I’m relatively young, so I haven’t been hitchhiking when it was popular in the U.S. back in the 1960’s or 1970’s… Nevertheless, I have had a lot of experience hitchhiking worldwide throughout France, Belgium, England, Hawaii, Maui, Oahu, New Zealand [North and South island, both], Holland, and Germany.
Hitchhiking is a great way to get around for hardly any money – which is the reason why I love it. But in order to make this mode of transportation effective, efficient, and safe, here are a few pointers:
Gas Stations Are Gold
Usually when people think of “hitchhiking,” they think of a person on the side of the road with his/her thumb in the air… Although this method also works, I found that going to gas stations works out great.
At the gas station, people are stuck at the pump with no where to go for about 1 minute. This is the perfect opportunity to ask where they are headed. If you’re on the side of the road with your thumb in the air, the person has the time to think “should I stop, or do I feel like driving alone, or…” …too late… It only takes about 8 seconds for someone to notice you and drive right by; if they debate stopping at all, it’s already too late. Because of this, asking them directly at the gas pump is the best way to get a lift – there’s no debate with themself, it’s just a “yes” or “no” to a real person which is more difficult to say no.
But Not All Gas Stations Are Equal
Choose the major ones – preferably the ones on major highways where the traffic only goes in the direction you would like to go.
If you choose a small gas stations in the middle of town, chances are the people stopping there are housewives running to the store and running errands for the afternoon or people on their lunch break from work that is only 1 kilometer down the road. This is NOT what you want when trying to hitchhike.
Rather, choose a gas station on a major highway where the cars are only able to turn in one direction coming out of the station. The cars that are on major highways like this [where exits are spread 30 kilometers apart], are traveling great distances. Moreover, if they are refueling their car, chances are they plan to continue their journey for quite some time… This is EXACTLY what you want!
Choose Who You Ask Wisely
Don’t just ask the first person that pulls into the gas station. There are certain people/cars that I don’t even waste my time with… Avoid the follwing:
Full cars. If the car is already full [with objects, people, trash, etc.], even if they like you and want to help out, where do you plan on sitting?
Families. Even if the adults in the car are really nice, when there are children involved, it’s a whole different story – respectable parents aren’t going to have their kid(s) sitting next to a complete stranger when they don’t know what the stranger has in his bag, how foul-mouthed he is, etc.
Serial Killers. Check the back seat. If there is a chain saw lying in the back seat, I would suggest to ask someone else.
So, in conclusion, when scoping out who to ask, check out the back seat first and THEN the person. Even though you would think that the appearance of the person would be top priority, it’s not [really]. Quickly check out what’s in the car. If the backseat is full or has two kids, don’t waste your time… move on. This needs to be a relatively quick process – once the car starts moving, you’ll be out of luck!
Know Where You’re Going
Have a road map of where you are and where you’re headed to make the hitching experience a lot easier. If someone is going to a different city than the one you’re trying to get to, you should be able to distinguish where that city is in relation to your final destination in a matter of seconds; since you’re already trying to ask strangers for a favor, you don’t want to irritate them by asking where everything is – they don’t have all day.
It’s better to ask questions that are more vague than not. Ask “Are you headed TOWARDS City X” instead of “Are you going TO City X?” These two questions might not seem any different but they really are!
Let’s say you’re trying to go 100 miles north. You ask “are you going TO…” The person you ask is planning on driving to a different city that is only 80 miles north… he quickly answers “no” [which isn’t a lie] and starts driving away… If you had only asked him “are you headed TOWARDS…” he would have had to answer “yes” even though he wasn’t planning on going the full 100 miles… still, 80% towards your goal a great start and definitely better than standing in a gas station!
Getting Dropped Off
Once you’re in the car and getting a ride from someone [if he’s not dropping you in the center or a city of where you want to be], ask if he knows of a major gas station that he could drop you off at along his route. If you forget to ask this and he drops you off on the side of the road where his exit is, you’ll be stuck with no option but to use your thumb and walk possibly 15 miles to the next gas station!
If you’re going over water, it’s a good time to take a short rest, but also a good time to think about the next leg of your journey. What do you plan on doing once the boat docks?
All the great amenities on the boat are there to keep people entertained; but YOU can do that! People would much rather listen to travel stories and talk an interesting person instead of buying chocolate bars that are bigger than a new born baby and playing the same silly games on their cell phones. If you don’t feel comfortable randomly talking to people while they look “busy,” then you’re in luck because everyone’s car is parked in the same location. Just because you entered the boat via train, perhaps, doesn’t mean that you can’t exit the boat via car. When you hear the announcement to load your vehicle because the ferry is almost docked, skip the train level of the boat altogether and go straight to the cars. As people are reloading their cars and waiting to drive off the boat, just casually ask where they’re going. If it’s in the same direction that you’re trying to go, ask if you could ride along!
