As one of the most expensive European countries, Switzerland is often skipped over by many budget travelers. Having been here, I can say that before you even get out of the train station, you begin to wonder “how the heck did I spend so much money?!” But that being said, Switzerland is one of the most beautiful places on earth – its home to lakes, picturesque mountains, tiny walled medieval towns, soaring peaks, beautiful churches, and endless green fields you want to run through. Everything runs on time here, the chocolate is amazing, the country is safe, and everyone is super nice. The country rocks no matter what time of the year you visit and, since I’m a budget traveler, this guide to Switzerland will help you travel the country on a budget!
Destination Guides for Switzerland
Accommodation – Hostel dorms average 30 CHF per night, and private rooms start around 75 CHF a night for a single room. Hotels can be quite expensive, and you should look to spend about 85-115 CHF per night for a double room in a budget hotel (at the low end). In Geneva or Zurich, hotel rooms start higher, starting around 100 CHF a night. A good alternative to hotels is Airnb, where private rooms in someone’s house start around 50 CHF.
Food – Although eating out is pricey in this country (as an easy comparison Starbucks is $8 USD while McDonlads $15 USD), you can keep your budget in check by going to the local supermarkets and buying your own groceries. You’ll spend between 50-100 CHF a week for basics like pasta, sandwich ingredients, sauce, rice, eggs, and fruits and vegetables. Supermarkets also sell pre-made meals for between 5-9 CHF. Bars and cafés are the cheapest food option, cost about 9-15 CHF for a lunch special. Restaurants with table service are around 20 CHF for lunch and 40 CHF for dinner (starter, main, and drink) to start (prices go up from there and I saw some Italian restaurants asking 35 CHF for a main course). You’ll typically find pizzas for around 20 CHF in a restaurant. If you’re dining out (but still trying to stick to a budget), you’ll spend an average of 45 CHF a day on food. From there, the sky is the limit! For self-catering with the occasional meal out, expect to spend around 20 CHF per day.
Transportation costs – Local buses around cities and towns cost between 2.50-4.50 CHF, depending on the length of time and number of zones you travel. Intercity trains cost a lot money. For example, Bern to Geneva (a two hour train) costs 50 CHF! Expect to pay anywhere between 28-50 CHF for a second class train ticket between cities. Switzerland doesn’t have an extensive inter-city bus system at the time of this writing.
Activities – Most museums cost around 10 CHF to enter. If you are a student, you’ll save 2-4 CHF off the price of your admission (be sure to have your student ID with you), while all day hiking excursions or adventure activities begin around 70 CHF. Paragliding costs about 160 CHF and a bit more in the winter. Ski and snowboard lift tickets can cost anywhere from 27-75 CHF per day (depending on the mountain), and 6-day passes cost 4-5 times the price of the daily pass, so if you’re staying for a while, buy that. Boat cruise tickets aren’t that pricey. For example, a ticket from Lucerne to Weggis (14 km) will set you back about 20 CHF, unless you have a rail pass or tourist card that gets you in free or at a discount.
Money Saving Tips
Use Couchsurfing — With dorm rooms starting at 30-40 CHF per night, you need to lower your accommodation costs. Couchsurfing is the way to do it. It’s a service that lets travelers stay with locals for free (more on it here). It was a lifesaver that allowed me to keep my costs down the most. Since a lot of travelers use this service, make your requests for hosts early. I put in 25 hosting requests in Geneva before I found someone to stay with!
Use BlaBlaCar — Transportation is very expensive, even more so than accommodation. Most intercity trains are around 50 CHF. That adds up too quickly! Instead, use the ride-sharing website BlaBlaCar to avoid the trains and meet locals. A word of caution: be advised that many rides cancel. I had three rides cancel on me at the last minute (and one guy who just failed to even show up), so the service requires some flexibility. But when it works, it’s awesome. And it’s definitely something I want to use a lot more in Europe.
Use hotel points — Hotel reward points are a lifesaver in expensive destinations, where even hostels are expensive and the chance of getting a Couchsurfing host is small. Rack up a few hotel points by travel hacking before your trip and burn them while you stay in the country. Most hotel sign-up bonuses are around 60,000 points, which is worth about five nights at the chain hotels like Hilton, Marriott, or Starwood (just make sure you stay at their cheaper properties. Sorry, no W for you!).
Alternatively, Airbnb is also a good deal if you’re traveling with someone, as most private rooms are around $50 per night. Split two ways, that’s only $25 a person, much cheaper than a hostel dorm!
Don’t drink — Drinking is not cheap here. Most beers are around 8 CHF. (Plus, who wants to hike while hung over?) Most wines are between 10-25 CHF a bottle. If you must drink, stick to hostel bars where you can enjoy 2-for-1 happy hours and cheap drinks for around 5 CHF or buy your beers at grocery stores for as little was 2 CHF.
