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Switzerland on a Budget

Switzerland is a famously expensive country, but there are ways to save on costs if you are careful and research ahead.


General Points

Switzerland is expensive to visit

Switzerland is well known for being expensive in comparison with surrounding countries (and most other countries in the world). Even a basic McDonalds meal will be painfully expensive to many visitors. If you are careful then a fun (if rather basic) trip can be had for less than 70 CHF a day, or with eating out and spending on activities for more like 150 CHf per day. If you are really hardcore and wild camp and eat what is basic enough to stay alive then 10 CHF might be possible.

Living and working here you do at least have much higher pay than elsewhere and so very strong buying power. As someone who lives in Switzerland I mostly do daytrips or just for 1-2 nights at weekends, and so am lucky as most of the concerns of costs are covered by the salary and not being far from home. I do try and keep costs down so I have learnt quite a bit myself in how to avoid painful prices (not least as I moved here with a student state of mind).

Ultimately if you really are on a tight budget and want to see the Alps then France, Austria, Germany, and Slovenia are all cheaper and offer much of the same.

As with Swiss watches the appeal is partly in the historical branding and the popular mindset, rather than Switzerland being the be-all-and-end-all of the topic.

I don’t think going to or avoiding certain places makes much of a difference in prices

I have seen various theories that the prices vary depending on factors like; language region, city vs countryside, tourist area vs unknown etc.
In my experience it doesn’t make much difference.

Certainly you will pay more for a room with a Matterhorn view in Zermatt, or for a bed in a ski resort during high-season. But that is just general tourism economics.

Not everything is that expensive

The basics for travel are expensive (food/accommodation/transport) but many activities are actually cheaper than elsewhere. Compared to say London where many attractions are £20+ ($26 USD) or even the insane 200 KN ($31 USD) to walk the walls in Dubrovnik many Swiss attractions are quite reasonable.

  • Entry to the Château de Chillon is 13.5 CHF ($15 USD); less than half the price of the Tower of London and still cheaper than most other castles in the UK. Many castle ruins are actually free to enter (and even climb up the tower if there is one).
  • A return ticket on my local cable car to a high ridge in the Jura where you can spend as long as you like with panoramic views of the Alps, and into France and Germany costs less than the half hour spin on the London Eye.
  • Electronics have a lower tax level in Switzerland than most of Europe, so if you need to pick up a new battery or replace your camera on your trip then this might actually be a good place to do it.

If you google around there are plenty of sites and blogs with suggestions in general, or for specific places

Be sure to double check the official details of anything I list on here

Things change with time and due to the size and scope of this post I am not going in depth with all the details – be sure to read up on the terms and conditions of any pass or other offers rather than just going on what is said on here.

Be wary of advice from randoms online.

I have seen people complain about absurd prices (that a small lunch cost them 45 CHF, or a simple takeaway sandwich cost them 20 CHF) that simply are insane and exceptions rather than the rule (if they were even real to start with).

Likewise context is important: I have seen visitors from various parts of the USA claim Swiss food prices in the shops are cheaper, comparable, and far more expensive than back home (which may well all have been true).

I try to keep track of costs in my trips to give an idea (for example), but tend to lose track a bit when it comes to food.


Guest card

One of the most useful tools for saving money is the Guest Card which many cities/resorts/regions offer to visitors who are staying overnight. At the very least these will save a few CHF on bus fares, and in some cases will cover all the activities you had planned in the area.

  • You get the guest card at check in and it is valid until the end of the day that you check out on, sometimes you can print or download it from your accommodation reservation and use that to travel for free on the day of arrival before you check in too (again check the local website to see if that is valid).
  • The exact scope and benefits vary by location but normally include free local transport and free/discounted activities (in some cases cable car rides are included for free too). Usually you can look up what is required included online beforehand by Googling for ‘guest card’ with the place name (eg: for the Jungfrau region).
  • Check which accommodation is valid and if there is a minimum stay. Usually it is any accommodation and any length of stay, but some places limit where you can stay (Airbnb is not always included) and might require staying at least 2 or 3 nights.

Some of the most generous guest cards are:

  • Ticino Ticket. Stay in any hotel/hostel/campsite in Ticino and you can travel anywhere in the entire canton for free on public transport (plus discounts on other activities). If you are day tripping out of a main base then you can easily save more on transport than you spend on accommodation, especially as campsites are valid accommodation.
  • Appenzell Holiday Card. You have to spend 3+ nights in the region, but you get free public transport in a wide area, free rides on some of the main cable cars, a free mountain coaster ride, and entry to numerous museums.
  • Engadin Guest Travel Pass. In addition to basic transport this includes unlimited use of a number of cable cars and mountain railways. It is however more limited in which accommodation is valid.

