope.com for second class. I emailed the station at St. Moritz in regards to a waiting list - and there is none. They suggested checking in periodically for any possible cancelations. Placing the rail tours together, a route was slowly taking shape. Flying into Zurich, then taking the train to St. Moritz, the Glacier Express to Zermatt, then up to Interlocken for the balance of the trip.

For more popular train routes - plan as early as possible.

Rail Passes Purchased
Swiss Pass
Tour Descriptions
Here is a summary of the tickets I purchased online from RailEurope.
Keep in mind that if you purchase from a internet site, you will be charged a $15 overnight courier fee - so combine all your purchases into one group if possible.
Swiss Saverpass
15 days; 1st Class,Rail protection plan, two adults
Groups can get better discounts (two or more people)
Mountain Tops: Schilthorn Muerren - Schilthorn/Piz Gloria Round Trip
Mountain Tops: Pilatus Alpnachstad or Kriens-Mt. Pilatus Round Trip
Mountain Tops: Titlis Engelberg - Mount Titlis Round Trip Voucher
Glacier Express: St. Moritz to Zermatt

Hotel Reservations in St. Moritz
Strategy: Plan the first few nights
Hotel Reservations in Zermatt
There are a range of hotels in St. Moritz, and I chose this one based on location (next to a railway which goes up a mountain).
Hotel Nolda -Via Crasta 3 -St. Moritz 7500 -Switzerland
For reservation questions and other information contact the ho 1 (0) 41818330575 1 (0) 41818338751
I wanted to be flexible for hotels, so I didn't book too much in advance.
This freestyle method of travel might not work so well in the peak of the tourist season, but seemed like a great option for September in the Alps.
Arriving by train in the morning or early afternoon and then looking for a hotel is a great way to explore the destination a bit before settling in.
Since the Swiss Pass gives you the flexibility to travel at will, you're not locked into any place, and can lengthen or shorten your stay accordingly.
After researching online, I found the Riffelalp Resort, which looked like a wonderful diversion to the touristy town lodging in Zermatt.
The Riffelalp has a commanding view of the Matterhorn, plus it's virtually on the Gornergrat mountain railway - which takes you to scenic vistas of the Matterhorn as well as various hiking trails.
I booked directly through the hotel, after I verified with at least one source (Expedia) that they were offering the same price. Sometimes wholesalers can get lower prices that are listed by the resorts published price.
65 rooms, 5 suites, plus 2 apartments - Beds: 140 - Reservations: reservation@riffelalp.com Phone:+41 27 966 05 55 +41 27 966 05 50 - Open In winter: from mid-December to mid-April -- In summer: from end-June to end-September
Riffelalp Resort 2222m 3920 Zermatt - Switzerland
Hotel Nolda Website
Compare prices at the hotel site with online wholesalers, such as Expedia
Riffelalp Resort Spa

Travel Luggage

eBags Pack

For this trip, like all others, I packed one carry-on bag. If you travel with less, you have more time to enjoy your vacation, and spend less time packing and unpacking. Probably the best part is the journey to and from your vacation - you'll never experience lost luggage, and will be expedited through customs.

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Selection - eBags

Pack

I have about three different roll-aboards now, and they keep getting smaller as I slowly evolve into the seasoned traveler. For this trip, since it will involve more trains and walking, I opted for a backpack style carry-on from eBags. I looked at REI and some other sites for the wheeled backpacks - which look great, but were expensive and twice as heavy as just a backpack. These extra pounds add-up when your going anywhere with the bag in tow.

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What to Bring

Lumbar Pack

Since this trip was not a luxury cruise, nor in the tropics, I consulted various sources for packing and travel clothing recommendations. The major things which stood out were bringing one set of good hiking shoes, one pair of pants, rain gear, and some warm clothing. To that, I added a waist lumbar pack for day trips and hiking to the alps. You'll find that a small backpack or waist pack is perfect for carrying a light lunch, water, and rain gear.

