The best things in Schweiz are free: Switzerland on a budget
The mere idea of travelling around Switzerland on the cheap might make you roll your eyes in disbelief – after all, the nation regularly tops polls of the world’s most expensive countries.
But with a little canny planning, some clever timing and a shrewd knack for cost-cutting, Switzerland’s million-dollar Alpine views, memorable rail journeys and big-hitting sights needn’t cost a fortune.
Unless you’re hoping to kip at the airport, you’ll need to decide how to get about. Fortunately, Switzerland has plenty of money-saving workarounds in regards to transport.
With all those cloud-scraping mountains and Alpine passes, hiring a car can be a tempting thought. You’ll reap savings by renting in neighbouring Germany (for Basel) or France (for Geneva), but remember that fuel and parking can quickly ramp up costs.
Switzerland also has one of the most efficient and comprehensive public transport networks in the world, so do you really need a motor? SBB trains and postal buses run to nearly every town and village – even remote ones. And ordinary trains often cover the same staggeringly beautiful routes as pricier ones like the Glacier Express – albeit at a slower pace and with more changes.
Embrace the economical travel pass
If you're going to be staying in Switzerland a while, consider investing in one of SBB's Swiss travelcards, which can offer savings for those making regular rail journeys. The Swiss Half Fare Card, for example, yields a 50% discount on trains, buses, boats and mountain transport (and is even cheaper for travellers under 25). Alternatively, the Swiss Travel Pass (available for three to 15 consecutive days) offers unlimited train, bus and boat travel alongside free entry to 500 museums and numerous mountain excursions.
The Swiss Travel Pass Flex permits the same but on freely selectable days within one month. For single journeys at the lowest possible cost look for supersavertickets online. Money-saving passes are also available for juniors between six and 16, while children under six travel for free.
Nature for next to nothing
You’ve come for the great outdoors, right? The good news is that once your transport and accommodation is sorted, Switzerland’s phenomenal backyard won’t cost you a cent to explore.
The country is laced with a number of Europe’s most outstanding hiking trails (as well as some exceptional hut-to-hut hikes), which thread high into the Alps. Stay in the valleys or choose a resort with train access to avoid shelling out extra for cable cars and funiculars. St Moritz, Lauterbrunnen and Zermatt are good bets – and all have decent youth hostels.
For a slice of true wilderness try Zernez, the starting point for spirit-lifting hikes in the Swiss National Park. A world of woodlands, peaks, glaciers, moors, waterfalls and jewel-coloured lakes; its remoter reaches has golden eagles, chamois, ibex and bearded vultures tucked away.
If you’re not shy of cold water, swimming in Switzerland’s pristine lakes is an incredible experience – and it’s free. Urban bathing has become popular of late too: float downstream in the Aare in Bern, the Limmat in Zürich, or the Rhine Basel with a change of clothes in a waterproof bag.
When it comes to skiing in Switzerland, costs quickly snowball. Minimise expense by avoiding the school holidays and taking advantage of low-season deals. Your francs will go further in low-key resorts like Andermatt, Bettmeralp and the Val d'Anniviers, where ski passes are up to 30% cheaper and the powder and views every bit as glorious. Kids in tow? Check out where children ski for free.
Big beauty, small budget
Don’t fret if you haven’t got two cents to scrape together for sightseeing, Switzerland loves a freebie.
Exploring the covered arcades of Bern’s Unesco-listed Old Town, fortified Murten or the creaky 14th-century Kapellbrücke bridge in Lucerne are all gratis. The hike up to Bellinzona’s trio of medieval castles doesn’t cost anything either and the views across the city campaniles and surrounding mountains are priceless.
Look for complimentary museum entry in cities. The permanent collection at Kunsthaus Zürich, for instance, showcases works by Giacometti and Van Gogh and is free on Wednesdays.
In Bern, you can glimpse bears at relatively close quarters in the BärenPark or take a spin of parliament for free. The same goes for Biel’s watch-driven Omega Museum. Geneva, meanwhile, has a stash of brilliant galleries that don’t charge admission, including the must-see Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, displaying masterpieces like Konrad Witz's La pêche miraculeuse.
The country’s nature parks and their many outdoor attractions are free too – from the thunderous Rheinfall, Europe’s biggest plain waterfall, to the wispy Staubbach Falls that inspired the pen of Byron and Goethe.
Sleeping on a shoestring
Budget beds are like gold dust in Switzerland, but if you avoid high season and swerve the most popular resorts, you can still secure affordable accommodation.
Switzerland’s excellent youth hostels are among the swankiest in the world; many offer inexpensive meals and have beds from Sfr35. It’s not all cramped dorms and grimy communal bathrooms – just try enticing independent hostels like lakeside Backpackers Lucerne, panoramic St. Moritz Youth Hostel and Lugano’s Hotel & Hostel Montarina, housed in an 1860 villa complete with swimming pool and palm-fringed gardens.
Snip-price scenic snoozing
In summer, camping can mean more beauty for your buck – expect to pay around Sfr10 per person and about Sfr15 to pitch a tent. Websites like www.tcs.ch, www.camping.ch and www.sccv.ch detail the country’s best campsites.
If you’re hiking, Switzerland also has a terrific network of mountain huts, 152 of which are run by the Swiss Alpine Club. The locations are magnificent and the prices minuscule: non-members pay around Sfr30 for a dorm bed or Sfr60 for half board.
Frugal families should also consider a farm stay with Agrotourismus Schweizwhere prices hover around Sfr25 to Sfr35 per person and include a substantial breakfast. Some even let you bed down in a hay barn.
Food and drink isn’t cheap in Switzerland, but there are ways to expand your stomach without extending your overdraft.
Forget the hotel breakfast
Forgoing a hotel breakfast might save you as much as Sfr30, and almost every café can rustle up a decent coffee and pastry or Bircher muesli (rolled oats with grains, fruits and yoghurt) for much less. Bakeries and butcher shops are also good for snacking on the hoof (the latter often have sausages to take away).
Aim to make lunch your main meal when many restaurants offer a menü (fixed-price lunch special) for as little as Sfr15. Simple pizzerias and Asian restaurants are generally cheaper than traditional Swiss places too. Hostels sometimes have shared kitchens where guests can cook. Stock up on groceries and picnic essentials at stores like Migros and Coop, which also do salads, sandwiches and other to-go snacks.
One golden rule for daytime exploring: bring a water bottle. Nearly every town has a fountain where you can fill up on pure water straight from the mountains. Tap water doesn’t get better than in Switzerland.
Booze can quickly notch up a bill, but many pubs and bars have happy hours with half-price or two-for-one deals.
More money-saving tips
If you have read the tips above and are still thinking of phoning the bank manager, here are a final few frugal tips for free.
From May to October, Schweiz Rollt rent out bikes in riverside towns and lakeside cities like Geneva, Bern, Valais, Zürich, La-Chaux-de-Fonds and Neuchâtel. Hire is either free (for a limited time) or affordable (from Sfr2 per hour). Take ID.
Get yourself a guest card
Staying overnight in a Swiss town or resort nearly always entitles you to a guest card, which offers numerous benefits – from free cable cars, walking tours and museum entry to reductions on activities and tours. One great example is the Ticino Ticket, which permits unlimited public transport throughout the canton for free.
For the inside scoop on many Swiss cities, join the free walking tours run by Freewalk, whose knowledgeable, entertaining guides work on a voluntary basis (tips are appreciated). In Interlaken, the two-hour Free Walking Tour puts a fun take on the Alpine hub.
For more budget tips, visit the Swiss National Tourist office’s Affordable Switzerland page, with details on free and inexpensive activities, special deals and savings.