Accommodation

  • The most important factor here is season; January/February will be high season for skiing in the mountains (with December/March as the shoulder season), July/August will be high season for summer everywhere (with June/September as the shoulder season), and in most areas April/May and October/November are off season (check on local tourist websites for more precise information). So if you go to the Alps in May or October it will be much easier to find cheap accommodation than in August or February. The flip side is that not everything will be open or doable in the shoulder or off seasons (but it can still be worth visiting if you just want to enjoy the landscape but don’t have a certain hike or peak you are dead set on doing). For cities like Lugano that are more focused on summer tourism and don’t have a local ski resort then it will be much cheaper in the winter months like February than during the summer.
  • Depending on what you want to see you could even stay over the border and commute each day, which would save on accommodation and food. But that would be too much time and effort to be worth the savings for visiting most of the country (especially since most of the popular tourist areas are not in the border regions). However for border cities like Basel and Geneva it could easily be worth it
  • It might help to look to lesser known areas. Some people say you are able to reduce accommodation costs by staying somewhere nice but unknown, I don’t think the difference will be that big. More likely the distribution of prices might skew more towards the lower end: if for example you stay in Täsch rather than the more famous and popular neighbouring Zermatt you will likely find more budget options.
  • Sticking to one area for longer will help cut transport costs down. Jumping several hours by train everyday will get expensive fast without a general pass.
  • If breakfast isn’t included and costs more than 10 CHF, then unless you are a heavy morning eater you might be better off popping to a café or bakery for a coffee and bite to eat instead.
  • Tourist tax might not be included in the listed price (typically 2-3 CHF per person per night). Likewise check for a non-listed cleaning fee if it is an apartment or Airbnb, this might not be too bad if it is after a week but could be a very nasty add-on for just a night or two.

Finding accommodation

  • Aside from the standard options like Booking and Airbnb for finding rooms you might also want to look into alp.holidaybooking.ch and rooms.ch , and bnb.ch , and bauernhof-ferien.ch , and myfarm.ch especially their sleep in straw options which can be as low as 30 CHF with breakfast included, and naturfreunde.ch.
  • There are a number of hotels that are not listed on the standard accommodation websites. These are often cheaper (and more basic) than average. However finding them can be a slow and tedious process of crawling around google maps looking for restaurants which might double as a guesthouse. Very often their website will be in the local language only, with booking enquiries via phone or email (responses by email often being slow or never arrive).
  • Swiss Hotel Card requires a paid membership (99 CHF per year) but gives you 50% off bookings at participating hotels in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and Italy. In many Swiss hotels this would pay for itself after 2 nights (or even just 1). It does seem to be focused on helping hotels during the off-season so the website states that only “75% of the time” is open so it wouldn’t be the best choice for a visit to the Jungfrau region in August (but that is still good for more flexible domestic tourists). I have used this and had no problems.
  • Couchsurfing is free, but that is more about being a part of something rather than just a cheap place to crash.

Hostels

  • Hostels can be had for as low as 20 CHF for a bunk in a shared room if you are going to a popular tourist-heavy location like Interlaken or Luzern. But they are not always that cheap (especially in a ski resort in winter when a dorm bed can set you back 50 CHF or more). Or even the cheapest option: a private room for 2 people in a budget hotel can be cheaper than 2 beds in a dorm. Check hostelz.com/ in addition to Hostelworld.
  • YHA hostels whilst not the cheapest are a good budget option that can be found all over the country, they tend to be family/relaxed places rather than party hostels. They are always clean, come with a good breakfast and some like Grindelwald have unbeatable views. The buildings tend to be very nice (in some cases like Burgdorf they are renovated castles). Sadly most don’t have a guest kitchen or fridge (check the info page for each location), but do offer cheap starter/main/dessert dinners for 18 CHF. If you are looking at the YHAs then book on their website rather than Hostelworld etc to avoid paying the extra for not being a member (membership pays for itself after only a few nights so it is worth signing up).

Camping


Transport

“What is the most cost effective mode of transport or pass?” is always a hard question to answer. The best solution will change depending on time-frame, number of people, how much you want to see/do across the country, and how much you want to keep your options open. Ultimately you will have to make a rough plan and calculate which option provides the best value.

