You’ve seen it at least once on TV and have heard more than one horror story about it. It has a bad reputation, so despite it being a free way to travel, you might have reservations about doing it yourself. After all, the hitchhikers in the movies almost always end up dead or something.
My interviewees today, though, have hitchhiked all over the world for years and they’re still in one piece. In fact, they say the only danger they’ve ever encountered was irresponsible drivers. And who hasn’t been driven around by one of those? Sometimes I even pay a bad driver for his services.
So without further ado…
Meet the Hitchhikers: Ania and Jon of Hitchhikers’ Handbook
How long have you been hitchhiking?
We first started hitchhiking in Malaysia during our South-East Asia trip, encouraged by Ang, a great Couchsurfing and Hitchhiking personality. It was in 2009 and we have always traveled by thumb ever since.
Where have you hitchhiked so far? Any places that are particularly easy or particularly hard to hitchhike in?
During our hitchhiking career, we have thumbed South-East Asia, the Caucasus region, Turkey and many European countries.
The easiest places to hitchhike (in terms of people’s friendliness, not the roads) were Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, Laos, Malaysia and Thailand. Poland, where Ania is from, is not a bad place to hitchhike either. In places like Georgia, Armenia and Turkey, rides catch themselves; you don’t even have to wait 10 minutes and on top of that you are very likely to get invited for a drink or dinner.
So far, the most difficult place has proved to be Portugal and Greece. It’s not common for the Portuguese or Greeks to stop their cars for a stranger and the extensive network of motorways doesn’t help either.
Accommodation and transport are two of the most expensive costs of travel. How much do you spend on full-time travel by combining hitchhiking and Couchsurfing?
It depends on the country. In Western Europe, you are bound to pay more for food, but on the other hand you are also more likely to find a Couchsurfing host than in Asia, for instance. To make the calculations simple, let’s say that if you hitchhike and Couchsurf, you can comfortably travel in Western Europe for 14-20€ a day, in the Caucasus for 10-12€ a day and in Southeast Asia for 12€ a day (including flights and three hot meals a day).
Okay, silly question but I have to ask: do hitch-hikers actually stick their thumbs up to get a ride?
That also depends on the country and local customs. While sticking your thumb out is the most common way to get a ride, in many countries people would understand a thumb up gesture as “OK”, “cool” or “have a nice day”. In some parts of the world, you would need to wave your outstretched hand with your palm facing the ground or simply point to the ground with your index finger.
How long do you usually have to wait until a driver picks you up? What’s the longest time you’ve ever had to wait?
The usual waiting time can be anything between 5 and 40 minutes. If it’s longer than 90 minutes, we usually start to think of plan B and we move to another spot. In places like Portugal or Andalusia in Spain, you have to be prepared to wait a long time and often in blazing heat. Once in Portugal, we only covered 30 km in 7 hours! Walking would have been quicker. :)
Have you ever not been able to get a ride and given up?
It sometimes happens that you have arranged to meet your Couchsurfing host, so getting to your destination on the assigned day is important. In these situations, if we see that it’s getting dark and we are not going anywhere fast, we tend to look for a train or a bus. If there is no public transport around, we look for a secluded place to pitch our tent and camp in the wild for one night.
How slowly do you travel?
We don’t like to rush while traveling. We prefer to linger in a place a bit longer, learn about its customs, taste some local food and try to pick up the local language as much as possible. Hitchhiking every day is very tiring, so we usually stay two or three nights in a place and then get back on the road. In this pace, we were able to see the Caucasus + Turkey, Spain + Portugal and the majority of the Balkan Peninsula in three two-month-long trips. To cover the entire Southeast Asia, you’d probably need just over three months.
Couchsurfers often buy gifts for the host. Is it customary for hitchhikers to give presents to the driver?
