Help me get a 16 year old tourist from Zürich to CERN
September 3, 2017 9:06 AM   Subscribe

Assuming I can get him a reservation on the Individual CERN tour, I want to provide a 16 year old (American tourist) explicit and concise instructions for a day trip from Zürich to CERN and back.

I want to give him step-by-step instructions, like:

"- From Hotel main entrance, go south on X street to Y street and find the Z train station.
- Take the ABC line towards Geneva (show rail pass to conductor to board)
- Get off at stop #123.
- Take #5 Bus (Tram?) to ZXY station
- Go north to taxi stand on east side and take taxi to..."

You can assume these facts:

- Staying at the Renaissance Zürich Tower Hotel, mid October
- Can read a map, and is self-sufficient
- Has a Swiss Travel Pass (but has never traveled by train before)
- Speaks only English
- Will have a Visa credit card and some francs
- An entire day will be devoted to this excursion
- Doesn't currently use Uber, but could
- Will have a working smart phone


How much money should he bring?
Should he bring his US passport?
Where to eat or what food/water to bring?

Thanks all! Any help (and additional ideas/feedback regarding travel, visiting CERN, anything really) is greatly appreciated!
posted by Pig Tail Orchestra to Travel & Transportation around Zürich, Switzerland (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
In other slightly helpful news, this American is going to be around CERN in mid-October and notes that "Reservations for tours open 15 days in advance." -- MeMail me if you'd like to work on arranging dates for a visit and I'll just pair with said 16 year old American Tourist.
posted by msamye at 9:31 AM on September 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

I always start with Rome2Rio which lists a bunch of transportation options, prices, traveling times.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 12:07 PM on September 3, 2017

I am deeply jealous. A shame people on the tour don't get to go into the (switched off!) LHC, though. :)

I've had quite a deep dive into the CERN site you linked and some Swiss transport sites too, like SBB (Swiss Rail) and SWISS (the national airline: US site here). The rail timetable is only valid through 12 September, though, so you won't be able to price reservation-only bookings (since he has the pass) past that date yet (as far as I could tell). Exhaustive and well-illustrated guide to Swiss rail travel and tickets on Seat 61 here. Google Maps also does the journey from the hotel to the CERN tram stop here. CERN's own directions page is helpfully clear. Rome2Rio has lots of detail as well with estimated prices.

By train and tram

This would be a very long day with an early start and a late finish, and he needs to know that. But: probably lovely scenery, time to snooze if he's a bit jetlagged, restaurant car, and to me this is a long enough journey to justify the expense to get him a supplement to ride in first class one/both ways, which might take some of the stress off since he'd be travelling at rush hour and because the journey is a bit over two hours.

It's nearly four hours one-way door to door from the hotel in Zurich to the CERN tram stop, and assuming he left the hotel at 6:45 am on a random Tuesday I chose, October 10, Google Maps predicts - with no delays - that he would reach CERN (via tram in Zurich, train to Geneva, then a walk to the #18 tram and on to CERN itself) at 10:43 am.

Honestly, I feel like this is cutting it awfully close for the 11:00 am English tour as there is some construction around the area where the tram stop is (everything is still functioning, but presumably with some traffic/pedestrian redirection) and the CERN site advises arriving 20 minutes before your tour starts; a late train or missed connection would mean he could miss the start of the tour. I'm a French-speaking adult traveller but don't have the confidence to predict that I'd walk out the correct exit to walk a few hundred metres to get to my tram to CERN (tram number 18) which I cannot miss. This makes me lean toward the 1:00 pm tour instead, leaving Zurich a bit earlier.

It's also unclear on where he would eat/grab lunch were he to do the earlier tour unless he ate on the train; CERN's cafeteria isn't open to individuals. The train from Zurich to Geneva will be very nice, though, with wifi and a restaurant car (I'd go for one of the nonstop ICN services). I'd definitely pay the extra to reserve a seat for him even you do have him in second class, though, so he knows he can go to the restaurant car/explore the train/go to the bathroom without someone taking his place - this is not always intuitive on trains in Europe, especially having to kindly remind someone in your reserved seat that it is not reserved for them.

In fact, he'll probably need to have a reserved seat on the train as I think this would be a high-speed train, and also because the SBB site predicts that this Tuesday and next Tuesday morning (presumably typical!) have quite crowded carriages/are heavily booked on this route and standing wouldn't be much fun (though perhaps lingering at the coffee bar would be?). I'm not sure how passes and reservations work, but the SBB/rail pass site will help you for sure.

