Lawbreaking in the Land of Cheese and Chocolate

In The Art of Travel Spring 2017, 11. Travails, Prague by Mimi1 Comment

“Your ticket is for the wrong zone. The fine is 75 francs – each. Pay up.”

When I think back about my trip to Zurich, I just laugh. Painful experiences, misadventures, and ordeals – this trip had all that and more. Who knew that when my friend Subah and I would meet up in Switzerland for the weekend, we’d turn into accidental lawbreakers?

I honestly should have expected something to go wrong. Actually, I did expect something to go wrong. Even in New York, Subah and I have a knack for messing up even the simplest things, like the time I accidentally followed a random stranger through the subway and ended up halfway uptown during an afternoon excursion to Battery Park. But to be fair, how was I supposed to know that two people in the city of New York had the misfortune of owning the same striped highlighter-yellow sweatshirt?!

Still, I was optimistic for Zurich despite our collective incompetence. We had found great deals for airfare and a cool Airbnb (with a dog and a cat!) to stay in. To be more cost-effective, the Airbnb we chose was in Hochfelden, a small village 20 minutes from the city center by train (totally doable with the amazing Swiss public transit system). That was our first mistake.

When we landed in Zurich, our first move was buying ZurichCards. Amongst other things, these cards give unlimited access to public transportation. But here’s the kicker – the cards only worked for designated zones. Zone 110 – fine. Zone 111 – of course. Zone 112, where Hochfelden was located? NOPE. What we didn’t know was that we needed to buy an extension ticket to cover the last leg of our journey. You may be wondering, who was so kind as to inform us of this issue? The ticket inspectors.

Like many European railways, the Swiss transportation system runs on an honor system. Unlike New York and its turnstiles, in Switzerland you hop on and off at will, with no one checking your ticket at the door. To deter abuse of the system, ticket inspectors will randomly show up and check the validity of your pass, once the doors are closed and you have nowhere to run. And if they find a problem, there’s a serious fine. As we learned, a fine of 75 Swiss Francs per violation.

The inspectors were already mad at us. The S-Bahn trains have two classes – first and second – and the only visible difference between the two was the cheap navy carpet on the floor of the first class carriage. The ZurichCard only covers second class seats, but in our rush to get on the train, we missed the small number one above the door as we climbed the stairs. Immediately after sitting down, the inspectors pounced and found a gold mine.

“You’re in the wrong class, you’re in the wrong zone, everything is WRONG.”

Subah and I panicked. Switzerland is an expensive tourist destination, and our budget barely covered fondue, let alone fines. We had to get out of this, and shockingly we did!

Subah and I both speak Bengali, so we immediately switched to that language to secretly communicate our plans. We knew we had to play up the stupid tourists angle (which wasn’t a lie) and hope they would let us off. Subah pointed out how we had just arrived and were not intending to cheat the railways, while I tried to remind them of their own times as broke college students.

At first, it looked hopeless. There were three inspectors (two women, one man), and none of them seemed moved by our pleas of mercy. However, things took a turn when the male inspector left us. Both of the women had the middle-aged, maternal vibe, and they seemed much more sympathetic to our plight. They forgave the first-vs-second class debacle, and even reduced the fine to 75 francs total instead of each. Extremely generous, but still a huge hit on our budget.

Time to bring out the big guns – crying. Honestly, not hard to do, because I actually wanted to cry over our stupid mistake. While the inspectors were talking in German amongst themselves, I turned over to Subah and began panicking about how we wouldn’t be able to afford food for the rest of the day (also not a lie … maybe a slight over-exaggeration). One of the women looked at us with pity, and said these magic words: “I heard you say you won’t be able to eat today? Please don’t starve children – it’s okay, you don’t have to pay the fine.”

Could have done a victory dance on the spot, but we settled for profusely thanking the inspectors for their kindness. After buying the correct extension tickets, we went on our way, still incredulous that we got out of a 150 Swiss francs fine.

Zurich was full of other random mishaps – accidentally trespassing on a farm, getting lost for two hours on Üetliberg (which despite what the Swiss claim, is a hill, not a mountain). Knowing myself and Subah, similar mishaps will occur the second we get back to New York. But that’s okay – they’re always funny stories and we always learn something (usually that we’re incredibly dumb). Moral of this story – always check your ticket zones!


  1. Mimi,

    Reading your post brought me back to the time, just 2 weeks ago actually, when I flew to Berlin to visit my boyfriend and he coaxed me into never buying subway tickets as the the Swiss, rely on the honor system. Well, on my last day in Berlin, two subway conducters came up to us and started to ask for our tickets. We immediately looked at each other and knew that our only way out of this would be to speak in Spanish and hope they leave us alone. Well, it miracoulsy worked and was by far one of the more comical and scary ( because no one wants a strict German to yell at you because even hello in German sounds pretty rough) moments of my spring break trip. Nice story!

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