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How to afford a trip to expensive Switzerland

Swiss National Park near Scuol.
Swiss National Park near Scuol.(Laura Goldman)

Let’s get one thing straight. Affordable ain’t cheap.

What will it cost you to spend a week in Boston, on the Vineyard, Nantucket, down the Cape, Maine, New Hampshire, or Vermont?

Hotel room or rental, $16 cocktails, a good, local joint selling lobster rolls and fries, a club with live music.

Right?

I recently stayed at a very nice Marriott Residence Inn in North Conway, N.H. The room cost just over $300 per night, and included a free breakfast with dozens of other holiday-goers. Dinners and lunches out. In three days, my wife and I spent ballpark $1,200, plus gas.

Switzerland has a well deserved reputation for being very costly, but there is a secret to traveling within the country: Travel like the Swiss.

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Most people there aren’t rich, and historically Switzerland has prided itself on keeping it simple and not accruing personal debt. Cash is king. Until 1944, when the gold standard was established (at Bretton Woods in New Hampshire!), the country was pretty agrarian and designed by the Brits as a place for fun. They engineered the trains, hotels are named to honor the English, and it was the first country in which packaged, all-inclusive group tourism was started by Thomas Cook and others.

First, let’s get you there.

SWISS airlines offers direct flights from Boston to Zurich, and while summer and holiday travel is expensive, going in early fall or late winter needn’t be. I’ve bagged flights then for about $600 per person, round trip. Bonus: If you have a Chase Sapphire or United credit card, which codeshare with SWISS, you can use points and go for free — I’ve done that several times.

Alternatively, Icelandic, American, and an array of international carriers cost less than SWISS with brief layovers.

Car or train?

You can rent a car at the Zurich airport for as little as $275 per week.

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Train passes that cover three to 15 consecutive days are pricey, but a good value if you plan to travel to many places. The Swiss Pass also has a free Family Pass that allows kids under 16 to travel with you for no extra cost. It gives you free access to about 500 museums, too.

A better choice may be the Half-Price Pass, which for about $150 (per person) will cut your costs for a month. (But no Family Pass.)

You’re now in Switzerland, you’ve got your wheels or your trains, where do you go without breaking the bank?

Get away from The Usual Suspects.

I’m not knocking the Bernese Oberland, with gorgeous mountains known as the Jungfrau, Mönch, and Eiger. And Zermatt, St. Moritz, Geneva, Montreux, and Bern are beautiful. But these are bucket list destinations and you had better be prepared to spend tons of dough sitting elbow to elbow with thousands of people.

Go where the Swiss go.

Here are three Staatsgeheimnisse (state secrets):

The Unterengadin, home to Switzerland’s only National Park, has Romansh-speaking villages with cobbled streets, houses painted with frescoes, traditional inns, restaurants, and ateliers.

Scuol is the largest community in the Unterengadin.
Scuol is the largest community in the Unterengadin.(Laura Goldman.)

In Scuol, its largest community, you have Hotel Engiadina, run by the lovely Ladina Giston. It’s located in a centuries-old square, and two can stay the night for $185, which includes a lavish breakfast and free local transportation passes. Just up the alley is Restaurant Gabriel: Dinner for two with wine runs about $80. (Tax and service are typically included in menu prices throughout Switzerland.) On the main street, check out Hatecke, a great family-owned butcher with cured meats, like Bundnerfleisch (air-dried beef), for hiking picnics in the Park. At the end of the day, Bogn Engiadina provides the perfect respite: a series of indoor and outdoor pools with a huge (“Naked-Zone”) sauna-land.

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A few villages over is Susch. This January, Polish art collector and businesswoman Grazina Kulczyk opened up Museum Susch on the grounds of a former monastery and brewery, featuring work by women artists. The museum is a heady mix of old and new.

Lötschental is another region without wall-to-wall tourists: a long, narrow valley in the canton of Valais with views of the exquisite mountain known as Bietschhorn, where you can walk for hours on ridges. I stayed at Hotel Nest- und Bietschhorn, in Blatten, and for $200 per night for the two of us, we had a lovely room with breakfast and dinner included (not wine). The hotel has a terrific restaurant which is known for serving first-rate meals.

Finally, check out canton Glarus, in eastern Switzerland.

Glarus, the capital, is a charming, small city with an indoor market on Saturdays, cafes, and a great pizzeria called Steinbock run by Marco & Diana Pezzulla. There’s a Laderach shop, one of many, which sells chocolate so good its products won top honors at an international competition in Paris in 2018. The Laderach factory is located in Ennenda, one village over, and offers tours.

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From Glarus, head west through the Linthal valley, with its Linth river, bordered by the stunning Glarus Alps where you can see the peaks of Selbsanft, Todi, and Ortstock.

E-Bikes at BikeStopStation in Ennenda can be rented for about $70 per day, or take the S-25 train along the valley, which is lined with turn of the century factories, magnificent and sturdy in their repose.

And no visit to Glarus is complete without a brief visit to Braunwald, a car-free village of 300 year-round inhabitants, accessible only by funicular. Braunwald has as its motto “Hoch über dem Alltag,” which means “high above everyday life,” and its horsedrawn carriages, farms, and panoramic walks are lovely. Not much to do here but walk or ski.

Braunwald is accessible only by funicular.
Braunwald is accessible only by funicular.(Laura Goldman)

You can rent a two-bedroom apartment in Braunwald for about $1,200 a week (equal to three nights in North Conway, I might add), get food at the wonderful Dorfladen (village grocery store), have a draft beer or stay at Adrenalin Backpackers Hostel (about $50 per night per person with breakfast), and hike for tasty lunches at Orstockhaus, managed by talented photographer Maya Rhyner.

About a mile from the village center, on a path winding through forests and pastures, is Restaurant Nussbühl, a farm pub where Hansjürg und Rosmarie Ries-Zimmermann provide delicious Rösti (fried potatoes), garden salads, and homemade soups and sausages. Hard cider, known as Most, is optional, and highly recommended.

Keep it simple, keep it affordable, keep it Swiss.

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A plate of Rosti at Restaurant Nussbühl in Braunwald.
A plate of Rosti at Restaurant Nussbühl in Braunwald. (Laura Goldman.)

Scott Haas can be reached at scotthaas27@gmail.com.