Switzerland always presents a dilemma for budget travelers. With day to day costs quite high, it’s a constant challenge to stay on budget.
However, it is possible to ride the rails without breaking the bank. With a little bit of scrappy research, cheap accommodations can be found. And as elsewhere in Europe, supermarkets are a reliable way to keep food costs low.
Let’s look at how I tried to keep this Swiss adventure as inexpensive as possible and how I decided where to go.
Transportation: Benefits of the Swiss Travel Pass
For 251 CHF ($249; €234), I bought a four-day second-class Swiss Travel Pass. Beforehand, I did some research to make sure it was worth it. Although it was far less of a deal than I’d hoped it would be, it did end up helping my budget. I added up each of the four days of travel and realized that I was just saving 25.20 CHF ($25; €23.50) over the four days of the pass. Not great but better than nothing!
However, beyond the modest savings, there are distinct advantages to the pass beyond the modest savings.
One, it covers public bus transportation in many cities, including, for my purposes, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Zürich, and Scuol, places where I knew it would come in handy and save an additional, not insignificant, sum.
Secondly, it includes access to many museums, including the Musée International de Horlogerie (the International Watch Museum) in La Chaux-de-Fonds, which otherwise charges 15 CHF ($14.90; €14) for adult admission.
Thirdly, the pass gave me a great deal of freedom. I didn’t have to make a single seat reservation, and I was able to break up my journeys at leisure and make on-the-spot itinerary changes.
Here is a list of museums included on the pass.
Switzerland budget itinerary
I keep a notebook with lists of places to visit. These are places I come across in articles, history books, novels, and blogs. A few months ago, I noticed that the page titled “Switzerland” had four places on it:
• La Chaux-de-Fonds, a gritty, watch-making city in Romandie, the Francophone western part of Switzerland
• Zürich, a city I hadn’t properly visited since I was a child
• Scuol, a Romansch-speaking town in Graubünden with natural hot springs
• Soglio, a tiny village of gray, slate-roofed houses in the Italian-speaking Bregaglia Valley, also in Graubünden
What of an itinerary that combined all four? I checked calendars and schedules. With a four-day Swiss Travel Pass and some serious research, it would be expensive but not impossible: a true mountain-to-shining-mountain tour of Switzerland. I planned it for June, flying into Basel and out of Zürich.
Day 1: La Chaux-de-Fonds
La Chaux-de-Fonds is a striking city, sitting at 1,000 meters above sea level in the Jura Mountains, just a few kilometers from the French border. Organized in a grid and historically dedicated to watchmaking, the city is also the birthplace of modernist architect Le Corbusier.
The architect’s first solo project, La Maison Blanche, a house he built for his parents in the foothills above the city, is a fascinating place, with mismatched wall heights and uncorrected mistakes. Lovingly cared for by the Association Maison Blanche, it is open to visitors on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for 10 CHF ($9.90; €9.30), with a 3 CHF reduction for under-12s and the elderly.
Hotel: I was pleased to come very close to my goal in La Chaux-de-Fonds. I found modest accommodations at Hotel Chez Gilles near the center of the city. The bill was just a bit over my budget for 120 CHF, but the location was great. This rate included a breakfast which I found to be pretty lackluster.
Day 2: Zürich
I stopped in Biel/Bienne, another city tied to watchmaking, on my journey from La Chaux-de-Fonds to Zürich. This bilingual city sits on the country’s Röstigraben or the German/French linguistic divide. Its old town is well preserved; one highlight is the town church, which was built in the middle of the 15th century.
From there, it was on to Zürich, where I spent an afternoon and evening soaking up the city’s amazing summer energy. The streets and parks were thronging, the vegetarian buffet at Haus Hiltl (Sihlstrasse 28) was surprisingly delicious (if not dirt cheap), and Im Viadukt is just as stylish as its reputation. After having avoided Zürich for so many years out of a generalized fear of the city’s cost index, I found myself taken by it. The city’s diversity, the hipster energy of Züri-West, the clean, quiet streets, the parks, and the crispness of its retail shops are all very attractive.
