Travel

How to spend ten days in Switzerland to skip UK's red list – for less than airport quarantine

Business Insider SA
  • The UK's red list makes travel there arduous and expensive.
  • But a growing number of amber-status countries are now welcoming vaccinated South Africans.
  • Switzerland is one of them - and it's an ideal stopover to avoid a UK quarantine.
  • Although not exactly cheap, you can have a bucket-list ten-day holiday in Switzerland for about as much as a UK hotel quarantine.
  • Return flights to London via Zurich, for example, can cost less than R13,000.
  • And you can add unlimited train travel for another R5,000 - which leaves you with R32,000 to spend on accommodation and fondues.
  • Here's one way to skip hotel quarantine and spend ten days in Switzerland.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

South Africans looking to travel to the United Kingdom - and those looking to return to the UK from here - are still unable to do so with ease, thanks to the UK's enduring 'red list'. It requires travellers from certain countries to quarantine on arrival at an airport hotel at their own expense - and at current rates, a mandatory airport hotel quarantine costs roughly R50,000.

The idea of paying R50,000 to spend a week in a small hotel room has led many South Africans to seek more attractive alternatives - like taking a detour through Montenegro. But for roughly the same amount as you'll pay to hole up in a tiny hotel room at Heathrow, it's possible to spend a week basking in the Swiss countryside - and avoid quarantine altogether.

Although slightly pricier than alternatives in the Balkans, Switzerland is closer and more convenient for travellers looking to avoid quarantining in the United Kingdom - and it's not necessarily as expensive as it is reputed to be.

With a bit of planning and by cutting some corners, like avoiding high-end city hotels and mountain-top fondues, it's possible to experience Switzerland on something of a responsible budget.

Here's how to avoid the UK's red list by spending some time in Switzerland first:

Buy a rail pass

Trains aren't the cheapest way to explore Switzerland, but they are the best. Commuter and panoramic scenic trains connect most places you'll want to visit, and for around R5,000 you can ride several of the country's most iconic routes over ten days.

It's possible to purchase individual tickets at stations or online - but prices often fluctuate and can be more expensive at the last minute. A travel pass alleviates this stress - and allows you to cash in on the extravagant panoramic routes and only pay cash for the shorter and cheaper connections.

For a red list-dodging stay in Switzerland, your best bet is a three or four days, second class Swiss Flex Pass. This pass allows you to spend three or four days on trains within 30 days - and includes other bonuses like boat rides, museum entrances, and discounts at some attractions.

Adults currently pay around R5,400 for the pass that allows four days of travel within one month; youth pay around R4,500. It may sound pricey - but a single Swiss train trip like the Glacier Express can easily cost upwards of R2,500.

An ultimate ten-day Switzerland rail itinerary

Lucerne

Leave Zurich and head straight for Lucerne - Switzerland's biggest city is expensive and not as picturesque as other parts of the country. The train journey between the two isn't worth spending a rail pass travel day on - you can buy this ticket separately for roughly R400.

Lucerne, like Zurich, isn't cheap - but it's scenic, and it's worth spending a night here to take in panoramic aerial views from the city walls and towers.

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View from the Lucern City Walls at dusk. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

And before you leave the following day, a walk through the Old Town and across the famous covered bridges is a rewarding experience, too - and it doesn't cost a cent.

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Lucerne's covered bridges. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

Hotels in Lucerne are expensive and largely unappealing and will force you to eat out in overpriced restaurants. If you're on a tight budget, there are dozens of admittedly small and somewhat unexciting Airbnb options that cost as little as R1,000 per night for two people.

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Lucerne's covered bridge. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

Lauterbrunnen

The train between Lucerne and Montreux is a regular commuter line for many Swiss, but it's also one of the country's most scenic rail routes. It's called the GoldenPass Line, and it stops at several famous Swiss towns along the way.

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Views from the GoldenPass Line. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

Ride the GoldenPass Line and alight at the halfway point of Interlaken, but don't stay overnight there - just 30 minutes away by train is a living clichéd Swiss postcard called Lauterbrunnen.

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Hikes from Lauterbrunnen take you high into the Alps for views like these. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

Lauterbrunnen, and its mountainside villages, is tucked right in the heart of the Alps and offers walks, hikes, aerial cablecars, paragliding, BASE jumping, and high-altitude train rides. 

The walks and hikes are free, but activities and train rides - including to the famous route up to the 3,454 metre high Jungfraujoch - are not. A Swiss Travel Pass does, however, offer discounts on certain tourist train routes.

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A glacial lake high in the Alps. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

Lauterbrunnen is essentially the stuff of Swiss countryside dreams - and if you're fit enough to tackle the high altitude hikes, there are few better places to appreciate the Alps, and no better way to spend your time in Switzerland, than this.

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A mountain-top chalet above Lauterbrunnen. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

A midweek stay in a budget Lauterbrunnen hotel room costs around R1,500 per night for two people. But there are Airbnb rentals in the valley and neighbouring villages for significantly less - though some might require a bit of a trek or additional train ride to reach. 

