How to Tackle Switzerland on a Budget
Switzerland on a budget? It’s easy to snigger at this seemingly preposterous oxymoron. This beautiful land is known for many remarkable things – chocolate, cheese, unrivaled scenery and some of the most remarkable rail routes around. Unfortunately, cost-effectiveness is not one of them. All this beauty and precision comes at a price, but to exclude Switzerland from your European rail journey without careful consideration would be a mistake. Approach it with the right mind-set, and a few tips, and you may just surprise yourself how much you can stretch that budget.
Tips for Switzerland on a budget
1. Get a Eurail Pass
There’s only one way to get around Switzerland, and that’s by train. Many hail the Swiss rail network as the cleanest and most efficient in the world. The views from the immaculate carriages are often worth the cost of the ticket alone. Point-to-point tickets in Switzerland don’t come cheap. Unless you book online and well in advance, you’ll pay full fare for each trip.
Most regional trains in Switzerland don’t need advance reservations. You can simply hop aboard a train with a valid pass and travel as long as you like, regardless of the actual ticket cost. Special scenic trains in Switzerland usually require a reservation fee, but this is a fraction of the price of a full fare ticket.
Insider tip: The Golden Pass route between Lucerne and Montreux is the best value scenic train for Eurail Pass holders. There’s no mandatory reservation fee and the scenery is truly incredible.
2. Camp out
My first trip to Switzerland was slightly impulsive. I’d excluded it due to budget constraints. But when a friend I’d met on the road two months prior encouraged me to come through for a visit, and accompanied the invitation with a picture of the Lauterbrunnen Valley taken from a local campsite, the decision was easy. You can camp year round in many locations throughout Switzerland, though it’s typically more pleasant in the warmer months. It’s the best way to stay in Switzerland on a budget. It’s also the most picturesque – campsites are often set in the most scenic and underused parts of the valleys.
Camping doesn’t necessarily mean you have to rough it. Depending on the cost and actual site, you may find WiFi, common rooms, stores, and restaurants. Others may only offer a patch of green grass and running water. Depending on the location, you’ll pay a flat rate of approximately 10 euros per adult per night, and between 12 and 22 euros for the privilege of pitching your tent in the most impressive destination imaginable.
Insider tip: Don’t worry if you don’t have a tent. Many have low cost accommodation in the form of mobile homes, caravans, and bungalows.
3. Consider hostels, AirBnb, or Couchsurfing
Hostels and AirBnb rentals in Switzerland aren’t cheap when compared to those in other countries, but they’re certainly cheap when compared to the hotel across the road. Most hostels, Airbnbs, and Couchsurfing places follow typical Swiss standards. You’ll get clean, comfortable rooms that are more than adequate for resting your head after a long day of hiking.
Insider tip: Hostelworld and SwissHostels.com can help you identify towns with good quality budget accommodation. Once you’ve picked out a possible route, shop around online – including the hostel’s own website – for the best rates.
4. Cook for yourself
Staying in a campsite, hostel or Airbnb apartment has the added benefit of allowing you to cook for yourself. Swiss restaurants may be kind on your palate, but not on your wallet. To cut back, shift your attention to local grocery stores. If you pick up delicious local ingredients and skip the imports and premium meat, you can find a nourishing meal for a fairly competitive price.
Insider tip: Step aside 2 minute noodles! Track down a few packets of traditional Swiss rösti in your local supermarket. These foil bags of preserved grated potatoes are possibly the best budget meal of all time. You can make them more nutritious with your own additions. They’re usually hidden away in the dry goods aisles.
5. Skip the booze
Don’t travel to Switzerland expecting to find cheap alcohol and all-night parties. Alcohol is expensive, with a pint of beer in a bar costing north of 6 euros. But consider this a gift – in a country as scenically spectacular as Switzerland, any day spent nursing a hangover instead of exploring a new mountain peak is borderline criminal.
Insider tip: If you’re aching for an evening drink, then follow tip 4 above and head to the supermarket. It’s where you’ll find the most competitively priced alcohol, including some delicious local wines – perfect for a picnic with a view.
6. Don’t skip the chocolate
There are some things you simply shouldn’t avoid in Switzerland – chocolate is one of them. The quality and variety of chocolate throughout the country is incredible, and even supermarket brands will surpass your expectations on the cost vs. quality scale.
Insider tip: Unless you’re looking to blow the last of your Francs, skip the fancy chocolate shop in the middle of town. As tempting as those giant slabs are, most sell by weight at inflated prices – definitely not to way to experience Switzerland on a budget.
7. Pack a water bottle
Switzerland has high quality drinking water, so skip the store or restaurant-bought H2O and opt to fill up with water as close to the source as you’re likely to get – at one of the dozens of quality drinking fountains around town.
Insider tip: Exercise some common sense around water fountains that have algae or are attracting large amounts of bugs – you’ll likely find a more palatable source of water a few steps away.
8. Check your rail pass for benefits
Eurail Pass holders receive several benefits in Switzerland, including access to lounges at certain railway stations, cheap or free ferry transfers, and discounts on privately operated scenic train rides.
Insider tip: Check the pass benefits page on the Eurail website for details.
9. Know when to splurge (and don’t feel guilty about it)
Finally, there will come a time on your Swiss rail journey that you’ll encounter an attraction or experience too tempting to resist, in spite of its price. This may be a traditional fondue at a fancy restaurant, a paragliding trip from a nearby peak, or a cableway ride to a dramatic glacier. Cut yourself some slack and budget for unique activities that will cement your memories of this unique corner of the continent for years to come.
Exploring Switzerland is a daunting task for many budget-conscious rail travelers. But with a Eurail Pass and a healthy dose of frugality, you can really experience just why this country is so internationally renowned.
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