Getting Around in the Chamonix Valley, Chamonix-Mont-Blanc
The Mont Blanc Express is a narrow gauge train that runs all the way from Martigny (in Switzerland) to Saint Gervais, thus connecting the Chamonix valley to the main railway networks of France and Switzerland.
The train stops at all the villages along its route, so it’s an excellent way to move around this area. It is also possible to take bicycles on the train.
Some stops are on request only, so if you are on the train and want to get down you must press the “Stop” button, as on a city bus. If, instead, you must catch a train at one of this stop you should wave to the train as it gets near enough for the driver to see you.
Trains run every hour, but there are plans to change the frequency to 20 minutes, in order to increase the use of trains and reduce the circulation of cars.
Those who stay in the Chamonix valley are entitled to use this train for free in the segment of its route between Servoz and Vallorcine.
A good network of public transports is the method adopted by the local authorities to protect the environment from the problems caused by cars.
To move around in the centre of Chamonix there is a circuit of free minibuses called “mulets” (little mules) running every 10 minutes from 8.30 to 18.30.
Three bus lines connect the town to the nearby villages, cable car stations and hikes’ starting points. These buses also do circuits around the centre of the town, with many stops, so wherever you stay you can be sure there is a bus stop near you. Service starts at 7.00, ending at about 20.30. A single fare costs EUR 1.50, but only the occasional visitors have to pay it, because residents and holders of a Carte d’Hote (i.e. visitors staying in the local hotels) can use them for free.
A booklet with all the bus routes and timetables is available for free at the Tourist Office.
Yes, this could be a dangerous practice, because the world is not safe, so that is the only caveat I will offer. I never hitchhiked when I lived in the US because I didn't feel comfortable doing it. But here it is a common practice. School kids hitchhike from LaFayet to Chamonix every day, and backpackers regularly hitchhike to get from Chamonix to Argentiere or visa versa (or you will see them on the motorway with a sign requesting "Paris").
My husband and I hitchhiked a lot when we first came here to get around in town and had no problems. We always got a ride very quickly (faster than the bus most times) and often met nice people this way. Now that we have a car, we often stop and give rides to needy (and tired looking) backpackers.
If you are going to hitchhike to get around in Chamonix one tip I can mention is that in France the car number plates end in the 'Department' code. The local department is '74'. So if you find a '74' number plate stopping for you, they are more likely to be locals (or from surrounding Haute Savoie area at the very least). Also a lot of British people live here, so if you see a car stopping with the driver on the 'wrong' side, then likely they are English.
On skis!! Chamonix not only caters for downhill-skiers in the winter but also 'Ski du Fond' or cross-country ski-ing. It was a wonderful crisp sunny winters day, with glorious scenery. We were complete novices and decided to try this for half a day - thinking it couldn't be too difficult to shuffle along in pre-prepared tracks. How wrong we were. The mulled wine at the end of the session was warming and invigorating, temporarily dulling any aches but I could hardly move my legs the next day!
A Chamonix vacation without car is no problem.
A free host card is delivered by your hotel/ residence upon your arrival.
With this card you can travel free of charge on the local Chamonix Bus network (excluding the night bus) and also on the train between Servoz and Vallorcine. Valid during the period of your stay.
This is just a tip for those of you who are used to driving in North America and who rent a car to get around in Chamonix (or other parts of France).
It drove me crazy when I first came here that I could rarely see a street sign to tell me what I was driving on. This is true in large and small towns. The motorways are labelled quite well, but other streets were not. I would go mad trying to find out where I was.
Later I realized, all you need to know is where you are GOING and the name of the town you are IN and then some town names you will pass THROUGH on the way. The theory around here is, tell people how to get where they are wanting to go -- not the name of a random street they will never need to see again. So, keep your eyes on the signs at intersections!
If you see a sign saying "Toute Directions" - that is a sign for leaving the town you are in. It will eventually lead to other signs that point to the motorway or to another large city.
To get to the downtown area of any town, just follow the signs for "Centre Ville".
At every intersection (often a roundabout) there will be signs indicating how to get to the next nearby city or cities.
It ends up being easy to find your way around as long as you know the name of where you are going, and the names of some of the towns in between.
This is very different from driving in North American cities, where the only times you see town names are on the exits of Freeways!
See my other tip for getting 'to' Chamonix from the Geneva airport.
Once in town be sure to get a 'Carte d'Hôte' from the tourist office or from your hotel or host, which gives you the right to free public transport in the whole valley.
There is a small 'Mulet' mini bus that travels around Chamonix town center. This is good if you leave your car in one of the outer car parks and want to get into town and don't like to walk or are injured. But frankly, if you are a hiker or mountaineer you should not need the Mulet - fit people can walk across the central part of Chamonix in under 5 minutes. In any case, this bus is free to all, with or without a special card.
The SNCF train goes up and down the whole valley from St Gervais to Les Houches to Chamonix, Argentiere and Vallorcine to the border of Switzerland. With your Carte d'Hôte it is free to travel between Servoz and Vallorcine on the SNCF train. The train stops are normally in town center, close to tourist attractions and ski lifts. The only exception I will mention is that the stop in Les Houches is not particularly convenient to town center, and Les Houches is a long stretched out town. Check with your accommodation provider to see how far you are from the train stop - buses are often the easier option in Les Houches. Trains run about once an hour depending upon the season. You can check the time table on the Office of Tourism site most easily or if you like frustration, try the SNCF site at http://www.sncf.fr under 'TER' (regional trains).
The Chamonix Bus runs between Les Houches and Argentière (it does NOT serve Servoz or Vallorcine). If you do not have a Carte d'Hôte the price is €1.50. There are several bus lines serving all the major tourist attractions and small hamlets - see the website below for the maps and time table. Generally they are 20 minutes apart in 'high season'.
The bus timetable is on the Office of Tourism website (http://www.chamonix.com) -- the main shortcoming is the night service is limited.
If you want to do a day-trip where it seems a car is best there is a Europe Car rental office in Chamonix center just across from the train station (though I recommend advance booking) and you could hire the car for 1-2 days if you felt you needed to. Be sure to inspect the car carefully before taking it!
Some ski slopes are within walking distance of the centre of town, but for wider choice there's a great bus service to the surrounding area. If you buy a ChamSki lift pass the price includes almost all lifts in the Chamonix Valley AND all the buses!
There are two types of lift passes to choose from - Chamonix Le Pass and Mont Blanc Unlimited. After much thought we decided to go with the Mont Blanc Unlimited pass and although it was more expensive it gave us access to the entire mountain range.
We could travel freely unlimited and in particular to the highest point (Aiguille Du Midi) and on the cog wheel train up to the glacier, two must do sights for first time visistors. On the top of the mountains accessed by cable cars there are bars and restaurants, so you do not need to ski to visit the top of a mountain!
We purchased the pass on the day of our arrival at the lift station located at the bottom of the Aiguille Du Midi. I believe you can also purchase the pass in advance online.
If you have access to the internet check the website www.compagniedumontblanc.com for lift opening times as they change on a daily basis according to the weather.
The pass also gave us access to the bus shuttle that goes around the valley.
This region is superb for motorcycle touring, with winding roads of good quality and lots of stunning scenery.