We are experienced budget travelers and have had good results staying within a tiny budget in other cities that are traditionally deemed “very expensive”. I was SURE that it would be possible to travel Switzerland on a budget.
Despite all of the warnings that I had read, I thought that I would figure out some tips and tricks for saving money in Switzerland that others had missed. It can’t REALLY be that expensive, can it?
I am here to report that Switzerland was one of the most stunningly beautiful countries that we have ever been blessed to experience. It is also one of the most expensive and no amount of scrimping and picnicking could satisfyingly fix that. Expensive? Yes. Worth it? COMPLETELY.
Here is what I learned about budget travel in Switzerland:
It Can’t Be Done.
Just kidding. But planning a budget trip Switzerland takes much more work for less reward than in any other country that we have been to. Here is what we figured out:
Our Best Tips to Travel Switzerland on a Budget
Head Across the Border
If you are staying near the Swiss border, you can save A LOT of money by crossing the border to eat and shop. The relative ease of crossing borders within the EU makes this a feasible plan. People who LIVE in Switzerland actually drive long distances to make grocery runs across the border. We took a day trip when it was raining in Zurich to nearby Konstanz, Germany and prices for meals in restaurants dropped by about half when we crossed the border.
Drink Milk and Eat Cheese
No, this is not an advertisement for the dairy industry. Its just that milk is the only really good food deal that we found in Switzerland. The cheese at the gas station was also local and well priced. Even the “cheap” dairy at the gas station was rich, creamy and from happy Swiss cows.
The Swiss are quite proud of their milk and cheese and for good reason. It was some of the best dairy that we have ever tasted, and the price tag was comparable to what we pay here in the US for our “average” to low grade milk and cheese.
Late Night at the COOP Supermarket
COOP is a popular supermarket chain in Switzerland. There is one in almost every town. We discovered that one hour before closing, most COOPs mark down all of their premade salads and sandwiches and anything else that is close to expiration. We would make our COOP run nightly to pick up lunch for the next day and whatever cheap, fresh ingredients that we could use to cobble dinner together at our apartment or hostel.
This was still not super cheap (we were spending $50 per night on dinner ingredients, a bottle of wine and lunch for the next day, even at half off) but was the cheapest available option. This leads me to the next point…
DO NOT EAT OUT!
The cheapest sit down restaurant that we found in Switzerland was attached to the Balmers Hostel in Interlaken where a burger and fries was 20 euros! Even fast food was RIDICULOUS – 10 chicken nuggets at Burger King was 9 euros (almost a 1 USD per nugget).
We stayed exclusively in apartments and hostels and cooked all of our meals. Cooking a lot of your own food is one of the easiest ways to save money if you are trying to travel Switzerland on a budget.
We did miss out on the culinary part of our Swiss cultural experience, but for a group of five, eating out just wasn’t in the budget.
Get off the Tourist Path
It is ALWAYS true that getting off the beaten path will generally get you better food at lower prices. This is DOUBLY true in when planning budget travel Switzerland. This was confirmed for me tonight through a helpful conversation with a local.
As it turns out, restaurants are a little less expensive when you make an effort to get out of large, touristy cities and out of the handful of Swiss villages that most tourists frequent.
Buying a Swiss Train Pass Might Not Save you Money
Trains in Switzerland are AMAZING and we loved our experience traveling on them with our kids, but they are not cheap. Price out carefully all of the train rides that you want to take to see if you come close to at least breaking even with a Swiss train pass before buying one.
Do keep in mind that your Swiss Pass gives you discounts on mountain lifts and some other attractions. I wrote a whole post with details of our cost analysis of our Swiss Train pass VS the cost of buying tickets.
If there are more than two people, it is sometimes cheaper to drive in Europe than take a train (even with the high cost of gas).
Bring a Suitcase Full of Food
If we would have known how hard it would be to travel Switzerland on a budget, we would have checked a suitcase of food from home to cook in the hostel. Not joking.
Travel with your essentials in a carry on and save your checked luggage allotment for bringing a small roller filled with food basics like noodles, oatmeal, and other powdered, non perishable staples (don’t forget to bring some spices and basics like cooking oil). Plan out some easy one pan meals that use minimal ingredients before you go. This sounds extreme, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
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I booked our hostels and apartments in Switzerland nearly six months before our summer trip and I got some decent deals by Switzerland standards (including this awesome hostel in Interlaken and a great apartment in Zurich).
They were still not “cheap”, but decent places that contributed to our goal of saving money in Switzerland. By the time we were two months before our trip, all of these more budget friendly accommodations options were fully booked, leaving only more expensive hotels left over.
Budget travel in Switzerland is tough, but it is sooo worth it! This coupon book has 2 for 1 offers for many restaurants and attractions around the country. I wish we had known about this when we visited Switzerland…it will help with saving money in Switzerland!