Hitchhiking is an incredibly moving, enlightening and culturally authentic method of travelling. It is also free! And while at the very beginning before we had thrown a thumb out or written on a piece of cardboard, we will admit that was the major reason why we chose to hitchhike. Very suddenly that changed. We realised we had chosen a method that was not only free, but gave us the chance to meet locals, learn more about their country from their point of view (not commercial travel website or magazine), have a more in depth insight into their culture, mannerism, logic, way of thinking, and style of living. How many organised tours allow you to have hours of conversations with genuine locals simply living their lives..
The benefits don’t stop just there however. Hitchhiking keeps you awake, intrigued and open. Your are forced to adapt to the people who pick you up and are constantly improving your own abilities of interacting with strangers! Approached logically, and when used with common sense, it is not a dangerous activity. We hope our experience proves this!
- 5 months
- 196 lifts
- 17 European countries
- 13335km travelled distance
So after our adventure, and having asked and talked to so many people who picked us up, we thought we could give some advice on hitchhiking
Before you start
Sorry to write the obvious! .. but it has to be said; hitchhiking is of the complete unknown and can end up giving you absolutely any outcome. It is important to understand this but like the famous quote says “It is not about the destination, rather the journey” and it is for certain to give you that. Now that we said that, there is one other important note to take in; It can be a very inefficient (time wise) method of travelling but on some days it actually proved to be the most efficient and when weighed in with all the awesomeness that is involved, and if you have the time, it can all be fun.
What you need to know
Is everything! You have to imagine it from the drivers point of view. They are travelling at speed and only have brief seconds to make an assumption on you as a person. From our experience everybody would love to pick you up, it is built in our human nature to help each other, but many of us are scared. If you saw a roughly clothed, dirty, person standing awkwardly on the side of the road, it is unfortunate but truth, very few people would even give them a thought. When it comes to appearance, there are a few things that can be easily controlled, and believe us, make or brake your chances!
Dress neat, clean, casual, tidy, proper, and what so many people told us “like a traveller”. So often after asking why they picked us up people would say “it is obvious you guys are travelling” and anybody who has travelled knows “travellers” are having fun, are happy and therefore would be no problem to pick up. Although this point can be individual and personal to people, try and look neutral. By this we mean don’t look fitting into a specific stereotype or genre. It is unfortunate but people love to assume to worst, especially when it comes down to the decision of allowing a stranger into your car, so give them no reason to stereotype you. “Hey they are dressed like normal people” is the best voice of reason you can generate in their heads!
Other helpful points are:
- Wear colours, it makes people happy!
- Don’t wear clothing that covers you so fully its hard to make a judgement. We noticed not wearing a hat that blocks your face helps. Don’t wear sunglasses! (we will explain this soon)
- Ladies, don’t wear too little that it attracts the wrong attentions 🙂 theses people are out there. Luckily they don’t pick up hitchhikers.
- Have your backpack/luggage beside you so they can see it and not feel frightened by what you may be “hiding”
We found is the most powerful tool if they are travelling slow enough to see. A driver will feel more emotion out of your expressions, the way you stand and move your body then any clothing on your back!
Things to remember:
- Be happy! Always happy! Not just for the sake hitchhiking but your entire trip!
- Always keep eye contact while doing the above point. Our eyes tell each other so much. For example looking down or always looking away, can come across as suss or uncertain. If you smile, be happy and look into the drivers eyes, even while they drive past at 60km an hour, they will feel the truth of the situation and feel much more trusting.
- Stand straight and do not sit down! Hitchhiking is tiering but many people pick up hitchhikers to talk to. A driver will make the assumption if you are too tired to stand, you won’t be too excited to talk.
- Have fun! It would suck to do anything but that. Dance around, laugh, wave at drivers and give them thumbs up. Sometimes Kayla would sit on my shoulders and wave at passing cars. It always got laughs out of every driver, although they wouldn’t pick us up.. maybe they thought we were mad. But we were having fun!
The people you are with:
There is no denying girls are more appealing then males. We had hitchhiked in every scenario possible. As a couple, two guys one girl, two girls one guy, two couples, two guys, 3 guys one girls, 3 girls one guys.. ect ect we literally did them all and it was blatantly obvious which combinations were more appealing.
One girl wins, and the more girls you add the only difficulty comes with the driver having space. A girl and guy falls closely behind, especially if you seem like a couple. The most common response to why people picked us up was because we were a couple and therefore less threatening. Guys, don’t be disheartened, there is still absolutely every possibly for you. Having hitchhiking as two males it only seemed slightly harder. Add any more and things get tricky but follow the above advice and everything will run smoothly!
The technical parts to hitchhiking
Where do you begin and where can you hitchhike?
This is the most difficult part to hitchhiking. To greatly increase your chances of being picked up, and more importantly for the safety of yourself, and drivers potentially picking you up, it is critical to find a good spot. Thankfully there is a website which has much of Europe well tracked and that is hitchwiki.org. We used this almost every time leaving a large town, city or popular place. Having internet was not always possible however but by having a smartphone to screenshot these tips and with googlemaps it allowed us to look for potential places.
The best places are somewhere traffic is not travelling very fast (after a roundabout, traffic light) and generally, but not always, a bus stop or similar pull in area on the road leaving the area and heading in the direction you want. Sounds basic! They are not always easy to find or exist so other options we used were; wide driveways, carparks, side/service lanes and leading to a major point, petrol stations.
Petrol Stations and confronting/asking drivers
Petrol stations are generally, if travelling a highway, the best bet for snagging a lift. When leaving a built up area, the people filling up their cars are doing so in preparation for a journey.. It is no brainer. We often stood at the exit way holding a sign or thumbing. Almost every petrol station had enough space for cars to safety stop and they will be travelling slowly. The other option is to actually walk up to drivers and simply ask for a lift. This method is almost always eventually going to find you a lift, especially if you are polite and demonstrate your not a crazy murderer.
