This is part of a 3-part post about our one week trip to Switzerland. In Part 1, we talked about our first four days exploring the Bernese Oberland, Jungfraujoch, Lake Geneva, Zermatt, Bern, and Lake Lucerne. In Part 2, we talked about three days we spent in the eastern part of Switzerland including Bellinzona, Locarno, Ascona, Appenzell, St. Gallen, and Zurich. In this part, we’ll talk about some of the lessons we learned about the logistical aspects of traveling in Switzerland, including how to get around, where to stay, and how to save money when you’re getting food or shopping for chocolate.
Part of what made our trip to Switzerland so memorable was that it was easy to explore this beautiful country. With only two home bases, we were able to see the highlights of the Alps, Lake Geneva, Ticino, and several beautiful cities without feeling rushed or exhausted. And because everything is close together, you really have the freedom to adjust your plans based on the weather and your energy level.
In planning our trip, we found lots of good resources for places to visit in Switzerland (DK Eyewitness Travel offers a great visual guidebook, and My Switzerland offers excellent information about hikes and other activities), but we found it hard to get advice about some of the logistics of the trip. Where should you stay? Do you need a car? Are shops open on Sundays? In this post, we’ll share some of our insights so that hopefully you can spend more time exploring and less time planning and researching while on your trip!
Many blogs and guidebooks recommend moving all around the country, spending a day or two staying in each different region. If you’re only in Switzerland for a week or so, we’d strongly recommend against this approach. Switzerland is a small country, so most destinations are easy day trips from the major cities. More importantly, especially in the Alps, the weather could be perfectly clear one day and then foggy and rainy for a few days in a row. Staying in one or two major cities and then travelling to the other regions gives you much more flexibility in your itinerary (and also doesn’t force you to move around the country with all of your luggage in the car or on the train).
For the itinerary we suggested in Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog post, we’d highly recommend staying in Bern and Zurich during your trip. These cities are great gateways to spectacular outdoor excursions, have excellent and regular transit options, and have plenty of restaurants, shops, and sightseeing options, which can come in especially handy on a rainy day.
Bern has easy access to the Bernese Oberland and Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) and is also only two hours from Zermatt by train. It was also our favorite city in Switzerland, with a nice old town, safe and homey neighborhoods, and lots of pretty views. We stayed at a very cool hotel on the north side of the Aare, the Hotel Alpenblick. We loved the extensive breakfast and the fact that the hotel gives each guest a pass to use public transit in Bern for free. If you do stay at this hotel, we’d recommend doing laundry at the nearby Jet Wash (bring lots of 1 franc coins!). Doing laundry once during your trip will let you pack a lot lighter – we only had one suitcase and one carry-on between us for our one-week trip.
Zurich is a great home base for accessing Lucerne, St. Gallen, and the Appenzell district, and it is only a couple of hours from Ticino (Bellinzona, Locarno, and Lugano) by train. Here, we stayed at one of the nicest SPG properties we have ever seen, the Sheraton Zurich, located in Zurich West (note that there are two Sheratons in Zurich; the one in Zurich West is much newer). With a plush king bed, air conditioning, and an amazing rain shower, we felt so comfortable during our stay! The hotel is also conveniently located next to a tram station to get into town and is right off the highway, which avoids any encounters with stressful Zurich traffic. Just down the street, there is a Coop grocery store and some restaurants. The hotel is also only 20 minutes or less from the airport, which makes getting there on the day you leave a snap.
Getting Around by Car
On our trip, we decided to rent a car – the highways in Switzerland are well maintained, flanked by beautiful scenery, and fun to drive. Also, taking a car can cut large chunks of time off your trip (particularly when traveling through the French part of Switzerland or to the Appenzell District). If you need an automatic car, make sure you reserve one well in advance as there aren’t many automatics in most fleets!
Unless otherwise posted, the speed limit is 120 km/h on highways, 80 km/h on country roads, and 50 km/h in built-up areas. Often, you’ll be told when a special speed limit starts or stops, but there are almost no signs when the speed limit is one of the defaults listed above. Also, when you see a speed limit, it is a HARD limit. For example, going 4 km/h over the limit can result in a 40 CHF ticket. Moreover, the rental car companies can charge an additional handling fee for any tickets or other fines you receive.
A few notes about traffic signs in Switzerland. Solid white lines separate traffic directions, while yellow/orange lines painted over white lines indicate that lanes have been shifted due to construction. There’s a good Wikipedia page about all the road signs, and most guidebooks have some additional information, too.
Be warned that many parking garages in Switzerland are pretty tight, so you may want to elect for surface lots or street parking where possible. Your rental car will probably come with a “Blue Disc” parking permit, which entitles you to time-limited street parking in spaces demarcated with a blue box – check local websites to find out when and how it should be displayed. Also make sure you don’t extend your parking simply by turning the disc – you have to leave and repark! In most cities, parking is free overnight in blue zones, and in some cities like Bern, you can buy 4- or 24-hour parking permits from the tram stations to leave your car for an extended period.
Getting Around by Train (read this even if you are renting a car!)