Cook — With sit-down restaurants costing around 40 CHF per meal per person, eating out in Switzerland can be very costly, so buy your groceries. A week’s worth of food (bread, pasta, rice, eggs, vegetables, cheese, deli meats for sandwiches, and some assorted fruit) will cost you 75-100 CHF. The major supermarkets are Migros, COOP, and Spar. COOP is the most expensive.
Go veggie — Meat is expensive in Switzerland. Every Swiss resident or expat I talked to told me about how they limit their meat consumption because it costs so much. Stick to veggies and avoid buying meat for your meals (especially beef). While I was trolling supermarkets and butchers for grocery prices (travel writing is glamorous, huh?!), I found a pound of meat was 12-14 CHF. At that price, stick to deli meats for protein!
Use lunch specials — If you are going to eat out, do so during lunch, when most lunch specials at cafes and restaurants cost around 10-19 CHF. Moreover, stick to the ethnic restaurants like Chinese, Middle Eastern, Indian, or Thai for the best deals and biggest portions (and closer to that 10 CHF price). Lunch specials are a great way to get a lot of bang for your buck and to enjoy the dinner menu but at a cheaper set menu price.
Book your trains early – While a train ride is a cheaper way to travel than the plane, you can get even cheaper rates by booking your train ticket early. Swiss Rail also offers one-day and weekend group passes to look into.
Top Things to See and Do in Switzerland
Ski the Matterhorn – Switzerland offers the best skiing in the world, and the Matterhorn is the epitome of it all. You’ll have to take a train or bus into the city as cars aren’t allowed. Not only do you need to ski here, but you can come to admire what’s truly a pollutant-free area.
Join in the Fasnacht Spring Carnival – Located in Basel, this is a festival not to be missed. As a three-day festival, cafés are open day and night and not much else in the town shuts down either. It’s something that’s highly anticipated by both tourists and locals alike.
Explore Geneva – As the third largest city in Switzerland, Geneva offers spectacular views of the city’s lake (Lake Geneva), a plethora of museums, the world’s largest fountain, and a collection of restaurants to satisfy anyone’s palate.
Visit the capital, Bern – The capital of Switzerland, Bern has an amazing old town that you’ll want to walk around all day long. Also, don’t forget to check out the Federal Parliament.
Hike Mt. Pilatus – Mt. Pilatus, right outside the city of Lucerne, is a beautiful mountain with breathtaking views. From the city, you can take a cable car to the top. Hike its trails and well as looking out over the Swiss Alps.
Picnic at the Rhine Falls – Here’s an afternoon that requires hardly any money at all. Pack a picnic lunch and look out at your view of Europe’s largest waterfall. Nearby in the town of Schaffhausen, you’ll find a medieval castle which also houses a hostel for cheap but interesting accommodations.
Explore St. Gallen – The seventh largest city in Switzerland, St. Gallen boasts beautiful museums, colorful murals, and one-of-a-kind architecture. Don’t miss out on a day where you can eat, walk the city at your leisure and enjoy all it has to offer on your own timetable.
Be adventurous in Interlaken – Interlaken is a big outdoor adventure park. There is a lot to do for the adrenaline-seeker: sky diving over the Swiss glacier, water-skiing, skiing, hiking, etc. This is also a popular destination with backpackers and thrill-seekers.
Visit the Old Villages – Visit the Graubunden area, where you’ll find villages whose houses dating back to the 13th century. Here, they also speak an ancient language called Romanch, which has died out everywhere else, and they try their hardest to keep their old traditions as well.
Visit the Swiss Riviera – The “Swiss Riviera” is situated in Lavaux (Cantan of Vaud) and goes along Lake Geneva. You can visit vineyards that overlook the lake, the thrilling castle Château de Chillon, and the town of Montreux, which is famous for its annual jazz festival.
Hike – Switzerland has more than 30,000 miles of marked trails. Hiking in Switzerland is easy. There are day hikes and many multi-day treks. With so much of the beauty of this country in the mountains, you need to spend some time exploring the outdoors.
Have a romantic time in Montreux – With a picturesque castle (Chateau de Chillo) lying at the edge of a lake, this area makes for a pretty romantic destination. Tour the castle, which dates all the way back to the 11th century and inspired the likes of Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, and more. The town was also the home of Freddie Mercury and there is a statue here in his honor.
Get a taste of Italy – Ticino, south of the Alps, is Switzlerland’s Mediterranean region, a fact that’s certainly reflected in the atmosphere of the place. You’ll hear Italian being spoken, see a difference in the food, yet you’ll still find plenty of Swiss castles to explore.
Discover rural culture in Appenzell – This small village of 7,000 lies in the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden. There are no cars here, and the village has upheld much of its local traditions and culture. Its location near the foot of the Alpstein mountains makes it a great gateway for participating in summer and winter outdoor activities.
Visit Lucerne – You can’t get much more of a typical Swiss destination than Lucerne. Located on the beautiful Lucerne Lake, but retaining a lot of medieval charm, the city offers a wonderful combination of urban life and nature. Be sure to spend time wandering the old historic center.