Introduction and Background
As always when we begin a trip report with our itinerary, we like to provide a little background to give some context for the choices we made.
The first important factor for this trip was the traveling party. Middle Age Miles son Zack and daughter-in-law Erin joined us for this trip. They flew separately from Denver (in fact, they left a few days early and enjoyed a side trip to Norway before Philly and arrived). When we’re traveling alone, Philly and I almost always stay in hotels. But here, having 4 adults on the trip meant that there were times when Airbnb would present good and more cost-effective options. Zack & Erin also do a lot of hiking, so we knew that we wanted to do as many outdoor activities as possible on this trip.
Another important factor was timing. Scheduling the trip around the 4th of July holiday worked out best, to give the people with full-time jobs (everyone except me!) the most efficient usage of their time off. Traveling at this time, in the heart of the summer holiday season, would mean that we wouldn’t be able to get nearly as many bargains as we’re able to find when we travel during off-season or shoulder seasons. But that said, we’d try to get as much value out of our points and miles as possible and take other steps to reduce our out-of-pocket costs. We’ll cover those strategies in this article, folded in with our itinerary.
The next big factor shaping this trip was trying to see one or two stages of the Tour de France cycling race. Philly, Zack and I all follow the Tour religiously each summer (Erin, not so much!), and it had long been on our bucket list to attend. Once we started looking at a trip to Switzerland around the 4th of July holiday, it didn’t take us long to figure out that the Tour would be passing through the Alsace region of eastern France on dates that would coincide with our trip. To make the Tour dates work, though, we’d have to rush a bit through the first half of our trip so that we could arrive in Alsace in time for the race.
And the final major factor impacting our planning were my realizations that (1) we could fly back home from Paris more cheaply than Zurich, and (2) a combination of standard points availability and Amex Hilton Aspire card credits meant that we had the opportunity for a memorable stay at the Waldorf Astoria Trianon Palace at Versailles on the last night of our trip.
Our resulting itinerary generally followed the map below (omitting the last-day trip to Paris & Versailles from the map). We started in Zurich, spending our first night at the H+ Hotel Zurich, ventured up to the Rheinfall on the first full day of our trip, then made our way around the blue-colored route basically clockwise over the course of our trip.
Itinerary for the 12-day Swiss Alps & Tour de France Trip + How We Booked It
Here’s our itinerary for our 12-day Swiss Alps & Tour de France trip, along with notes on how we booked each piece of our journey (note that we’ll have follow-up articles in this trip report that cover many of these activities in more detail; right now we’re just focusing on the basic itinerary and how we booked):
Day 1 – Tuesday 7/2/19
- Pre-flight meal at the American Airlines Flagship Lounge at DFW Terminal D
- Flight from DFW to London LHR, on our way to Zurich (ZRH)
- BA 192 – depart DFW 9:55 pm – arrive LHR 1:00 pm (Wed 7/3)
- Business Class (Club World)
How we booked our flight – Our flights to Zurich (via LHR) were the “return” leg of a round-trip ticket that originated a few months earlier. Our “outbound” leg had originated in Rome back in April 2019, flying FCO-DFW in Business Class on AA. We purchased the tickets from British Airlines using a paid fare that came to about $2,250 per person. We paid with a new Amex personal Platinum card to earn 5x Membership Rewards (MR) points plus make progress toward meeting our minimum spend requirement for the sign-up bonus. The flight was booked in mid-January, about 3 months before the “outbound” FCO-DFW segment, and 5.5 months before this “return” leg.
By originating in Europe and purchasing our fare through BA rather than AA, we were able to save money, get great flights, earn more EQMs and EQDs toward AA status, earn more redeemable miles, and gain other benefits. We examined our booking strategy for this flight in detail in an earlier article, which remains a great reference:
- Middle Age Miles: Combining 2 Tricks for Massive Savings and AA Elite Qualification Miles/Dollars – Originate in Europe & Buy Biz Class Partner Tickets (February 8, 2019)
Day 2 – Wednesday 7/3/19
- During LHR layover, take a short break in the British Airways business class lounge in Terminal 5
- Flight from LHR to Zurich ZRH
- BA 716 – depart LHR 2:55 pm – arrive ZRH 5:40 pm (Wed 7/3)
- Business Class (Club Europe)
- BA 716 – depart LHR 2:55 pm – arrive ZRH 5:40 pm (Wed 7/3)
- Pick up rental vehicle from Sixt at ZRH airport
- Located in the Parking 3 garage section
How we booked our rental vehicle and what we got – We rented a pretty bright blue Mitsubishi SUV from Sixt, with just enough room for the 4 of us with luggage. We would pick up the vehicle on 7/3/19 in Zurich and return it 9 days later at the train station in Basel. The all-in rental price was 520.98 Swiss francs (CHF; the exchange rate was almost exactly 1 CHF to 1 USD at the time, so the rental was about $521). We thought this was a very fair price for this type of vehicle in expensive Switzerland, especially given that it was a one-way rental.
