Switzerland has a big reputation, and rightly so if you’re into stunningly beautiful landscapes and picturesque snow-capped Alpine mountain ranges. After arriving in Zurich we subsequently discovered that we had unwittingly plopped ourselves down into the middle of one of the most expensive places in the world to visit. I quickly realized that there needs to be another element added to that big reputation: the price tag.
Our decision to visit Switzerland was a rash and impulsive one, and I remember my thought process being something like yeah, I’m into mountains, I’m into trains, I’m going there! Needless to say, the bank account is still recovering from these delusional ravings. I’ve decided to supplement the typical “Check Out How Beautiful Switzerland Is” post (which we shamelessly did right here) with something more practical for traveling on a budget. These are our tips for visiting Zurich without breaking the bank.
Plan ahead. We had taken a bus to Zurich from Germany, where affordable prices for just about everything are perfect for budget backpackers like ourselves. Imagine my dismay upon leaving Frankfurt (where beer costs less than bottled water) and arriving a few short hours later in Zurich and seeing those exact same bottles in the grocery store for more than triple the price. This is a heartbreaking feeling and certainly put a downer on our trip. We did not plan ahead and it felt like we had simply crossed a border into a land where everything is crazy expensive. It would have helped tremendously to have had a better plan for our budget. That being said…
Make your own meals. It pains me to offer this as a suggestion (as eating local foods made by local people is one of the most wonderful aspects of travel) but it is essential to avoid eating out if you want to save money. Jaime has a particularly polarized opinion of eating in Switzerland. She was furious to see the prices in the grocery stores for basic foods. Simple self-catered meals had suddenly turned into big-budget endeavors. She became particularly upset upon examining a tiny, sad-looking frozen cheese pizza at Migros (the cheapest grocery store) which cost more than our apartment in Frankfurt. This is not an exaggeration. There is another grocery chain named Coop which sells beer and wine late at night…we got lucky a few times and found an affordable bottle of red wine to split (those Olde English tall cans were obviously out of our price range at almost $7 each).
Despite all I’ve said, there is one suggestion to be made for affordable vegetarian food: Holy Cow! is a trendy little burger joint in Zurich’s old town that has an amazing veggie burger and perfectly crispy fries. It is very popular with students and the backpacker crowd… for obvious reasons. This is a gem where you can get an affordable (and filling) vegetarian meal and this is a rare find; we went there twice in our four days there.
Research the cost of transportation in advance. The price of transportation in Switzerland is staggering, especially on the train lines between cities. We completely missed out on many of Switzerland’s most beautiful natural wonders simply because we could not afford to get there and had not planned for the cost in advance. There are limited transportation options and at the time of our visit there were no buses between major cities in Switzerland, so we were faced with spending a fortune on train tickets to travel relatively short distances. There are SBB discount cards available for purchase, but these are usually not financially viable unless visiting multiple cities. Many Swiss people would not consider spending 100 CFH (about $100 USD) on a one hour round-trip train ride to be an unreasonable expense, but for any budget backpacker this is an insane transportation cost. All penny-pinching aside, the opportunity to ride a train through any part of Switzerland is undoubtedly an experience of a lifetime, but make sure to avoid our mistake and calculate that cost into the budget beforehand. There are ride sharing services such as BlaBlaCar and hitchhiking, but both the former and the latter were too unreliable and unrealistic for our short time visiting. We did, however, find an awesome boat tour of Lake Zurich for about $8 from the Lake Zurich Navigation Company. These short cruises depart all day and are a great way to see the surrounding mountains and city.
Book an Airbnb. This is an obvious choice for a couple traveling together, as the cost of a budget Airbnb private room is considerably less than a hostel or dorm bed, and WAY less than a budget hotel room. We booked a very basic room (complete with air mattress) in Zurich in a house shared with multiple students… all of whom were friendly and outgoing. I’m not sure how many people actually lived in the house, as it was a college-days-revisited type of accommodation with a revolving door of friends, roommates, and classmates. Far from luxury living, but a great experience and probably the cheapest possible private room excluding Couchsurfing.
Switzerland has a lot to offer, but for those on a tight budget it will be necessary to take a few precautions and improvise a bit in order to make it work. We found that even the finest restaurants couldn’t match the views in the nearby parks!