Hotel: In Zürich, I stayed at the very cute Zum Guten Glück for 71.50 CHF ($71.10; €66.70). Both the shower and the toilet room were shared. Breakfast is not included in this rate, though it is on offer in the café downstairs. I loved Zum Guten Glück — see my Hotel Crush article for more details.
Day 3: Scuol
Then I was off to the mountains, to Graubünden in the country’s southeast. Switzerland’s geographically largest and only trilingual canton, Graubünden is home to isolated valleys connected to the rest of the world by single train lines and efficient yellow Postbuses.
First up was Scuol-Tarasp, a Romansch-speaking town where I was greeted in shops and on the street with the Romansch greeting “Allegra.” I walked from one end of the village to the other and spent hours in the heavenly Bogn Engiadina, where 26.50 CHF ($26.40; €24.70) got me three hours of soaking in hot and cold pools, taking saunas, and sampling three distinct types of mineral water from the surrounding region – one of which, high in iron and carbonated, has a deliciously odd taste.
Hotel: In Scuol, I found Villa Maria on EuroCheapo for 98 CHF ($97.50; €91.50). I found the hospitality of the proprietors quite remarkable. There was a small basket of fruit in the room upon my arrival, and I was sent off after breakfast with a newspaper, apples, and the offer of a sandwich.
I was halfway out the breakfast room door when Villa Maria’s Geraldine insisted that I try her famous birchermüsli. I did – and it was delicious. (A note, however, on the reasonable hotel rates: The hotel is isolated and its restaurant is the only place to eat for some distance. The menu items are good but pricey, and can easily undo hotel rate savings.)
Day 4: Soglio
The following day, after connections by train and bus, I walked the extraordinary Sentiero Panoramico hiking path, which stretches from one tiny village, Casaccia, to another, Soglio. It’s 17 kilometers long, and winds its way through fields, by a dam, through the sleepy village of Roticcio, across a dozen or so waterfalls, and through chestnut forests.
It is, without an iota of exaggeration, one of the most satisfying hikes I have ever undertaken. With several breaks, it took five and a half hours. I ran into just one other walker on the path. The one piece of advice I’d pass on would be to do this hike with someone else, or at the very least to notify friends of your plans – though not terribly demanding, the terrain was wet and occasionally slippery and the mountainsides are very steep.
Soglio is a treat of a village, with gray slate-roofed stone houses and a village church with expansive views over the valley. During the afternoon, tourists explore the town’s little alleyways and locals gossip in the squares. After sunset, most visitors leave. It becomes quiet and the mountain air gets cooler and cooler.
Hotel: In Soglio, I found Pensiun Mürias, a tiny guesthouse with a kitchen (and, crucially, a coffee machine!) for 87.50 CHF ($87; €81.60). An old farmer’s house rebuilt as a pension, it has all the atmospheric magic that you might expect, located on a narrow lane a few minutes’ walk from the epicenter of the tiny village.
Day 5: Back to Zurich
The following morning, I took two buses and two trains to get to the Zürich Airport. The journey was over. And though it was a whirlwind of a trip, it hadn’t felt in the least bit hectic. The variety of landscapes, the contemplative effects of train and bus travel, and lots of walking all had a restful effect.
Tips for eating on the cheap
Two of my hotels came with a complimentary breakfast. On those mornings I overindulged at breakfast. For lunches and dinners, I went with a combination of supermarkets and restaurants. The Swiss supermarket chain Migros offers delicious, fresh ready-made salads. I combined these with smoked salmon and cold cuts for lunches in the neighborhood of 15 CHF.
Restaurant dinners were more difficult to arrange on a budget. I splurged at Villa Maria, where, without a car, I was essentially housebound, and made a serious misstep in Zürich at an overpriced Japanese restaurant.
My big tip for affordable eating in Switzerland: Think of dinner as an extended picnic. Stock up on supermarket goods that don’t need to be refrigerated.