Lumbar packs are great for day trips
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Reference Reading

Swiss Rail Map

After buying a bunch of maps and reference books at Barnes and Noble, I realized that traveling fortified with cultural and geographic information, I would have more time to enjoy the journey. Plus it's fun to read about where you're going before you get there. The emphasis on this trip was to see as many alps as possible, via train, cable car, funicular, cog train and hiking.

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Currency

Pre Order Money

Most of the guides recommend taking credit cards, travelers checks and obtaining local currency. This can be done via many ATM's - but I shy away from using ATM's for a variety of reasons. First, if somebody steals your card, they may gain access to your PIN and get cash (many people write their PIN down on their card or someplace so they don't forget. Second, ATM's are a favorite target for people who want your money. Third, it's a great place for scams (credit card number stealing, etc.). While these might be rare, you can avoid it all by using traveler's checks, charging money at hotels or currency changers.

Currency can be ordered ahead of time via internet and credit card - I used Wells Fargo
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Wells Fargo - Currency Exchange Services

Rail Tickets

Rail Pass - Swiss Pass

When I ordered my Swiss Pass rail tickets, which arrived via UPS a few days after ordering online, I received some travel promos in the package. One was for an on-line currency exchange. I gave it a shot since it saved me time from going to the bank and getting some currency, but the first site didn't work. So I did a search on Google and came up with a variety of sites, and the one I finally settled on (and which had the best exchange rate) was from Wells Fargo. I charged the Swiss Francs (CHF) to my VISA card. See: www.foreignexchangeservices.com

RailEurope for European rail tickets
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Wells Fargo - Currency Exchange Services

Taking Photos

Rail Europe - Online Credit Card Purchase - Fed Ex Delivery Before Trip

I travel with two Olympus Stylus 400 Digital cameras. They use Lithium Ion batteries (which seem to last forever - but they require a proprietary charger) and use the XD card. These are great digital cameras, that are very durable. They have survived the drop test many times. In addition, they have a underwater camera housing that takes great photos. For this trip, I decided not to take my Macintosh PowerBook G4 (since weight was an issue it was replaced by a a pen and pad of paper) and so I required more XD cards to store the photos. Normally, I upload the photos to the computer each night, then do a DVD backup at the end of the trip. To save weight and space, the additional XD cards would have to do. The 128 MB XD cards are fast. I purchased two additional 1 gig XD cards to handle both pictures and short video takes. Keep in mind that these cards have a delay associated with them between photos (save time and boot time when you turn the camera on to when you're ready to take a image).

Even with taking video, I only went through less than 2 gig of memory cards
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Flexibility and Backup

Day Pack - Lumbar Pack with Shoulder Straps

I chose two similar cameras so that I can swap out batteries, XD cards and share media transfer cables - it just cuts down on the bulk and weight of having duplicates of everything. It's like having extra spare parts just in case.

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To Bring - Or Not To Bring - The Computer

Rail Pass Options

If you decide to travel with your computer - you'll need electrical converters for each country (or region) you're traveling to. In Switzerland, there are three types of outlets used (round prong type). The advantage to bringing a computer are many, including being able to download your digital camera images to a hard-drive for backup. The disadvantages include weight, electrical converters, and the space required to lug all the stuff around. For a cruise, this isn't a big consideration. For a land-based adventure, it's more of a factor if you have to carry it any distance.

If you're backpacking, leave the computer at home.
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Airline Luggage Requirements

These Packs Fit Under the Seat and Overhead

Choosing the perfect luggage: this is something that I spend a great deal of time on before a trip. For cruising, where you unpack once for the entire week a roll-aboard carry-on works best. For trips where you are more mobile, and require more packing and unpacking, then I recommend looking at additional options. For this trip, there was a good chance of walking and hiking short distances with the luggage, so I looked at roll-aboards with hiking (shoulder) straps. REI has a good selection, but wheeled versus non-wheeled backpacks had a difference of about 4-5 pounds. The luggage has two basic criteria for traveling, (1) must be within the airline requirements of 22 x 14 x 9 inches, and (2) needs to have one large accessible main compartment. Consult your air carrier, but I use mainly Northwest Airlines:

Less is more - Pack one carry-on
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NorthWest Airlines - Carry-on Requirements

Business Class Perks

Rail Plan in .pdf Format

If you are traveling in Business Class, you're allowed one additional carry-on. The limiting factor for me is how much you can carry comfortably. There will be circumstances when you'll have to carry (or wheel) your luggage some distance by yourself - so plan on what you are able to carry comfortably.