Many places in Switzerland are car-free (or car-unfriendly), so you’ll wind up taking the train for at least part of your trip. We’d also recommend taking the train to Zermatt or Ticino – driving across the Alps, especially through the Gotthard tunnel, can be a long and potentially traffic-laden ordeal. Swiss railways are very clean, run on time, and offer spectacular scenery.
In addition to our car, we picked up a Swiss Half Fare Card for tourists at the local train station – this card more than paid for itself as it took 50% off the regular price of inter-city train travel, mountain railways (e.g., Jungfraujoch), cable cars, and local buses and trams. Usually, you have to buy the Half Fare Card from a person at an information booth as you need to have your passport or other ID verified.
Most train tickets are open, meaning that you can take any train during the day of travel between your origin and destination. For this reason, we’d advise getting your train tickets right before you are about to travel so that you can adjust your plans with the most flexibility. Except on panoramic trains and some mountain railways, there’s no need to reserve a seat on a specific train (you’ll be told if you need to do so). However, when you board, check the little signs above each row to see if your seat has been reserved by someone else.
To save a few more dollars, check ticket prices on the SBB website before you head to the train station. There can be supersaver fares (which are specific to certain trains, and are thus not “open tickets”). You can also buy 1-Day Travel Passes at the station that are cheaper than standard tickets depending on where you are going. Note that if you buy a 1-Day Pass, you need to have your pass validated at your first train station (to indicate the start of the 24-hour period during which you can use it). Otherwise, you could be charged a fee to do it on your first train.
Almost all the places we visited on our trip are accessible by train (and Google Maps has pretty accurate scheduling information to make transit easy). So if you do have the time and don’t mind some restrictions on your schedule, taking the train (perhaps with a Swiss Travel Pass) is definitely a viable option.
It is usually much cheaper to drop a Swiss SIM card into your phone than to roam with your American SIM. In Zurich Airport, there is a shopping area with the stores of all three Swiss networks: Swisscom, Sunrise, and Salt. Note that Swiss SIMs will work immediately in Verizon phones and in unlocked phones on AT&T (be sure to check that your device in unlocked before you leave the US). All the networks currently offer a 2CHF/day unlimited data option, so the 20 CHF initial credit should be able to cover about a week’s worth of data plus a few minutes of calling and some texts.
Swisscom worked in more places than did Salt, but Salt was only 10 CHF for 20 CHF worth of credit. Also, Salt took about 48 hours before data began working on the phone. In both cases, I had to manually configure the APNs (access point names) so that the phones would work for data. Make sure that your data plan works before you leave the store, or else Google “APN Settings Switzerland” to find the settings for your network.
You’ve probably heard that food in Switzerland can be expensive. The listed prices at restaurants can look exorbitant, but note that taxes are included and it isn’t customary to tip (usually you won’t even have an option to tip on the receipt), so the final bill may turn out cheaper than you think. Surprisingly, we found lots of good ethnic food in Switzerland, including good Indian restaurants in both Bern and Zurich.
Also, grocery stores offer much more reasonable prices than restaurants, so consider buying a few staples like bread, peanut butter, fruit, yogurt, and cheese and using these for breakfasts and lunches. In general, grocery stores close early (6PM or so) in Switzerland, and many are not open on Sundays, so be sure to stock up in the morning, or else check out the smaller grocery stores in train stations, which are usually open later.
Shopping – Buy Chocolate at the Grocery Store
Like grocery stores, most shops close on Sundays, except for those in the train stations. If you’re looking for souvenirs, some of the main shops in Zurich (e.g. Coop city) sell a great assortment at very reasonable prices. For more specialized handicrafts, you can check out Swiss Heimatwerk or Dolmetch, which have outposts in several cities.
Another tip: if you’re looking to bring home chocolate that you’ll eat soon, don’t shop at chocolate shops. Almost all of the big brands are available at grocery stores like Coop, and usually, chocolate that expires within the next month or two can be discounted by up to 50%! And given how good Swiss chocolate is, it’ll be gone way before the expiration date.
For most purchases in Switzerland, we used a credit card. You can save 3% or more on all your purchases by getting a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees – we use the Capital One Quicksilver card. Most machines will ask you whether you want the transaction charged in USD or CHF. We calculated that you save an extra 1-2% by choosing the CHF option, i.e. the credit card company offered a more favorable exchange rate than the merchant.
There is always a debate about whether and how to carry cash abroad. For our one week trip, we carried about 120 CHF each (we shopped around for the best rate at local banks before we left). The cash came in handy for some tourist attractions, shops with minimums for credit cards, and when one merchant’s card reader failed to work. When you take ATM fees and currency conversion fees into account, getting money from a US bank for this small an amount works out to be about the same cost as using an ATM for withdrawal in Switzerland, and is much more convenient since you don’t have to go looking for banks on your trip. Also note that it is almost never a good idea to use currency conversion services at the airport, as the rate is much worse. Try to spend all of your cash before you leave the country; you will lose money when you convert the cash back to your home currency.
We hope that this post answered many of your questions about planning the logistics of a trip to Switzerland! Feel free to chime in with your own tips below, or send us a question and we’ll be happy to answer it!