In hitchhikers’ culture that customary gift would be a postcard, as it’s small and light to carry, and you can write a nice message for your driver. We tend to print postcards with our route on them in advance, which help both to break the first ice as well as explain where we are going, especially if we don’t speak the driver’s language.
What are some other benefits of hitch-hiking, other than the free transport?
There are plenty of benefits and free transport is not the most important one.
First of all, hitchhiking allows you to get to know the country much better than if you train-hop it. You are with the locals for the majority of your time and are often invited to their houses. You can learn some of the local language, culture and see places no guidebooks mention.
Besides, it’s just so much easier and more fun to go and stand on the edge of the road, rather than going to a train/bus station, working out how to get tickets, then waiting for a couple of hours just to see the country through a train window.
And finally, if you hitchhike you will soon notice that people are good. As cliché as it may sound, hitchhiking restores your faith in humanity. :) During our trips, we’ve met so many wonderful and helpful people who often went out off their way just to help us. Some people who gave us a ride didn’t even open their mouths once during the whole journey, but stopped for us just out of the sheer desire to help a stranger. And that’s beautiful!
What’s the most unexpected thing that has happened to you as hitchhikers?
The most unexpected situation was probably a time when we got picked up by a man in Turkey who drove us to a forest and suggested that we have sex in front of him. We refused and he drove off, leaving us there. At no point did we feel intimidated. He was just a messed up guy, a chancer who was trying his luck. At the time we felt a bit uneasy, but in retrospect it’s a funny story to tell.
What’s the most remote place you’ve ended up in?
Once we got stuck at an unofficial border crossing between Laos and Cambodia. There was absolutely no traffic for hours, it was during the rainy season so we couldn’t camp and the worst thing was that the only people there were mercenary taxi drivers who were lurking for people like us who got stuck just to demand an extortionate amount of money to be driven 50 km to the nearest settlement.
What are the most common mistakes newbie hitch-hikers make? Got some hitchhiking tips?
The most common mistake is choosing the wrong spot and that can happen to both newbie and experienced hitchhikers. If you stand in the wrong place — where there is no traffic or drivers have no way to pull over — nobody will pick you up. It’s important to stand at the edge of the city (because it’s almost impossible to get a ride within a city) on the most frequented road in a visible place where drivers can easily stop.
Planning is the key. Before you set off in the morning, you should check HitchWiki.org (an excellent website with description of spots to choose from) and, if that fails, try to find your ideal spot with Google Maps. The next step is to work out how to get there using public transport and then just wait, look friendly, smile and have a positive attitude.
What are the most common hitchhking dangers? How do you avoid them?
Hitchhiking is not really as perilous as it may seem. We’ve never had a dangerous situation, but of course it does you no harm to be careful and use your common sense. Things you should most avoid doing are: hitchhiking after dark (just because you might get hit by a car), showing off your valuable electronic possessions (a Polish proverb says ‘opportunity makes the thief’; there is probably some truth in it) and getting into a car with a drunken driver.
People (mostly those who have never done it themselves) think hitchhiking is really dangerous, but you’ve obviously had a great time doing it. What’s the worst thing that has ever happened to you in all your years of hitchhiking?
The only times we really felt scared were moments when on narrow, winding mountainous roads, our drivers were daringly going at full speed and overtaking other cars, or when we noticed our drivers where falling asleep while driving. That’s the only real danger of hitchhiking — getting in cars with irresponsible drivers.
Anything else to add?
We strongly encourage everyone to try hitchhiking; it’s interesting, fun and money-saving. Happy travels to everyone!
(End of interview)
Also, as a reader points out on Twitter (shout out to Roberta Westwood @citytravelbug), this post wouldn’t be complete without some safety tips. After all, some of those hitchhiking horror stories must have really happened. Ania and Jon has a great post about what to do when things go wrong.
Images: 1, 3-7, 9. Ania and Jon of the Hitchhikers’ Handbook; 2. (Free License); 8. Sarah Reid (CC BY 2.0 License).