A few weeks ago I went to an evening class at my local REI about how to plan a budget trip to Switzerland. I don’t have plans to visit Switzerland in the foreseeable future, but I sometimes like to go to these sorts of events for inspiration and to pick up travel tips.
I highly recommend checking out the calendar at your local REI to see what kinds of things they’re offering — many of the classes are free and typically range from local hiking trails to international travel tips to planning for a backpacking trip. They also offer paid weekend courses on such things as bike maintenance and wilderness first aid.
Anyway, I thought I’d share the best budget tips I learned, for my own future reference and in case any one else has visions of Switzerland in their future.
First, it should be noted that Switzerland is not the most budget-friendly place. The mean household income in 2011 was about US$98,000. (In the U.S., it was US$51,413.) Indeed, the high cost of living in Geneva and Zurich, Switzerland’s two major cities, rank 2nd and 3rd in the world, behind only Oslo, Norway.
The Economist came up with the “Big Mac Index” to put this into perspective. A Big Mac would cost you more than 50% more in Switzerland compared to the U.S. Indeed, the Swiss government reported that 2009 food prices were 45% higher in Switzerland than the western European average. Other products and accommodations were a cool 20% more in Switzerland on average.
All this is to say that there are ways to save money when traveling in Switzerland, but it’s far from the cheapest destination out there, no matter how hard you try. Regardless, here are some tips for saving what little you can:
Transportation in Switzerland is comfortable and reliable, but can be expensive. It’s recommended that you plan your itinerary carefully before arriving if you want to save money. Trains and streetcars are the way to get around; car rentals aren’t recommended because gas and parking are expensive and hard to find. Buses are also not recommended — they tend to be crowded and slow.
There are discounts for booking for multiple people traveling together by train, so don’t forget to ask. There are several varieties of train pass to suit your style of travel, which will probably cost you from $200 to $400:
The Swiss Rail Pass is the best value and would be good for a quick trip around the country without much time at each stop.This isn’t what you want if you’re looking to spend a few days in each city, though.
For longer stays in different places, you’ll want the Flexipass. This allows you to book several travels days on particular dates, perhaps with a few days in between each.
Particular cities will also have good public transportation. In Zurich, you can get a Zurich card, which allows for unlimited travel over a certain period of time (24 hours for 24CHF or 72 hours for 28 CHF). In addition to access to the city’s street cars, the Zurich card provides discounts on shops, restaurants, and walking tours (but maybe not on weekends, so plan accordingly). There are lots of streetcars around, just buy your ticket in advance and get on one. (For short trips, the conductor may not get to you to check your ticket, but if you’re caught without one you have to pay a large fine on the spot.) In addition to streetcars, there are also suburban cars, which may be faster depending on your destination.
Geneva has its own perks, too. In addition to free city-wide wifi, any hostel or hotel in the city will provide you with a card for free public transportation during your stay. Not too shabby.
- The cheapest train tickets are for scheduled dates/times between particular cities. This doesn’t allow for much flexibility, but if you can plan your itinerary really carefully, you could save even more money here.
- Private trains do scenic tours of the Alps. They’re not cheap, but worth the views. Some “steep incline” trains are more like roller coasters and will quickly get you to altitude, where there are no roads.
- The shopping mall under the central train station in Zurich is basically the only thing open there on Sundays.
Book in advance and stay in hostels. That’s all there is to it. Don’t forget to bring a lock to secure your belongings when you’re out of your room. Most hostels have the option for private rooms and will have a communal kitchen where you can cook. In Zurich, the hostel is a large pink building right on the train line, about a 15 minute ride from center city. (The trains leaving from under the airport take about 10 minutes to the center station).
- Hostels often offer discounts on adventure packages, though they may not be advertised. Wait until you’re there to book excursions and be sure to ask at the hostel for special deals.
I already established that food is expensive. Swiss restaurants are really expensive. To save some money, shop at Migros Co-op, a large supermarket. Get groceries from Migros or farmers markets to cook for dinner at the hostel. Many hostels include a free breakfast, so take advantage of that. Just remember that grocery stores close around 5 or 6pm and are closed all day Sunday.
- No bottled water necessary! There are public fountains around each city where you can refill your water bottle.
- The REI presenter told us about his favorite place for fondue in Geneva — a concession stand at the bath house in Lake Geneva. You can get a pot of fondue for 14 CHF. A steal and oh, so good.
4. General Tips
A few other things that may save you some bucks or just make your trip easier:
- No visa is necessary for a visit less than 90 days for U.S. or Schengen passports.
- Switzerland is a cash-friendly society, so put away the plastic and avoid the foreign transaction fees. Wait to get your cash until you’re in country; ATMs are available or you can walk into a bank (most don’t have non-member fees).
- The currency rate is fairly easy to translate: 1 CHF (Swiss Franc) = $USD 1.13.
- You can fly into Zurich from any major international airport in the U.S. (It’s about a 6 hour flight from New York City or 9 hours from Atlanta).
- Arrive as early in the day as possible and power through your first day in order to avoid jet lag.
Like I said, I don’t have any plans for Switzerland at the moment, but I’ll be visiting the Alps for the first time later this spring. I just hope there are cows with bells on the French side, too.