Can you travel to Switzerland on a budget? Some people will tell you that “budget Switzerland” is an oxymoron — but I’m here to tell you otherwise. Full disclosure: it’s certainly not cheap. However, it is beautiful, and if you are disciplined, you can get out without spending a total fortune.
For many years, I avoided Switzerland like I avoid any “Australian” bar that sells Fosters (no Aussie would be seen dead drinking that stuff). I’d been told it was expensive, and as a devoted lover of budget travel, expensive is not what I like to hear.
Last Christmas, however, I was desperate to visit a cute Christmas market when uber cheap flights to Geneva popped up. For about $60 USD, I had return flights locked in to Geneva to visit the Montreux Christmas Market. That’s when I started looking at the prices, and nearly fainted.
I mean, I thought Iceland was bad, but Switzerland really is next level. I’m talking $50 USD for a bed in a (poorly rated) youth hostel… yikes.
Nevertheless, tickets were booked and I was determined to make it work. So, I set about proving that you can travel Switzerland on a budget. Here’s how.
Can you visit Switzerland on a budget?
Yes and no. (Ahhhhh, the lawyer in me dies hard.)
If you search this question online, chances are you’ll find quite a few big travel bloggers assuring you that you can travel Switzerland on a budget. If you look closely, they’ll then tell you to budget around $100 USD per day for “budget” travel – which I think is a fair estimate.
If you compare that to other areas, like Eastern Europe or South East Asia, Switzerland is not budget friendly. At all.
I don’t say that to scare you off. Switzerland is beautiful – with jaw dropping scenery and a unique blend of French, Italian, German (and other) cultures. So, if you want to go to Switzerland in particular – I will help you do it (hopefully).
However, I don’t want to mislead you. If you are looking for a budget destination in Europe and don’t really mind where, don’t pick Switzerland thinking you can do it on the cheap. Everything in Switzerland – from transport to accommodation to food to activities – is expensive. The only way I could foresee doing it really on the cheap (i.e. <$50 USD a day) would be to know someone there and stay with them. Sadly, I did not have this luxury!
You’ll also need to be realistic in what you want to do while travelling Switzerland on a budget. If you’re happy to eat modest meals, give up the booze and spend most of your time exploring the beautiful landscapes and villages, great. If you are expecting to eat out, party, ski, take tours? Run for the border. Switzerland is not your friend.
In short, you do not need to spend $1000 a day in Switzerland. (By the way, this is not an exaggeration – you could pretty easily spend that during the ski season, I reckon.) However, it is going to dent your wallet, even if you use all the budget travel tips below.
But those mountains and lakes though, right?
Switzerland on a budget: before you leave
If you’re serious about budget travel to Switzerland, you’ll want to start planning early!
Travel during off-season
One of the easiest and most effective ways to save money on travel to Switzerland is travelling during the off-season.
Switzerland has two peak seasons – summer (for hiking/general activities) and winter (for skiing). I’d say avoid summer altogether, whereas for winter you’ll just want to avoid the ski resorts.
Overall, the cheapest time to travel is January/February. The great thing is that since Switzerland’s weather is actually relatively mild, as long as you rug up, it’s still definitely possible to explore it during this time.
Another good time to visit – when it’s a bit warmer – is around April. At this time, the winter crowds have left, the summer crowds haven’t arrived yet and the temperature is not so frosty.
Do your homework for the best travel card
Even if you use all of my tips for budget travel in Switzerland, you’re still likely to spend a fair amount of Swiss Francs. Currency conversions are another way that you could potentially lose a lot of money while travelling in Switzerland.
The two ways you can lose money with currency in Switzerland is a) carrying euros and changing them, or b) conversion and other fees.
The solution is to bring over your best travel money card, and use it for purchases or withdrawing money from an ATM. I’ve written a comprehensive guide for the best travel card for Australians, however if you’re from elsewhere you’ll want to have a close look at all the charges.
You might also like to consider a rewards card like the American Express Explorer card – that way, at least while you’re spending a small fortune, you’ll be collecting points! Just remember to pay it all off at the end of the month, lest your travels become even more expensive.