He arrives; he gets to CERN. Tours last two hours or so and there are a few other exhibition spaces nearby in the Globe (good visuals of the tram stop at that link!), plus a gift shop; let's imagine he's feeling pretty done/tired around 4:30 pm. Now he's got to get the tram (how often do they run?) back to the right city-centre stop in Geneva (perhaps harder to spot than the CERN complex on the way out? perhaps not?) and head back. He'd be back in Zurich, presuming he left CERN around 4:30 pm or 5:00 pm, around 8:45 or 9:00 pm.

By plane and taxi

CERN is right next to Geneva's small and convenient airport - like a 10-minute drive. This is how I would do it, especially if the rail pass could be used another day/for another trip and I had any frequent-flyer miles/points I could redeem for one of SWISS' morning flights to Geneva and evening flights back to Zurich. Yet I say this because I am not 16, and I definitely don't have the patience for eight hours of public transport in one day that he may have. Cash fares are quite pricey - this route is a monopoly of SWISS - but there's a direct suburban train from the station nearest his hotel (Zurich Hardbrucke) to Zurich airport, and European airport security is not TSA-level horrible. It would be busy but manageable.

SWISS are nice; you only need to check in 40 minutes in advance at GVA and ZRH (if for some reason he wasn't using app/mobile check in?) which should be easy with no baggage; perhaps arriving an hour in advance will let him relax a bit. I bet the views would be wonderful. The flight's about 45-50 minutes. Weather/general aviation nonsense could be a problem, though - what if his departure is delayed for whatever reason?

At the Geneva end, he could do a (free!) bus to CERN from the airport (it's bus Y but only runs hourly, yet presuming he arrived before 9 this wouldn't be an issue!), or Uber or taxi pretty easily ("Bonjour/Hello - CERN?"), with a paid fare on the bus/a pre-booked pickup/taxi from CERN back to the airport that I bet the hotel in Zurich could help him set up the day before.

Flying would perhaps be more familiar, probably more English-language-friendly (though that's not really an issue in Switzerland's cities/on public transport!), and perhaps feel far faster. Watch the cab fare; the airport in Geneva to CERN might be 35 CHF in a cab; Uber is presumably less but I'm not sure how easy it would be to get an Uber back to GVA from CERN.

What to bring

The CERN site says not to bring luggage at all; I presume something the size of a small purse/handbag would be fine but that a messenger bag might be too big. I wouldn't do this without...

- a digital camera in addition to my phone should I be forced to leave the phone in some sort of locker situation for science/security reasons

- some sort of warmish but not oppressive/heavy jacket/outer garment with significant pockets, something water resistant and foldable, like a windbreaker

- perhaps I'd bring one of those little shopping bags that fold into a tiny pocketable sack to store things in (bottle of water, sandwich, jacket if it's warm, maybe a hat?)

- a very well-organised wallet with all my vital cash/card/ticket things in one spot, not scattered around the jacket - I have, use, and adore this ridiculous passport-holding wallet (with a pen! and that might be a fun gift anyway for his trip!)

Finally, he'll definitely need his passport to prove his identity for the train conductor with the (named) rail pass (or at the airport), and also since the tour will be booked in his name, and because CERN straddles the French-Swiss border and France has reimposed some border controls as part of its ongoing state of emergency; even without the border-control issue I can't imagine being in a different country to my passport should something go wrong, even something innocuous like a slip-and-fall in the gift shop that required a quick visit to a clinic where they'd want to record who I was. Proof of identity is a scary thing to be without when you're abroad.


Since he has the pass, it's hard to argue against doing the train, plus a small battery pack/cable for his phone (do have him switch off bluetooth/wifi and switch on low-power/battery-save mode before he leaves in the morning, though, just to be sure!) and probably more cash than he'd need. It is an eminently doable trip for an English speaker, especially if he's willing to get up a bit early and take a train-then-tram to CERN that gets him there around 10:00-10:30, primarily so he can relax and enjoy the journey on the way there. This has the potential to be an amazing taste of adult/independent life not many kids his age get back in the States, especially if he doesn't live in a major urban area where public transport is normal. And he'll be the envy of his science teachers when he gets back!

Thanks for making this happen for him!
posted by mdonley at 12:31 PM on September 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

Google maps will give him a step by step guide including local transit. That's how I work out how to get places and I live in Zurich.

The majority of people will speak anywhere from some to excellent English.

He can pay by credit card for most things although a bit of cash would be good to buy a drink or snack. How much cash would depend on how long he is in CH in total.

If he happens to travel through Euro land before/after there is a good chance that at least in Geneva he can pay in Euros but would get change in CHF. So that might be relevant in determining how many CHF he should withdraw.