I did this from France to England and it worked out great! I hitchhiked throughout France, got dropped off at the ferry, boarded the ferry by foot, and then asked randomly on the car level where people were going. The first person I asked was headed towards London… perfect!
Also, Denmark to Germany… I bought a train ticket from Copenhagen, Denmark to Hamburg, Germany. The train left Copenhagen, traveled through Denmark, drove right onto a huge ferry, crossed the water, and continued through Germany. If I wanted to go farther than Hamburg at the time, then I could have jumped in the cars with people that offered me a ride. How great! I pay for a ticket to one place and end of going even farther with the same money!
If asking people directly doesn’t work out, then try the original way with your thumb in the air. Depending on where you are, this option isn’t a bad one. Hawaii and New Zealand definitely supported this thumb-method – I never waited more than 20 minutes!
Again, just like with the gas stations, location is key. In order to get the best results, seek out a spot on the side of the road where there is a pull-off… Strategically place yourself a little ways BEFORE the pull-off [just a few meters or so] but also be sure not to block the driver’s view of the pull-off. This strategic positioning allows the driver to see you, make a quick decision, AND have a safe place to park the car while you’re loading in.
There have been a few times where I was the one driving, I saw a hitchhiker, I decided to pull over to help him out, and then I noticed that there was no safe place for me to park the car because of oncoming traffic! Then, about 30 meters around the bend of the road, I saw that the road widened and I could safely pull-off… but since there was a bend in the road, the hitchhiker couldn’t see car! This is so silly! Had the hitchhiker just walked a little bit farther down the road, he would have seen a perfect spot to use his thumb AND would have gotten a ride for sure – either from me or the 20 other cars that wanted to help him but couldn’t pull over either!
The Correct Side
This might seem obvious but, believe it or not, I see people making this mistake all the time… make sure you are on the correct side of the road in which you want to be traveling!
Once more, I was driving and saw a hitchhiker on the side of the road. I stopped the car, but she didn’t come over. I thought that perhaps she didn’t see me or the car so I started honking but still no response… I wasn’t pressed for time and I guess I felt bad for her, so I actually turned the car around to ask her face-to-face if she wanted a ride or not. Apparently, she was headed in the opposite direction and was wondering why I stopped the car and started to honk – she told me this while laughing.
Not to be mean, but the joke was on her! Whichever side of the road you are standing on, is the direction other travelers will think you want to go! Even if you can see the cars better while standing on the opposite side of the road, if you do this, you’ll only have people traveling in that direction [the WRONG direction] stop for you! So, again, be sure to stand on the correct side of the road in which you want to be traveling!
Some people like to make a sign to hold with the city of where they are trying to go. I rarely do this because everything I have previously mentioned has worked out fine for me… However, I have talked to other hitchhikers and they have told me that they make signs all the time and have a lot of success with it…
It doesn’t need to be a great art project – just a piece of cardboard from last night’s pizza box and a black marker will suffice. Make sure your letters are as big as possible! They might seem big sitting at a table making it, but from a great distance from inside a moving vehicle, the bigger the letters, the better! Try this and let me know how it works out!
Know The Culture
Hitch’ing varies from culture to culture. Some of the really laidback places in the world are amazing for hitchhiking while others, not at all.
Amazingly Easy Hitch’ing!
Hawaii, Maui, and New Zealand I found to be absolute best for hitch’ing. Go to just about any main road and have your thumb up for no more than 10 minutes. Not only will you get picked up and get to where you want to go, but also the people are so amazing that you might have a place to sleep in a spare bedroom, suggestions of what to do around town, an invitation to a BBQ or party they’re hosting the next day, free beer, free maps, free national park passes, etc… Well, this is just to name of few things of what I had experienced at least…
On the other end of the spectrum, there are places in the world that are definitely not pro-hitch’ing at all. Unfortunately, USA is one of these countries as well as Australia. If a driver in USA or Australia saw a person on the side of the road with their thumb up, they would continue to drive by, perhaps speed up a little, and think to themselves how sad that person is and that he/she must be homeless.
OK, that might not be the train-of-thought for everyone in USA and Australia, but hitchhiking is also nonexistent there because of the vastness and complexity of both countries. There are so many highways and places to go, that it nearly impossible to snag a person that is going to the same city as you…
However, did I say that getting a ride from someone was impossible? Nope! You just need to be a bit more creative, that’s all!
In countries where the “thumbing it” option is slim-to-none, try checking some local websites for rideshares. In the U.S. and Canada, “craigslist” is the most popular where as in Australia and the U.K., use “gumtree”. Make sure to click and change the website search engine to which country you’re currently in [craigslist it’s on the side… gumtree it’s at the very bottom].
If you have the time, also try flyers in hostels to share a ride with local travelers and split the cost of fuel.
In the Mood For a Crazy Story?
Read my hitchhiking journey from Hamburg to Amsterdam!