In July of 2013, I had my first hitchhiking experience when my girlfriend and I traveled to Prague. While writing this, I have more than 2000 kilometres of hitchhiking to my name with many more to follow. While that mightn’t be much, I feel like I can already compile a few tips for beginning hitchhikers.
There are many reasons why you would like to travel by hitchhiking. You might be on a low budget, you might enjoy the changing view while you travel instead of the teleportation-like qualities of an airplane, you might like the randomness of traffic that decides who you will meet along your way or you may just be stuck without other options. In any case, I would like to share some of my experiences and hope they will help you out someday.
1. Bring a map
Make sure you bring a map of the areas you’re going to travel through. You want to be able to check where you’re headed at all times. It will prove useful when you unexpectedly end up somewhere else than you intended and it allows you to find big cities along your way that you can put as your destination (see tip #3).
2. Choose your starting point wisely
I find this is essential to the succeeding of your hitchhiking attempt. If you don’t start at a good location, you could find yourself waiting hours before somebody finally picks you up. Good locations include accesses to highways and other big roads, but always make sure there’s space for a car to pull over. Bus stops or roads with wide bike lanes are ideal.
3. Make your destination clear
Always carry some paper and a marker with you to indicate your destination to bypassing traffic. Traditionally, hitchhikers are seen wearing a cardboard sign with their ultimate destination, but I find you can get a long way (literally) by changing your sign to nearby cities along the way. The advantage is double: passing cars will be more inclined to take you to a nearby city that they know instead of a far-off destination they hardly know is in their direction, and you get a sense of achievement every time you flip a page of your notepad to write down a new destination.
4. Stay on the highway
This is another tip to ensure you don’t spend hours lingering in the same spot. For as long as you can, try to stay on the highway. That means you get off in gas stations, road restaurants or parking lots just before your ride leaves the highway. This is often hard to plan, since a lot of of maps don’t show gas stations and the likes, but remember you’d rather get out one stop earlier than get off the highway because you missed the last stop.
5. Always make clear where you want to get out
This relates to tip #4. Make sure your driver knows exactly where to let you out and be sure it’s one of the first things you tell him/her. Good communication is essential to prevent silly misunderstandings that could cost you some extra hours and erode an unhealthy amount of patience.
6. Approach people
When you find yourself in places along the highway (again, see tip #4), you don’t have to count solely on the goodwill of people to stop for you. You now have the opportunity to talk to people and persuade them to take you with them for a while. Just ask them where they’re headed and if they maybe have some place for you to travel along. Be upfront but don’t be pushy. The following two tips will help you with that.
7. Be friendly
It’s the oldest trick in the book, but it works. Always smile and be polite. Be it while you’re sticking your thumb in the air looking at passing cars or when you have been denied a ride when asking somebody in a gas station. It shows that you’ve got the best intentions and might persuade the next person to give you a ride. A happy hitchhiker has got a chance, but nobody wants a grumpy one.
8. Study some lines in the local language
Depending on where you’re traveling, you may not speak the local language. In this case, it’s a good idea to look up some simple phrases in advance. Sentences like “Hello, nice of you to stop” and “I’m traveling to X” should work. The gesture is often appreciated and might help you to get a lift from people that are otherwise hard to persuade.
9. Schedule enough time
However good my intentions with these tips are, there’s no denying that ofttimes you will find yourself losing precious time due to this or that reason. Be prepared that this might happen and do not live by strict schedules. Always plan enough time to reach your destination in order to prevent stressful situations. You’d rather arrive early than late.
10. Don’t hesitate to turn down an offer
You are always in charge of yourself, but when you enter a stranger’s car, you unavoidably place your driver in a position that makes him or her responsible for your safety. Let your instinct run free. If somebody doesn’t look very trustworthy or you have a bad feeling about the situation, don’t hesitate to turn down an offer and wait for the next car. If you feel bad about it, make up a simple lie like “I’m heading the other way” or “I want a ride that goes a bit further”. Similarly, when a driver’s road behaviour worries you, ask him or her to let you out at the next occasion. No harm done and you’ll avoid feeling uneasy for the rest of the ride.
11. Don’t give up
With the risk of sounding like an eighties song: don’t stop believing. Honestly, good spirit is what will get you to your destination in the end. You can’t afford to give up, or you’ll be stranded somewhere down the road. If you feel like taking a break, have one, and pick up where you left off.
Best of luck.