Updated: Oct 21
Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries in the world, and Zurich and Geneva are the cities where you will pay the most in the world for a Big Mac (top of the Big Mac index). Well, yes, but not everyone in Switzerland drives a Ferrari, and tourism is still one of the main areas of the economy. So somewhere you can squeeze a few francs to save up and visit the country. It's not cheap, but you can visit Switzerland, travel on a budget and, while still paying attention to prices, get a lot of pleasure out of it. Because the most important thing is that the main attractions in Switzerland are actually free!
Of course, budget travel stands in a contrast to the image Switzerland creates among tourists. The most frequently seen advertisements are luxury mountain hotels, elegant restaurants and all other places with hefty prices. Spending a few thousand francs on a weekend is rather easy here.
On a contrary - you can have all the best of Switzerland experiences and still stay on a budget! And believe me, no one knows better how to save in Switzerland, than expats. So here is a guide written by someone who was counting every penny for a couple of months and was able to visit the best places in the Swiss Alps.
Psst... check when is the best time to visit Switzerland here.
Lauterbrunnen - one of the best spots in Switzerland.
Nature - because the best of Switzerland is free
Nature, wildlife and mountains are here for free. Nobody and nowhere requires payment for hiking and trail access. Sometimes you have to hike a bit to see the Matterhorn, for example, without taking the cable car, but the view itself is not hidden behind a curtain by the Swiss. So the mountains, and because of the mountains you come here, are free.
And please, don't come to Switzerland to visit Zurich or Geneva without walking at least 30km in the mountains. Just... don't.
TIP: How to see the Matterhorn without paying hefty price for a train and parking
If you want to see the Matterhorn you can either drive to Zermatt from Täsch or walk here. Few people know that there is a small, winding and tight mountain road above Tasch that leads to Täschalp, a shepherd's village. There is a small, free car park here (just don't even try to stay here overnight). This is also the route number 27 to Blauherd, which offers beautiful views of the Matterhorn. If you want to visit Zermatt and get here by train or stay longer - it's better to leave your car lower down than in Täsch - parking will be cheaper.
Cheap hotels and accommodation in Switzerland
The obvious thought is to check the offers on Booking.com. This is the first thing to do and most of you will probably stop there. However, it is still possible to optimise the whole trip. In fact, you can even get accommodation almost without spending a penny. How?
A good way to save on accommodation is to use the WorkWay service, which is very popular in Switzerland among farmers - you get a roof over your head and often also a meal in exchange for your work. The work is not always hard, and after it, you can explore the area in peace. It is very popular in picturesque Bernese Oberland and Eastern part of Switzerland.
Another way to reduce prices is to rent a bigger flat. And here I will probably come with a disappointment - not on Airbnb, which is extremely expensive in Switzerland, but through Interhome.ch, which has cool last-minute deals.
The cheapest accommodation in Switzerland is not listed on popular websites, since it is a very "local" one. I am thinking here about farms and mountain farms. You can find them via google maps, as such places often have their small websites and offer for guests, or via the website: www.myfarm.ch. Here, in addition to rooms and flats, you can also book a "bed on hay"! Most places require a minimum stay of three nights.
The last idea to save on accommodation in Switzerland is to sleep in hostels. Next to what you can find on Booeking.com/hostels, it's worth checking the Swiss Youth Hostels website, where gems such as the stylish Burgdorf Castle are on offer. Generally, prices start at CHF 55 per bed.
General rule: avoid big cities and accommodation will be cheaper
Accommodation costs in Zurich or Geneva are drastically higher than those in mountainous or rural regions. Besides, in the city, you will be obliged to pay for parking (10-20 CHF / day). Not to say, that small hotels outside the city zones are closer to nature.
Old town of Bern
Staying longer in one place pays off - benefit from local offers
Many hotels, Airbnb and flats offer sizeable discounts for staying longer. Usually, the discounts start from three to four nights. Swiss hotels have (as a rule) rather old websites with not very dynamic prices - that's why offers from Booking.com (where the platform helps hoteliers match prices) are usually better than those on official websites.