He should only show his train ticket on request once on the train, bus, tram, not as a matter of course. They rely on honesty and hefty fines if you're unable to produce a ticket on request.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:11 PM on September 3, 2017

As somebody who lives next door to his hotel - I would absolutely not do this by plane - all his transit options run very frequently like every few minutes for local transit - his hotel is by Hardbrücke S-Bahn station and he should use that to get to HB to get on the train, not the tram. According to the SBB app there are no less than 5 connections that get him from Hardbrücke to Geneva main station before 9.50 am - departing any time during the 30 minutes from 5.49am onwards. I picked 10am arrival at Geneva main as criteria because that would allow 40 mins to find the right tram stop and get on the tram and make it to CERN - he can easily miss one or two trams. He can sleep on the train - he won't be the only one.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:24 PM on September 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

The tram stops at CERN: it's the last stop on the line, and there's a big sphere-shaped building on one side, so it's very clear when you arrive. Buying a tram ticket was a bit confusing for me when I went, but the ticket machine can switch to English and the day pass was simpler - just get a day pass. Taxis seemed very expensive but it might be worth taking the extra cash for one just in case.

As well as the tour there is a small museum (with a fun tabletop cloud chamber) and the globe building contains the PC the web was created on. The tour groups go to different places in the second part of the tour, involving a guided minibus trip into France to visit other buildings so a passport is needed just in case.
posted by BinaryApe at 11:05 PM on September 3, 2017

Seconding koahiatamadl - there's no way I would do this trip by plane, because the train is so pleasant. (Otherwise, though, mdonley has good advice.)

I've never booked a seat on that line, because there's no financial advantage to booking ahead on the Swiss railways. If I wanted to, I'd probably ask at the counter in the Zürich main station (HB or Hauptbahnhof). They're very friendly and speak excellent English.

The train might be quite busy that early in the morning, but he'd probably get a seat after a while. Hanging out in the coffee bar/restaurant car would be a possibility. The Zürich-Geneva train only stops at a few cities on the way, so he could (for example) look for a seat when he got on; if he didn't find one, eat breakfast in the restaurant car for just under an hour; jump into a seat when masses of passengers get out of the train at Bern.

I've taken the CERN tour about five times now with school groups and I'm pretty certain I remember us all carrying our rucksacks. I think by luggage they mean suitcases, wheely cases, etc. I'll double-check, though!

It's a great trip and he'll have a blast. Just in case something goes wrong in Zürich and he could use help from a local, though, feel free to memail me and I'll give him a hand. :)
posted by daisyk at 6:32 AM on September 4, 2017

Another thing I'd add here is that it is super-normal for kids that age to be doing this solo, in fact a German Momma friend of mine recently gave as a 16th birthday gift to her son £500 Eurofor his CERN experience ( Hamburg)

He's expected to make all the arrangements and just run them by her before booking as it's like a challenge, obviously MUCH easier because he speaks German, although in my experience he'd probably be better off speaking English as Schweitzer Deutsche is way harder to understand for a northern ear than just switching into English. YMMV
posted by Wilder at 9:00 AM on September 4, 2017

Wow, so overwhelmed with appreciation. Thank you all so much for these wonderful and insightful and DETAILED! answers. This will truly help make this a great (and less stressful) trip!

Just a few quick follows ups...

- Do taxis in Switzerland take credit cards?
- Is the #18 tram to CERN covered by Swiss Travel Pass? Or is that just paid with cash? Or will he have to buy a ticket? If so, can he get this ahead of time?
- If I was to get him a phrase book, would that be better in "Swiss German", rather than "German"? I'm confused about what a typical Swiss person speaks.

Thanks again so much. Just overwhelmed with the outpouring of support!
posted by Pig Tail Orchestra at 1:13 PM on September 6, 2017

I think the Swisspass covers all public transport - bus, tram, local train, national train, post auto and some boats on the lakes.

Never been in a taxi in CH that didn't take credit card but know that they are really expensive - the train ticket between Hardbrücke and the airport (two stops, less than 10 mins travel time but covering two zones) is about 5% of the cost of the taxi at off peak hrs, i.e. when there is no traffic. The taxi takes longer than the s-Bahn for that trip.

So whilst it may be nice to have the taxi as familiar back-up in all honesty, he'd have an easier time navigating with google maps and the SBB app and probably get there faster.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:18 AM on September 8, 2017

Forgot the phrase book - don't bother. The typical Swiss person in Geneva will speak French. The typical Swiss person in Zürich will speak Züridütsch and in Bern they speak their own version of Swiss German. Greetings and please/thank you in German and French and perhaps 'do you speak English' in both and he's all set.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:23 AM on September 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

His trip to CERN went without a hitch, thanks to all the great suggestions here! Everyone spoke English everywhere, and the SBB app made it so easy for him to get around; he only needed the Swiss Travel pass. He had a blast! Thanks again so much!
posted by Pig Tail Orchestra at 9:19 AM on October 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

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