Accommodation is probably the biggest concern for the budget backpacker, and if you’re not careful it can cause a serious dent in your travel fund. But what about getting from A to B? Trains, buses and of course flights can all add up – even if you find cheap deals or multi-journey tickets on offer, and especially if you’re intending to travel for a long period of time. Well, we happen to know a not-so-secret alternative method of travel that won’t cost you a bean! Hitchhiking! Yes – the kind where you stick your thumb out on the side of a road and try and catch a lift to your next destination. It’s not just for homeless people and hippies! But is it safe? How do I start? What do I wear?
Will I disappear?
Read on to discover our top tips for safe and successful hitchhiking. Believe us, once you’ve tried it, you’ll never pay for travel again! Unless you need to fly of course, although hitchhiking a plane is possible (for example, in Canada)!
So the question that is nearly always asked first is “is it safe?” The short answer is yes, it is. Don’t watch so many horror movies! With a little bit of planning and armed with our advice, there’s no reason why you can’t have a safe and comfortable hitchhiking experience. People out there are good! We’ve met some awesome folk on the road who just want to help. The most dangerous thing about it is – are they good drivers?
This we leave to your discretion to make that decision, but we’ve never had a problem, nor has any of our traveling friends who have hitchhiked thousands of miles over years of long term travel. But just to be on the safe side, here are our top five tips on safety first.
1. Tell someone your plan
This is pretty obvious. Don’t just walk out on the side of a road without anyone you trust knowing what you’re doing and where you’re going. If you’ve booked in at accommodation, let them know you’re coming, your route, and a rough time you expect to arrive. A golden rule of hitchhiking is to have no time frame. Don’t hitchhike if you need to be somewhere by a certain time because you never know how lucky or unlucky you’re going to be in getting a ride. Nevertheless, make sure people know your plan.
2. Don’t hitchhike at night
Hitchhiking at night is possible, but we wouldn’t recommend it – from the point of view that people are more reluctant to pick a stranger up in the dark.
Even in well-lit areas, drivers will rarely stop. Many countries around the world also have a drink-drive problem too, so while hitchhiking at night, you might come across those idiots – especially in remote or village areas. Have good judgment and make sensible decisions and you’ll stay clear of any problems.
3. Safety in numbers
Unfortunately, this is especially true if you’re female. While 99.9% of hitchhikes are safe and successful; if you’re a solo female traveler you have to be extra cautious. We know several solo female hitchhikers (totally fearless), but we would always recommend buddying up with a pal. It’s more fun too!
4. Know where to stand
Don’t forget about road safety itself! Use common sense when finding a spot to hitch from. Walking along speedy highways is dangerous and illegal in many countries, so wherever possible get yourself to gas stations or service centres. You can actually approach drivers and ask for rides there too!
Always stand in a clearly visible location so oncoming traffic can see you. There are more tips about where to stand below.
5. Protect your valuables
This goes for traveling in general, but make sure your really valuable stuff is close to your person. Keep money, cards, and that all important passport safely hidden away in separate locations. Try to travel as light as possible too – which will help you in entering and exiting vehicles. A good trick when leaving a ride is to keep a door open until all your stuff is out with you on the side of the road, and if you can, try and keep your backpack with you rather than put it in the boot. Or the trunk if you’re an American!
Remember it’s always up to you if you get in the vehicle or not. Don’t be afraid to turn people away if you don’t feel comfortable – but the only time we’ve had to do that is if they weren’t quite going our way! Surprisingly you’ll find that of all those drivers on the road going about their daily lives, they’ve not set out today with a plan to murder someone! If you’re still in doubt, consider carrying a pepper spray for a worst case scenario, but don’t be deterred! Hitchhiking is safe and this is a very last resort.
How to get a ride
So you’re all set to go. Someone knows where you’re going. You’re all packed up. Your heart is beating in your chest from excitement and adrenaline. You’ve made sure you’ve gone to the loo. But wait! How on earth do I do this?! What do I wear?! Where do I stand? Here are our top five tips for how you get that first ride. And once you’ve done one, you’ll want to do it again and again. It’s addictive!
1. Make a sign
Perhaps the best way to get a ride is to make a nice big, bold, beautiful hitchhiking sign. Bring out the artist in you and make it look like you’re a professional who knows exactly what you’re doing – even if you don’t! Sticking your thumb out works well enough, but it’s much better to find a good piece of cardboard (in our experience best located around trash cans or out the back of grocery stores), and get a fat magic marker. Then make it BIG! Remember drivers need to be able to see where you want to go if they’re driving by quite fast, so think of it as making another road sign.
Adding the name of the road you need to be on sometimes helps too – even if a driver can’t take you the whole way, every little detail helps you edge closer and closer so long as you’re on the right road!
2. Tidy up
Nobody wants a smelly person in their car! Make sure you’ve washed up and you and your clothes are nice and clean. Guys – trim that beard – you don’t want to look homeless or like a lunatic escaped from an asylum. Wear bright clothing – which helps drivers see you and has the added advantage of making you look like a fun person people would want to give a lift! Make sure you prepare for any adverse weather conditions, though, and if you can, try to avoid hitchhiking in heavy rain or snow. Nobody wants a wet passenger on their leather seats!
3. Find the right spot
Knowing where to stand is crucial to getting a ride quickly. There’s a wonderful resource online called hitchwiki.org, which uses maps from every county and locations around the world to show you the best hitchhike spots in the area. Try to find somewhere that vehicles have plenty of time to see you, and have a safe and lengthy area in which to pull in.
The best spots are with a high volume of traffic, but going as slow as possible. The very best spots (as mentioned previously) are gas and service stations. Remember that it takes time for drivers to see you and then make a decision to give you lift – so if they’re driving fast they need stopping space. We had a friend once see someone hitchhiking on a roundabout. Not a good idea! That guy is probably still there!
4. Leave plenty of time
As we mentioned earlier, a golden rule of hitchhiking is to not set anything in stone with a deadline or time frame. You never know how long it’s going to take you to get from A to B and what kind of luck you’ll get, so if you’re hitchhiking to make a flight, that’s a bad idea. Leave in plenty of time – especially if you’re intending to hitchhike long distances, and don’t make promises you can’t keep! Telling someone you’ll be at the bar that night by 11 pm is a school boy/girl error! For maximum chance of success – leave at first light – even if you’re not a morning person!
5. Stay positive
If you’ve been waiting a while, you might start to feel a bit annoyed. You might start resenting the people of the country you’re in. But don’t do what that French traveler did recently in New Zealand and vandalize a whole town because he didn’t get a ride for two days! (He was standing in a terrible spot). Smile, wave, and acknowledge drivers when they acknowledge you. Make eye contact with every driver and beam those pearly whites at them. If a driver makes a gesture like “I’m sorry I can’t take you” (which happens often – people are friendly) make sure you give them a thank you wave and thumbs up.
A nice trick is to do that even if they don’t acknowledge you because the drivers behind that vehicle will see you’re a fun, positive and courteous person. Whatever you do, don’t start cursing or throwing rude gestures around. You’ll be stuck there for hours!
With a little bit of thought and a sensible head on your shoulders, you’ll have an amazing time hitchhiking. Once you get addicted to the rush and thrill of getting to a new place for free (and often faster than public transport) we doubt you’ll pay for travel again – unless you really have to. Hitchhiking is safe, fun, and rewarding – you meet some amazing people on the road. So what are you waiting for? Stick that thumb out!