tl;dr part one of my Switzerland Travel Guide! this post covers all the annoying logistics while part two will cover my actual trip & recommendations :)
I spent two full weeks traveling through Switzerland and although it was the trip of a lifetime, planning an international trip during the off-season was definitely overwhelming. I'm sharing a few basic tips to hopefully make planning a trip to Switzerland as easy as possible.
- Languages - Switzerland's official languages are German, French, Italian and Romansh. It was fascinating switching from Grazie to Merci to Danke all in one day! Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance to visit the Romansh-speaking region of Grisons and less than 1% of the Swiss the population speaks the language. However, it's common to see all four languages printed along with English translations. I'd definitely recommend downloading Google Translate on your smartphone prior to your trip.
- Money - Switzerland is NOT part of the European Union so it still maintains it's own currency (Swiss Franc/CHF). Before my trip, I exchanged 150 USD for about 130 CHF just to be safe but honestly everywhere I went accepted credit cards. Be sure to check if your credit card is "Chip-and-PIN" or "Chip-and-Signature" prior to your trip!! "Chip-and-PIN" seems to be the norm in Switzerland and your PIN number is not the same as your debit card PIN number. Also, tipping in restaurants or hotels is not expected but can be a nice surprise for outstanding service.
- Chargers - Switzerland uses a different 3-prong plug from the rest of Europe so be sure to bring the appropriate adapter! I bought this one from Amazon which worked perfectly and the extra USB slots were really helpful for charging multiple devices. The only minor issue with this adaptor is the orientation - often I found Switzerland outlets comes in a group of three like this Google image and the orientation of this adapter makes it impossible to use more than one outlet. Super frustrating design!
- Hotels - Since I was traveling for work for the first week and then with my Mommy for the second week, I only stayed in hotels during my trip. I used Booking.com to find all my hotels and found the service very easy to use - especially to determine proximity from the city center/train station. However, I'd definitely research Airbnb or hostels if you want to keep costs down. Note, however, that all hotels are required to charge a city tax for each individual. This drives the cost up but in turn the hotels are able to provide free bus/city train transportation during your entire stay.
- Food/Grocery Stores - Food is notoriously expensive in Switzerland and besides transportation/lodging, this will definitely be your largest expense! Simple main dishes like a margherita pizza are typically 25 CHF and anything including meat is easily over 35 CHF. Bottled water (sparkling or still) is typically served at restaurants and typically costs between 6-8 CHF unless you specifically ask for tap water. Coop and Migros are two common grocery stores where I would buy drinks, fresh fruit, and snacks (ie. chocolate). Better yet, bring a reusable water bottle as tap water in Switzerland is hella clean and locals often fill up at city water foundations. In Lucerne, you can check out lucernewater.ch for a fountain guide/app to lead you to the nearest city water fountain.
- Luggage - If you are traveling via trains between multiple cities, I'd suggest keeping luggage to 1 backpack/purse and 1 carry-on size luggage per person. Elevators/escalators/ramps are only available in the bigger cities like Lucerne and Zurich; in addition, only some trains have dedicated luggage sections at the ends of each compartment. If you aren't able to lift luggage to overhead compartments, another common place to store luggage is underneath seats facing in opposite directions, as shown in this Google image. If you have a lot, SBB offers a luggage transportation service including from the airport directly to any address in Switzerland. Speaking of SBB...
SWISS TRAIN TRANSPORTATION TIPS:
- SBB (or CFF in French or FFS in Italian) is the official train company within Switzerland and it is a m a z i n g. For international travelers, there are a variety of options including the Swiss Travel Pass (3, 4, 8, or 15 consecutive days), Swiss Travel Pass Flex, and Swiss Half Fare Card. To determine which ticket option is the best for you, I suggest downloading the SBB mobile app and calculating individual cost of each segment. Note that most cable car tickets above Wengen to the mountain tops are expensive (eg. 90+ CHF to Jungfrau) and not included in the Swiss Travel Pass; however, the passes will give you 25-50% off which is really helpful.
- Note for International Trains: the EuroRail pass is helpful for train tickets across multiple European countries whereas the Swiss Travel Pass is for within Switzerland. If you do purchase a Swiss Travel Pass and are making a trip to another city, you only need to pay for the portion beyond Switzerland. For example, I purchased the Swiss Travel Pass and traveled from Milan, Italy to Montreux, Switzerland. I only had to purchase a ticket (through SBB) from Milan to Domodossola (the city at the Italy/Switzerland border) and then relied on the Swiss Travel Pass for Domodossola to Montreux.
- I purchased individual tickets for the first week of my trip (since I was traveling for work I could expense these) and then purchased the Swiss Travel Pass for 8 consecutive days for the second week. Since I was traveling during low season, there was no need for reservations (which may cost extra) and 2nd class seats were more than enjoyable. For me, the best part of purchasing the Swiss Travel Pass was simply jumping on and off trains, knowing that even if I got on the wrong train I could simply take another train back in the right direction for no extra cost - of course, the train system is so easy to use that I never got on the wrong train :)
- In addition, an advantage to traveling during low season is that there are promotions on the pricey Swiss Travel Passes! Check out forums on MySwissAlps for the latest promotions.
HELPFUL RESOURCES FOR LOGISTICAL PLANNING:
- MySwissAlps Travel Forum - This is seriously a god send. Traveling during off season meant a lot of places were closed/train routes were under construction. I posted a logistical question and got a personalized response within 24 hours!
- Let's be honest - who doesn't love Rick Steves?? Great resource to start planning which cities you want to visit and I love his suggested walking tours for a quick overview of the city.
- A convenient guide to common travel words & phrases, in all four official languages of Switzerland!