We clicked through the Top Cashback shopping portal to book this Sixt rental. The cashback rate at the time was a generous 8%. However, the cashback did not post, and our follow-up claim was denied. It looked like Sixt denied the claim based on us using a preferred rate based on our Sixt Platinum status.
Before this rental, we’d always had good luck renting from Sixt in Europe. This time, though, although the vehicle and rate were good, the return was disastrous and has soured us on using Sixt going forward.
- Drive ourselves from the airport into town, to check in at the H+ Hotel in Zurich
- 1 night
- Booked with Wyndham Rewards points
- King Bed Business rooms
- Late dinner on the outside patio at Pizzeria Da Como, across the street from the H+ Hotel
How and why we booked the H+ Hotel in Zurich – We didn’t need much for this night in Zurich, as we arrived fairly late and Zack & Erin got in even later, then we knew we’d be hitting the road early the next morning. The H+ Hotel fit the bill perfectly. The hotel was solid, clean and in a nice neighborhood.
We booked the H+ using Wyndham Rewards points, at 15,000 points per room (2 rooms for the night, for 30,000 points total). This presented good value for our points, as Zurich is an expensive city for hotels, and nightly rates during our summer visit were about $175/night. At about 1.2 cents per Wyndham Rewards point, this gave us a return well above our baseline value (our baseline value was 0.9 cpp then; now we’ve reduced it to 0.7 cpp). Even after Wyndham’s category changes, this hotel remains at 15,000 points per night, though, meaning that it still would probably present good value during the summer holiday season.
On points, we were able to reserve a King Bed Business Room, which seems to be a step above a base-level room. Our points booking also included a breakfast buffet, which was fine although nothing to write home about.
Day 3 – Thursday 7/4/19
- Early breakfast at the H+ Hotel
- Included in our booking
- Drive from Zurich to the Rheinfall (town: Neuhausen am Rheinfall)
- About a 50-minute drive
- Make it in time for an early boat trip to the rock in the middle of the Rheinfall – boat trips start at 9:30 am
- Hike around the Rheinfall and have lunch in Neuhausen am Rheinfall
- Drive from Neuhausen am Rheinfall to Lucerne
- About an hour and a half, tracking back through Zurich
- Check in at The Hotel Lucerne (Marriott Autograph Collection)
- 1 night
- Booked with Marriott free night certificates plus cash
- Craig & Philly – Garden & Park Loft Suite
- Zack & Erin – Corner Junior Suite
- See the Chapel Bridge, Lion of Lucerne and other Lucerne sights, and have dinner in town
How and why we booked The Hotel Lucerne – Lucerne is an expensive hotel market, especially during the summer holiday season. Thus, we were delighted to find that The Hotel Lucerne, a hotel within Marriott’s Autograph Collection, had some availability for points bookings on the night we needed. It didn’t have any standard rooms, but it did have suites available for 35,000 Marriott points plus a cash co-payment of $70 to $100 depending on the type of suite.
Given that base-level rooms at The Hotel Lucerne were more than $500/night and suites were in the range of $700, using 35,000 Marriott points plus some cash seemed like a great deal. If we’d been redeeming points for these rooms, we’d have been getting more than 1.5 cents per Marriott point. That’s an incredible deal.
But the deal got even better. We had 2 35,000-point free night certificates, and we found that we could actually use our certificates for the suites instead of points (plus the cash co-payments)! We booked one suite at the 35k + $70 level, which turned out to be the last suite available in that category. Then, we booked a second, even nicer suite at the 35k + $100 level. Using the certificates + cash for suites felt like a home run for sure.
