By John Herbert
Renting one of Switzerland's many apartments is usually cheaper than hotel living. In this article, Canadian travel writer John Herbert tells how to do it.
The slow, endless rise in the value of the Swiss Franc since 1970, has made Switzerland expensive for most visitors. One way to moderate its high cost is to spend accommodation dollars on apartments instead of hotel rooms. Switzerland has thousands of apartments that are rented to tourists for stays as short as 3 or 4 days. Europeans, including the Swiss themselves, have been using them for years, but for most North Americans, they remain a secret. Rarely are they mentioned in guide books and even the excellent Swiss National Tourist Office has little information about them. Detailed apartment lists, however, are available from most local tourist offices.
In June of this year, my wife and I stayed in a typical Swiss apartment on the outskirts of Lugano. To compare costs with hotel prices, I searched the hotel brochure published by the Lugano tourist office, looking for the cheapest hotels. Of the 240 listed, 65 were zero or 1 star (out of 5) and offered a double room with bath and breakfast. Their April to October median price was 108 Sfr. ($83).
We paid 81 Sfr. ($62) per night, on a weekly basis, for a two-bedroom apartment in a four-plex in Muzzano, a pleasant Lugano suburb, a six-minute drive to the Lugano railway station. The building was constructed in 1983, and our apartment's floor plan resembled that of a modest American apartment. Kitchen (all pots, pans, dishes and utensils supplied) and the bathroom were modern, the floor was tiled and our second story unit had high sloping ceilings. There was TV (yes, CNN was available) and a telephone. Also a small balcony. As always in Switzerland, it was in immaculate condition.
Had we stayed only five nights, the cost for our unit would have increased about five Sfr. ($4) per night. In July and August the price would have risen about another 10 Sfr. ($7.70) and bookings of less than a week are difficult to obtain. By far the best value is when two couples or a family of four share the larger two-bedroom unit on the ground floor. Costs are 106/136 Sfr. ($82/$105) per day low/high season based on a weekly stay.
The price of our apartment was typical for the Lugano area which generally has higher prices than the rest of Switzerland.
Types of Apartments. Almost all Swiss apartments fall into one of three categories:
• Apartments in private homes. The largest group. Often one floor (usually top floor or basement) converted into self-contained apartment. Almost always smaller and cheaper than apartments in the following two categories. Complete privacy is typical and one will rarely hears the home's other occupants. Usual amenities: one or two bedrooms, a bath and a kitchen/dining room that may also include a couple of easy chairs. Rarely found: separate living room, dishwasher, washing machine. Sometimes found: TV and telephone. These "in-house apartments" are quite diverse. No two are the same.
• Small apartment buildings. In recent years many small apartment buildings with two to eight units have been constructed, solely for the tourist trade. Sometimes the owner occupies the unit. Expect separate living room and one or more of the following: TV, telephone, dishwasher, washing machine, barbecue, and occasionally a pool.
• Large condominiums. Built over the last 40 years in ski resorts and similar to condos found in Florida and Hawaii. Usually from three to 10 stories high, typically with studio, one and two bedroom units for rent. Owners rent their units through local rental agents when they are not occupying them. Almost all are available from April to November.
• Where to Find Apartments. Virtually everywhere. Heaviest concentration in Bernese Oberland and Valais, with Grisons and Ticino also well served. The northwest of the country has the fewest. A limited number in the major cities.
• Prices. Expect to find a one bedroom "in-house apartment" for less than the cost of a double room with bathroom in a local one star hotel. A good example is Ringgenberg near Interlaken. This small town has seven hotels. The cheapest is the Heilsarmee, a guest house operated by the Salvation Army (no stars). Cheapest off-season double in 1994 with bathroom and breakfast is 80 Sfr. ($62). More than half of the town's 60 odd apartments rent for less.
• Be aware of extras. Find out if your quoted price includes charges for such things as local tax, electricity, heating, and worst of all "final cleaning." This last one can run 50 to 90 Sfr. ($38-$69) and is the reason why stays of less than a week will cost more per day than a weekly stay. You have fewer days over which to apportion this cost.
"In-house" apartments tend to calculate their prices on a per person basis, while condos charge per unit.
• Length of stay. The usual stay is a week, from Saturday to Saturday. We often want to stay for a shorter period, say 4 or 5 days. In the off-season most owners will permit this and make an according reduction in your bill. Rental agents for large apartments are more rigid and often require a one-week stay.
• Reservations. Usually not necessary for travel in April, May, June, September (our favorite month with fine weather and excellent apartment availability) or November. Being able to view the apartment and its location before renting is a great advantage.
