Switzerland is almost as famous for its hotels as it is for its mountains, watches, and chocolates; its standards in hospitality are extremely high. Rooms are impeccably clean and well maintained, but prices are accordingly steep. Americans accustomed to spacious motels with two double beds, a big TV, and a bath-shower combination may be disappointed in their first venture into the legendary Swiss hotel's small spaces and limited facilities.
Where no address is provided in the hotel listings, none is necessary: in smaller towns and villages, a postal code is all you need. To find the hotel on arrival, watch for the official street signs pointing the way to every hotel that belongs to the local tourist association.
Air-conditioning is not as prevalent as in the United States; evenings are generally cool, so Alpine air often stands in for air-conditioning. Unfortunately, global warming has had a real impact in Europe and you may discover that even early October can prove hot and sticky in Switzerland; if this poses a major problem for you, spend the extra money to book at a hotel that offers air-conditioning (and also be sure it will be functioning during the time you are at the hotel).
Most hotels in Switzerland allow children under a certain age to stay in their parents' room at no extra charge, but others charge for them as extra adults; be sure to find out the cutoff age for children's discounts. The Swiss Hotel Association has listings of family-friendly hotels throughout the country. Supervised playrooms are available in some of the better hotels, and many winter resorts provide lists of reliable babysitters. For recommended local sitters, check with your hotel.
Particularly in ski resorts or in hotels where you'll be staying for three days or more, you may be quoted a room price per person including demi-pension (half-board). This means you've opted to have breakfast included and to eat either lunch or usually dinner in the hotel, selecting from a limited, fixed menu. Unless you're holding out for a gastronomic adventure, your best (and most economical) bet is to take half-board. Most hotels will be flexible if you come in from the slopes craving a steaming pot of fondue, and they will then subtract the day's pension supplement from your room price, charging you Ă la carte instead.
You can order brochures and get information about bed-and-breakfasts from the user-friendly website of Bed and Breakfast Switzerland, www.bnb.ch. You can also make reservations through the site.
Participating farm families register with the Verein Ferien auf dem Bauernhof (The Association of Swiss Holiday Farms), listing the birth dates of their children, rooms and facilities, and types of animals your children can see. Prices are often considerably lower than those of hotels and vacation flats. You should be reasonably fluent in French or German, depending on the region of your stayâ€”although these days, at least one family member will probably speak some English. More information is available through the Association's website as well as Switzerland Tourism.
Verein Ferien auf dem Bauernhof. 043/2105555; www.bauernhof-ferien.ch.
When selecting a place to stay, an important resource can be the hotelleriesuisse, the Swiss Hotel Association (SHA), a rigorous and demanding organization that maintains a specific rating system for lodging standards. Four out of five Swiss hotels belong to this group and take their stars seriously.
In contrast to more casual European countries, stars in Switzerland have precise meaning: a five-star hotel is required to have a specific staffâ€“guest ratio, a daily change of bed linens, and extended hours for room service. In contrast, a two-star hotel must have telephones in the rooms, soap in the bathrooms, and fabric tablecloths in the restaurant. But the SHA standards have nothing to say about the quality of the decor and the grace of service. Thus you may find a five-star hotel that meets the technical requirements but has shabby appointments, leaky plumbing, or a rude concierge, or a good, family-run two-star pension that makes you feel like royalty.
Some rules of thumb: if you are looking for American-style comfortâ€”a big bed and TV, minibar, safeâ€”you will probably be happiest in four-star, business-class hotels. A number of four-star hotels in Switzerland are part of the Best Western chain. If you are looking for moderate prices, regional atmosphere, family ownership (and the pride and care for details that implies), but don't care about a TV or minibar, look for three stars: just about every such room (but not all) has at least a shower and toilet. Two stars will get you tidy, minimal comfort, with about a third of the rooms having private toilet and bathing facilities. One-star properties are rare: they have only shared facilities and no phone available in-house and generally fall below the demanding Swiss national standard.
Several hotels in the SHA are given the designation of Landgasthof or relais de campagne ("country inn"). These generally are rustic-style lodgings typical of the region. Not all are off the beaten path; some are in the middle of small market towns or resorts. The SHA distinguishes them as offering especially high-quality service, personal attention, and parking.
Many hotels close for a short period during their region's off-season (usually during May and November). Closing dates often vary from year to year, so be sure to call ahead and check.
A few useful phrases in French, German, and Italian: a room with a bath (une chambre avec salle de bain, ein Zimmer mit Bad, una camera con bagno); a room with a view (une chambre avec vue, ein Zimmer mit Aussicht, una camera con vista); a quiet room (une chambre calme, ein ruhiges Zimmer, una camera tranquilla).
hotelleriesuisse (Swiss Hotel Association). Monbijoustr. 130, Bern, 3001. 031/3704111; www.swisshotels.com.
Travelers on a budget can get a helping hand from the Swiss Budget Hotels group; its over 130 participating hotels are in the one- to three-star bracket and generally comply with the SHA's quality standards. These comfortable little hotels have banded together to dispel Switzerland's intimidating image as an elite, overpriced vacation spot and offer down-to-earth standards in memorable packages.
Other organizations can also help you find unusual properties. The Relais & ChĂ˘teaux group seeks out manor houses, historic buildings, and other places that offer a luxurious atmosphere, with many of its properties having prices to match. A similar group, Romantik Hotels and Restaurants, combines architectural interest, historic atmosphere, and fine regional food. Relais du Silence hotels are usually isolated in a peaceful, natural setting, with first-class comforts.
A growing resource both at home and abroad is Airbnb, a site allowing locals to open up their private or shared rooms, apartments, and chalets to travelers worldwide. Prices are competitive, and it's a nice way to get a local perspective.
Swiss Budget Hotels. 031/3781835; www.rooms.ch.
Romantik Hotels and Restaurants. www.romantikhotels.com.
Relais du Silence. 01/70238163; www.relaisdusilence.com.
For more information on accommodations in Switzerland, see the Lodging Primer in Chapter 1.