Budget Travel in the land of cheese and chocolate
Angela Warm, Health Editor
Switzerland is gorgeous, albeit not well known for”budget” or cheap travel. But that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on all the great experiences and beauty Switzerland has to offer. Planning ahead and knowing some of the “deals” can save you quite a bit on traveling and exploring Switzerland.
1. Getting Around
Getting where you want to go is half the battle. The Swiss Federal Railways Office (SBB) is a great resource both at the ticket office and online. If you plan ahead, they offer discounts on combination railway and excursions, museums, zoos tickets and more. The SBB also has what are called super saver discounts. If you know where and when you will be going somewhere (like way ahead of time) you can often get the same ticket for significantly lower prices. It is worth checking out their website when planning travel.
In addition, most Gemeindes (towns) sell a handful (around 2-4) of tageskarte (day passes) daily that can be found online or through the local tourist information office. For 45 chf you can purchase a day pass that allows you almost unlimited travel on SBB public transport (oftentimes this includes the ferry as well).
Renting a car vs. train travel.
Yes, rail travel is expensive. Two good friends were visiting recently from the US and they had to pay 45 CHF each to go to Zurich for the day (a 22 minute train ride). It can be quite a sticker shock if you don’t have the GA or Halb (half) tax card from SBB.
We take the train whenever we can as it is better for the environment and save car travel for when absolutely necessary. But depending on the size of your group, it may be more economical and somewhat convenient to rent a car than take the train. You have to factor in parking fees, the high price of gas, the stress of driving in a big city, stau aka traffic, as well as possible fines (I always get a ticket when I use to drive in Zurich).
I’ve personally never rented a car here in Switzerland so I am not sure of the cost. We have on occasion borrowed an extra car or even once swapped cars with a friend who had a larger car when we had family in town. We’ve also rented the Swiss E car, which is really fun to drive, as well as better for the environment. It can be rented by the hour or for the whole day.
One Month Half fare cards for non Swiss Residents
Recently another set of friends were in town for one week and it was advantageous for them to purchase the one month half fare card from SBB for 120 CHF each. This meant all their rail, bus and most gondolas and ferries were half price. They took advantage of this on a 4 day excursion with us to Lauterbrunnen, as well as an overnight trip to Lugano. To them it quite easily paid for itself. In both Lauterbrunnen and Lugano they took advantage of the regional travel cards that provided discounts to local attractions as well.
Don’t forget kids 6-16 can obtain a junior card for 30 CHF a year that gets them free travel on SBB transport when traveling with a parent. 100% worth it and I heard recently that is also applies to non Swiss residents as well.
Regional Travel Cards:
Many regions around Switzerland offer what are called regional travel cards when staying in a local hotel or campground. This travel card provides discounted or sometimes even free travel on the public transit, as well as discounts to local attractions (restaurants, museums etc). There could be more but the ones that I am aware of include Ticino, Graubunden, Lauterbrunnen, Vallis, Lausanne, and Berner Oberland.
Most people agree that eating out in Switzerland can be quite a shocking experience and not just when you ask for the check. From lack of healthy options for kids to overly expensive drinks, it can be hard to justify spending so much. In general, we eat out very rarely as we much rather enjoy home cooked meals (healthier) and my husband is more on the frugal side. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good meal out, just the pleasure of not having to prepare the food or clean up the mess is worth the somewhat steep price to me. I also think as visitors, you would be missing out on the experience of eating local cuisine, which is part of the whole travel experience.
When we do eat out, to reduce the cost we usually encourage the kids to share a pizza or an adult size meal, while my husband and I share a meal and a salad.
Keep in mind that the tip is included as well as a service fee in most restaurants in touristy areas. When you factor this in (15 – 20% in the US), it makes the high price seem not as much.
Another tip if you do find yourself needing or wanting to eat out at a restaurant, do it at lunchtime as the menu is usually a bit cheaper than at dinner time. Some cities (Zurich, Bern, Basel, Lucerne) have a discount book where you can buy 1 get 1 free vouchers for restaurants and leisure activities.
You can also avoid pricey restaurant bills by packing your own lunch or dinner. We hike quite often and either bring healthy snacks and a packed lunch with us, or if we know there will be a grill spot, bring along some meat to grill as well. It is so much fun to carry a blanket and enjoy the beauty of a picnic in a picturesque location.
Most of the local supermarkets have items that can be taken away as well. On Saturdays and before closing times, many fresh products are reduced. As well, keep in mind that the migrolinos and smaller stores within the train stations are usually open on Sunday if you need something quick.
