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The Traveller's Magazine
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Hitchhiking is by far one of the cheapest ways to travel just about anywhere. You can meet a lot of unexpected people along the way, make friends and find yourself in some very spontaneous situations. Here’s our guide on how to do it safely and effectively.

The general rule nowadays is that drivers are more afraid of hitchhikers than hitchhikers are of the potentially psycho drivers that might pick them up. There are a lot of ups and downs when thumbing your way from point A to point B and it’s not recommended if you’ve got a time limit, especially for long distances. If that’s the case, cheap flights are easy enough to come by.

What you’ll need:

  • well-conditioned thumb/arm muscles, it’s hard work holding them out all day
  • a map of the area, to point out where you’d like to go (especially important in foreign countries with language barriers)
  • a cardboard sign (not mandatory, but ups your chances of getting a ride if drivers know where you’re headed)
  • a permanent marker (so you can change your sign)
  • plenty of water and snacks, sometimes it can take a while for a ride to come
  • a smile and positive attitude

1. Location, location, location

Hitchhiking is rarely illegal although there are some rules about where you can and cannot hitchhike. In most of Europe it’s illegal to hitchhike on the side of the highway so you need to get a ride out of a petrol station or before cars get on the highway. Wherever you decide to drop you bag and hold out your thumb make sure there is room enough for a car to stop at a moment’s notice and pull over.

2. Travel in pairs

It’s always safer to travel in twos. The most successful combination seems to be couples, one guy and one girl. It’s a lot harder for two guys to get picked up together (sorry bros) and although the Western world is generally safe for solo female travellers, in this case it’s better to be safe than sorry. The guy should always sit up front next to the driver is the driver is also male.

3. Be prepared for the worst

Although it’s the last thing you’d like to think about, we all know that we should always be prepared for the worst and having some means of defence on you while you’re hitchhiking be it a small knife or pepper spray is a good idea. Most hitchhikers you’ll meet will confirm that only the nicest people in the world ever picked them up.

Women: wear a ring on your “wedding finger” and avoid answering questions that are too personal. Things like “I’m married. My husband is waiting for me in (your destination), he knows exactly where I am…” are good to say upfront.

4. Baggage restrictions

You know, maybe Ryanair has been training hitchhikers for years with their stiff baggage restrictions… if you’re going to hitchhike, keep your baggage to an absolute minimum. Make sure you can easily get it in and out of cars, trunks, trucks, etc. easily on your own. Limit yourself to one backpack/bag.

hitchhiking grafitti
Grafitti - North Fjords, Norway (cc)

5. Dress for the occasion

Hitchiking is not the time to wear the latest fashions. On the other hand, it’s definitely not the time to look like a hobo. Dress in brightly coloured clothes, especially if you are walking along the sides of road with high-speed traffic. Red and yellow are easily visible colours against the backdrop of the tarmac. Wear comfortable shoes because hitchhiking always includes its share of walking.

6. Before getting into the car

Once a driver has pulled over, assess the situation. Is the car in good shape? Ask the driver to roll down the passenger-side window and peek in. Show the driver on the map where you’re heading and ask if he’s going the same way. At the same time, take a look at the interior of the car, is it clean? Is the driver? If everything looks good, throw your bag in the trunk or back seat and climb in.

7. It never hurts to ask

If you’re at a busy gas station and you’ve been waiting a while and it seems like no one is ever going to pick you up, start asking. Check out cars as they pull up to the pumps, do they have spare room, where are their licence plates from, etc? When asked face to face it’s a lot harder to say no than passing someone on the side of the road. This also gives you the power of choosing your rides and drivers.

8. Learn the ways of small talk

A lot of truckers pick up hitchhikers because they want the company, either to keep them awake because they’ve got a deadline or they’re lonely. Remember, people that pick you up are doing you a favour, what can you give back to them to say thanks? A nice conversation goes a long way and will definitely put their fears at bay too if you’re the first hitchhiker they’ve picked up.

9. Leaving the vehicle

If at any time you don’t want to be in the vehicle any more, then find a way to get out. Ask the driver to pull over at the next appropriate place, be it a city or another petrol station. Remember you don’t owe it to the driver to stay in the car for the entire distance agreed upon. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, get out. Fake travel sickness, tell them you’ve changed your mind, your travel plans have changed. Stay calm and act polite.

10. Be happy and have fun

There are risks to hitchhiking but once you get the hang of it, it’s really a lot of fun. It’s one of the most unique ways to move around from one city or even one country to the next. At the end of the day, staying positive is the best way to get a ride… who wants to pick up a grump sulking on the side of the road? Smile, dance and have fun!

Have you ever hitchhiked? Do you have any funny/horror stories to share? in no way recommends hitchhiking as a means of transportation. Travellers should do it at their own risk and at their own judgement. Do not get into a stranger’s car if you are not comfortable.

Img: Teppo, atomch Flickr cc.

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