Unfortunately, Marriott Bonvoy’s many devaluations mean that this booking is no longer available. First, The Hotel Lucerne has moved up from a Bonvoy Category 5 to a Category 6 hotel with a standard redemption cost of 50,000 points. Second, Marriott Bonvoy introduced Peak/Standard/Off-Peak pricing. At The Hotel Lucerne, you won’t find any rates during the summer at Off-Peak, and many (most?) nights will price at the Peak 60,000-point level. Third, based on some recent searches, we’re thinking that Marriott may have eliminated the ability to use free night certificates in place of points for points+cash rates. And finally, at The Hotel Lucerne, the cash surcharges for suites have now increased to $100 and $200 rather than $70 and $100. So, our suite that cost us a 35k certificate + $100 for a July night would now almost certainly cost 60,000 Marriott points + $200. Yes, that’s how much Marriott Bonvoy has devalued in just a year!
Another potential option for us in Lucerne would have been the Renaissance Lucerne hotel. We actually stayed there back in 2017 on a different trip and had a good experience. We chose The Hotel Lucerne this time because it looked like a very interesting place and a unique experience as more of a boutique hotel. The Hotel Lucerne was definitely unique, but if we had it to do over again and the Renaissance had availability, we might have just stayed there. The Renaissance was solid, and we were treated well as Marriott elites. Both hotels were Category 5 in 2019, both went up to Category 6 in 2020, and the hotels are located within 2-3 blocks of one another, so points category and location are not differentiating factors. On paid rates, The Hotel Lucerne is generally priced higher than the Renaissance.
Day 4 – Friday 7/5/19
- Early breakfast at The Hotel Lucerne
- Complimentary as a Marriott Titanium elite guest
- Drive from Lucerne to Alpnachstad
- Short 15-minute drive
- Park in the public lot adjacent to the Alpnachstad railway station (overnight parking is permitted)
- Take the cogwheel railway up to the top of Mt. Pilatus
- 9:35 am departure; arrive atop Mt. Pilatus at 10:05 am
- Tickets included with our Hotel Pilatus-Kulm reservations
- Check in at Hotel Pilatus-Kulm
- 1 night
- Superior Double Rooms (dinner & breakfast included)
- Leave luggage at the check-in center until we can get into the room
How and why we booked Hotel Pilatus-Kulm – Location. Hotel Pilatus-Kulm is at a unique and spectacular location atop Mt. Pilatus. Mt. Pilatus tops out at about 7,000 feet, much “smaller” than many other peaks of the Swiss Alps – but it stands out because of its prominence. The elevation in nearby Lucerne is only 1,427 feet, so Pilatus stands out. And it stands alone, not closely surrounded by any other peaks, so the views are awesome in all directions.
As far as booking Hotel Pilatus-Kulm goes, there’s not much you can do. You must book directly with the hotel, and for the most part, the rate is what it is. We booked a “Summit Dreams” rate for a “Superior” 1-king room, which also included tickets to ascend and descend the cogwheel railway (or gondola) as well as a wine-and-cheese happy hour, dinner, and breakfast. Our rate was 490 CHF / $490 for each room, for 1 night (including VAT). Bookings can be made online through the hotel website.
- Take the gondola down to Frakmuntegg for an afternoon of hiking, lunch and the very fun Frakigaudi toboggan run
- Return to hotel late afternoon by gondola for additional walks around the top of Mt. Pilatus, complimentary happy hour, and dinner
Day 5 – Saturday 7/6/19
- Breakfast at Hotel Pilatus-Kulm
- Ride cogwheel railway back down to Alpnachstad
- 9:30 am departure; arrive Alpnachstad at 10:10 am
- Drive from Alpnachstad to Lauterbrunnen
- About 1 hour + 15 minutes, not including stops
- Various stops along the way
- Ballenberg (an Amazing Race site)
- Grand Hotel Giessbach (an Amazing Race pit stop) & short hike to the nearby waterfall
- Interlaken (including lunch)
- Park vehicle at Lauterbrunnen
- Train from Lauterbrunnen to Kleine Scheidegg
- Check in at Hotel Bellevue des Alpes in Kleine Scheidegg
- 1 night
- Double rooms with bath/WC (dinner & breakfast included)
- Hiking around Kleine Scheidegg before dinner at Hotel Bellevue des Alpes
How and why we booked Hotel Bellevue des Alpes – Once again, location dictated our choice. We wanted to stay at this historic hotel, rather than further down the mountain in Lauterbrunnen, because it gave us more direct and quicker access to Jungfraujoch. Jungfraujoch is a spectacular place, but the views are extremely weather-dependent – and the weather up that high on the mountain can change very quickly. We wanted to be able to jump onto the train up to Jungfraujoch at a moment’s notice to get up to the top while the weather was best. This worked to our incredible advantage, as we’ll describe in more detail in a later article in this trip report.