The other plus of staying in one place for longer is local discounts and offers. For example, the seemingly terribly expensive Sankt Moritz also has budget hotels and a hostel. And on top of that, in the summer season for a minimum stay of two nights they give you a pass for all public transport in the region and, importantly, the mountain and cable cars.
A quick calculation for Engadin:
just to ascend and descend the Diavolezza from Sankt Moritz is a return trip on the Rhaetian Railway train (CHF 22) and an ascent and descent from the summit (CHF 39). And the package includes Corvatsch (3300m, approx 40 CHF). So just for one person, you save more or less CHF 100. Think about it before choosing Airbnb - private apartments do not have such an offer.
Arosa, Ticino and Appenzell have similar offers. These promotions also include some campsites, so it's worth doing your research before making a final decision on where to stay. Find out more about the local offers here.
Engadin is one of the best places to stay for a longer time
Cheap meals in Switzerland - buy them in supermarkets
Prices in restaurants in Switzerland
Local/medium level restaurant
Starters (cheese, ham) - CHF 12.00
Soup - CHF 10.00
Pasta - CHF 20.00
Pizza - CHF 18.00
Burger with fries - CHF 28.00
Schnitzel with fries - CHF 32.00
Fondue per person - CHF 34.00
Beef tenderloin with vegetables and potatoes - CHF 50.00
Glass of red wine CHF 8.00
Creme Brule / icecream (3 scoops) - CHF 10.00
McDonald's - Big Mac Menu - medium - CHF 13.50
Starbucks Cappucino Grande (medium) -
The price of a meal in a restaurant is about CHF 20.00 for pasta, CHF 18.00 for pizza and CHF 50.00 for a 300g beef steak. A lot... It's cheaper to stock up in supermarkets. The two biggest chains Coop and Migros have hot lunch dishes (very popular) and loads of ready meals on offer. A roast half chicken costs around CHF 6.00 and a ready-to-make 600g fondue from the Qualite&Prix brand costs CHF 12.75 at Coop.
Discounters include Lidl and Aldi - they are not found in city centres, mainly dominating the outskirts and rural areas. Pay attention to what you put in your basket - mozzarella made in Switzerland costs about 1 franc more than the one next door from Germany. You can also buy meat cheaper here. Although raw meat in general is very expensive. Vegetarians are like born in a cape.
A very cool option to save on groceries is a visit to Landi - a chain of shops "with everything", addressing their offer mainly to farmers. Here you can find basic food products, regional products, good and cheap wines and various home and garden equipment. From the outside, they usually look like a gardening shop, but inside they will surprise you with their offer. There is also a cheap Agrola petrol station next to every Landi.
Fondue, Raclette and the Swiss cheese
Fondue and cheese, however, are best bought from local shops and producers. The quality of what you get beats supermarket products and many a restaurant. For example, our favourite place for cheese is Bio - Bergkäserei Goms (on the way to Fiesch/Zermatt from Furka Pass). You'll pay CHF 16.00 for a 600g fondue here (you have to add white wine to that), a ready mix with kirsch and wine is already 30.00 CHF. Three people will be square after that!
Why it is worth buying fondue at a shop, not in a restaurant? Simple - nearly every Airbnb or apartment in Switzerland is providing a fondue and/or raclette set. You can make it on your own.
Swap the hotel breakfast for a croissant and coffee from the bakery
Hotel breakfasts cost around CHF 30 per person - this convenience, however, is not well covered by the price. Because for four delightful croissants and two coffees and a jar of local, natural jam.
Sample food prices in Switzerland (in CHF / SrF)
Example food prices are taken from Coop and Migros. In Lidl or Aldi it will be slightly cheaper, but there are far fewer of these discount stores, so they are unrepresentative. All prices quoted are "from", as natural or higher quality products cost 10-20% more.
Therefore, it is reasonable to take some food from Poland to the car and possibly buy more in Germany or France. Beware of customs controls (very frequent) and limits on alcohol and meat imports. Meat in particular is the subject of a major scandal at customs, where the limit is 1 kg per person.
