We are now 5 1/2 months away from our big summer holiday to Switzerland (spending 3 1/2 weeks there!). If you missed my first post about how I saved for (and saved BIG on) flights to Europe in the summer, be sure to check that out.
Today I want to break down some of the expenses anyone spending time in Switzerland in the summer should anticipate. This is not yet our family’s budget breakdown, but will show some of the things we are considering so that we are prepared for the expenses and have enough saved to do the things we really want to do while we are in the country, all without coming back home with a completely depleted savings account.
This is a cost that can easily be forgotten until you are writing the checks and feeling the burn (especially if everyone in your family needs a passport!). U.S. passports for kids cost $85 and passports for adults cost $110, plus there are often administrative fees (we are paying $30 each to our local library for helping us file). Once you are 6 months out from your trip, go ahead and get your passports ordered. It’s not too soon and trust me, the last thing you want to do is sweat over whether or not it will arrive on time.
Housing Costs in Switzerland
Aside from the plane tickets, accommodations are likely to be your biggest single expense in Switzerland (closely followed by food, but more on that in a moment). If at all possible, stay in just one place for your entire trip. The longer you can stay put in one place, the more you are going to be able to get for your money. My family is extremely fortunate in that our relatives who live in Switzerland are taking care of the accommodation expenses for us, which is wildly generous of them.
Since most of you reading this will be needing to pay for accommodations, here’s the approach I recommend: search for homes on Airbnb or VRBO. You can very likely spend the same amount per night on an entire home or condo that you would spend for a single hotel room, and your family will be much less crowded, and also have that extremely important access to a kitchen for meals. This is especially true if you can rent a unit for an entire week, as these rentals often have cleaning fees and listing fees that are tacked on, making them not such a great deal if you only stay one or two nights. Do be sure to pay attention to the location of the homes you are considering and where they are in relation to where you hope to spend your time. But if they are not a few blocks from the attractions you want to see, don’t immediately discount them! You may be able to use public transportation to get around (more on that in a bit!). Based on my experience looking around, I would suggest budgeting around $250/night for your accommodations (this is in comparison to around $180/night for one “no frills” hotel room to cram your family into). Obviously the size of your party, the dates you are traveling, and where you want to be located in Switzerland will come into play and affect the price so that you might find something you like for less, but I’m just offering a realistic middle-of-the-road price point for you as you start budgeting. Housing isn’t going to be cheap, especially if you need a little bit of extra space (which is worth every extra penny, in my opinion, when traveling with kids).
Cost of Food in Switzerland
Know this now: food is VERY expensive in Switzerland, and if you imagine yourself eating out a great deal, you need to pad your budget heavily. At the time of this writing, the Swiss Franc and the U.S. dollar had a nearly 1/1 exchange rate. A meal at a mid-range restaurant can easily cost a party of two around $120 for dinner, and if you want to go “cheap” and eat at the likes of McDonalds, expect to spend around $15/person. And when in Switzerland, is McDonald’s really want you want to eat the entire time? Of course not! So how do you keep from spending $400/day on food?
First and foremost, you only eat out as a rare treat, and you ALWAYS choose lunch for the dining out meal, as it is much cheaper than dinner. I’ve also heard that ethnic restaurants at lunch tend to offer bigger portions and slightly lower prices, but I haven’t confirmed this, yet. Also note that restaurants in Switzerland tend to have more strict meal times (lunch is usually 12-2pm, with only snacks available outside of those times). So if your kids are starving by 11, you’ll need to have food packed with you even if you were planning on dining out. Americans are so spoiled by the availability of reasonably priced restaurants open all day long, and you simply have to get out of that mindset while you are in Europe. Instead, go for eating breakfast in your rented condo, packing up delicious and delightful picnic lunches in your backpacks before heading out for the day, and making use of the public water fountains to refill your water bottles. If you have younger children, they may be totally worn out by dinner time, and you may be all done being tourists for the day by dinner time. If you think you will be out and about for lunch and dinner, just plan accordingly with your food choices, or simply plan your day’s journey so that you can go back home to refuel before getting back outside for the evening. Part of what you are paying for with your housing is the cost-saving feature of the kitchen, so make use of it!
You will still need to purchase groceries to have on hand, and for a family of 4, you can expect to spend about $400 per week on groceries if you don’t plan on eating meat for every meal (all grocery costs are high in Switzerland, but meat is especially expensive at $12-14/pound for chicken and beef, so be mindful of that fact when you plan your menu). And to avoid confusion at the grocery store, I do recommend planning a menu in advance so that you can get what you need at the store quickly and not overspend on impulse buys (though do take a minute in the chocolate aisle…Swiss grocery stores have AMAZING chocolate aisles…splurge a bit there, as well as at the cheese counter). And if your children are hopelessly devoted to a particular food item, you may want to research if it is easily available in Switzerland, and if not, make some space in your suitcase for that item. I don’t usually like to give precious packing space to food, but at least it’s a consumable good that won’t be coming back with you, and it might save some heartache and frustration, especially with younger kids who struggle more with abrupt changes to routines. I will do a separate post soon with more detailed information on food and our general meal plans.
Transportation in Switzerland
Another reason I’m an advocate for only choosing one or two locations during your trip is because public transportation in Switzerland is also expensive. You may want to look into the Swiss Pass, but at close to $400 for an 8 day pass, it’s only useful if you are planning on darting all over the country while you are there. We will just be using the train twice, so we will purchase individual fares, and since our dates to travel to Murren are already set, we will buy them in advance, as that will save us a little bit. You can also look into renting a car, as depending on the size of your family, it may be more economical than the train fare, if you are willing to put up with the hassle of driving in an unfamiliar country!
For in-town transportation, walking should always be your first choice, if at all possible (and depending on what you plan to do each day while in Switzerland, you may find it worth spending more on a more centrally located house so that walking is more feasible). I plan to do some more research into bus costs in the city of Geneva and work that into our budget. If my kids were a bit older, I’d also consider looking into bicycle rentals, although I am surprised that it doesn’t seem like the city has a bike-share program like what it is available in Paris (and even here in Chattanooga!).
Attractions in Switzerland
It’s a great idea to do your homework now about all the fun touristy things to do in the city you plan to stay in, and to map out their locations, their costs, and to read some reviews to get an idea of just how worthwhile those experiences are. I’m checking out a guide to Switzerland from my local library (and I will buy a copy if it proves to be indispensable). Some things are absolutely worth paying for and should be budgeted in so that you don’t miss out on them while you are there. Some of those options might even offer discounts if you purchase your tickets ahead of time, but you will have to weigh that cost savings against the flexibility you will lose if you lock in a tour for a specific date/time now.