Decide what sort of ski holiday you want and choose a resort accordingly to get the most out of the variety of resorts on offer: Verbier for nightlife, Zermatt for food, Saas Fee for families, Engelberg for off-piste…
If you’re driving, buy a vignette. You will get fined without one.
Get your head round the currency conversion rate – while it’s not cheap, you might be surprised at how competitively priced a lot of things are.
Try the Swiss white wine, Fendant – it’s light, affordable and goes with virtually everything!
If you’re hiring a car from Geneva, make sure you get one from the Swiss rental outlets rather than the French ones in order to save yourself considerable hassle.
Switzerland's skiing is concentrated in fairly distinct regions but airports are relatively near each one and public transport is so painless and scenic, the transfer is virtually a pleasure! Most skiers take advantage of direct flights to Geneva, from where resorts such as Villars, Verbier and Les Diablerets are under two hours' drive. Carriers to Geneva (gva.ch) include SWISS (swiss.com), easyJet (easyjet.com), British Airways (ba.com), Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com), KLM (klm.com), Alitalia (alitalia.com), Lufthansa (lufthansa.com) and BMI (flybmi.com). Zürich airport (zurich-airport.com) is the better choice for resorts in German-speaking Switzerland such as Engelberg, Flims-Laax and Saas Fee. Carriers to Zürich include SWISS (swiss.com), British Airways (ba.com), easyJet (easyjet.com), KLM (klm.com), Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com), Lufthansa (lufthansa.com) and BMI (flybmi.com).
Although Switzerland isn't a member of the EU, visitors from EU countries do not require a visa. Other foreigners who don't intend to work or study there can stay for three months without a residence permit.
As part of the EU, Switzerland is governed by European health standards. Health insurance is recommended and EU citizens should carry a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC).
Even if you haven't been to Switzerland, you'll know that key Swiss contributions to the culinary world involve melted cheese – either in the form of fondue (dipping bread cubes into melted cheese) or raclette (cheese is melted in front of an open fire or broiler, scraped onto a plate and served with potatoes and pickled onions) – and chocolate. Both cheese dishes have their roots in Swiss dairy farming, one of the country's main industries, and it makes sense in this context that the national dish is filling, unpretentious and takes advantage of its range of over 200 cheeses. The result is that they're both ubiquitous throughout the country and it's virtually obligatory to sample some when you visit. For non-cheese-eaters, there are two types of meat fondue: bourguignon, where you cook your small pieces of meat in hot oil, and chinoise, where you cook thin slices of beef in a broth served with oriental sauces. Breakfast in Switzerland is generally the classic continental mix of bread rolls, cheese, ham, boiled eggs, birchermüesli (a filling, nutritious variation of dried muesli), strong coffee and juice. Fill up while you can, as Swiss mountain restaurants are pretty expensive, although you do generally get what you pay for – many of the world's best mountain restaurants can be found in the Swiss Alps, with a concentration in Zermatt. If you're on a budget, stock up at the local supermarkets and make sandwiches to eat on the hill – Migros is a fantastic supermarket that stocks high-quality food and household items at decent prices that remain the same whether you're in a city or mountain village. In the evening, expect hot cheese and plenty of meat (predominantly veal, pork and sausages) served with potatoes (another classic Swiss dish is rösti – grated potato baked in little patties) and vegetables. Generally speaking, you'll find the usual mix of Western fusion food in most places although vegetarians might struggle to find much variety, with cheese, pasta and dumplings being staples. Finally, you can't possibly come to Switzerland without trying some genuine Swiss chocolate. Some 93,500 tonnes of chocolate were consumed in Switzerland in 2007, implying that the Swiss eat 12.3kg of chocolate each year – more than any other nation in the world.
crime & safety
Switzerland is one of Europe's safest, most civil countries, although danger obviously increases in the major cities. In most places, it's safe to leave skis on balconies and restaurant terraces but thefts do occur, particularly in bigger resorts such as Verbier or Flims-Laax. The Swiss police are fair, although drivers must be aware that any travel on Swiss roads requires Swiss car tax (vignette), which can be bought at the border or at newsagents. Checkpoints are frequent and large fines are common.
For such a small country, the language situation in Switzerland is surprisingly complex. Swiss-German is a dialect of German spoken mainly in the eastern part of the country. In the west, standard French is spoken (not 'Swiss-French', which doesn't exist). Then there is Ticino in the south, where Italian is the official language, and the tiny 2% of the population living in the canton of Grisons in the southeastern corner of the country who speak the obscure Romansch (a sort of modern-day Latin). In identifying the border where Swiss-German becomes French, the Swiss speak about the 'Rösti Graben' – an imaginary border representing the change from one language to another, as well as the many cultural differences this represents.
Although we recommend using the Swiss Travel System for day-to-day travelling (see below), a car is probably the better option if you're planning a longer, multi-resort road trip. The Swiss drive on the right, and a valid UK, EU/EEA or driving licence from your own country is fine. International Driving Permits are not required. People in Switzerland follow all regulations and the police enforce the law fairly strictly – particularly when it comes to the vignette road tax.
Most major hire car companies (easycar.com, hertz.com, avis.com) have offices in airports and cities. Usual age restrictions apply. If you're flying into Geneva, make sure you hire a car from the Swiss side of the city and not the French side – it will make your life considerably easier!
If you're planning any major midwinter drives, check tcs.ch and mct.sbb.ch for up-to-date information on the status of local mountain passes.
Switzerland has one of Europe's most efficient, comfortable and affordable integrated transport systems that has you off the plane, bundled into a train and rolling through breathtakingly beautiful scenery to your resort. If travelling from the UK, you can book train tickets in advance at the Swiss Travel Centre (stc.co.uk). We recommend getting a Swiss Travel System pass – a 4-, 8-, 15-, 22-day or one-month pass gives unlimited travel on trains, buses and boats. The system covers 37 cities with 50% off mountain summit trains, cable cars and funiculars. There are other options – for further information visit MySwitzerland.com/rail. For train and bus timetables visit sbb.ch, although you'll find more bus information on postbus.ch.
In mountain areas, shops close on Sundays and can also shut between 1200 and 1400 on weekdays, although it depends on the size of the town or city you're in.
green travel tip
Travelling green couldn't be easier in Switzerland. In addition to having clean, comfortable, efficient trains that run like (Swiss) clockwork, there's also the excellent 'Fly-Rail Baggage' service which enables you to check in your baggage at any airport around the world through to your end destination when you fly via Zürich or Geneva airport. Once you arrive in Switzerland, go straight through customs, hop on a train unencumbered by heavy luggage carrying just your hand-luggage safe while your baggage is forwarded to the nearest railway station to your ski resort, where you can pick it up at given times. Being Switzerland, the nearest station is invariably IN your resort as is the case with Adelboden, Arosa, Davos, Engelberg, Grindelwald, Klosters, Mürren, Saas-Fee, St. Moritz, Wengen and Zermatt. The cost of the service is a mere CHF20.– per bag. For more information, contact the Swiss Travel System (swisstravelsystem.com).