And if you're a fan of camping, and it's not too cold, there are few better places in the world to pitch a tent than at one of Lauterbrunnen's pristine campsites.

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A high-altitude train above Lauterbrunnen. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

Your Swiss Travel Pass also includes passage on select boats - and the two lakes that gave Interlaken its name are worthy of an afternoon water excursion.

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Some boats are included on the Swiss Travel Pass. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

Montreux

From Interlaken, the GoldenPass Line continues to Lake Geneva. And if you time it carefully with a change at Zweisimmen, you can board a classic train carriage for the remainder of the journey that's straight out of a Wes Anderson movie.

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The classic carriage on the GoldenPass Line. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

Although the official endpoint of the line is Montreux, there are several places to stay along the shore of Lake Geneva. The town of Vevey is an attractive, quirky, and convenient alternative to Montreux. Airbnb rentals are around R1,500 per night, which is much more palatable than hotel rooms that can easily cost double this amount.

Zermatt

From Lake Geneva, make your way to Zermatt for the start of the famous Glacier Express. A train ride between Montreux and Zermatt can easily cost upwards of R1,500 - but is included in most rail passes.

Although not a particularly famous route, the trip between the two cities is spectacular.

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Entering Zermatt by train. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

Zermatt is another iconic alpine town, and known primarily for its Matterhorn mountain immortalised in the Toblerone logo.

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Zermatt's Matterhorn. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

During winter, it's a haven for skiers, with vast terrain and some of the continent's best snow. And if you're desperate for a ski in spring and summer, there's often a short run at the very top of the mountains open year-round. 

But there's also plenty to see and do in the warmer months, including dozens of walks and hikes.

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Glacier Paradise above Zermatt. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

And splurging with a cable car trip to one of the region's highest peaks, a destination called Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, is also an option. The journey is spectacular and pricey, but Swiss Travel Pass holders get 50% off.

Airbnb or apartment rental may be your best  accommodation option if you're on a budget. There are private rooms and apartments in the valley for under R1,500 a night - but if you feel like splurging, there are several lavish chalets and incredible hotel rooms with views of the Matterhorn, too.

St Moritz 

The main reason for train fans to venture to Zermatt, however, is to leave it again - on board the country's best-marketed scenic route called the Glacier Express

The train runs daily between Zermatt and glamorous St Moritz and is a true Swiss oxymoron - in that although the route takes you past several glaciers, it also moves at something of a glacial pace. But this hardly matters, because it's one of the most scenic and luxurious train rides in the world.

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The Glacier Express. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

The journey traverses valleys and gorges before ascending to above 2,000 metres at the Oberalp Pass. From there, it dips back down into the town of Chur before climbing back up 1,775 metres at the luxurious lakeside village of St Moritz.

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Views from the panoramic carriages of the Glacier Express. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

The train is a spectacle in itself, with panoramic carriages that allow you to take in the surrounding Swiss countryside without leaving your seat.

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Panoramic carriages of the Glacier Express. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

And although most famous for its scenery, the engineering en-route to St Moritz is equally breathtaking.

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The breathtaking engineering of the Glacier Express. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

St Moritz is also worthy of at least one night's stay in the summer months. Although it's a destination unashamedly targeting 1% of the world's 1%, an early morning walk around the nearby lake is a pretty good way to shake off the previous day's long sedentary train ride.

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St Moritz. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

Returning to Lucerne

From St Moritz, you have two options. Under normal circumstances, the Bernina Express, which cuts through into Italy and back to Lugano, is a route that rivals most others in Switzerland.

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The Bernina Express. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

But time, money, and coronavirus restrictions might make returning to Lucerne via Italy complex - in which case a direct trip back is the most sensible option. 

The direct journey back to the city by train takes about six hours. Although Switzerland doesn't market it as well as the GoldenPass Line, Glacier Express, or Bernina Express, it's a pleasingly scenic way to end a whirlwind trip of Switzerland and its rail routes.

Getting to, and into, Switzerland

The cheapest and most convenient starting point for a trip to Switzerland is to fly from Johannesburg to Zurich.

For dates in October, it's possible to find a multi-city air ticket between Johannesburg, Zurich, London, and Johannesburg, for under R13,000 - including some direct flight options on Swiss Air Lines.

Given Covid-19 restrictions, getting into Switzerland is slightly more challenging than it once was. The situation might change at a moment's notice - but with Europe slowly reopening to South African travellers, those who are fully vaccinated are not required at present to quarantine on arrival in many countries.

Avoiding UK quarantine

Switzerland is currently on the United Kingdom's Amber List. Provided travellers remain in this region for 10 days, it should be enough to avoid South Africa's red list status.

According to UK government regulations, prior to travel, unvaccinated travellers arriving in England must have booked and paid for two future Covid-19 tests, and complete a passenger locator form. On arrival in England, unvaccinated travellers must present a negative Covid test.

Travellers from Amber regions do not currently have to quarantine at a government-mandated facility - but must quarantine in the place they are staying for 10 days - and take the Covid-19 tests on days two and eight.

Fully vaccinated travellers must take a Covid-19 test on or before day two.

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