Hotel Bellevue des Alpes is the only hotel in Kleine Scheidegg, so don’t worry about looking for other options. The town itself consists of the train station, the hotel, and a couple of shops – that’s literally it. But it’s a fantastic location at the foot of the Eiger, and certainly a unique place to stay. The hotel itself is historic – but old and strange, as we’ll discuss more in a later article. But the views … wow.
Booking with Hotel Bellevue des Alpes is decidedly old-school. It’s not available on third-party sites, and it doesn’t even have an online booking option. To book, you’ll need to call or email the hotel (firstname.lastname@example.org). Rates are whatever they quote you. Our booking called for “2 small but nice double rooms with bath/WC” at 440 CHF / about $440 per room, for 1 night. The rate includes dinner, breakfast, service and VAT.
Day 6 – Sunday 7/7/19
- Breakfast at Hotel Bellevue des Alpes
- Take the train up to visit Jungfraujoch (Top of Europe)
- This was weather-dependent, and we caught a pretty nice morning where we had reasonably good views from the top
- Take the return train down from Jungfraujoch to Kleine Scheidegg, check out of Hotel Bellevue des Alpes, then take the train down from Kleine Scheidegg to Lauterbrunnen
- Lunch in Lauterbrunnen
- Drive from Lauterbrunnen to Zermatt
- About 2½-3 hours, including driving onto a train that took us through a tunnel
- The town of Zermatt does not allow outside vehicles to enter, so technically, we were driving to the village of Tasch, a few miles north of Zermatt
- Park in Tasch and take a taxicab to our Airbnb home rental in Zermatt
- Settle in to Airbnb home rental in Zermatt
- 2 nights
- Dinner at Walliserkanne Restaurant in Zermatt
- Our dinner would include the cheese fondue, which was prominently featured as a Detour challenge in The Amazing Race Season 18, Leg 9
How and why we booked this Airbnb home rental in Zermatt – As in most places in Switzerland, hotels are expensive in Zermatt. Given that we had 4 adults, in places where Airbnb was a reasonable option, it was a more cost-effective choice. The place we chose was on the northern edge of town. It was very nicely kept, it worked out perfectly for us … and it had a great direct view of the Matterhorn from the living room and outdoor deck.
The all-in price for this very nice Airbnb in Zermatt for 2 nights was $1,193.29. The price breakdown was as follows:
- Base rate = $442.44 x 2 nights = $884.88
- Cleaning fee = $172.06
- Service fee = $136.35
For tips on how to save money on Airbnb, plus some warnings about using Airbnb gift cards, see our articles listed here:
- Middle Age Miles: How to Save Money on Airbnb Plus Earn Points and Miles (April 22, 2019)
- Middle Age Miles: Tips and Warnings About Airbnb Gift Cards (April 24, 2019)
Hotels available on points in Zermatt were few and far between. We considered the Hotel Butterfly, which is in the Best Western chain. It looked to be nice enough and was bookable on points for a solid value. But we didn’t have any BW points. Given the trouble to purchase or otherwise acquire sufficient BW points and the availability of a great Airbnb option that all of our traveling party liked, it made sense to forego the points play in favor of a paid Airbnb booking using our best strategies.
