Growing up, I’ve always fantasised about living in different parts of the world like Paris and New York. The idea was as soon as I was done with a place, I’d pack up and move on. Who knew I’d end up doing something similar today?
In the last three years, I’ve lived on and off in Interlaken, Switzerland, for over 13 months in total (and counting). While it’s a ridiculously expensive country, it’s a painfully stunning country that you must visit at least once in your life.
Before coming to Switzerland, note that transportation is stupidly expensive. A full price bus ticket can cost 4 Francs, which is the equivalent of USD 4. To avoid unnecessarily wasting money on transport, planning your trip is key. Once you have an itinerary laid out, you’ll be able to see when you’ll need to take train rides between cities and villages, which will allow you to search for train passes that can save you quite some money.
Here are a few tried and tested tips to help you explore this stunning country on a lower budget (according to Swiss standards).
1. Supersaver tickets
Switzerland is the most connected country I’ve ever come across. There’s a bus, train, gondola, or boat to every village in any nook and cranny in the country. However, tickets can get rather pricey and will quickly add up if you don’t plan ahead.
I discovered Supersaver tickets the first time I visited the country and it’s a great way to cut travel costs. You can find Supersaver tickets that offer up to 70% discount and they’re usually run at off-peak times. I find it rather sneaky how the website doesn’t display these tickets upfront and it takes a bit of clicking to get there. That being said, the savings are well worth it so don’t give up.
Lastly, do note that these tickets are non-refundable and cannot be used for trains at any other times.
2. Swiss train passes: Interrail day pass vs Halbtax
Depending on how long you’ll spend in Switzerland and what you want to do, the passes that will give you the most bang for your buck will differ.
There are all sorts of passes available but I’ve only had experience with the Interrail pass (that’s for trains all over Europe) and the Half-Tax (Swiss half-fare card) so I’ll talk about those.
I used the Interrail Pass back when I first started travelling, fresh out of university, broke yet hungry to see the world. It was a great way to travel through expensive European countries while still getting to see as much as possible. The Interrail Youth Pass is available for those 27 and younger (I woohoo-ed out loud when I found out I still qualified!), and definitely gives you the best rate if you plan to do long distance travel within the country.
After going on their website to refresh my mind, I would recommend the Interrail Switzerland Pass if you plan on thoroughly exploring Switzerland in less than a month. I’m talking about going from Basel to Bern to Luzerne to Geneva to Lausanne to Zurich to Ticino (not in that particular order).
With this pass, you get to choose between 3, 4, 6 and 8 days of travel within a month starting at €127 for youths (27 and younger) and €143 for adults (28 and above). There’s an additional €10 for shipping.
- Check out the full list of benefits you get when your Interrail Pass is valid in Switzerland. (You even get a 10% discount at Balmer’s just down the road from where I’m writing this!)
- Here’s a blog post that basically tells you how to use your Interrail Pass so that I don’t have to type up the same thing again.
If you plan to stay here long term, say more than 3 months, go and get yourself the Halbtax or the Half-Fare Travelcard. It costs CHF 180 a year, you don’t need a Swiss permit and you’re entitled to 50% off all travel costs, including SUPERSAVER TICKETS. You can use your Halbtax for train rides, bus rides, gondola rides and boat rides around Switzerland.
Last year, I went up the Jungfraujoch and got 50% with my Half-Fare, saving me a lovely 90 something Francs. That trip paid for the card itself.
3. A money-saving tip for international train rides thanks to my frugal colleagues
If you’re travelling in and out of Switzerland by train, you should always buy one ticket from your departure station to the station nearest to the border of both countries. From that border station, buy another ticket to your destination. I’m not kidding when I say it’ll save you a lot of money.
First, start by going to the SBB website and looking up the whole journey – departure to final destination. For my example, we’ll travel from Interlaken Ost to Milano Centrale (a trip I’ve actually made before and felt really smug about how much I was saving).
Make note of your final arrival time and the train number for the journey.