Public transport

Public transport will get you just about anywhere you need to go and many train lines have views you won’t get from the roads. I have written quite extensively about this, especially public transport, in a previous post and there are various other guides online to help there (for example this). For public transport there are a number of train passes to cover full or partial cost, the whole country or just an area, that can be bought anytime at a set price or are limited and vary in price. It can be somewhat overwhelming. I have a deeper dive of the passes and their cost/benefit which might help.

A few important points:

  • Booking individual tickets in advance does not make any difference to the basic price (unlike various other places in Europe like the UK and Germany). However from 60 days before the day of travel you can buy “Supersaver“ tickets which reduce the cost by up to 70%, but are only available at off-peak times and lock you to a certain train. This can be combined with the half-fare card for further discounts. A set number of supersaver tickets are available, so depending on how in demand a certain train is they might be sold out weeks in advance or be available still just before departure.
  • Taking the slower train won’t save you money. Taking the slow regional train costs the same as the fast intercity train on the same route (thanks to the supersaver it can actually be cheaper to take the fast train).
  • The Swiss Travel Pass might seem horrifically expensive at first glance, but if you are wanting to travel far and wide from a single base it will very quickly pay for itself. In addition to standard transport it also covers most ships, a number of cable cars (even going up to a few mountain tops for no extra cost), discounts on most of the rest of the mountain transport, and free entry to most museums.
  • Children get free or discounted travel. Below the age of 6 children can travel free of charge if they are accompanied by somebody 12 over older who has a ticket. The Junior Swiss Travel card costs 30 CHF for a year and lets a child aged 6-16 travel for free so long as they travel with a parent. The pass is even free from the 3rd child.
  • A travel pass does not have to be bought from SBB or other Swiss services. The Interrail/EUrail pass is often much cheaper (8 days in 1 month for Interrail is 258.00 Euros vs 445.00 Euros for the same duration from the SBB) and is valid for most of the Swiss train network (but not for the local transport/Postbus network, or some private lines like Interlaken-Grindelwald, and scenic trains like the Glacier Express will still require a reservation charge). There are some reductions and benefits that come with it (eg for Interrail) but you won’t get the full advantage of the Swiss Travel Pass – less free boat rides, less and reduced mountain transport benefits, no free museums. If you are just city hopping then this might be the best option.
  • If you want to be very flexible then the EasyRider from the SBB or Fairtiq might be worth checking out so you can hop on and off, or change direction without worrying about buying a ticket at the start.

Driving

This might be cheaper, especially with a group of people. However keep in mind:

  • If you are renting then it might be cheaper to rent just across the border in a neighbouring country and drive in.
  • If you are driving in from another country you will need to buy a 40 CHF annual vignette to use the motorways (but not the smaller streets). This is actually really good value if you live here, less so if you want to just drive for a few hours to cut across the country.
  • Fuel prices are high and parking can be very expensive.
  • Some popular tourist spots like Zermatt/Wengen/Mürren are car-free so you have to pay for parking and then the transport to get you the last 10 minutes to the place. If you are spending a week in Zermatt then the car will just sit there doing nothing.
  • Traffic offences (speeding, not having your headlights on at all times) will result in large fines.

Other

  • You might also look into ride sharing like BlaClaCar. I have not used this, but from what I have read you should be prepared for cancellations and to be flexible.
  • Hitchhiking is possible and probably as safe as it is going to get, but I have no experience there.

Food

Do it yourself

What to eat:

  • If you REALLY love bread/cheese/pasta you can feed yourself for 10 CHF for the whole day (maybe get an apple too to keep the scurvy at bay).
  • Meat is really expensive. Avoiding it will help cut costs.
  • The cheapest beer is the supermarket own brands like the COOP “Prix Garantie Lager” which cost 0.5 CHF per 0.5L can. Apparently these are mostly very acceptable for the price.
  • A restaurant Fondue will set you back 25 CHF per person or more. But a much cheaper and equally Swiss option is to buy some Cervelat sausages from any supermarket and go roast them over a fire somewhere in the countryside.

Where to buy it:

  • Supermarket food is the obvious go to. But compared to the neighbouring countries you are still paying 50% or so more for food items. Migros is the cheaper Swiss supermarket that you will find everywhere and is good quality. Denner is the slightly cheaper sister of Migros which isn’t always as easy to find. Lidl and Aldi are cheaper still, however they tend not to be in central areas or smaller towns or villages. Most supermarkets will have a small reduced section for goods near the sell by date. Be aware that supermarkets close early (typically 7pm or earlier), and outside of tourist resorts will be closed on a Sunday. There will be a shop (or a whole shopping complex) open everyday until 10pm at train or petrol stations though – but these are often more expensive.
  • Street markets on Wednesday/Saturday mornings are typically much more expensive than supermarkets. A few stands might offer free samples, but no market is big enough that you are going to fill up on them.
  • ÄSS-BAR (meaning edible) is a chain of cafes/outlets that sell day-old bread and baked goods sourced from local bakeries at a reduced price. These are only in the bigger cities at the moment, but have central locations.
  • The App Too Good To Go often has offers for cheap food from Migros supermarkets each evening – however the exact contents will be out of your control.
  • You can bring food in with you on arrival, or if you have time then leave the country to go shopping in a neighbouring country (it is what the Swiss who live near the borders do). However Switzerland is not in the EU custom zone and there are limits on how much you can bring in per person without paying customs tax. It is not certain that you will be checked at the border, but it isn’t impossible (especially on a Saturday afternoon when many Swiss shoppers will be coming back over the border).
  • You almost never need to buy water. Tap water is fine, and just about every fountain has drinkable water (unless there is a sign on it stating otherwise). However, you will sometimes find regions where it seems every fountain has a sign warning you not to drink from it (the Lavaux for example). When in the mountains you can fill up from streams assuming there isn’t a farm or animals grazing above you.

Misc:

  • Places showing off a certain product (show dairy, chocolate factory, etc) might give away a few free samples or include them in the tour price. The Kambly shop where you can eat as much as you want of their entire range without any need to buy anything (and can buy the product for about a third of the normal price) is probably the best example of this, but it is rather out of the way for most trips.

Eating out

  • There are plenty of fast-food options at stations and in larger towns. Figure 4-8 CHF for a Sandwich/baguette or 8-10 CHF for a kebab. Many cheap food stands might close by 7pm, or earlier if they are just aimed at commuters/shoppers, but there should always be something open to 10pm in any decent sized town.
  • Ordering a takeaway isn’t much (if any) cheaper than the usual restaurant prices. You will probably just end up paying the same amount for an inferior experience.
  • Migros restaurants are a budget friendly favourite. You can easily get a good meal for 15 CHF (typically lunch as they are closed later in the evenings and all day on Sundays). The restaurants in the Manor department stores are also well regarded, some have quite nice views too.
  • Restaurants do not have to be as expensive as some people make out. You can often easily find a Rösti or pizza for about 16 CHF. A good dinner with drinks for 2 people for less than 50 CHF should be easy to come across. Another option is to look for fixed menus at lunch time which will offer a good meal for 15-20CHF (especially at Italian or Asian places).
  • Apps like Too Good To Go or Homemade are an option for finding cheap food (though outside of the bigger cities you might have very limited or no options).
  • Finding coffee for less than 5 CHF (and not a big one at that) will be very hard. My record is 3.5 CHF in Vallorbe.
  • Some areas have special voucher packages you can buy, like “Zwei Für Eins” (two for one). However that is better suited to residents rather than short term visitors.
  • You don’t want to know what a cocktail at a fancy club is going to cost you.

Activities

There are a surprising number of generous discounts if it is your birthday.

Take advantage of the free information.

  • The quality of information you get through the Swiss topographic maps is very useful for planning trips (see also the SwissTopo phone app when on the go which lets you download the entire map and plot routes on the footpath network for free). It is very detailed, quick to load and allows all kinds of layers like hiking routes to be added is incredible and way beyond anything I have seen elsewhere – and all for free.
  • Likewise the Switzerland Mobility website and app provide the map and details on routes for various sports (but you can’t plan your own routes or download the map for free).
  • For weather conditions MeteoSwiss website (and app) offer lots of information and various maps to help plan your days.
  • Being a popular destination for 200+ years means that there are endless sources of information for reading up on ideas of what to do.

Cities

Mountains and Cable cars

The views are free. But getting to them can be expensive.

Do something weather suitable. Money for a cable car ride is better spent on a sunny day than a wet and foggy one. Likewise resorts give you information about what is open/closed, what there is to do, and usually have multiple webcams showing the conditions at various locations. There is no excuse for paying a wodge of cash to find that all you can do is walk around a small viewing platform and see the same rain that you were already in below.

Don’t feel that certain peaks are a ‘must do’. The most famous/advertised peaks are often the most expensive (e.g. Jungfraujoch and Schilthorn). You can have a good time on lower mountains, and there are often much cheaper alternatives. For example the unsung Postbus is very cheap for what they offer. They will not get you to mountain peaks, but you can get high up valleys or to passes, which make good view points or starts for hikes. In Solothurn for example taking the Postbus to Balmberg costs 6.40 CHF whereas taking the train to Oberdorf and the cable car to Weissenstein would cost twice as much for only a little extra height gain.

