Who has looked at a map of Europe without thinking the countries look like small states?
Smack dab in the center of Europe, Switzerland is the ideal vacation hub. On day trips from my base in Zurich, I can have fondue in the Swiss Alps, a beer and a bratwurst in Germany, Austria or Liechtenstein, Champagne and cassoulet in France, and Chianti and pasta in Italy. If you have the time, why not sample all that Europe offers? Tourists can stay for up to three months in Switzerland without a visa.
For independent travelers who have more-time-than-money, are likely to have a suitcase on wheels rather than one strapped to their back, and who demand running water and electricity, I have discovered ways to save money on long vacations.
Unless you get a great deal on a rental car, public transportation may be your best bet. Rental cars are expensive in Europe and you can expect to pay considerably more for gasoline and highway tolls than you do at home.
The public transportation system in Switzerland is perhaps the best in the world and the rest of Europe is not bad, either. The crown jewel of Swiss public transportation is the train system. The trains are punctual, safe, spotlessly clean and comfortable. In the compartment trains, I imagine myself in an Agatha Christie novel. I never know who is going to open the glass door, lean in, and nod to the empty seat beside me and ask if that seat is available.
The most memorable train trips are the routes through the Alps, regardless of the time of year. Here is a secret that’s known only to the Swiss: The panoramic train cars are usually attached to the end of the regular trains. So instead of reserving a seat in the expensive panorama car, just buy a ticket for a second class seat. The second class car travels to the same place, the seats are roomy and comfortable; the windows are large enough to see the same splendid view as those in the panorama car. This tip can save you a bundle.
For the price of a train ticket, you get much more than transportation through the Alps. You get glacier covered mountain tops so close you shiver, rustic huts on emerald pastures that make you want to check on Heidi’s grandfather, and miraculous bridges spanning gorges so deep you gasp and reach for the camera.
Many people buy a Swiss Pass multi-day train ticket before they come to Switzerland. Given all the other possibilities for drastic savings, I would think twice about this expensive option. A little-known travel bargain is the Swiss Half-Price Pass, valid for the Swiss rail system and local transportation. The price is $105 for a full year and $62 for one month. With this pass, you save fifty percent off each Swiss rail system ticket. After a trip or two, the pass has paid for itself. After that – pure savings.
SBB, the Swiss rail service, recently introduced an incredible money saver called “Click and Rail.” There are more than twenty destinations and today, for example, a ticket from Zurich to Lugano costs $33 round trip. With the Swiss Half-Price Pass, the price is just $17 round trip. You could have lunch in a little Italian place overlooking Lake Lugano and return to Zurich that evening. All you need is a computer (there are plenty of Internet cafes around), click your reservation, print off a ticket, and you are on your way.
Even more recently, SBB introduced Click and Rail discount fares to Germany. For instance, Zurich to Cologne or Munich is $30 one way or $23 with a Swiss Half-Price Pass. More destinations are added all the time. Click and Rail offers deeply discounted prices for travel within three days.
While in Zurich, walking is a great way to get around the compact city. An alternative is a twenty-four-hour local transportation ticket for $4.95 or $3.60 with the Swiss Half-Price Pass. An even better deal is a monthly pass for $48. That works out to $1.60 a day to ride all the trains, buses, trams and boats in the Zurich zone.
Many fascinating European cities are not far from Zurich by train. For example, Paris is a mere six-hour train trip. However, airline ticket prices have recently dropped below train fares. Swiss International Airlines has last minute specials at noon every Wednesday for travel until the following Monday. Using these last minute rates, I have flown to Paris for less than $50 round trip. At similar prices I have flown to London, Rome, Athens, Prague, Madrid, Brussels, the list goes on and on.
New, low-cost airlines are finally driving prices down. German Wings, Air Berlin, Germania, Sky Europe, Duo, and Easy Jet all fly out of Zurich and their routes are expanding every month. Recently, I flew round trip to Cologne, Germany on German Wings for $1.00, airport taxes included. From their hub in Cologne, German Wings flies to many exciting European destinations. The extra time needed to make connections can be worthwhile for the more-time-than-money crowd. When I flew Easy Jet to Scotland recently, I left Zurich late morning, had a couple of hours layover in London and got to Edinburgh early evening. It took longer than a direct flight, but it was affordable.
Seeing The Sights
The best deal I have seen is the Swiss Museum Pass. It covers the entrance fee to several hundred museums and castles. The monthly Museum Pass is $21 and the annual pass is $62. This pass will pay for itself many times over.
However, some of the best sights in Switzerland are free. People-watching in a cobbled town square costs nothing.
Contemplating the snow-covered mountains is gratis. Swimming in the pollution-free lakes and rivers has no admittance fee. Wandering aimlessly through medieval towns on cobbled lanes lined with bewitching buildings costs nothing. Climbing to the tops of watchtowers on ancient city walls takes only your breath. Leaning over a bridge rail feeding swans with the bread left over from lunch is complimentary. Standing on the same spot at night when white lights sparkle on the inky water below and church towers are illuminated in the distance makes you feel like paying extra, but it is also free. Strolling on the world famous Bahnhofstrasse on a Sunday, when all the shops are closed but everyone is out window-shopping, costs not a cent.
For an extended stay, you can rent a short-term, furnished apartment. Your best resource is the Internet where you can find companies handling short-term rentals and private individuals willing to rent furnished apartments. I have seen advertisements for less than $50.00 per day. With a furnished apartment, you can save on restaurant costs. You can do day trips in and out of Zurich and sleep in your “own” bed each night. You can keep Zurich as your base and still afford to pop over to Paris, London or Prague. Even if you stay in a hotel in Switzerland, you should try to negotiate a long-term rate.
Staying in touch with family and friends from Switzerland is simple and cheap. For email, Internet cafes are widely available. For telephone calls, you can use the inexpensive international calling cards (for wire connections) and mobile phone prepaid cards (for dual band mobile phones). Both types of telephone cards can be bought in Switzerland from the low-cost telephone company, Sunrise, at their hundreds of sales points.
Long vacations are not possible for everyone, but if you have more-time-than-money and some imagination, a long-term stay in the middle of Europe might be perfect for you. Instead of wishing you could stay longer, why not just plan on it?
Bonnie Burns, a native of Kansas, retired from an American corporation and now lives in Zurich, Switzerland, where she writes about her travels and life in a foreign country.
- General Swiss tourist information
- Swiss International Airlines weekly specials http://www.swiss.com/web/IE6/
- Foreign money calculator (1.45 used to calculate Swiss Franc prices quoted in dollars) http://www.oanda.com/convert/classic
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