For those without reservations we suggest arriving at your destination when the tourist office is open - usually 8 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m to 6 p.m. on weekdays, and 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. They will supply you with a list of apartments and a local map. Sometimes each apartment is marked on the map. If not, spend a few minutes scanning the list and ask the office to mark your choices on the map. The search, without a list and map, is difficult, because in most of Switzerland apartments will not have a sign outside (fereinwohnungen or apartment).
Most tourist offices will leave it to you to select an apartment from the list. Most won't phone ahead for you but always ask. Some do. A few of the smaller offices keep an unofficial list of vacant apartments which is useful. The tourist office we found to be most helpful was Lugano. Not only will they phone around for you, but if you write them in advance with specifics of your stay, they will circulate your letter, free of charge, to those apartment owners that fit your needs.
For travel in July, August and October (Germany and Switzerland both have two-week school holidays in October) reservations are advised. Our reservation of the apartment in Lugano is typical of the letter writing required. First we obtained the address of the Canton of Ticino's tourist office from a travel book. The SNTO will also supply it. We wrote asking for a list of local offices. They replied with a list and a map of 16 offices. We wrote to four near Lugano. All replied with a page listing apartments and chalets (most had around 75). Details of each apartment included owner's name and address, price, and a description of each apartment - number of beds and bedrooms, kitchen or kitchenette, availability of TV, phone, balcony, and much more - about 15 to 20 categories of information for each appointment. We wrote to six owners. Two didn't reply, one was full and three were available. The owner of the apartment we selected sent us a map giving the exact location and told us to pay on arrival. No deposit was required.
If all this letter writing is too much for you there are a number of rental agents in the U.S. that, for a fee, will do the work for you. Best source of information about these firms is a page published in January 1994 by the SNTO headed Facts on Switzerland - Rental of Apartments, Chalets and Villas. It contains the names and addresses of 10 large rental agents, a brief description of the apartments each handles, plus brief information on home exchanges and time-sharing. The three largest agents are:
• Interhome Inc 124 Little Falls Rd, Fairfield, NJ 07004, phone 201-882-6864 4000 properties in all parts of Switzerland.
• Europa-Let Inc., 92 North Main St. Ashland, OR 97520, phone 800-462-4486 2500 properties in the Ticino, Bernese Oberland, Grisons, Valais, and Middleland.
• Villas International 605 Market St #510, San Francisco, CA 94105 2500 apartments throughout Switzerland.
Here is some more precise information about apartments in Switzerland.
• Ticino. Wide selection, most in small towns in the hills around Lugano or the valleys that lead away from Locarno. Also has a good selection of small rental houses (chalets). These are included in the list of apartments available from local tourist offices. We would recommend our Lugano apartment available from Trude Zazzi. Ticino prices are among the highest in Switzerland.
• Valais. New ski resorts built in Valais since WWII contain a huge number of apartments - most are in large condo style buildings and are reasonably priced during summer. Owners use them for a few weeks during the ski season, then rent them out during the remainder of the year. Towns offering the most choices: Nendez, Super Nendez, Verbier, Ovronnaz, Villars, Crans-Montana and Mayens De Riddes. All are located in the mountains just to the north or south of the Rhône Valley. This large selection of reasonably priced apartments is offset by a couple of disadvantages. First, most are rather mundane. The word picturesque would never be used to describe these high-rise dominated towns and villages. Out of season they can be very quiet, with many stores closed. A more important disadvantage is the winding road up from the valley that one must use to reach any of these towns. Drives usually take 20 to 30 minutes. Our choice in the Valais is the small town of Anzere, just north of Sion. It takes less time to reach - 15 to 20 minutes - than any other resort.
Renting here is best done by visiting a local rental agent, rather than the tourist office. In Anzere, your first stop should be Agence Trachsel, a couple of stores down from the tourist office. The very efficient Madam Trachsel has 130 apartments and chalets available. After discussing your needs, she will give you the keys to two or three apartments and send you out on an inspection tour. When we rented from her in September most of the 130 units were available.
Her 1994 rental list divides units into seven categories, from studios to chalets sleeping from 10 to 12. Low season is from April 16 to July 9, and August 20 to December 17. Typical low season rates in 1994 were 78 Sfr. ($60) daily for a one bedroom unit (including all the extras) on a weekly basis and 110 Sfr. ($85) for a two bedroom apartment. In July and August prices are 40 to 50% higher and in the ski season they double.
