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Tips for visiting Switzerland on a budget

Lucerne

The Chapel Bridge in Lucerne, originally built in the 14th century, is one of Europe’s oldest covered bridges.

(Jason La / Los Angeles Times)

Switzerland can seem expensive--discouragingly so--especially considering the strength of the Swiss franc; $1 buys about .94 francs. But the land of mountains, cheese and chocolates need not be out of reach for the budget-conscious traveler.

Here are some tips to save some bucks.

Drink from the public fountains

At a cafe, a bottle of water costs about $5. Or you could spend nothing by drinking from Switzerland’s thousands of picturesque fountains. As some Swiss will tell you, the water some restaurants serve you comes from these same fountains.

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As you explore, carry a bottle with you to fill. Although most fountains gush with potable water, note signs that say otherwise. If the fountain looks shady (algae or bugs gone belly up), move on to the next.

Eat at grocery stores

Eating out in Switzerland is not cheap. Don’t expect sanctuary at fast food restaurants either. At one Burger King in Lucerne I peeked inside, and a Whopper Jr. with large fries and a drink fetched about $13.50.

To eat on a budget, buy your meals at markets, such as Coop and Migros. Some have delis where you can buy prepared food. A modest sandwich might cost you about $5 or $6. Don’t forget to wash it down with fountain water. If you’re peevish about drinking from a fountain, you can get a small bottle of store-brand water for less than a buck.

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If you do eat at a restaurant, you can still save money by forgoing drinks. I usually down a Diet Coke with my meal when I dine out, but not in Switzerland, where an 11-once Coke costs about $5. Why would I when they’re about a buck at a nearby market? And if you just want free tap water, ask for hahnenwasser.

Buy your train tickets online or get a Swiss Travel Pass

Trains are a great way to get around Switzerland, connecting major cities and running efficiently. Save on fares by buying discounted supersaver tickets online for many routes.

A supersaver ticket from Zurich to Lucerne costs about $15. The same ticket purchased at the station sets you back about $25.

If you’re going to spend several days traversing Switzerland, consider a Swiss Travel Pass. These passes get you on trains, buses, boats and offer other perks, including free admission to more than 480 museums.

You can buy passes for consecutive days, in increments of three (about $220), four (about $262) and eight days (about $378), or non-consecutive days for slightly more.  

Be strategic about purchases

Assuming your vacation itinerary includes nearby France, Germany or Italy, consider whether you can buy something in those countries for less than you’d pay in Switzerland.

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On a recent trip to Switzerland, I took day trips into Germany and France with my sister and brother-in-law, who have lived in Switzerland for several years. They used the excursions to stock up on everyday goods, such as diapers, toys and a Thermos.

Do buy chocolates in Switzerland, though. You’ll pay the same or even a little less compared with nearby countries. Get them at a market. Coop and Migros have extensive chocolate aisles and sell inexpensive store brands. Your family and friends won’t know.


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