More often then not however we chose to not use this method, unless desperate to reach somewhere. This was because we noticed it greatly put people at unease and we felt hitchhiking should be governed by the drivers choice because they are doing the favour. A lot of people would disagree, and say it is the easiest way to get a lift, and it is, but we never had many problems being picked up and the majority of the time it was because people wanted to help.
*Important* It is illegal to hitchhike directly on a motorway or national road (petrol station on them are fine so try and be dropped at them)
Holding a sign or thumbing
Firstly holding your thumb out is like all the movies and anything you’ve ever known about hitchhiking. It is that simple.. but i can also be done poorly so to keep it simple; Give a thumbs up, and hold your arm up almost at a right angle to your body. Again this sounds obvious but believe us it gets difficult after a long time! Drivers struggle to see it if you keep it close to your body! When it comes to whether holding a sign is better, and this is completely different for every situation, but we 90% of the time found it worked better.
To a driver, a hitchhiker is in every way other than the fact they want a lift, unknown, so why not give them something else to know. Such as exactly where you want to go. It is reassuring and humans prefer to help others when they know exactly how. Other benefits are it touches on peoples morals more if they are in fact going exactly where the sign says. We generally only thumbed when there was but one direction to go or when in a country where hitchhiking was really easy.
Writing your destination
When it comes to writing signs, the first thing you need something to write on. Luckily that is generally easy to find. Most shops have cardboard bins, especially petrol stations and supermarkets. If we found quite a lot, we would take enough for a couple days. The second is a pen or marker! Actually writing the sign involves a little logic, but not a lot 😉 The name of the town is the most specific, but not always the best option. Depending how far away it is and direct, other towns on the way where roads need to be changed or highways in the direction can be easier to hitch towards.
A point which saved us a lot as we began to be more experienced is it is not always to fastest route, but the route where most traffic is going that gets you to a location quicker! Other little helpful tips is use abbreviated names which is standard in the country. For example Nova Gorica in Slovenia is known as GA. You will find most European countries number plates begin with an area abbreviation such as GA. If a car drives past with the abbreviation of the area you have signed, waved it around and be extra happy!
We were hitchhiking in Slovenia towards Austria holding a sign saying Munich (which is on the other side of Austria) and whenever a German car with their numberplate beginning with M drove by, we would grin and point at our sign. We ended up getting a lift with two young guys in their motorhome 950km to the far west or Germany!
Are certain times better than others?
If you have the control and freedom of time it can hugely help in getting somewhere quicker. Consider where your going and who is likely to pick you up. If it is a popular tourist destination then most likely a person on holidays will be more likely to pick you up and this can happen at any hour but on week days and during work commute hours, there is a lot more traffic! From 8am to 10am and 4pm-6pm where the golden hours we found. From our experience locals picked us up more often then tourists but an obvious note we made was French tourists loved picking up hitchhikers!
Is it important to have a map?
Not once did we have a physical map, but we certainly used our smartphones and the google maps app on them! This made the whole experience a whole of a lot easier. Especially because even without a continuous internet connection, leaving locations or roaming on, allowed us to forever know where we were! Being lost was not possible. Until our batteries all died. But that can be avoided and for the most of the time we had backup batteries. A physical map would have done the job however. In fact to not even use anything would of most of the time as well because people are so friendly and kind they would often explain directions and routes to us.
A future adventure of ours is going to be a shorter hitchhiking trip with no technology or map and just simply see what happens 🙂
Be prepared to walk
Another obvious point but one which can be misunderstood is how much walking is actually involved. Being dropped on one side of a town you are trying to pass through is a common outcome. Being dropped on one side of town when you are trying to reach somewhere on the opposite side is also very common. Quite often we would find ourselves walking 4+ kilometres in order to reach a destination or begin hitchhiking. This is simply what is involved in the experience! Unless you catch public transport… both options are enjoyable if you see it that way. When you walk, you see things slowly and have more time to take them in fully 🙂 Breath in that culture!
But is hitchhiking safe?
We would like to be living examples to the answer of this. YES! Where we did anyway, and while people may think we got lucky, the odds seemed very much in favour when not a single bad experience came out of 196 lifts and who knows how many hours of standing on the side of the road. There are bad people everywhere but thankfully there are a lot more good! Like going snowboarding or pretty much anything, there are precautions that can lower the risk. Most are simply common sense which you would do with anything.
- Avoid hitchhiking in the dark
- be visible
- Don’t stand on the road
- If you are alone, try and avoid isolated, far from anything places
- If you feel any bit unsafe, simply say you don’t want to get in the car or changed your direction (first impressions can mean a lot)
- Be prepared for long waits and the weather conditions your in. Once in Croatia, we did not expect such hot weather and was left without water! We also froze our butts off in the UK when it was 0 degrees
What about hitchhiking alone as a female?
We can’t talk from experience, however a few times we met single hitchhiking females. We were always intrigued and asked similar question like “have you had any bad experiences” or “have you always felt safe” and they all said nothing that would have stopped them. One even described it as being less creepy then going into a nightclub. We don’t vouch it is a 100% safe but with perhaps added cautions and following the above advice more strictly, it can be the same enlightening cultural experience for solo females and males.
Our final tip would be to NEVER GIVE UP! Even in our bleakest and finalising desperate moments, a hitchhiking guardian angle drove by and picked us up. We would hitch ourselves into the most isolated empty places and still somehow find a way. Again, we may have been lucky so prepare for the worst and never give up! There are so many kind people out there, and we all, when it comes down to the core of us, want to help 🙂
XO The Limitless Ones