In the footsteps of Swiss Family Robinson?
Yes. First published in 1812, Der Schweizerische Robinson is the story of a shipwrecked family who learn to take care of themselves. It was written by a Swiss pastor, Johann Wyss, to teach whipper-snappers thrift and self-reliance. As the German title The Swiss Robinson implies, Wyss modelled his tale on Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. But an English translation garbled the title and Disney's 1960 film adaptation wrote the error into history.
Initiative and adaptability are virtues for making the most of Switzerland on a budget – starting with skiing. April 5 marks the end of the ski season for most resorts: only those with slopes above 3,000 metres stay open. Happily, glamorous St Moritz is one. Two adults and a child under 12 pay 1,898 Swiss francs (£1,174) for seven nights in a studio at the Sporthotel Stille, including breakfast and ski-passes, starting on 7 April. Book at stmoritz.ch . For flights, you could pay £287 for Luton to Zurich on easyJet (0871 244 2366; easyjet.com ), including two checked bags. The best transfers are by train: £154 will buy you two £77 Swiss Transfer Tickets plus a free Family Card from a specialist agent such as Rail Europe (0844 848 4030; raileurope.co.uk ) or Railbookers (020-3327 0800; railbookers.com ). The DIY package price comes out at £1,615.
If you prefer someone else to do the leg-work for you, Swiss Travel Service (0844 879 8813; swisstravel.co.uk ) has a week self-catering at the four-star Allalin Apartments in the car-free resort of Saas-Fee, starting on 10 April. Two adults and two children under eight pay £1,789, including easyJet flights from Luton to Zurich and rail transfers.
And when the snow melts?
That's when Switzerland comes into its own. For a snow-free break at Easter head south to the sassy Italian-speaking city of Lugano. On the lakefront at Bissone, Hotel Lago di Lugano (00 41 91 641 9800; hotellagodilugano.ch ) is well set up for families, with a big pool and free activities. Seven nights costs from £3,676 for two adults and two children aged 7-15 through Crystal Lakes (0871 231 5661; crystallakes.co.uk ), including flights from Gatwick to Milan Malpensa (40km from Lugano), transfers, transport passes and half-board accommodation.
Nearby attractions include the Alprose chocolate factory (00 41 91 611 8888; alprose.ch ), which offers unlimited tasting as part of a museum visit (9am-5.30pm Monday to Friday, 9am-4.30pm Saturday and Sunday; Sfr3/£1.85 adult, Sfr1/60p under 16s), the Monte Generoso rack-railway (00 41 91 630 5111; montegeneroso.ch ; Sfr39/£24 return, half-price for under 16s), and the world's highest commercial bungy jump: 220m off the Verzasca Dam (00 41 91 780 7800; trekking.ch ; Sfr255/£157, under-18s Sfr195/£120).
Many high-altitude resorts close down in the May-June "shoulder" season, but there are some bargains to be had at lower, more accessible locations. For May half-term, Dertour (020-7290 1111; dertour.co.uk ) offers the classy, chalet-style four-star Steigenberger Hotel in Saanen, outside Gstaad: a week half board for two adults and two children under 11, including flights and transfers, costs £2,499. The hotel lays on babysitting, free child care in the on-site kids' club, activities such as camping, painting and farm visits, play areas and more.
Anything more thrifty?
Stay overnight in the family-minded village of Villars ( villars.ch ) between June and October and you receive a Free Access card, granting unlimited use of local mountain transport, amenities such as tennis courts, pools and mini-golf, guided nature walks in the forest and more. They dub the scheme "A Mountain of Freebies", and promise: "You pay for food and accommodation, we offer (almost) everything else." Seven nights in August at the four-star Eurotel Victoria in Villars for two adults and two children under seven, including Swiss flights from Heathrow to Geneva and transfers is £1,528 through Kuoni (01306 747002; kuoni.co.uk ).
Interlaken, surrounded by majestic mountains and poised between two of Switzerland's most beautiful lakes, has plenty of summer activities from sailing to canyoning. A week at the three-star Hotel Carlton-Europe with Inghams (020 8780 4454; inghams.co.uk ), starting on either 24 or 31 July, costs from £816 for adults and £169 for children under 11, including flights and half board.
