The Swiss franc's value has risen against many currencies over the past several years and the franc has benefited from the European financial crisis, rising nearly 20% against the euro. Switzerland remains one of the most expensive countries on the continent for travelers, and you may find yourself shocked by the price of a light lunch or a generic hotel room. If you are traveling on a tight budget, avoid staying in the most-well-known resorts and cities; Geneva, Zürich, Zermatt, Gstaad, and St. Moritz are especially expensive. One sure way of saving some cash: in those cities (and others) you can often find a good meal at the cafeterias of the local Migros or Coop supermarket chains, or at the Manor department stores. If you are traveling by car, you have the luxury of seeking out small family hotels in villages, where costs are relatively low. Unless you work hard at finding budget accommodations, you will average more than 150 SF a night for two—more if you stay in business-class hotels.
A cup of coffee or a beer costs about 3.50 SF in a simple restaurant; ordinary open wines, sold by the deciliter ("déci"), a small pour of roughly 3.5 ounces, start at about 3.80 SF. All three beverages cost sometimes double that in resorts, city hotels, and fine restaurants. A plain, one-plate daily lunch special averages 15-20 SF. A city bus ride costs between 2 SF and 3 SF, a short cab ride 18 SF.
Prices throughout this guide are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.
ATMs and Banks
Your own bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you'll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money in a bank. And extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash. You can withdraw money from ATMs in Switzerland as long as your card is properly programmed with your personal identification number (PIN).
PINs with more than four digits are not recognized at ATMs in many countries, including Switzerland. If your PIN does not have four digits, remember to change it before you leave.
Although it's usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there's a problem), note that some credit card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they're in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won't be any surprises when you get the bill. (If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you'll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip.)
Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether or not he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit-card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases you'll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.
Dynamic currency conversion (DCC) programs are becoming increasingly widespread. Merchants who participate in them are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don't always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice. And if this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely thanks to American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn't an option.
Reporting Lost Cards
American Express (800/528-2122 in the U.S.; 623/492-3932 collect from abroad. www.americanexpress.com.)
Diners Club (800/234-6377 in the U.S.; 303/799-1504 collect from abroad. www.dinersclub.com.)
MasterCard (800/627-8372 in the U.S.; 636/722-7111 collect from abroad. www.mastercard.com.)
Visa (800/847-2911 in the U.S.; 410/581-9994 collect from abroad. www.visa.com.)
Currency and Exchange
The unit of currency in Switzerland is the Swiss franc (SF), available in notes of 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 1,000 (the currency symbol for the franc is CHF). Francs are divided into centimes (in Suisse Romande) or Rappen (in German Switzerland). There are coins for 5, 10, 20, and 50 centimes. Larger coins are the 1-, 2-, and 5-franc pieces.
At this writing (fall 2010) the Swiss franc stood at 1.05 to the U.S. dollar, 1.03 to the Canadian dollar, and 1.66 to the pound sterling. Keep in mind that more than 300 train stations have currency exchange offices that are open daily, including lunch hours, when many banks are closed. These booths swap currency, buy and sell traveler's checks in various currencies, and cash Eurocheques.
Even if a currency-exchange booth has a sign promising no commission, rest assured that there's some kind of huge, hidden fee. (Oh … that's right. The sign didn't say no fee). And as for rates, you're almost always better off getting foreign currency at an ATM or exchanging money at a bank.
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