If you don’t have a car, pick one or two cities
If you rent a car like I did, then you’ll have a lot more flexibility to get around. However, if you’re on a budget and planning to use public transport then you’d best pick one or two places to focus on.
Transport – especially trains – are super expensive in Switzerland. Even budget options like FlixBus and BlaBlaCar are still on the pricey side. Rather than fighting against this – just pick one or two cities and base yourself there.
Once you’re in one place, things get quite a bit cheaper as many cities have free public transport (more on that soon). Plus, it’s often more fun to comprehensively explore one place than to try to squeeze too much in.
Go for a short trip
Alright so this one is pretty obvious – but the longer you spend in Switzerland, the more you’ll haemorrhage money. Therefore, I suggest limiting the amount of time you spend there – 3 to 5 days is perfect.
This will allow you to exactly enjoy the time you spend there, rather than counting your coins the whole time. If you blow your budget for a day or two it doesn’t really matter – whereas a couple of weeks is going to really start to hurt your finances.
I think this is all part of being realistic about budget travel in Switzerland. I’d say have more fun for a couple of days, and then run for somewhere cheaper!
Switzerland on a Budget: Accommodation
Another unavoidable expensive for your budget trip to Switzerland is accommodation. While you could easily spend hundreds and hundreds of euros on a place to say, there are cheaper options.
AirBnB is your best bet for accommodation
If you want a private room, then I found by far the cheapest way to go is via AirBnB. Now, full disclosure: I don’t usually like AirBnB (here’s why), but desperate times call for desperate measures.
Compared to hotel rooms which were $150+ for a simple double room, you can find inner city apartments for around $100 per night. Cheaper and more comfortable. Plus, it will keep things on budget if you are travelling with someone else.
Couchsurfing is even better!
If there was ever a good time to start Couchsurfing, I reckon it’s while visiting Switzerland! Now, I never think that you should try Couchsurfing just to save money – it’s about cultural exchange and friendship – it’s certainly a handy by-product!
Switzerland has a pretty active Couchsurfing community and you can definitely reach out. Just keep in mind that people in larger cities (eg Zurich or Geneva) receive a lot of Couchsurfing requests.
Therefore, you’ll want to write a great request (here’s how to write a Couchsurfing request, with example).
As a Couchsurfing host, I can also say that I always give preference to people with lots of references, especially if they are hosts at home. This is because the site is a give and take kind of thing – so if you can, consider hosting travellers in your home country before you go to Switzerland.
Stay out of the city centre (but check train fares first)
One of the reasons why Couchsurfing or AirBnB are great options is that they give you the chance to stay further out of the city. It’s a pretty universal truth that for every kilometre you go out of the city, prices drop dramatically.
If you are planning to explore the outdoors in Switzerland, then this is totally fine. In fact, it may be more convenient for starting out your hikes. As a result, I’d definitely recommend looking for accommodation away from downtown.
On the other hand, if you’re planning a city break, it may still be cheaper to stay in the centre. This is because (as mentioned) transport can be very expensive. You may find that a half an hour train journey every day totally negates any saving on your accommodation.
Consider staying across the border
As an Australian, it totally blows my mind that you can have breakfast in one European country and brunch in another. This is certainly true of Switzerland, and especially cities such as Basel and Geneva.
To really save money, you could consider staying over the border – for example, towns like Annecy or Oyonnax are within easy commuting distance of Geneva. Or for Basel – Lorrach (Germany) or Saint Louis (France) are close as well.
Of course, you’ll want to factor in border crossings. It’s pretty easy since Switzerland is part of the Schengen Zone, however it’s still worth thinking about – especially if you’ve rented a car.
Switzerland on a Budget: Getting Around
Unsurprisingly, getting around Switzerland also costs a pretty penny. Luckily, there are a few ways to keep costs down.
Explore Swiss cities by bike (for free)
Personally, I don’t ride bikes. It’s a hard and fast rule as I kind of look like a baby giraffe trying to use a tricycle. However, if you do ride a bike then this is a great strategy for saving some dosh in Switzerland.
Many Swiss cities such as Zurich and Geneva offer free bikes. Free stuff? In Switzerland? Mon Dieu!