Interlaken is also a good launch-pad for scenic Alpine rail journeys. Switzerland Travel Centre (020-7420 4900; stc.co.uk ) has a five-day "Tops of Switzerland" tour that will keep even the most jaded teen glued to the views. Highlights include a ride to the highest rail station in Europe – the Jungfraujoch, at 3,454m above sea level – and the world's steepest rack-railway, which claws a path up Mount Pilatus near Lucerne. Book now for July or August at £530 adult, £148 child age 2-5, £252 age 6-11, £293 age 12-15, including flights on Swiss from Heathrow or London City to Zurich.
Elsewhere, 23 Alpine resorts – famous names such as Davos and Klosters, and smaller destinations such as Braunwald, Grächen and Nendaz – qualify for the "Families Welcome" label. This guarantees child-friendly accommodation, the provision of play areas, educationally themed walking trails, organised activities for children, and more. Full details at MySwitzerland.com/families .
Any other ways to burn off energy?
Mountain-biking is hugely popular, with routes outlined in detail at mountainbikeland.ch . Bike shops in major resorts offer rental.
Engelberg, a buzzing Alpine resort at the end of a narrow-gauge train line above Lake Lucerne, has several family-friendly trails, including Route 6, an easy ride to the Untertrübsee lake, with classic vistas (280m ascent; 16km).
There's a host of other possibilities, from canoeing at Interlaken to blading beside Lake Constance. Parc Aventure at Aigle near Montreux (00 41 24 466 3030; parc-aventure.ch ) is one of 28 Swiss adventure parks – perfect for children to go monkeying around on rope bridges in the forest.
The park operates May to October, with opening hours increasing to 9am-6pm daily in July and August. Admission is Sfr33 (£20) adult, children age 12-15 Sfr23 (£14), age 10-11 Sfr19 (£12), age 8-9 Sfr14 (£8.50), age 4-7 Sfr10 (£6).
A hidden gem?
Head off the main tourist trails in the Bernese Oberland to the Haslital region ( haslital.ch ). Centred on the modest holiday town of Meiringen, it bends over backwards to accommodate families. From 26 pushchair-accessible walking paths to a mini-golf course in a meadow, teepee adventures and picnic areas with pre-equipped barbecues, they seem to have thought of everything. Adding to the allure are the vintage steam locomotives of the Brienzer Rothorn railway, demonstrations of rural crafts at the Ballenberg Open-Air Museum, waterfalls and Alpine gorges to explore – and Meiringen itself, once a haunt of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, now with its own Sherlock Holmes Museum (00 41 33 972 1880; sherlockholmes.ch ; 1.30-6pm daily except Monday; Sfr4/£2.50, under 12s Sfr3/£2).
The Haslital tourist office has packages starting at Sfr1,125 (£695), covering five nights at a hotel in Meiringen for two adults and two children up to age 12, including breakfast and perks.
How do we get around?
With the greatest of ease. Swiss trains are fast, frequent and punctual, connecting seamlessly to buses, boats and cable cars thanks to integrated timetabling.
The Swiss Pass gives unlimited travel on the entire network, including urban trams and buses, as well as free admission to 450 of the best museums in Switzerland. Sample adult prices are £153 for four days, or £278 for 15 days. If two adults travel together, both get a 15 per cent discount. A Family Card – issued free with any Swiss travel pass – grants free travel to children aged 6-15 when accompanied by a parent. Young people aged 16-25 qualify for a discounted Youth Pass. Children under 6 go free.
Other validity periods, and more flexible passes, are available: check swisstravelsystem.co.uk for details. Many holiday packages include a Swiss Pass.
Cycling is a good way to see the countryside, with hundreds of routes outlined at veloland.ch . Swiss travel passes discount the cost of a day's cycle hire from any of 94 railway stations to Sfr28/£17, reduced again by half for children under 16. Helmets and child seats are free, with toddler-trailers (Sfr14/£8.50) and slipstream bikes for the under-6s (Sfr14/£8.50) available at certain locations. Rentabike.ch has details.
Where will we stay?
Most Swiss hotels are family-friendly. But, 31 properties have been awarded the KidsHotels mark, meaning they meet a set of child-friendly criteria. A leading player is the Kinderhotel Muchetta, in Wiesen village beside Davos (00 41 81 410 4100; kinderhotel.ch ): as well as a nursery and soft play centre, it offers playgrounds and adventure parks for older children. Double rooms in summer from Sfr115 (£71) adult, Sfr30–60 (£18–37) child depending on age, including half board and childcare.
