Switzerland on a Budget: How to save money in the country of the $20 Big Mac

Transport in Switzerland can be breathtaking, but you need to be prepared to splash a bit of cash up front

Ah, Switzerland – the land of the breathtaking mountain, the epic train journey… and the $20 big mac. Switzerland is known as a travel hotspot for hikers and nature lovers, but unfortunately for those of us on a budget, it also has the reputation of being one of the most expensive countries to visit in the world.

Due to high wages and an emphasis on local produce, even the most basic of products can be pretty steep. Add in the fact that the Swiss franc is worth $1.50 AUD and you’re looking at a pretty off-putting price landscape. But fear not, there are ways and means of getting around this pristine land on the cheap(ish), as I’ve learned in my 3 months here so far. Below are a few ideas about travelling, eating and living, as well as a few cheaper places that are worth a visit.

Transport

Depending on how long you plan on staying in Switzerland, you should definitely consider getting a Half-Fare Card from SBB, Switzerland’s national rail service. It’s 120 francs for a one-month card, but it gets you half-price for basically every train and bus in the nation, including mountain cable-cars and some ferries. Of course, if you’re sticking in one city, or only in Switzerland for a few days, then it might not be worth it, but otherwise you’ll make the 120 franc back in savings in only a couple of trips. It works particularly well on mountain cable cars and railways, which are often prohibitively expensive.

The biggest calling card that comes along with the Half-Fare card, however, is not the savings themselves, but the access it gives you to the holy grail of youth train travel – the Gleis 7 card. This costs an extra 129 Fr on top of the Half-Fare, but it allows you to travel on any form of public transport (buses, trains etc) absolutely free of charge between 7pm and 5am. It’s only available to people under 25, and I can tell you from experience that if you fall into that category and you plan on using trains at all, it’s an absolute godsend.

If you really don’t want to face the hassle of getting the travel cards, the one thing I would recommend is not doing any big trips – going from Zermatt to Zurich, for example, is 90 francs one way. You’ll just have to do research on the part of Switzerland you want to visit, and stick to train travel to nearby towns rather than trying to traverse the entire country.

Your Other Option: Buses

Aside from trains, you have the less expensive (but more time consuming) option of catching private coaches – companies like FlixBus, which are popular around Europe, also operate routes to a few of the main cities of Switzerland.

Eating

Restaurants are a no-go on a budget, but it’s perfectly possible to eat good food in Switzerland without going bankrupt
Restaurants are a no-go on a budget, but it’s perfectly possible to eat good food in Switzerland without going bankrupt

I can’t really give you advice on the best Swiss restaurants, because in my 3 months of living here I’ve never eaten at one (apart from McDonald’s, where I paid 5 francs for medium fries). If you thought a burger in Australia was expensive, wait until you pay 22.50 francs (not including chips or drink) in Neumarkt, Zurich.

However, it’s possible to still eat well without having to sell a kidney. Migros, one of Switzerland’s two major supermarkets, often has salads and sandwiches, while Aldi and Lidl often have items that are actually cheaper than what you could find in Australia. Also most Swiss universities have cafeterias, or Mensa, where you can get a filling meal at a decent price.

If you’re really craving some restaurant food, you could take the more drastic step of leaving Switzerland altogether for dinner and coming back after (seriously!). If you’re in Zurich, you can go to Konstanz or Waldshut for free after 7pm with the Gleis 7 card, and if you’re in Lugano (the capital of the Italian region), Milan is a short train ride. That’s the best part of travelling in Switzerland – it’s central and can work as a gateway to the rest of Europe.

Finally, most major cities have outdoor markets on certain days. Where I live, in Zurich, the Saturday market is a must-visit for the cash-strapped resident – from pizzas to speckmocken (a nutty Swiss pastry, one of Switzerland’s finest delicacies), you can eat to your heart’s desire without breaking the bank.

Accomodation

Accommodation in Switzerland is, unsurprisingly, not cheap. However, Swiss youth hostels have a reputation in Europe as being some of the most clean and efficiently run you can find. It’s not like Budapest, where $8 could get you a night’s accommodation, but on the other hand you won’t need to worry about bedbugs. This website has a directory of most Swiss hostels: http://www.youthhostel.ch/en/home

Where to Visit

Traditional Cow Ceremony, Appenzell
Traditional Cow Ceremony, Appenzell

I’d like to end by giving you a few tips on places to visit in Switzerland that aren’t total tourist traps. Firstly, avoid Interlaken. Unless you want to buy an Armani Suit for $10,000, don’t go to Interlaken except to change trains. Stay in nearby Spiez or Thun instead – accommodation will be cheaper, and you get views that are just as gorgeous as in Interlaken. Speaking of which, if you want to go up a mountain railway, choose Niesen, close to both Spiez and Thun. The views are amazing and it’s far cheaper than going up to the Matterhorn or Jungfrau.

Finally, if you want to get a snapshot of traditional Swiss life, head to Appenzell. It’s a small farming state, where people legitimately yodel and wear traditional clothes. It’s fairly central in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, and is not particularly well-known to tourists, meaning you get a true image of Swiss life (and avoid the tourist traps).

Photos by the author.