Our family holidays this year made me feel special, lucky (and smart!). In the end I felt we had achieved something quite against the odds. We were an average Portuguese family who spent 9 days on vacation in Switzerland. Not usually an option.
If there’s one thing you learn quickly as a tourist in Switzerland is that everything is very expensive, and it is not a currency problem. The Swiss Franc and the Euro are almost equivalent. Prices in Switzerland are so expensive that, despite high wages, Swiss who live near the border cross to Germany on weekends to shop because the prices are much cheaper.
A vacation like ours was is possible for tourists on a budget but you will do lots of Internet searching and planning. And you will need at least some of the tricks I want to share with you, so you can also feel special, lucky and smart on your next vacation.
The top 5 items that your travel budget will go for (without any special order) are:
- Travel to Your Destination
- Local transportation
- Tickets to tourist attractions and shows
Travel to Your Destination
Be flexible with your departure and return dates (and times!). This helps you to find the best budget options as there seems to be no logic in the price scheme. Sometimes a longer trip will actually save you money! In the case of our recent vacation in Switzerland, our return flight to Portugal went through Milan giving us a 25% reduction in our overall price. For our family of 4 that was serious savings.
Local transportation is the factor that most benefits from really good planning. Everywhere you go the local transportation has its own rules and special prices. There are always alternatives, but with very different costs and it is not always easy to see which is the best transportation option at the first glance. Added to all that is the uncertainty - you never know for sure how long you will want to stay at each attraction and missing a connection can be expensive.
In the case of Switzerland, we decided to do our traveling always by train. Swiss trains are very reliable. In all the time that we were there, we only saw 2 delayed trains. On the first occasion, the train was 3 minutes late (which in Portugal wouldn’t even be considered a delay), and it was announced in the train station panels. On the second occasion, on our way to Italy, the train had to wait twice for trains coming from Italy that were late… This made us reach the destination in Italy a full 7 minutes late… quite out of the norm for Swiss trains!
But, Swiss trains are not cheap. A simple trip can cost 5 or 6 times more than we would expect to pay for the same distance in Portugal. The value is that quality, timeliness, tranquility, silence and cleanliness of the toilets are guaranteed, even in second class. Some trains even have special carriages for families with a small playground on the second floor … our kids loved that! Parents find it especially easy to miss the Swiss trains, in spite of their price.
Tips for Train Travel in Switzerland
- Round-trip tickets are valid for 24 hours. One-way tickets are only valid for 2 hours.
- In Switzerland, certain train tickets include the bus service on your destination. That is worth checking in advance.
- The good news is: Children under 6 years ride for free!
- If you are traveling with young people between 6 and 15, you can buy an annual pass called “Junior Karte” for just CHF 30 (Yes, an annual pass for under 30€!). This pass is valid as long as the youngsters are accompanied by an adult.
- And if you are traveling with 3 or more children in the 6-15 age group, you only need to buy 2 passes. After that, your accompanied children can ride for free.
As you might expect the options for adults are not as easy. There is an annual pass called the “Halbtax” which costs CHF 185 (around 160€). With this pass adults pay 1/2 price for all tickets. The problem is that for a 9-day vacation the price is too high. We would have had to carry out trips costing more than 320€ per adult… Supersaver tickets are available for the following month and can be bought in advance through the train company (SBB) website or their app. Supersaver tickets are often a good option as the discounts can be as much as 50%.
In Switzerland, a perfectly normal meal in a perfectly normal restaurant costs what we in Portugal would expect to pay per person for a wedding party. On our holiday, we opted for healthy meals (salads and juices) which we bought in the supermarket and ate in one of the many parks, (preferably next to a playground…). Yet, even that cost the equivalent of a meal in a normal restaurant meal in Portugal …
We also cooked and ate many meals at home, in “our” garden… more about that later!
Tickets for Attractions and Shows
Your family knows which sorts of attractions make memories on your trips. For the most part, we crossed museums and cable cars off the attractions menu because of price. In Switzerland, there are breathtaking views and plenty of fun to be had even in the valley.
The Rhine runs along the border between Switzerland and Germany and we decided one thing we could not do without was a boat ride! We got a good deal on a RailAway offer and did the boat trip from Stein am Rhein to Schaffhausen. By going downstream, the trip takes 1h15 instead of 2h05, and is still done at a leisurely pace.
In Schaffhausen we visited the Munot, a round fortress that dates from 1564. It can be reached by stairs and has a covered footbridge across the moat. The views from the top are great and admission is free.
Returning from Schaffhausen by train we stopped over at Schloss Laufen where you can see the Rhinefall, it is the largest waterfall in Europe (in terms of water flow). You can see the waterfall for free from the landing point of the boat trips to the center of the falls. Taking boat trips or viewing the falls from other points will cost money.
Also not to be missed is the journey by train through the Alps to Italy on the Bernina Express. This train trip from Chur to Tirano is in itself UNESCO World Heritage and takes you through bridges and historic tunnels, reaching over 2000 meters above sea level. Right by the train you see mountains (up to 4,000 meters high), with snow even in July, glaciers and beautiful lakes.
Money Saving Bernina Express Trick
Buy your tickets as if you are starting your trip in Freiburg (Germany) with Deutsche Bahn. This is quite a bit cheaper than booking your tickets through the Swiss railways… 29€ instead of about 80€ per person. Then, you board the train halfway through the trip. I learned this from an online blog and can confirm it works.
We were lucky enough to be able to go to the “Züri Fäscht” in the city of Zürich, a festival that takes place every three years. Everything seemed to be happening at the same time and throughout the city - fairground, bars and restaurants with music of all kinds, air show, circus shows, sports, diving, and more! We opted for a peaceful (and free!) ride on a solar power boat in the “Zürichsee” (Lake Zurich), also one of the festival’s attractions.
If you are interested in visiting Zürich during “Züri Fäscht” the next one is July 5-7 2019!
None of the previous tricks makes me nearly as happy as my accommodation trick. During my family’s nine days in Switzerland, we spent eight nights on a home-exchange holiday with Intervac. We also spent one night in a hotel in Chur, just before boarding the Bernina Express at 8:32 in the morning.
During our home exchange we lived in a fantastic house in Winterthur. It had 4 floors, garden, swing, toys and books for the girls and everything else a family needs in a home. Staying “at home” provided some unexpected opportunities for fun, such as catching large snails for a snail “race”!
So, for eight nights of accommodation we paid only the annual cost to be a member of Intervac. Of course, we also provided for our exchange partners with good conditions for a fantastic vacation of thier onw at our home in Madeira.
The last night, the one we spent in the hotel in Chur? Oh, that cost us €157 - which was more than double the cost of our annual Intervac membership! But, this is Switzerland. Our €157 entitled the four of us to: one room, with 2 single beds and a bunk bed, on the 3rd floor of the hotel. The price included electricity and internet (essential!) but there was no elevator, no bathroom in the room, and a notice in the common bathroom to let us know: “broken shower - use the 2nd floor “. We each paid €5 to rent a towel.
We did miss our home-exchange house on that last night in Switzerland. We missed the space. We missed the comfort. But most of all we missed feeling at home.