Bread - CHF 1.10
200g butter cube - CHF 3.50
1kg bananas - CHF 3.00
Cola 0.45l - CHF 1.20
Yellow cheese 100g - CHF 2.50
Milk 1l in a carton - CHF 1.70
Lindt Les Grandes chocolate - CHF 4.30
10 eggs - CHF 5.00
Chicken breast 300g - CHF 12.00
Potatoes 1kg - CHF 1.40
Spaghetti Barilla 500g - CHF 2.20
Avocado - CHF 2.00
Apples 1kg - CHF 3.50
Prepared ravioli 250g - CHF 6.00
Cooked ham 100g - CHF 5.00
Beer 6 cans x 500ml - CHF 10.00
Croissant - CHF 1.30
Natural yogurt 500ml - CHF 1.35
Harder Kulm - a popular andvery touristic spot in Interlaken
Beware of roaming - switch off your internet
Switzerland is not a member of the European Union and has not adopted (like Norway) a single roaming zone. In short, the price for 1MB is can be as high as 5 EUR charged by your provider, and one MB means a few posts on Facebook. It is better to buy a cheap SIM card upon arrival: for example in Sunrise you will pay 20 CHF for a card and in this, you will have 100MB 4G. And for CHF 3 per day you get unlimited data transfer. So in short: if you come for a longer time - buy a prepaid (you need an ID card), it will be much cheaper. Otherwise, you will have to rely on hotel and cafe WiFi.
Unfortunately, the roaming package from your operator will not be cheaper. Beware of border towns. Antennas from Switzerland reach several kilometres into Germany, France and Italy.
To save on transfer, download offline maps on Google Maps (it saves at least several dozen MB, and more often several hundred). The same applies to tourist maps. The latter are worth having offline, if only because there is not always access to the net in the mountains - and there are many crossroads with names that don't mean anything.
Tasty tap water and fountains - it costs nothing
In Switzerland you will find small fountains and taps everywhere, from which crystal clear spring water pours - just right for drinking. It doesn't matter whether you're in the centre of Geneva or on a trail. So take a bottle with you and refill it at every opportunity. If the water is undrinkable, it will be marked: Nicht trinkendes Wasser, Eau non potable, Acqua non potabile, or an appropriate sign.
Luzerne in the summer
Free Walk Tours
Free Walk Tours are popular in Switzerland - it's free (although you do get to buy a coffee or beer), a way to learn about the history of a city or area. Read more at freewalk.ch/swiss/. As well as the obviously guided walks, there are themed walks like the Street Art tour in Zurich or the Chocolate Tour (CHF 30 with chocolate tasting).
Free Museums in Geneva
Natural History Museum
Art and History Museum
Botanical Gardens and Conservatory
History of Science Museum
Free museums in Zurich:
Museum of zoology
Augusto Giacometti Entrance Hall
Museum of Modern Art (free on Wednesday)
Cheaper Switzerland in the off-peak season
July and August are the peak season for tourists and the summer holidays. Prices go up, as they do everywhere. May and September have beautiful weather and pleasant temperatures for walking in the mountains. September is better because in higher parts (above 2000 m) there is no more snow and all trails are open. In May, however, the field meadows are covered with a variety of flowers that the cows have not yet had time to chew.
Hiking in October - Bernse Oberland
Swiss trains are cheaper with Travel Pass
If you're planning to fly into Switzerland or just travel by train, there are two options worth considering:
A Travel Pass (link) for a few days - for example for 8 costs CHF 281 and gives you access to all SBB trains, Post Auto buses (they go to every, literally every, village) and ships. It also gives free entry to 500 museums and free entry to the Rigi (more about the Rigi, for example, the price of a return trip is ), Stansnhorn and Stoos and 50% discounts on attractions such as the Gornergratbahn (Zermatt) and Jungfraujoch (more about Europe's highest railway station).
Halb-Tax (link) - this is a 50% discount on all public transport: trains, most cable cars, ships, Post Auto, mountain railways - costs CHF 185 and lasts all year round. If you plan on climbing Jungfraujoch and anything else - it will pay for itself. Note on prices - SBB always quotes 50% because virtually everyone in Switzerland has a Halb-Tax or an annual ticket for all of Switzerland - the GA card. So the above prices for tourists have to be multiplied x2. Unless you also have Halb-Tax.