Then, split your train ride in two:
- Departure station to closest station to the border
- Border station to your destination station
For example, when travelling from Interlaken to Milan, I bought two tickets:
- One from Interlaken to Domodossola (via SBB with Half-Fare)
- Another from Domodossola to Milan (via TrenItalia)
Now, if I had booked this ticket initially via the SBB, it would have cost me CHF52 with my Half-Fare Travelcard. But because my cheap ass booked two separate trips, it’s now CHF11.20 and €9.90 one way. A total of a lot less than 52 Francs!
Just for laughs and giggles, I looked up another journey I’ve been eyeing for a while: Interlaken to Vienna.
Here’s what the whole journey looks like:
It would have cost me CHF132 one way, with my Half-Fare Travelcard.
2 separate tickets look like this:
One from Interlaken to Buchs SG via the SBB
And another from Buchs SG to Vienna via the Austrian OBB. I even get 1st class seats for free!
Again, this ride costs CHF26.40 plus €64, which is still a lot less than CHF132.
If you choose to reserve seats, make sure you’re able to book the same seat for the whole ride… Or just go without a reservation and pick a seat that’s unreserved for the whole journey.
In case of everything going to shits and this plan completely failing you, just pretend you don’t speak English. (Don’t judge.)
4. Cook, cook, cook your own damn food
I wrote the first draft of this post in a cafe chomping down a 5 Franc piece of cake.
Jokes aside, it’s a great way to save money when in Switzerland is to make your own food, extra Francs saved when you skip out on meat.
In the supermarket, note that you have to weigh your own vegetables. So once you’ve picked up what’s needed, you’ll find a code, usually 1 to 3 digits below the price label. Go to the nearest weighing machine where everyone else is probably waiting for and WAIT FOR YOUR TURN. WHEN IT’S YOUR TURN, punch in the digits and stick the label to your bag of whatevers.
I’ve always enjoyed playing with fresh ingredients from local shops, supermarkets or from the Saturday morning market so this has never felt like a sacrifice to me. Hostels provide you with a kitchen and utensils to cook just about anything so why not go for it?
5. Bring your own medication
Unless you’re willing to pay 1 Franc per tablet of ibuprofen (this is not an exaggeration), bring your own meds. Not sure what to bring, here are some basics I’ve always got on hand:
- Paracetamol – For fevers and sore throats
- Ibuprofen – For the swelling in my flat feet happens after too much walking
- Charcoal pills – For the tummy when it’s feeling shit (pun intended)
- Zyrtec – For any allergic reactions I might have (rarely happens)
NOTE: I am not a doctor. These are just things I carry around because my mother insists I do so. To be fair, they’ve come in handy on quite a few occasions.
6. Don’t ever buy bottled water
In Switzerland, you can find drinkable water everywhere. Water fountains are set up all over cities and villages and if you can’t find one of those, water from the taps in any Swiss bathroom is perfectly fine.
All water in this country is drinkable unless there’s a giant sign that says otherwise. So bring a bottle and fill it up at any one of these watering holes.
7. Shop in second-hand stores
If you find yourself in a pickle and need an extra sweater or you need some ski boots because you’re tired of renting them, hit up Google for your closest “brocki”. These are local second-hand shops that tend to have almost everything you could possibly need, from furniture to cutlery to clothes to curtains and carpets and books and second-hand guns. Yes, guns.
8. Lyca mobile
Swiss telecom services are crazy expensive, and the EU roaming agreement doesn’t include Switzerland because Switzerland is not a part of the EU.
I’ve come to rely on Lyca Mobile a great deal and you can usually find them at local minimarts. They’re cheap and reliable. The only drawback is that you need an internet connection to set up your SIM card. I continue to find this the stupidest thing telecom companies can do to their clients.
One more thing, once your SIM card is set up, you’ll need to configure the internet settings on your phone.
Switzerland is an expensive country to visit, no question about it. But if you do get the chance to come, make it a once in a lifetime trip and for heaven’s sake don’t waste your money on bottled water. There’s so much to do and see in every corner of this country, you just have to be smart with your money and plan ahead.
I hope you’ve found this useful. I’ll continue editing this as I go along and learn more about this peculiar yet beautiful country.