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eBags

Swiss Pass Info in .pdf Format

I did extensive internet research, including the great web site hosted by the seasoned European traveler, Rick Steve's. He has his own backpack luggage line which is exactly what I was looking for. His expandable backdoor backpack is around $100. You can get something almost exactly the same at www.ebags.com called the weekend convertible. The cost is $53.99 and it's perfect. I ordered two plus some Mountainsmith day packs (lumbar packs) - Tour Pack and Day Pack. These are perfect for those day trips on alpine hiking trails (they'll carry water, lunch, and a rain jacket).

Shop around for luggage values
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eBags - Weekender Carry-on

Clothing

Overnight Document Service

As far as clothing goes, I went to Land's End, REI and Gander Mountain. REI is the most expensive, however if items are on-sale, you can get good deals. Land's End has a good selection at very reasonable prices (especially at the Land's End Inlet Store). The best value, and most selection, was at Gander Mountain. This was the only place where I could find nylon convertible pants in a variety of sizes and color selections. Prices there are incredible. I recommend you stop there first if you're traveling to colder climates. For this trip, I'll be taking a fleece jacket/vest, convertible pants and evening pants. A few long sleeved shirts and T-shirts. If you're going to backpack (even using a backpack and staying in hotels) you'll have to pack wisely.

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Departure - Madison - Detroit - Amsterdam - Zurich

First Class from Detroit to Amsterdam

We departed Madison's Truax Field about 30 minutes late due to a ATC delay. NWA DC-9 (MD-30/40/50) aircraft. Arrived in Detroit 45 minutes late, which was ok since we had a four hour layover. This is my first time lugging around a backpack versus a roll-aboard. It was a hassle. I really missed my wheeled partner. There simply is no comparison to the convenience of the time-tested roll-aboard. All the weight is on the wheels, not on your back.

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Across the Atlantic - First Class

Pods in First/Business Class

The flight from Detroit to Amsterdam departed on time aboard a very comfortable Airbus. In First/Business Class it was 2 x 2 x 2 seating with the aircraft configured with the newer pod sleeper seats. The seats were great, with a large range of push-button adjustments for everything from angle, lumbar support, to leg rests. They also fully recline for sleeping.

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First Class Travel

NWA First Class Food Menu in .pdf format

Dinner for this flight across the Atlantic to Amsterdam was a four course meal which was quite good. My favorite First/Business Class food service is still Air Tahiti Nui. Part of the best part of flying up front is the service, comfort and little perks. Once such perk is a overnight back filled with small goodies, like socks, earplugs, toothbrush/toothpaste, lip gloss, etc. I always use the foam earplugs now since they really decrease headaches from the low whine of the turbines. The flight across was just over seven hours (going eastbound). Breakfast was served towards the end of the flight just before we arrived at Amsterdam.

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We arrived at Amsterdam around 5:45 am. The first thing you'll notice in Europe is the cigarette smoke.

The NWA/KLM World Class lounge in Amsterdam was very nice. Full self-service bar.

Some examples of Swiss Francs.

Currency via Wells Fargo.

Rail and cable car passes can be purchased through Rail Europe.

Cable Car advance ticket purchase. Even though I purchased these in advance, I should have waited in case the itinerary changed.

If you purchase a SwissPass, also get the Rail Protection Plan.

SwissPass terms.

Additional Photographs: Pre-trip and Flights to Zurich, Switzerland

(click on photos to enlarge)
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Tour de Alps - Switzerland
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