Even if you have to pay for hire, it’s still usually the cheapest alternative to walking on your own two feet. There is the SBB Rent-a-Bike service which runs between over 100 train stations and doesn’t cost too much at all (by Swiss standards).
Use free public transport wherever possible
Another great freebie in Switzerland (yes, they do exist) is public transport. In a very un-Swiss move, a number of cities (including Basel, Lausanne, Bern and Geneva) have signed up to provide free public transport for visitors.
This is perfect if you’re staying during the colder months when the prospect of traipsing around in the cold isn’t so appealing.
There is a small catch here, which is that you do need to get the ticket from your hotel or accommodation provider. So make sure to ask whether the city you’re staying in is participating in the program.
Rent a car in a neighbouring country
Switzerland really is a little island of expensiveness in the middle of Europe. If you’ve planned a wedding you might be familiar with the “wedding tax” – well, get prepared for the “Switzerland tax”.
That’s why things like renting a car outside of Switzerland can be so effective. Renting a car from Lyon (2 hours from Geneva) or Stuttgart (2.5 hours from Basel) can be 50% cheaper than renting it in Switzerland.
Of course, you’ll want to check the T&Cs of your rental to make sure the car hire company doesn’t have an issue with you driving it in Switzerland. However, if you want access to a vehicle, don’t mind a detour and are on a budget in Switzerland – this is a great tip.
Travel by Flixbus for long distance travel
Although it’s nice to have a car in Switzerland (those mountain drives… amazing) it does get expensive. Parking, petrol and car hire are all – you guessed it – EXPENSIVE IN SWITZERLAND! (Who would’ve thunk it?)
A good alternative is FlixBus. I’m increasingly obsessed with FlixBus, thanks to its huge network of bus routes in Europe and great prices. They also have wifi and charge cables on the bus to keep us Millennials happy and connected.
Fun fact! Despite how salesy I sound, I am not, in fact, sponsored by FlixBus. I shill for free! (Just kidding.)
Seriously, FlixBus is a great way to get around lots of European countries including Switzerland. The mammoth Geneva to Zurich route costs as low as 10 euros, while the rail ticket is typically over 70.
Now, to be fair – the bus takes about three times as long, so if your time is more limited than your budget you might want to skip FlixBus. I’d also recommend comparing train and bus tickets for your selected day, as they do vary a fair bit.
Switzerland on a Budget: Eating and Drinking
I have actually been known to skip meals to save money, however this is NOT a technique I recommend lest you end up hangry.
Cook for yourself
Okay, I am bracing for the fury of a million Swiss people – but I don’t think Switzerland is an “OMG!” culinary destination. Okay, I lied – this is the country that brought us fondue. Any nation that’s national dish is just food smothered in cheese is a-okay with me.
So let’s start again. After you’ve tried fondue (and paid ROYALLY for it) then I really don’t think you’re missing out cooking for yourself. Even groceries are expensive (because, Switzerland) however you can still get basics like pasta and rice at a pretty cheap price. Especially if you shop at Aldi or Lidl.
If you’re only going for a few days, this is probably the time to ignore the food triangle and just go baaasic. I mean, two days of not reaching your daily “2&5” of fruit and veg probably won’t kill you (I mean look at me, I’m going on 10 years now!).
Even if your accommodation only has a kettle and microwave you can still put together some tasty but simple dishes. And if all else fails, there’s always ramen noodles!
When I was in uni, red meat was considered this mythical thing that only existed on the section of the menu I couldn’t afford, and my parents’ house. I swiftly went back to this mindset when I crossed into Switzerland.
As I understand it, even Swiss people rarely eat red meat because you basically have to sell an organ or take out a second mortgage to afford it. Yep, in Switzerland, a steak is the height of exuberant luxury.
So, I say skip the meat and go vego for your trip to Switzerland. Not only will you save lots of Francs, but it’s also good for the environment! (“I’m doing it for the planet” sounds better than “I’m too stingy for that.”
Don’t drink (and if you must, drink at home)
Those who have read a few of my posts on this blog will know that I really, really love wine. So advising you to skip it – in a well-renowned wine region, no less – is not a decision I take lightly. However, it must be done.