Day 7 – Monday 7/8/19
- Take the Gornergrat Bahn train for a day hiking and exploring Gornergrat and other places along the train line, with spectacular views of the Matterhorn throughout
- Lunch on the patio at Hotel Gornergrat Kulm
- Hike down from Gornergrat to Riffelberg, and take the gondola back down into Zermatt
- Explore Zermatt and have dinner in town before returning to the Airbnb
Day 8 – Tuesday 7/9/19
- Drive from Zermatt to Colmar, France (about 4½ hours)
- Taxi from Airbnb to Tasch to pick up our rental vehicle
- Stops along the way for short visits to:
- Montreux (walk along the shores of Lake Geneva, see the Freddie Mercury statue, and have a nice outdoor lunch on the lake shore)
- Check in to Airbnb penthouse rental in Colmar
- 3 nights
- Dinner in downtown Colmar at the Brasserie l’Auberge inside the Best Western Grand Hotel Bristol
How and why we booked this Airbnb penthouse rental in Colmar – Like in Zermatt, it made a ton of sense for the 4 of us to choose an Airbnb rental over a hotel in Colmar, especially since we would be staying for 3 nights. The place we rented was the penthouse of a nice residential building just outside the main business districts of Colmar. Almost all of the town was within a mile’s walk of the Airbnb, so we were well-located. In addition, given that the Tour de France was coming through town, hotel space in Colmar was not universally available.
The all-in price for our nice penthouse Airbnb in Colmar for 3 nights was only $764.49. The price breakdown was as follows:
- Base rate = $179.56 x 3 nights = $538.68
- Cleaning fee = $112.22
- Service fee = $83.97
- Occupancy taxes and fees = $29.62
There’s actually a hotel points story that goes along with our Colmar booking that’s pretty funny. We found availability using Choice points at a Comfort Hotel across the highway from the Colmar exposition grounds (basically, what Americans would call the fairgrounds). We had the Choice points, and the hotel was a great value, coming in at more than 1 cent per Choice point (compared to our baseline value of 0.6 cpp). We were surprised to find the availability on the dates that the Tour would be in town, and we booked the rooms to lock them in.
But the hotel was about a mile and a half outside the heart of town, so we figured we’d have to walk a long way at times when we wouldn’t want to. And a Comfort Hotel in and of itself didn’t make anyone jump for joy, so we were lukewarm on the hotel. Then, we found the Airbnb that we really liked at a good price, so we canceled the Comfort Hotel reservations in favor of the Airbnb.
Fast forward to the day of the Tour stage in Colmar. It turned out that the finish line for the stage not in downtown Colmar, but rather along the highway in front of the exposition grounds. The Comfort Hotel was a stone’s throw away from the finish line! All of the team buses and other Tour vehicles were parked in the exposition grounds parking lots. We would have been right there!!! We were still happy with our Airbnb, but it stung a bit to have been so close to staying right at the finish line in the middle of all the activity.
Day 9 – Wednesday 7/10/19
- Spend the first part of the day exploring Colmar
- Spend the second part of the day experiencing Tour de France Stage 5 ending in Colmar
- Enjoy the Tour de France Caravan
- Find a good spot to watch near the finish line
- The stage was a mildly hilly stage set up for a sprint finish just outside the town of Colmar
- Dinner at one of the many lovely outdoor-seating restaurants in Colmar
Day 10 – Thursday 7/11/19
- Experience a mountain stage of the Tour de France – Stage 6 ending with a steep climb up La Planche des Belles Filles in the Vosges Mountains
- Honestly, we had no idea what to expect or how to get to a remote mountain finish line that ended with a steep climb, the last kilometer being on an unpaved road
- We actually ended up at the summit of an intermediate climb up the Ballon d’Alsace, about 2/3 of the way through the stage
- Zack & Erin took this day off from the Tour and instead took a train from Colmar to Strasbourg to explore for the day
- Dinner back in Colmar
Day 11 – Friday 7/12/19
- Early-morning check-out from the Airbnb
Here’s how the day was supposed to go – how it actually played out bore very little resemblance to this plan:
- Drive from Colmar to Basel (about 1 hour)
- Return rental vehicle to Sixt at Basel Bad Train Station
- Train from Basel to Paris Gare de l’Est
- Depart Basel 8:51 am – change trains in Strasbourg – arrive Paris Gare de l’Est 12:33 pm
- Transfer from Gare de l’Est to Waldorf Astoria Versailles – Trianon Palace using Welcome Pickups
- Check in to the Waldorf Astoria Versailles
- 1 night
- King Pavillion rooms (breakfast & 2 drink coupons included as Hilton Diamond)
- In the afternoon, explore the town of Versailles and the grounds & gardens of the Palace of Versailles
- 7:30 pm – Dinner reservations at the Michelin-starred Gordon Ramsay au Trianon restaurant at the WA Versailles
Our actual day started with a rookie trip planning mistake that I made, which caused us to miss our original train from Basel to Strasbourg. Remarkably, we still made our connection in Strasbourg. However, an accident on the tracks caused us to have to stop, backtrack, and re-route into Paris on a much slower line. Instead of arriving into Paris around 12:30 pm, we got there a little after 5:00 pm. We lost our Welcome Pickups ride due to the delay and our uncertain arrival time, so we had to book an Uber ride on-the-spot to get from Gare de l’Est station out to Versailles (an hour-plus through the middle of Paris, mostly in heavy traffic). Once we checked in, we pushed our dinner time back to 8:30 pm and had time for a brief walk into the Palace of Versailles grounds. We’ll have more about the disasters of this day in a later article in this trip report.
