Public transport: using buses, trams, boats and the regional rail system

Geneva offers free mass transit to passengers arriving at the airport. The TPG (Geneva Public Transport) has a ticket called “Unireso,” free of charge and good on buses, trams, boats and regional rail. It is valid for up to 80 minutes within the canton of Geneva and some neighbouring French towns.

The vending machines that provide the free tickets are inside the baggage claim area, before going through customs. They are near the machine that sells baggage cart tokens. Easy instructions are given in English. Children under five require a ticket. The airport considers the free tickets such a successful part of its effort to reduce airport traffic by encouraging public transport, that in December 2008 it added a second machine. At the same time an earlier number 10 bus was added that arrives at 05:02, an earlier train was added that arrives at 05:23 and the frequency of the number 5 bus was increased.

An honour system is used in throught the canton’s mass transit system, so you do not have to present your ticket to the bus driver or boat captain. However, you must save the ticket because if transit patrol agents board you will have to show them your ticket or pay a penalty of at least CHF80 on the spot. They will escort you to the nearest cash machine if you don’t have the cash.

If you are staying at a hotel, hostel or camping, you qualify for a Geneva Transport Card that allows you to travel on the Geneva network for the length of your stay.

You can also request schedules and itineraries online or have them sent to your iPhone or iPod, (in French only).

The Unireso ticket gives you access to the Regio, a local/regional train that serves canton Geneva. The city of Coppet in Canton Vaud is included in this service. A Unireso pass may be used for the Regio and other trains but only as far as Coppet. After that you must buy a different ticket. This regional ticket is also valid for travel to some neighbouring French towns but not to all: it is important to check the coverage map, unireso, where France is pictured in blue (B region).

To use the Regio: go to Gare Cornavin, Geneva’s main train station. From the airport, take bus number 10, which leaves the airport every 10 minutes, or take a train. All trains leaving the airport stop at Gare Cornavin main station.

Vending machines for the regional bus pass accept Swiss francs, euros, pre-paid bus cards or a popular Swiss cash alternative, cash cards, appropriately called CASH. These work at ATM machines as well. The ticket machines do not give change back but you can request your credit by going to any local TPG public transit office. There is one at the airport and another at the Cornavin train station.

Public transport: Inter-city buses to France

Another travel alternative to and from areas outside Geneva is the intermunicipal: regional and international buses. Unlike the popular inter-city yellow postal buses that operate inside Switzerland, these are not feeder routes and do not link to train stations. Only a couple of buses travel to neighbouring France directly from the airport. Most others leave from the Gare Routiere, the downtown Geneva bus/coach station. It is three blocks east of the train station. Walking towards Lake Geneva from the Gare Cornavin, along the Rue des Alpes, it is on your righthand side. You may purchase tickets online or at the bus station. Buses to other European destinations and Morocco leave from this station.

Public transport: Trains beyond Geneva

Taking the train directly from the airport is often the best and fastest alternative if you’re leaving Geneva city limits. You may buy train tickets to Switzerland, France or the rest of Europe directly at the SBB-CFF-FFS counter on the lower level of the building next to the airport: follow signs above your head that take you to the left as you leave customs. The ticket sales area is conveniently located next to a shopping mall and a supermarket which is open longer hours than most in the region.

SBB-CFF-FFS stands for SBB: Schweizerische Bundesbahnen, CFF: Chemins de Fer Fédéaux, FFS: Ferrovie Federali Svizzeri. This is the efficient national railway for which the Swiss have so long been known.

Tickets can be purchased ahead of time online, from travel agencies or railway vending machines. Use Swiss francs, euros or credit cards to buy first- or second-class tickets. In most of these clean and comfortable trains the difference is minimal but only first class offers business compartments, identified by a laptop pictogram. These compartments are equipped with power sockets for laptops, mobile phones and PDAs. Reservations are advisable. If you’re in a rush you may also purchase your ticket directly from a train conductor (inside the train) for CHF5, but only on main trains where there is a conductor. If you take a regional train without buying a ticket and there is a random check you will have to pay the price of the ticket plus a hefty fine.

A plus of traveling by train is that you can have your luggage checked from your departure airport to your arriving train station in Switzerland directly through “Fly-Rail Baggage” although it may not arrive the same day. Another alternative is the “check-in at the rail station” that can be used to ship your bags to your next destination in Switzerland or Europe. If you are traveling by plane, your suitcases will be taken to the airport and in some cases, even to the airplane.

If carrying bags is not your thing at all and you travel in a group (it can be a small group) the baggage service will transfer your suitcases or bicycles directly to your hotel. If you are connecting from the train station to an airport, for example Zurich, you may check in your luggage up to 24 hours in advance and receive your passboard or boarding card directly at the train station (a service fee is charged).

Some passengers travel only with carry-on luggage; in such case several self check-in machines are available as you leave the train at the Geneva airport. There are others inside the airport. Go directly to passport control and your flight’s gate after checking in.

When arriving at the Geneva train station after midnight or leaving Gare Cornavin before 06:00 you can take advantage of a Taxibus. This shared car service is available for a fraction of the price of a taxi.

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