Super Saver Tickets - on the SBB website there are often offers with up to 40% discount, usually during periods of lower occupancy. You need to hunt for such offers.
Use your Swiss friends - each Gemeinde (municipality) has a daily pool of one-day tickets for the whole country for its residents - the equivalent of a GA penalty. These tickets are priced at CHF 45 each and allow you to go everywhere and give the same discounts as the HalbTax (on the Jungfraujoch, Gornergrat or cable cars). The resident of the municipality must book them in advance and collect them in person. With such a card you can go from Zurich to Lugano, climb Monte Bre for half price (CHF 14.30), take a boat to Morcotte, return by bus to Lugano and train back to Zurich, which would normally cost around CHF 160.
Children under 6 in Switzerland travel by rail, bus and cable car for free. Children 6-16 for half price.
Glacier Express in Rhine Gorge (Ruinaulta)
Car hire is cheaper than trains and buses in Switzerland
Even with a 50% discount, rail travel in Switzerland is expensive. Therefore, if you are travelling in a group (even worth it for a couple) it is worth using a car rental. I especially recommend this for those flying into Basel (EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg), where you can find the cheapest deals.
For example, a calculation of the cost of renting a car in Switzerland:
A Skoda Octavia estate for a weekend (two days) in Zurich Airport costs CHF 180 without insurance etc.
Insurance costs about CHF 70
Petrol (in the mountains, you will burn at least one tank during the weekend) - let's say 150 CHF
In total: CHF 400, for comparison: cost for one person by train from Zurich airport to Grindelwald and back: CHF 170.
Also, note the fuel prices in Switzerland. For example, in the canton of Schwyz, you will pay on average CHF 0.10 cheaper per litre for diesel or petrol than in the neighbouring cantons of Luzern or Zurich. The cheapest petrol stations are Agrola Tankstelle, Migrol and Coop. Of course, you will still pay the cheapest for fuel in Germany ;-)
A road trip through alpine passes in a roadster? Why not - you can rent Mazda MX 5 for instance
Switzerland with a tent
Switzerland has a huge number of beautifully located campsites. Some are typical airports with swimming pools and hundreds of pitches (e.g. south of Locarno), others are small campsites, higher up in the mountains, maintained by the Gemeinde, where you pay into a can.
Some of the best and relatively cheap campsites are in the TCS network, the Swiss autoclub - you can find a list and offer here: TCS Camping, where prices for a tent site are around CHF 35 (two people, electricity, car, tent). Small, located on the outskirts camping sites are much cheaper, for example in the beautiful Bintal (here more about this valley), for two people, a tent, electricity and a car you will pay about 25 CHF (but a shower costs 1 CHF).
Sleeping in the wild, camping is prohibited in most places. The exception are the mountains, above the tree line. Although even here you have to be careful - each municipality has its own rules and regulations, which you can read on this page. Detailed camping guidelines are on the Swiss Alpine Club website.
It's rather hard to have someone chasing you around the mountains, but I recommend respecting the regulations. Some Swiss people are overzealous when it comes to obeying the law and will not fail to inform the police, who will wait for you at the bottom.
When going tent camping in Switzerland it is worth remembering that:
Switzerland is mostly mountains and although daytime temperatures can be hot, it will be cold at night - the higher you go, the colder it gets. A warm sleeping bag will come in handy!
The rains are heavy and in summer it can snow in the mountains too - a tracker will come in handy.
Cows are docile animals, but they will happily rub against your tent. In short, it is better to avoid pastures.
Switzerland by campervan or motor home, RV
It's similar here to camping - generally, you can't spend the night in a car wherever you like. But the grey area leaves much more room for interpretation than pitching a tent. In the Engadine, for example, each municipality has taken care to inform at the entrance that it is forbidden to park campervans overnight, but there are designated squares dedicated to this type of traveller.
In contrast, in Uri, there is more freedom, and twenty campervans sleeping on Furka Pass in summer is a common sight (without heating - not recommended, as the temperature drops to zero here). There is plenty of parking for campers throughout Switzerland, and some campsites and municipalities prepare car parks even in winter. You can find overnight spaces on the websites: Park4Night, WohnmobilLandSchweiz or the paid StellPlatz.ch.