Drinks in Switzerland are crazy expensive. Sodas, juice or an apfelschorle can run you 3 – 5 CHF each. Coffee or tea 5-6 CHF. You can ask for “hahnenwasser” in restaurants – this is tap water.
We always bring our own water bottles and take advantage of the abundantly clean and totally free flowing water from any of the thousands of water fountains that dot the country. (just a reminder to not drink water from a foundation that says “Kein trinkwasser”). Avoid Starbucks. You can get less expensive and better tasting coffee from places like Tshibo, Lidl and Aldi or just make it yourself and bring it with you.
3. Hiking, Swimming and Biking (don’t forget good ole walking)
One of the best ways to save money is to avoid the typical big ticket touristy spots, some of which can run 100’s of francs per person. But this doesn’t mean you will miss out on the beautiful views or natural beauty that Switzerland has to offer. There are tons of gorgeous vistas and hidden gems to discover that won’t break the bank.
For example Furenalp has a gondola that is only 12 or 15 CHF. Check out my recommendation for Furenalp and other HIdden Gems of Switzerland here.
Switzerland is full of free hiking and bike trails, as well as gorgeous lakes that are lovely to swim in the warmer months.. We’ve personally been taking full advantage of these on a weekly (sometimes daily) basis.
Most Swiss cities are not that large so walking is definitely an option for some good ole fashion exploring. Wear some comfy shoes and enjoy all the fun Swiss cities have to offer. My friends and I just did this amazing day hike through Zurich thanks to our travel editor, Ipsita. Having been here for more than 10 years I thought I had seen most of Zurich but WOW was I wrong.
Staying overnight can be expensive in Switzerland with hotels ranging anywhere from 60 to 400CHF per night and often per person.
A few tips for budget friendly accomodations:
- As a family of four, we often look on AirBnB or booking.com for an entire house or apartment with a kitchen. That way we can save quite a bit on food costs and still enjoy a healthier home cooked meal.
- Also it is worth noting that if you do find a hotel online, you can often call them directly and negotiate a lower rate than going through one of the bigger booking agencies.
- Check out www.trustedhousesitters.com for beautiful locations all over Switzerland that can save you quite a bit.
- Check out the local auberge in towns you want to travel, rather than the bigger hotels. You will find fine accommodations with a very local experience included.
- Check out Swiss Budget Hotels
We are a camping family. I know that isn’t for everyone. And honestly it is not that much of a savings money wise as Swiss campsites are not cheap. For example, we spent 4 nights at Camping Jungfrau over the Auffahrt weekend – total cost was 268 CHF for a family of 4, no pets (yet). But the views were spectacular and the memories priceless. They are typically packed with people but also have tons of facilities, showers, restaurants and activities for the kids. It included the regional travel card as well that got us discounts to Ballenberg and the Eiger Express Gondola ride. I have noticed there are tons of glamping spots now at the campsites we have frequented. Bungalows, caravans etc are all the rage. It is hard to even find a spot these days as they are typically booked well in advance.
We also very recently tried out nomady.ch. These are typically working farms or big homes that rent space for you to camp or park a small camper. They only rent one or two spaces each night and a lower price. We tried it this past weekend and it had its pros and cons. Pros were it was peaceful and quiet, not packed with people. Cons: the unpleasant smells that came with the farm. But the farmer was helpful in telling us good places to hike and the best bakery in town.
5. Miscellaneous Discounts
Many of the museums have discount days of reduced admission or even free days. You just need to do a bit of research and plan ahead.
- Check out SBB for discounts
- The Ässbar located in many of the big cities sells yesterday’s cakes and pastries at a deep discount
- You can also check out the Toogoodtogo app that offers discounts on food that would be thrown away at the end of the day.
- Raiffeisen bank account holders get to enjoy many discount
- Coop and Migros also have discounts available
- Find out about different family offers here
For the first few years here, we lived like tourists, traveling every chance we could get. At the time we thought that our short stint in Switzerland could come to an end at any moment. We stayed in kid friendly resorts and traveled far and wide as often as possible. Now as we enter our eleventh year in Switzerland, the wanderlust has waned somewhat but we still enjoy exploring when we can.
We have our accommodations on wheels now, still pack a lunch along with too many snacks and take full advantage of SBB discounts and free hiking, biking and swimming options.
Don’t let the price stop you from exploring Switzerland.
Wishing you a great summer, filled with exploration and fun.
Are you enjoying our content? We would love to hear your opinions in the comments sections. Stay tuned for more resources, our editorial panel is talking about – swiss travel, ex-pat living, mental health, nutrition, wellness, transition, and activities for children this summer. Stay well and stay with us!
To read posts from May, click here