My first ever solo trip was an impromptu 5 days in Switzerland. I surprised myself with this choice of destination, given I usually try to travel cheaply, and Switzerland is well known for being one of the most expensive European countries. But the cheapest flight I could find for my time frame was to Zurich, and the beautiful Swiss Alps, delicious cheeses, and the utter thought of Swiss chocolates were too tempting to pass up. So I made a conscious decision to try to keep costs down once I got to the country. If you want to do the same, here are my suggestions for experiencing Switzerland on a budget.
For thrifty travelers, finding accommodation in Switzerland on a budget is a challenge. Even the cheapest hostel dorm beds cost about $43 minimum per night — and that’s during the off-season. Other times of the year, the lowest prices are about $52. If these dorm rooms are sold out, you may find yourself paying around $100 for a dorm in a pricier hostel or a private room.
Airbnb is always another viable option, which may end up helping you spend a bit less if you’re traveling with other people and can split the cost. However, if you’re traveling alone, it will typically cost you about the same (or more) as hostel dorms. So depending on who you’re traveling with, this may or may not be a good budget option.
The best option, in my opinion — especially if you’re traveling solo — is Couchsurfing. The website/app is an amazing community where you can find locals willing to host you for free. You can filter your search to fit your needs — the number of people who need to stay, whether you are okay with a couch or need a private room, male or female host, etc. You can send specific hosts a request for the dates you need, explaining your needs and asking questions about them or their apartment. You can also post a public trip saying where you will be on which dates and hosts in the area can offer you a place to stay. Some hosts merely offer a place to crash, but others will give you recommendations, cook a local meal with you, or take you out to experience the city or nightlife. The most your Couchsurfing will cost you is a small gift from your home country or cooking your host a meal — neither of which are required but are a nice way to thank your host for their hospitality.
I brought my hosts in Zurich and Lucerne popular snacks from Israel. In return, they both provided me with great experiences. My host in Zurich did not have a living room or couch but stayed at her boyfriend’s place so that I could have her bed and room to myself. My host in Lucerne lived in an amazing apartment with a few other friendly roommates, with a huge porch overlooking the nearby mountains. We cooked a nice dinner together and had some beers the one night I was there. So whether you’re a solo traveler or with a friend, Couchsurfing is an easy way to visit Switzerland on a budget and the best way to meet locals and experience the Swiss way of life.
Buy Your Food At Grocery Stores
If your accommodations come with kitchen access, buying ingredients at local supermarkets to cook with can save you tons of money in Switzerland, as most meals in Swiss restaurants cost at least $20.
Even if you can’t use the kitchen or you are in a hostel, there are stores where you can find a delicious meal for about $4-$10. Coop and Migros are two big grocery chains in Switzerland that both offer tons of meal options. They have pay-by-weight buffets of freshly made food where you can get pasta, salad, different kinds of meat, and pretty much anything else you could think of. They also have pre-packaged cold meals.
On my day trip to the mountains from Lucerne, I stocked up on a pre-packaged quinoa salad, quiche, and fruit. For dinner one night, I ate bread and cheese with a personal bottle of wine, followed by some hot pasta from the buffet. Of course, you’ll probably want to treat yourself to a $25 fondue at one point — as you should — but eating from Migros or Coop for most meals will allow you to splurge on the few must-eats in Switzerland that you just can’t pass up.
Take A Free Walking Tour
My favorite way to get my bearings in any European City is by taking a free walking tour. Free Walk Switzerland has free walking tours in 11 cities throughout the country. In more popular cities, like Zurich, there are multiple tours every day that start at different times and show different aspects of the city. In smaller cities, you may need to plan a bit more in advance, as there is only one tour every few days. The guides are super knowledgeable and will point out places along the way that you can go back and explore more on your own later.
Speaking of which, one of the best ways to save money and enjoy Switzerland on a budget is by just simply exploring on your own. Walk through the quaint streets of a Swiss city, take in the beautiful architecture and surrounding landscape, kill hours of your time in admiration and it all costs absolutely nothing.
Eat ALL Of The Free Samples
One of the biggest things that drew me to Switzerland was the promise of amazing chocolate and cheese. If you’re like me, you’ll want to eat as many of these foods as possible on your trip. But like I said, food can be expensive. You know what’s not expensive? Free samples!
Head to any chocolate shop or market and chances are you can fill up on your share of samples without buying a thing. In the artsy neighborhood of Zurich West, for example, I stumbled on an indoor market called Markthalle and spent a good hour hiding out from the rain and eating tons of cheese. At two of the best chocolate shops in the country, Teuscher, and Sprüngli, you can sample world-class chocolates for absolutely no money.
Explore The Mountains By Foot Instead Of Skiing
Some peoples’ main reason for visiting Switzerland is for the top notch skiing. But unless you’re ready and willing to spend most of your budget on this wintry activity, you may be struggling with how to enjoy the country’s incredible mountains without blowing your money on an activity you’re not dead-set on doing. However, you can get out to the mountains and hike through the amazing scenery for free, by just paying for transportation.
Head to the tourist ticket office in the main train station in Lucerne the morning you want to leave, and buy a ticket that includes a boat ride on Lake Lucerne out to Vitznau, a cogwheel train up to the top of Mt. Rigi (Rigi Kulm), and a return on both modes of transport.
This entire journey costs about $120, which may seem pricey for a day trip, but the sites and the experience are absolutely worth it. Plus, if you have free accommodation and bring your grocery store meal, that’s basically all you’ll have to spend that day.
On the other hand, a two-day ski trip including transportation to the mountain, lift tickets, gear, and pricey accommodation and food in ski towns can cost upwards of $250. So unless you absolutely need to ski in Switzerland, you can pay a lot less to see the same breathtaking scenery.
The boat ride and cogwheel train journey themselves are a fun Swiss experience and it’s an extremely scenic ride. Once on the mountain, there are multiple trails to choose from and you’ll get a nice taste of Swiss Mountain life.
So while Switzerland will never be a true haven for budget travelers, there are definitely ways to stretch your money further and still enjoy this beautiful country.
Author’s Favorite Travel Gear
Ivation Inflatable travel pillow: Travel pillows are great for any sort of transportation where you might want to sleep — planes, trains, busses, etc — especially if your head tends to flop around in your sleep and cause neck pain. They also, unfortunately, can take up a lot of room. An inflatable travel pillow solves this problem — just blow it up when you need it, and deflate it to a compact size to pack up again later.
Bedtime Bliss Eye mask: Falling asleep and staying asleep on transportation or in accommodation with natural light or with other people in the room can be tough. An eye mask blocks out the light so that even if someone else in the room turns the light on, the sun rises early, or the lights on the plane come on, you won’t have your sleep disturbed.
Natrol Advanced Sleep Melatonin Tablets: Melatonin is a natural chemical produced by the body when it gets dark that helps manage our sleep and wake cycle. Traveling between time zones or at weird hours, or even looking at electronics like the TV on a plane or your phone can mess with the body’s production of melatonin. You can take melatonin in pill form without a prescription to help with sleep when your body clock gets thrown off during travel — the 10mg extra strength even has layers for controlled release, so you can not only fall asleep easily but stay asleep longer.