Just don't break the local rules - otherwise, someone will call the police and you will be fined.
Gurnigel Pass - a popular place to spend a night in a campervan
Payments - the Revolut card is the cheapest, but cash is also needed
In most places, you can pay for everything by card. Here in Switzerland, a lot has changed in the last five years. What hasn't changed are currency exchange rates and transaction costs - paying with a Polish card is a total waste of money, because for every 100 CHF spent you will pay extra 4-6 CHF. This is quite a lot and it will cost even more to withdraw cash from an ATM.
That's why I recommend a multi-currency card and the Revolut app - maybe it's a strong recommendation, but Revolut saved us a lot of money when we were travelling and certainly during our first trips to Switzerland and during our move. So... order your card today here and let it sit in a drawer waiting for your holiday.
You will need cash, especially coins, in Switzerland mainly for parking and to pay in hostels, in stalls with local products and on farms.
Avoiding extra costs: insurance
Please take out insurance if you are going to the mountains. A twisted ankle will prevent you from getting off the trail. And in Switzerland, there is no free help in the mountains. No one will come to you on foot either. The Swiss are quick and efficient - a Regi or Air-Zermatt rescue helicopter always flies to any contusion. And the flight is charged per minute. Switzerland recognises the Ekuz card (probably only to collect data ;-)), but medical assistance and treatment is not free here (even for locals), so be prepared for this in advance. Choose insurance that covers extreme sports if you plan on doing more than hiking in the mountains.
Avoiding extra costs: speed traps
The rules of the road are not a matter of convention here. Even the Swiss say it is an extra tax, as there are plenty of radars. The thresholds for exceeding speed are low and the fines are high. In addition, if you break the rules on the road in a blatant manner - overtaking on a continuous line, parking in a prohibited place, red light, etc. - the driver behind you will feel obliged to notify the police. And those excited that something is finally happening will wait for you a bit further on (true story).
Besides, I do not recommend saving money on vignettes either - inspections during the holiday season are common.
So in summary...
How to visit Switzerland on a budget - saving money tips:
Buy food and warm meals in Coop or Migros (or cook yourself).
Stay outside of big cities, find accommodation near a train station if you have no car.
Turn off roaming and buy a local sim card.
Be careful with exchange rates on your card - use Revolut for paying in CHF.
Calculate if SwissPass or regular train tickets are right for your family. Renting a car is cheaper and gives more flexibility.
Visit Switzerland in September or May to avoid peak season.
Stay longer in one place (like Engadin, Jura, Ticino) to benefit from local offers.
Don't buy water in plastic bottles. Bring your own bottle, and drink tap water.
Make fondue and raclette yourself!
The last idea: Bathing in a mountain lake - instead of a spa
Swimming in large lakes is also free. Cities and towns have their beaches and bathing areas designated as Bad / Swamp / Bain and it is normal to come here to picnic, swim and sunbathe. One of the coolest mountain lakes for swimming is the Zugersee on which Zug lies - the water is clear and warm. Between July and September, the temperature is usually around 22°C and the colour is azure. The same goes for Lake Zurich and the beautiful Walensee.
Swimming on sups, dinghies or mattresses is a summer activity here. The beaches are well prepared: the way down to the water is either by steps and a railing or by pebbles. There are always free toilets and showers at the beaches. There is also a campsite at the beach in Zug and free parking!
In the higher mountain areas there are of course also many lakes, but the water is not always so warm. However, if you are a walrus fan, there are even glacier lakes, such as the one at the end of the Rhône Glacier (Rhonegletscher at Furkapass - although admission is not free here).
TIP: Water fun in Zurich and Bern - river rafting
A popular fun in Zurich is rafting down the Limmat River on... anything that floats. In August, flamingos, mattresses, inner tubes and dinghies start in the Wipkingerpark and float all the way to Dietikon - it takes about 2 hours and 10 km. Return by train from Dietikon. A similar trip can be made from Stein am Rhein to Schaffhausen on the Rhine or from Thun to Bern. But on the river? You will ask... well, yes. Swiss rivers, even the bigger ones, are clean and their waters are warm in summer.
Swimming in lake Brienz