  • Go early/late. Some offer early bird discounts. For example the strangely named ‘Comfort-Ticket’ on Niederhorn which costs 27 CHF for a round trip rather than 42 CHF if you go up before 09:00 or after 16:00.
  • Go on your birthday. Some places offer a free ride if you present ID proving it is your birthday. This is mostly in the Berner Oberland area but does include the expensive Schilthorn which would set you back 108 CHF otherwise. This offer seems to be hidden away from the main prices page on most cable cars, so you might need to google the cable car + birthday to actually find the offer.
  • Get a suitable ticket. Some cable cars offer special tickets which can work out cheaper if you know what you want to do. For example the Corvatschbahn in the Engadine offers a cheaper ‘hiking ticket’ where you can go all the way up to enjoy the views at the top station and and then come back down to the middle station to hike to a different destination rather than returning back all the way down. A return ticket can be a third cheaper than buying a single each way (it can also just be the same as two singles).
  • RailAway combined offer. if you are travelling with public transport then the SBB offers a number of discounts on cable cars.
  • Guest card. If you are staying in the same resort/area you might get a discount or even a free ride. The most generous is the upper Engadine which includes basic transport and rides up and down a number of cable cars. Check the info online to find out what is valid in each area (search ‘guest card location’).
  • Transport pass. Most (but not all!) cable cars give a 50% discount if you have the Swiss Travel Pass/GA or Half Fare card. Cable cars up to villages are entirely covered by the Swiss Travel Pass/GA (e.g. Mürren, Rigi, Bettmeralp, Braunwald). You could make a day trip out of taking the train to Mörel, going up to Rideralp, walking along to Fiescheralp, and going down to Fiesch without spending a single Rappon on transport. If you have the Swiss Travel Pass then a few mountaintop rides are also included for free (these change but in 2022 are Rigi, Stanserhorn and Stoos).
  • Regional pass. Some regions offer a dedicated pass which covers entry for all the basic transport and cable cars up to the mountains within a certain area (e.g. the Tell pass, or Jungfrau pass). If you are planning to stay in one area and want to go up a number of mountains this would be a good call.
  • Ski pass. I am unsure if this works, but it might be worth looking into. If you visit in the winter it might be cheaper to buy a ski pass for the day than pedestrian tickets. A standard return up to Titlis is far more expensive than a Ski pass for the day for example.

Shopping

  • Some people claim that the standard souvenirs and chocolates can be had for cheaper in department stores like Manor/COOP rather than tourist shops.

Cycling

  • A number of places (Zurich, Geneva, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Le Locle, Neuchâtel and the Canton of Valais) offer free/cheap bike rental during the summer – schweizrollt.ch . Bring 20 CHF for deposit and ID has to be shown.

Swimming

  • Swimming is very popular in summer anywhere from urban rivers to mountain lakes. Almost everywhere has a swimming pool or Lido where you can change and have an area with various activities or leisure features for a price. But mostly you can very easily find somewhere to jump in for free. Just be careful in rivers – see what the locals do in places like Bern where it can be fast and dangerous.

Winter sports

  • If you don’t ski then the alternatives in winter are often much cheaper. For example following the prepared paths is free, and renting a sled for a day is fairly cheap (about 15 CHF).
  • Many resorts have special discount days or offers.
  • This – https://www.snow4free.ch/de/

Misc

  • If you have a student ID then give it a shot.
  • There is free Wifi at bigger train stations (accessed via a code sent to you by SMS). Likewise the yellow Post Buses have free Wifi which you can use during the ride or just hanging out by them at a station.
  • In touristy and border areas you can often pay with euros (sometimes even $USD) but it is generally best not to unless you really don’t want to get some CHF. Typically they do this at a less beneficial exchange rate for you, and you might also not get change back if you pay in Euros.
  • If you live in Switzerland then consider REKA which is a supplemented service aimed at family holidays in Switzerland. You can also buy Reka-checks which is essentially pretend money that costs less than the face value and can be used at a number of hotels/restaurants/cable cars/trains all over Switzerland.
  • If you live in Switzerland then see what discounts you get from subscriptions and memberships. If you bank with Raiffeisen for example then your bank card gets you free entry to a number of museums.
  • The Rega is the mountain rescue service (phone: 1414). You can also download the Rega app to your phone which you can allow to use your location should you need to call for help from an unknown spot. For 30 CHF per person a year you can become a Rega patron, this supports the mountain rescue service and means that (funds allowing) they will reduce/waive the rescue fees if you need help. That 30 CHF could save you a hell of a lot a money.