Hitchhiking is a great way to travel for any backpacker with time on his or her hands to roam about in some unspecified direction. It's cheap, fun and unpredictable ... making it hard to say exactly what to expect. The people in Europe that you meet on your travels are usually quite generous and will make an effort to help you on your way. By talking to drivers, you can find out inside information on where to go and things to do, as opposed to scratching the surface of the local culture with a normal package-holiday affair. However, it's not suitable for everyone, especially those who like their creature comforts or their privacy.
If you hitchhike in France and Spain, the time it takes to travel from place to place will vary, so try to be flexible in your travel routes and just go where the lifts take you. Most of the people that pick you up will be friendly and eager to talk and it's a good idea to refresh your memory of those youthful language classes, or to find other ways of brushing up your French and your Spanish, so that you can communicate more fluently.
Think it might suit you? Here are answers to some frequently-asked questions that should remove any doubt.
Is it Safe?
Though there may be much talk going around that hitchhiking is dangerous, in Europe the risks are minuscule if you act sensibly. If you feel unsure about anyone who stops for you, you can always turn down the lift by pretending that he or she isn't going in your desired direction. Feigning travel sickness is also a very good method for getting out of a lift about which you're having misgivings.
Is it Hard?
It's not physically hard, as most of your time will be spent waiting. The most important thing to bear in mind while hitchhiking is the need to maintain a positive frame of mind. Even though your fate is out of your hands, have faith that you will get somewhere even if things are looking bleak. After all, sometimes you get a lift straightaway, whereas sometimes, after hours of waiting, it seems as though God is inflicting his wrath on you for some unknown misdeed. So, it helps if you are the type of person that likes unpredictability. Whatever you do, don't despair if things aren't going your way.
How Many People Should I Travel With?
You can travel with as many other people as you want, but in general, the smaller the group the easier it is to get a lift and the quicker the journey will be. One person or two is standard. It works better if you have a girl in the company to attract looks from drivers1. Having at least one guy present is recommended for safety reasons2. With more than three the problem will be fitting in the vehicle at all and you may have to wait a bit longer for a willing van, lorry or pickup truck driver.
What Should I Bring?
Here are a few necessary items:
- Whiteboard to write down where you are going or wish to go.
- Phrase book or small dictionary if you don't know the local language terribly well.
- Preserved food (nuts and raisins, tinned food, crackers, salami, etc).
- Pocket knife.
- Duct tape (always useful for odd jobs).
- Something to do while waiting (personal stereo, book).
- Triangia or gas stove (not strictly necessary unless you want British tea at any time and in any place).
Where Do I Get the Lifts?
You can get the lifts from anywhere within a stone's throw of a transport route. Usual places to get lifts are on roads with single-lane traffic. In France these are the routes nationales that join up with the autoroutes, so it's hard to get lost if you take these. These types of roads work well because the traffic is travelling at a moderate speed and there is usually some room to be found at the side of the road where cars can pull up.
On an actual motorway hitchhiking is illegal in most European countries, but you can hitchhike from motorway entrances, though these sometimes take a bit of work to find.
You can also get lifts in service stations, petrol stations and tollbooths on motorways. If you are travelling by boat to France or Spain, it's a good idea to chat to driver-passengers so that you can persuade them to give you a lift. You can usually spot the lorry drivers a mile away.
How Do I Start?
Just stick your thumb out in an upwards direction, hold up your sign board, smile and be prepared to wait around. The further south you go, the more the accepted signal changes: you can just hold your arm out horizontally and wave your hand. Try to flag down every vehicle apart from the obvious - motorbikes, taxis, buses and coaches - unless you actually want to pay. Be aware that some lorry drivers can't offer lifts for reasons of insurance, although there is no harm in trying as lorry rides are great fun.
How to Interpret the Reactions
The reactions from drivers will vary from place to place, but your most likely response is to be ignored. In France, it is common to get various kinds of hand-signalling, usually an attempt to get across some kind of excuse for not picking you up. Most of the time they are either trying to convey to you that they are only popping down the road to the local tabac, or that they have a picnic in the car so there's no room for you. All of which you should be able to understand by way of a few swift hand movements combined with some sympathetic shrugging. In Spain, they will be generally less keen to offer excuses, so don't expect to get much reaction out of them4.
How Long Do I Wait For?
The waiting time is unpredictable: you could wait for as long as two hours, or it could take no time at all. There are obviously certain factors that help to reduce waiting times. These include travelling by day, travelling in small groups and finding busy roads. So, if you are in group of ten, waiting for a lift on a rutted country lane in the dead of night, your chances of success are small. To give a rough idea, in Spain the average waiting time should be around half an hour as most people are accommodating and seem genuinely concerned to help.
Where Should I Go?
Aim for anywhere suitable where you can catch another lift. Just use your common sense. Try to keep clear of big cities and the capital cities of Paris and Madrid especially. Quite apart from the fact that these are expensive places to stay, once you get into them, it's hard to make your way out again so as to find a reasonable place to get your next lift. However, this is still manageable if you can navigate the public transport system.
By and large, the people giving you a lift will drop you in a convenient place for you, either to get another lift or to arrange accommodation. So don't feel the need to load yourself down with camping equipment just in case you find yourself in a predicament. However, sometimes the place the driver thinks is a convenient dropping-off point may not turn out to be all that convenient after all - you can always suggest an appropriate dropping-off place yourself. If you're lucky, you might be invited to stay as a guest of your driver: you should feel very privileged if this occurs to you.
When Do I Start?
What are you waiting for? Go forth! The possibilities are endless!