When I tell people that I live more cheaply in my current digs -- the pristine, legendarily pricey tourist Mecca of Switzerland's Lauterbrunnen Valley -- than I do in my Salt Lake City loft, they generally don't believe me. It's true...and it's true by a factor of three, actually.
Sure, there are other factors at play here -- for instance, low rent (a room in an old, creaky house) and the almost entire substitution of pay-to-play activities with the distinctly non-pay-to-play activity of BASE jumping. However, don't get distracted -- it's not rent or general cost of living where people generally hemorrhage money in this Valley. It's food and drink.
Visitors -- BASE jumpers and whuffos alike -- tend to fall into a few recognizable camps once they land here. There are, of course, the ones that have enough money to splash out at restaurants all the time. I sure as hell can't keep up with those guys. ($17 for a "field salad with pieces of bacon and bread croutons"? WTF?!) Then there are the ones that immediately begin eating nothing but sausages, the ones that start strong but soon end up stumbling in, exhausted, for a daily pizza, and the ones that soon discover that peanut butter and jelly ain't gonna cut it (peanut butter is super-expensive here) and end up surviving on prepackaged grocery-store convenience food. Energy levels suffer, obviously.
I've learned some ways around the morass. For my little two-person family, I spend about CHF 30.- each, per week when I'm in Lauters.
- Get access to a kitchen. If you're on a budget, this is an absolute non-negotiable. You can't set foot in a restaurant in the Berner Oberland without getting your fiscal ass handed to you. If you're on any kind of budget, stay the hell out of restaurants. All of 'em. Seriously.
- Make friends with store brands. Migros and COOP are the two big chains here. The pricing on their laughably unattractively packaged generics represents a huge savings from the branded stuff, especially in the case of the hideous pink-and-white Prix Guarantie store brand at COOP. The quality is better than it looks (but that's not hard to pull off, considering).
- Get local. Buy eggs and dairy from the farms around you. The prices are better than those at the market, and the food is, predictably, light-years better. Make the stop part of your morning walk (or post-BASE-jump amble back to the packing area). There are farms scattered all around the Lauterbrunnen Valley, and those that sell their produce have little hand-written signs hanging outside. (Look for the Swiss German words milch -- milk -- chas -- cheese -- and eier -- eggs.) My favorite milk stop in the Valley is a small dairy farm on the main road not far from the La Mousse landing area. It has a coin-operated milk machine tucked inside an alcove along the wall facing the road. In Wengen, where I live, there's a dairy shop called Molkerei Chäs Gruebi that refills my milk bottles with local cow juice for about a Franc. Eggs are everywhere.
- Go 98% vegetarian. Meat and fish are of generally high quality in Switzerland, with a price tag to match. Sure, you could live on store-brand sausages, but on a regular diet of 'em it doesn't take long before you start to smell like--well--a store-brand sausage when you sweat on a hike. One note for diehard carnivores: the Swiss are militant about their expiration dates, often offering discounts of more than 50% on items that are about to expire. The discount stickers at the COOP are circular and bright orange. Feel free to do a little dance and pounce when you see one.
- Embrace inconvenience. A quick example for you: I love coffee-flavored yoghurt. The COOP sells a set of six individual little pots of the stuff for a little more than 5.- CHF. Right next to this is a large tub of plain, store-brand yoghurt for 1.- CHF. It takes one minute to sweeten that plain tub to my own taste and flavor it with instant coffee.
- Prep. Especially if you're hiking to five BASE jumps a day, you're going to be knackered by the time you get back, and ever-so-likely to just buy whatever food you smell on the way back to your room. When you cook, cook a ton and have food waiting for you in the fridge when you collapse through the door at the end of the day. Bring fruit on your hikes, so you don't have to jump down your rubbish. Remember your Platypus, so you're not throwing francs into vending machines in a dehydrated grump.
- Learn to use the cheap stuff well. The huge bags of bulk store-brand vegetables are some of the cheapest, healthiest foods you can buy in Switzerland, and you get loads of mileage out of them if you know what to do. Buy that overwhelmingly massive bag of onions and make a couple batches of delicious onion soup. Same goes for the big bags of carrots and oranges -- carrot-orange soup is really good. (Also: eating a lot of soup will help keep you hydrated.) When the last of the big bag of apples is a little too far gone for happy snacking, make stewed apples (with cheapo store-brand raisins, natch) and overnight oatmeal (reliably thrifty) for breakfast. There are approximately one million ways to use the contents of that enormous bag of potatoes. Get creative.
- Don't make assumptions about what's in the kitchen. Most guesthouses have shelves full of left-behind unperishables (stacks of cans, great big boxes of rice and pasta, coffee, tea, condiments, bottle after bottle of cooking oil) that the house residents automatically assume belong to someone else. If you see lonely-looking food, don't buy more--ask about it. Post notes. If no one claims it, offer to split it with the current residents; chances are, they've been ignoring it because it's inconvenient to cook and they'll be happy to let you have it.
- Rethink rubbish. The stale bread left behind by departing housemates (or forgotten by your current ones) is not trash. You can make some damn tasty meals with it, in fact. Here's a collection of stale bread recipes from the New York Times if you prefer to work from a cookbook-style format, and here's a more general list of 17 things you can make with it if you're more freeform. That brick of hard cheese slowly growing mold in the corner of the fridge isn't trash, either. Cut off the fuzzy parts, grate the rest into a plastic bag and stick it in the freezer. Don't be a snob.
- Try not to hit the bar. You will sometimes, of course. Blurred nights at the Horner are part of life here. But know this: reasonably good wine is -- shock! -- one of the only reliably cheap items at the grocery stores here. Just go easy so you can, y'know, jump tomorrow pain-free. Eye on the prize, y'know.
My neighbor-chickens make awesome eggs.