Gotthard Panorama Express with Kids
We knew we wanted to try out a few of the scenic trains as part of our Switzerland by Rail itinerary. The Gotthard Panorama Express (formerly the William Tell Express) seemed like a good fit. It is part boat ride, part train and whisks you from French speaking Switzerland to the Italian portion of the country in an afternoon.
Here are the dirty details I want to get out of the way before I share the stunning scenery and some tips for making the best of this trip.
The Gotthard Panorama Express was the exception to our otherwise seamless travel using the Swiss Rail Pass. Reservations for this route are mandatory and have an additional cost. The fee structure is a bit confusing. Depending on the class and type of rail pass your reservation fee is different. It’s best to just book the reservations directly. We had a confirmed booking number and were instructed to pick up our tickets at the check-in desk, yet there was still confusion. The adults were issued tickets but none of the children were.
Further confusion involved the meal voucher. At some point a meal voucher was offered with the first class Gotthard Panorama Express ticket. It now appears that that meal vouchers are not included. Our tickets had a meal credit listed on them, but no value. The purser on board the boat informed us that each adult would receive 20 Francs toward their meal. There is nothing offered on board for less than 20 Francs. As I mentioned they have discontinued the meal vouchers, but this was a great example of the lack of organization we found on this portion of the trip. The corporate office seemed to always push the problem to the workers.
Ok, so the administration was a mess and little details throughout the trip fell by the wayside, but the ride itself is lovely!
If you are taking this trip you will want to download the Gotthard Panorama App. (The webpage says itss available for Apple and Android, but the link to the Google Store appears to be broken.) The app guides you to what you see on the journey. The app does require you to have cell data, but neither the boat nor the train are equipped with wifi.
You board the boat at the central boat dock in Lucerne. Boarding is easy, albeit crowded. Luggage storage is on the main floor on a set of risers. They ask everyone to lay their bags down here. If you’re worried about your things you will want to keep them with you or place a lock on the zipper. We took our bookbag with the valuables upstairs with us but left everything else on the risers without a problem. Throughout the journey, patrons sat on the risers next to the luggage – and that made Jeff a bit apprehensive.
They don’t check your tickets until the boat is underway so just go ahead and find a seat and enjoy the trip. As is the custom on Swiss boats, upstairs is first class and downstairs is second. We were under the impression that the boat was dedicated to the Gotthard Panorama Express, but in fact it is a regular service boat. The boat was completely packed for the first hour of the trip. Uncomfortably packed. I inquired with the staff and they told me this is typical for this boat trip.
Your best course of action, if you are heading out on the Gotthard Panorama Express is to make a lunch reservation. They reserve a table for you and the table sits empty until you are ready to eat. After you board the boat immediately head to your table and order lunch. When you are done eating the boat will have cleared out and you can enjoy your time a bit more. We were worried if we gave up our outdoor seats to go have lunch, we may never get seats outside. So we sat uncomfortably smushed at a table for 45 min with several other families, until we finally headed to the lunch table.
Inside the restaurant we finally had some space. We all ordered food and some wine and settled in for the nearly three hour trip across Lake Lucerne. The food was delicious. The service is European slow so you can enjoy your meal. I highly recommend using your time on the boat for a good meal. The restaurant windows are huge so you won’t miss out on the scenery.
I just wish we had done it earlier to avoid the unpleasantness of the crowded boat. You can enjoy the views from your table, so you won’t miss anything while you’re having lunch.
There are high chairs available, but they were never offered to us. I discovered these later down in the “kids area” of the boat. I inquired and was told I was free to take one upstairs if I wanted it. I should have! This area also has a toy chest with some games and puzzles. We grabbed a few of those to take upstairs with us.
There is also a small kids area on the main floor of the boat. There are books to borrow and some pamphlets and coloring sheets. We saw this area when we boarded the boat but the boat was so crowded that you couldn’t reach the books or handouts. Once the crowds cleared out it was easy to check out what was available here.
We took the books and games to an outside table, which we now had to ourselves. The giant shade was perfect for keeping us all out of the sun. The breeze was lovely. Maybe it was the second bottle of wine, but we all were able to relax a bit and appreciate the trip.
The mountains were green and literally dipped into the bright blue water.
Every now and again a little town will appear on the waterfront. We made note of these town names and the hotels right on the water, many of them with pools sunk into the lake. I want to return and just spend a day or two relaxing on the lakeshore.
The Little Little fell asleep in my arms.
The air temperature was perfect. I could feel the stress melt away as we enjoyed the scenery floating by.
Toward the end of the ride the boat was surrounded by small sailboats enjoying the beautiful day out on the lake. I’ll add this to my wish list of things to do when the kids are older as well (Sail Lake Lucerne)!
When the boat docks everyone left on board is headed to the train. I was worried about the transfer since we were not given many details. The train station is small and right at the dock. We grabbed our things and proceeded, with everyone else, to the train.
Now the issue became that we were issued three tickets for six people. The kids are free on most of the rail lines, but were previously always issued tickets when a reservation was required. We boarded our train car and found it totally full. Jeff headed outside to speak with the conductor. She could not have been nicer. She began moving people around to accommodate the six of us together. It just seems this could have been done by a corporate office before we boarded the train. Further, although our train had five rail cars, ours was the only one fully occupied. All the other cars had only one or two passengers in them.
Another strange decision is that only the first class cars of the Gotthard Panorama Express are actually panoramic. Once we were underway we walked the other cars just to check things out. The second class carriage was nearly empty and features regular train windows.
The conductor got the boys started with some paper train cars they could put together and play with. They thought these were great, and although they did not survive the trip she gave us an extra set we were able to bring home flat so the kids could repeat the activity at home.
Hanging above all the seats is a guidebook to what you’re about to see. There is an audio narration that is played on the train in several languages, plus the train conductor walks through to point things out.
The app provides the same information as the book, but its location services tells you where you are. The disadvantage to the app, of course is the lack of wifi on the train. We therefore resorted to the book more frequently than the app.
As soon as the boys got on board we let them plug into their iPads. We wanted to enjoy the trip and they had done such a great job on the boat playing and being engaged.
You are able to order drinks and small snacks on the train, although we did not see anyone doing this. Your options are more limited than they are on the boat.
The train route is the original route through the mountains. Fast trains now take the Gotthard tunnel (the red dotted line on the map.) But the panoramic route takes you on the blue line where the track spirals through the mountain to gain and lose elevation. It’s incredible to think that until a year ago, going across Switzerland by train involved all these tunnels and turns.
I really don’t have great photos of this, as the train was moving fast and I was holding a baby. However, you pass this little white church three times as you climb the mountain. The train is literally circling around it to gain elevation to cross the pass.
The tunnels are long and dark. Our Little Little shrieked at the top of his lungs every time we were in a tunnel. You stop in one tunnel for a little show projected on the walls that tells the story of building the rail line. The production value is quite low.
The landscape is breathtaking. The buildings shift from Germanic to more Italian and rustic.
You can even head to the back of the train and look out the back!
Toward the end of the ride you complete another large set of loops, each time you pop out of the mountain you can see the bridge you were just on.
Then you’re finally back on the valley floor and continue to your final destination. We got off the train at its final stop in Lugano, although you can opt to get off a stop earlier in Bellazona, instead.
Overall, we loved the journey but were disappointed with the value of the trip. If you are paying above the cost of your rail pass we expect the details to be taken care of and they were not. The polish here was just missing.
I was provided with a Swiss Rail Pass in exchange for a review of my trip, however all opinions are my own.