This is a guest post written by Sebastián Cuevas, a US-born, Mexican-raised expat and traveller living in Berlin. Sebastián obtained both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in History at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, and his Master’s in unpredictability on the road. He writes about his crazy adventures on his travel blog, Between Distances, and you can also follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Here he gives us 5 tips for hitchhiking around Europe.
Forget about your preconceptions of hitchhiking as something dangerous. Hitchhiking can be one of the most enhancing experiences while traveling. You might have thought about doing it but haven’t taken the plunge yet. Hitchhiking is something I believe everybody should do at least once, and my goal with this article is to motivate you to go out and try it!
I knew I wanted to try hitchhiking in Europe before moving to Germany back in 2009. Ever since doing it for the first time, it’s become my favorite means for getting around the Old Continent. Truth is, Europe is every hitchhiker’s paradise: so common in some countries that there’s even somewhat of an infrastructure for it (like in the Netherlands), hitchhiking in most countries over here is easier than you think. Nevertheless, some countries are better for it than others.
Hitchhiking will enable you to discover Europe more in detail and will help you make the most out of your trip if you’re traveling on a tight budget.
Plan your route
Finding your way to the best spot to hitch a lift in a city you don’t know can be quite the challenge, especially if you don’t speak the language. Enter the internet. There are many resources available online to help you get started. Hitchwiki.org is by far your best bet. It not only lists the spots you want to get to but also the ones you want to avoid. Detailed directions (including bus and tram lines!) are also provided. If you happen to be in the Netherlands try looking for a liftershalte, a designated spot for hitchhikers with plenty of room for drivers to pull over. Only use signs when traveling shorter distances, as your potential driver might otherwise think “I’m not going that far” and go on driving. Alternatively, you can write your direction or even the number of the highway you’re trying to get to. Still, nothing beats a stretched out thumb and an amicable face. Two things to always keep in mind: There’s nothing more useful than a map, and hitchhiking on the highway is illegal!
Get the ball rolling
Once you get to the spot it shouldn’t take long before somebody stops—unless you look unfriendly or dangerous, in which case the wait might be longer! Highway feeders are good but ideally you want to find a gas station in order to be able to ask people directly if they can take you with them. Ask everybody, even those you think will say no (unless you gut suggests otherwise). I’ve gotten the most unlikely rides by just asking around: A Dutch Army Officer in full military fatigues returning home from a NATO conference? Check. A German businessman driving a brand new Benz? Check. Punks, hippies, students. 18-wheelers, garbage trucks, luxury rides. Let the luck of the draw surprise you!
Experience and appreciate people’s generosity
Your driver could have offered the ride on one of the many ride-sharing platforms for cash, but he didn’t and picked you up instead. Depending on who you’re traveling with that might not be the end of it either. Food, coffee or tea, local currency, or even a place to sleep are all things that have been offered to me while on the road, especially while hitchhiking in the Eastern Part of Europe.
Being in the car with a local is particularly helpful in some situations: A Turkish truck driver named Hakan took care of all the visa formalities at the Bulgarian-Turkish border for me. Another thing they’ll give you is their time: In my experience, people will every now and then make detours and stop to show you some of their country. This will allow you to discover Europe beyond the major cities. In most cases you’ll just have to reciprocate their generosity with a bit of good conversation, a fair trade if you ask me.
Make some new friends
You might not be the only person waiting for a lift, and if you’re not, why not join forces? I met some pretty interesting and awesome people on the road, and even became close friends with some of them. Chance encounters happen, and your alliances might last longer than just one trip.
You and your driver might also hit it off. While some of your potential drivers won’t talk to you, either because they are not interested or because you have no language in common, most people will want to know something about you. Chances are they picked you up because of the company, especially if you’re not from there. Though there are always exceptions to the rule, be ready to provide some entertainment. Who knows, maybe you’ll make a new friend?
Think safety first
Now that you’re ready to try hitchhiking just remember to let your common sense be the final judge when somebody pulls over. Turning down a ride is perfectly fine if your instinct suggests against it.
I’ve never had a bad experience hitchhiking but am aware that others have. Generally speaking, it is unfortunately less safe for girls to hitchhike alone than for guys, but we are not exempt from danger either. If you’re a first timer you can also try it with a partner. You can use Couchsurfing to find one. And while hitchhiking is not about competing, there’s also an annual hitchhiking competition in Germany every August.
Most importantly, be prepared for the unexpected: I never expected to find myself stranded at a gas station in the outskirts of Edirne, Turkey at midnight but it did happen. That’s just the nature of the beast.
All in all, hitchhiking can be a very enriching experience, and anybody, including YOU, can do it. Try it when you travel, even if it’s only once. Just get out there and catch that ride!