Alcohol is just ridiculously expensive in Switzerland. With most house wines checking in at around $12 USD a glass or more, you’ll soon find your budget shot to pieces. Plus, if you’re anything like me, after glass 3 you get a bit trigger happy with the ol’ debit card – leading to me waking up crying into receipts (and nursing a headache).
Skip it all, and stick to water – preferably from a bottle you’ve filled up at home. You’ll save heaps, and feel better as well.
Absolutely desperate to sample some Swiss wine? Well, fair enough. Buy a bottle from a shop (the airport is the cheapest spot) and enjoy it at home. It’s way cheaper than drinking out – and your fellow booze-starved backpackers will surely love you for sharing it. That is, if you plan on sharing it, of course.
Switzerland on a Budget: Activities
If there is one area that will make or break your time in Switzerland, it’s activities. This is a place where you could spend literally thousands on skiing (no thanks) or absolutely nothing on hiking (yay!).
Explore the outdoors
If you’re looking to travel Switzerland on a budget then my biggest tip is to make exploring the outdoors your biggest activity. In my opinion, it’s the absolute highlight of Switzerland – and it costs absolutely nothing! Now that is a win-win.
Hiking is one of the most popular activities in Switzerland, and there are plenty to choose from. (Check out fifteen of the best ideas here.)
The views in Switzerland are seriously spectacular – think sky-high mountains encircled by beautiful lakes. Gorgeous! Trust me, it will make the sore legs totally worth it.
If you’re not a hiker (and look, I totally get it) then don’t stress. Another great option is to explore the quaint little villages and towns instead. Places like Gruyere are incredibly beautiful and it costs nothing just to look at them!
Look from the outside, but don’t go in to castles
Some of the most beautiful places in Switzerland are historic buildings like castles. Often what makes these castles – like Chillon Castle or Gruyeres Castle – so beautiful is their location. Chillon, for example, is right on the lakeside, in the shadow of the mountains.
This means that the best part of the castle is free to see and explore. You can get up pretty close and wander around the castles without paying a cent.
If you had cash to burn, then you could always go in and explore them inside. However, let’s be brutally honest here: most castles get a bit same-ish and you’re not going to live your life regretting not going inside. Unless there’s a particular reason you’ve got to do it, skip the ticket and just enjoy the exterior.
Take the free walking tours of major cities
I am kind of smitten with free walking tours. They are fun! They are informational! They are CARBON NEUTRAL! I mean, really, people, what’s not to be smitten about?
Unfortunately, the humble free walking tour is not quite as widespread throughout Switzerland as some other countries. This is probably because of the ridiculous cost of living, which isn’t terribly conducive to being a free tour guide. Anyway, I digress.
Get an attractions pass
While we were in Switzerland we didn’t really do a great deal of activities. We more so just ate cheese, visited the Montreux Christmas Market and complained about how expensive everything was.
I’m kind of pleased, because I’ve heard it from a couple of other travellers that a lot of the attractions – like museums and art galleries – aren’t particularly exceptional but are, of course, particularly expensive. (Because, Switzerland).
For this reason, I wouldn’t feel guilty about skipping over them.
If there are a number of attractions that do take your fancy, or you just really love museums and galleries then you might like to look into attraction passes. These can give you either free or heavily reduced entry, and usually include other bonuses like free travel as well.
If you are planning on using them a lot, then they can present pretty good value – the Zurich one, for example, entitles you to reduced or free entry at 40 sites, beginning from 27 CHF for an adult for 24 hours.
Enjoy free activities other than hiking
While hiking and exploring towns and villages are some of the most popular free things to do in Switzerland, there are other options. Here are a few other things you can do that don’t cost a thing!
- Visit Switzerland’s beautiful old churches (* not every one is free, but most are – and especially the small ones in little towns and villages).
- Visit free museums, like the Zurich Zoological Museum or the focusTerra Museum of Earth Sciences. Free museums are great, because even if they bore you to tears – at least you didn’t pay for the privilege!
- Check out a nature park like the Lagenburg Wildlife Park in Zurich
- Enjoy a stroll through green spaces or botanic gardens… and perhaps bring along some delicious Swiss cheese as a makeshift picnic
- Visit the charming Farmer’s Markets – and try as many samples as you can while you’re at it.
For more free things to do, check out this impressive list of freebies.