If you can handle the daily drive up and down, Anzere is an excellent spot from which to tour central Switzerland. Day trips can be made from Zermatt to Montreux.
A distinctly different area you might consider in the Valais is the Herens Valley (two stars in Michelin) which runs south from Sion. In appearance it's about as far from a modern ski resort as one can get. There is a great deal of tradition in the dress and the architecture of this interesting region. It is a fine area for mountain climbing, walking or just relaxing. The place to stay is Evolene, the major village in the valley. It is best remembered for the tall wooden houses and spring flowers. Unfortunately it is too far up the valley to use as a base for exploring the Valais.
Best apartment selections are from the Agence Evolena which offers over 50 apartments and chalets in Evolene, and 30 more in nearby villages. Prices are reasonable, taken on a weekly basis, a two-bedroom in the off-season starts around 75 Sfr. ($58) per day.
• Berner Oberland. Our personal favorite for apartment living in Switzerland. There are more "in-house" apartments here than in any other region. We like the town of Ringgenberg. It is well located on the north shore of the Brienzersee, just a five-minute drive to Interlaken. Here you will find "Fereinwohnungen" signs outside the homes. Try for a second or third floor unit with a balcony facing south for some beautiful views across the lake to the mountains around Grindelwald. Ringgenberg apartments are generally not as large or modern as in other parts of the country, but they are perfectly adequate and prices are among the lowest in the country.
The local tourist office apartment guide describes over 60 apartments with a color picture of each. Except in the summer, you should find a one bedroom for 60 to 80 Sfr. ($46-$62) a night. Rentals for less than a week are easily negotiated. There are only a few chalets around Ringgenberg.
For the Berner Oberland in general the best source of accommodation information is the Budget Catalogue of Alternative Accommodations, 1994, available from the SNTO or the Bernese Oberland Tourist Association. It lists 17 towns that have apartments for rent and the address of each tourist office. Included are Wengen, Gstaad, Beatenberg, Grindelwald, and Interlaken. This very helpful 39-page brochure also provides information on farm holidays, group accommodations, youth hostels, and camping.
• Engadine Valley (The Grisons). St Moritz is the center of this eastern region. Just five miles away, the small town of Silvaplana and the neighboring village of Surlej are the best bets for good accommodation values. Prices are substantially lower than in St Moritz and there is a good selection of apartments available in all sizes and styles. The local brochure lists over 200 units.
• North-Eastern Switzerland This area, south of the Bodensee and centered on St Gallen, isn't as majestic as some other parts of the country, but with pleasant towns, traditional villages and prosperous farming country, it's worth a few days. Both Austria and Germany (don't miss Lindau) are a few miles away. The old town of Appenzell with its big wooden houses should be your base. Their 1994 "Ferienwohnungs-liste" contains descriptions of nine rental houses and 35 apartment units. An accompanying map shows the exact location of each one. Prices are average.
• Ente Ticinese Per Il Turismo, Casella Postale 1441, CH-6501 Bellinzona, phone 092/25 70 56
• Trude Zazzi, Postweg 300, CH-4624 Harkingen, phone 062/61 27 09
• Trachsel Agence Immobilire CH-1972 Anzere, phone 027/38 16 09
• Agence Evolena Case Postale 15, CH-1983 Evolene, phone 027/83 13 59
• Verkehrsburo Ringgenberg Hauptstrasse, Postfach 21, CH-3852 Ringgenberg, phone 036/22 33 88
• Verkehrsverband Berner Oberland Jungfraustrasse 38, CH-3800 Interlaken, phone 036/22 26 21
• Tourist Info Silvaplana CH-7513 Silvaplana, phone 082/48 151
• Verkehrsburos Appenzellerland CH-9050 Appenzell, phone 071/87 41 11
Grocery Shopping in Switzerland
If you live in a Swiss apartment you will likely become familiar with the local supermarket. It's mostly bad news. First the prices. Anything that is less than double the U.S. price should be considered a good buy. There are some adequate "no name" wines that are a true bargain. The stores themselves have little in common with a U.S. supermarket. Typically they are small, crowded, drab, with a poor selection. The food area is further reduced by the pots, pans, clothes, toys etc. that fill about one-third of the floor space. Parking can be tight, you do your own loading after supplying your own bag. Oh yes, they close between noon and two just when you want to pick up some lunch.
U.S. Dollar prices quoted in this issue of Gemütlichkeit may be inaccurate for these reasons:
- Prices in local currency have not been updated since the date of publication of this newsletter, and...
- The dollar prices shown were obtained by using exchange rates in effect at the time of publication.