How and why we booked the WA Versailles – Last year, shortly after our trip, we wrote a detailed article about how we used Amex Hilton card benefits (free night certificates, Aspire resort fee credits, and an Amex Offer) for a fantastic stay for 4 people at the beautiful WA Versailles – complete with dinner at the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant – for next-to-nothing out of pocket. Here’s a link to the article:
- Middle Age Miles: How We Used Amex Hilton Card Benefits for an Incredible Stay & Experience in Versailles (August 21, 2019)
Day 12 – Saturday 7/13/19
- Awesome morning run through the grounds & gardens of the Palace of Versailles
- Zack & Erin: Transfer to CDG airport & catch flight home to Denver
- Philly & Craig: Late breakfast at the Waldorf Astoria Versailles
- Explore the hotel and its grounds
- 12:20 pm pickup – Transfer from WA Versailles to CDG airport using Welcome Pickups (about 45 minutes)
- Pre-flight noodles lunch at the Cathay Pacific business lounge at CDG
- Flight from Paris CDG to DFW
- AA 23 – depart CDG 3:25 pm – arrive DFW 7:00 pm
- Business Class
- Originally booked in Premium Economy
- Used systemwide upgrades (SWUs) to move up to Business Class
How we booked our flight – We booked this flight through the Citi Travel Portal, using Citi ThankYou Points (TYPs). It was the first/”outbound” leg of another round-trip ticket originating in Europe. The “return” leg of this ticket would cover our flights to get from DFW to Cyprus (LCA) for our Cyprus-and-Jordan trip later in November.
We booked in Premium Economy class, hoping to use SWUs to upgrade to business class. For a long time, our upgrades were waitlisted, but the upgrades finally cleared on the day before our CDG-DFW flight.
Our airfare for these tickets was just under $1,980 per person. That was far lower than a business class ticket would have cost, so our SWUs were quite valuable. We also saved by booking the round-trip ticket originating in Europe. Remember, this flight was in the heart of high summer tourist season when fares were high.
We redeemed TYPs at 1.25 cents each through the Citi portal. The total cost was 316,676 TYPs. This redemption required us to hold either a Citi Prestige or Premier card (now, only the Premier card gets 1.25 cent per point (cpp) for travel redemptions, and that will drop to 1 cpp as of early April 2021). At that time, Citi TYP redemptions through the portal also qualified for travel protections, which made us feel better about using TYPs (these Citi travel protection benefits are no longer available, having been eliminated as of September 2019). Finally, using Citi TYPs to pay allowed us to earn EQMs and EQDs with AA (as well as redeemable AA miles), helping us re-qualify for AA Executive Platinum status. All in all, we felt very good about this redemption choice.
We hope you’ve enjoyed seeing this detailed itinerary for our 12-day trip to Switzerland and France. We understand that the Tour de France days were a one-off for most people’s trip planning, but even for that part, we hope that seeing how we incorporated that bucket-list experience into our itinerary can be helpful.
We thoroughly enjoy trip planning and strategizing about how to book these exciting trips, and we hope you do too. Now, we’re hoping that the world will open back up to travel in a post-coronavirus world soon so we can get back out there and experience all the world has to offer again!
What do you think about the itinerary for this trip and our planning style? What other tips do you have for travel planning, especially for Switzerland? Please share with us and other Middle Age Miles readers in the Comments!
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