Another option is to self-cater. Interhome (020 8780 6629; interhome.co.uk ) specialises in holiday rentals. The three-star Villa Le Grèbe at St Gingolph on Lake Geneva sleeps six, has a garden and costs £1,573 for seven nights from 23 August. Nearby is a sandy beach, miniature steam railway ( swissvapeur.ch ) and flume complex (aquaparc.ch).
Hostelling is a great way to see the country, with 57 internationally affiliated hostels (youthhostel.ch) and 33 independent backpacker hostels ( swissbackpackers.ch ). Many are in idyllic Alpine surroundings and offer extras such as bike hire. From 11 April to 30 June, two adults and their children can stay five nights for the price of four at hostels in Geneva, Vevey, Interlaken, Grindelwald and Lucerne, from Sfr31 (£19) per person per night, less for children. Book at myswitzerland.com/families .
SwissTrails ( swisstrails.ch ) offers several "bike-and-camp" packages, including a three-day ride by Lake Geneva from Sfr351/£217 including accommodation, bike hire, map and luggage transport (half-price for under 12s).
"Sleeping in Straw" sees farmers spread their barns with fresh summer hay to host rural family getaways. The Swiss scheme includes 200 farms, listed at schlaf-im-stroh.ch. Nightly prices are Sfr20–30 (£12–18) per adult (less for children), including breakfast.
Switzerland Tourism (00 800 1002 0030; MySwitzerland.com/families ).
Matthew Teller is author of The Rough Guide to Switzerland: the updated 4th edition out in May
Urban delights: Beyond the hills
If Alpine meadows and kitschy chalets don't ring your bell, aim instead for the cities, most of which retain medieval architecture. Children familiar with Grimm-style fairy tales will get a kick out of walking on real-life cobbled streets beside turreted castles and gilded clocktowers. Trams and electric trolley-buses are ubiquitous, cycle lanes are respected and most city centres are pedestrianised.
Family-friendly attractions abound. In Basel, aim for the Swiss Museum of Paper, a Rhineside workshop where children can make their own paper and learn about printing. It is open 2-5pm daily except Monday, admission Sfr12 (£7) adult, Sfr8 (£5) child under 16 (00 41 61 225 9090; papiermuseum.ch ). Children might also like Basel's traditional cable-ferries (faehri.ch), which use the power of the current to slide from bank to bank. They run more or less on demand for Sfr1.60/£1, half-price for under-16s.
Zurich's state-of-the-art zoo (00 41 44 254 2505; zoo.ch) includes the Masoala Rainforest zone, showcasing Madagascan flora and fauna. It opens 10am-6pm daily. A family ticket for two adults plus children under 16 costs Sfr60 (£37).
Rising above Zurich city centre is the Uetliberg mountain, accessible on a clanking mountain railway: at the top, as well as panoramic views, the Planetenweg trail features models of the planets on a scale of 1:1 billion, with the distances between them also to scale. A 10-minute stroll brings you past Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, while Pluto is 5km away via the scenic ridge-top path.
Tintin fans should aim for Nyon, a modest town near Geneva that was the setting for The Calculus Affair: several scenes from the 1956 book are still recognisable today. Download the tourist office's brochure at www.bit.ly/SwissFam .
Liechtenstein: Perfectly formed
Sandwiched between Switzerland and the Austrian Alps, the principality of Liechtenstein – less than half the size of the Isle of Wight – has an unusually good mountain hideaway, in the shape of Malbun.
Accessible from Zurich airport in less than three hours by train and bus, Malbun is a straggle of chalets that has made a speciality of its family-friendliness: the spacious, modern Gorfion hotel, for example, has play areas, organised activities and childcare as well as an "imagination workshop" walking children through the nearby forest.
Double rooms start at Sfr121 (£75) adult plus Sfr22–92 (£13–57) per child, full board (00 423 265 9000; gorfion.li ). Malbun has regular falconry shows (galina.li), or you could take the scenic Sareis chair-lift up to 2,000m for walks and exploration. More information at tourismus.li .