7 tips for getting through the Gotthard Tunnel
Escaping down south this spring and summer? Chances are you’ll use the Gotthard Tunnel.
If the weather on the north side of the Alps isn’t looking great, people look to the south and see if they can escape through the Gotthard tunnel to the often warmer and sunnier Ticino or even further into Italy. A masterpiece of engineering, the almost 17km long road tunnel connects together the beautiful palm trees of the Italian region and the snowy Alps in the German region. With only one lane in each direction, if everyone has the same idea - you could be stuck at the entrance for hours. Even though spring and summer are the peak times for the tunnel, it can be busy at any time of year, and especially so on the weekends.
Particularly for those new in town, the first time they are confronted with 7km of waiting cars in front of the tunnel can be a bit overwhelming. So here are some of my top tips to help you make your trip down south go a little more smoothly.
1. Leave early
If our family travels over one of the public holidays in spring, we always leave early. Ideally we want to be at the entrance of the tunnel by 6am in order to escape the majority of traffic - and at that time we’ll have a 2km queue, at most. The same applies when leaving to go back home. Regardless, we always check the travel situation in front of the tunnel before leaving (see tip 3).
2. Travel a day before or after
If you don’t have school age children, for goodness sake, don’t travel on the peak travel days with the rest of Switzerland! Friday evenings and Saturdays are always busy, as are the days before public holidays. If you must travel around a public holiday, try leaving early or shortening your trip a little.
3. Always keep up to date with the travel situation on the motorway
The Swiss are amazing at keeping their traffic conditions up to date. You can find information on the radio, TV and internet. If your German isn’t quite up to par, the internet is your best bet. Check out the Touring Club of Switzerland website for update information, or download their great app, TCS Verkehr. The traffic situation around the Gotthard Tunnel even has its own Twitter Account.
German Vocabulary you will need to know
verkehr = traffic
stau = traffic jam
wartezeit = waiting time
bis zu = up to
überlastung = conjestion
4. Is there a pass open?
As the days warm up, late spring/early summer brings the opening of the passes over the mountains. When this happens, the traffic at the Gotthard tunnel starts to ease up a little as many people prefer to drive the 30-60 minutes over the Gotthard Pass (which opened in 2017 on the 21st May) instead of waiting in the traffic jam.
Word of warning: the pass roads are very winding. If you have kids that suffer from motion sickness, be prepared. The bonus of going over the pass is being able to enjoy the mountain scenery you would have missed going through the tunnel. Maybe you could combine it with visiting Alpinavera Market at the top of the pass that occur at different times over the summer, with the first one being 2 July.
Read more about driving over the Gotthard Pass here.
5. Try the San Bernadino tunnel
The alternate route to the Gotthard Tunnel is the San Bernadino Tunnel. Head in direction “Chur" and then follow the signs. It also can get quite busy at peak times as people often have the same idea of trying to avoid the Gotthard Tunnel.
6. Be prepared
Bring snacks, music, and books—whatever will keep you occupied. If you decide to brave the traffic - just come prepared. Be prepared to wait an hour or two and be prepared to entertain your kids. Have enough nappies, water, snacks and charged devices to keep those “are we there yet” questions at bay.
Note: Your navigation system might try and take you on a “short” cut, but more often than not the police close those routes to help prevent traffic disturbances through the the villages near the tunnel. If you did get stuck in traffic - be patient.
7. Go by train instead.
If that all seems too much, just leave the car at home. If the traffic is building at the tunnel, you will be much quicker with the train. The SBB often puts on extra trains at peak times to cope with the higher demand. I also highly recommend you book a seat on over public holidays if you know when you will travel as these trains can be extremely busy or even sold out- especially on the weekends in spring. Reservations cost 5chf per seat in addition to the price of your train ticket. If you live in Switzerland, check with your Gemeinde for their Tageskarten (day cards) to make train travel even more affordable.