25 chapters, 100,000 words, 120 illustrations
 Table of Contents
On $25 a Day or Less
Art of Travel - European and World Backpacking

Chapter 13


I love to sail forbidden seas and land on barbarous coasts. Herman Melville, USA

Experience  Risk Analysis  Countries  Women  Signs  Literature  Etiquette  Mitfahrzentralen  Epiphany  Tips

EXPERIENCED HITCHHIKERS WITH thousands of miles and hundreds of rides behind them--and with sharp heads on their shoulders--don't accept rides from strangers trivially. You could be killed, injured, robbed, and/or raped.

Around Sydney a serial killer had been preying on hitchhikers for several years, with seven known deaths. The victims were Australian, German, and British, all between the ages of nineteen and twenty-one. The police fear more because when a backpacker disappears no one knows for a long time.

These young people didn't perish because they were naÔve or their intuition was faulty, but because they opened the door of a car driven by a murderer who knew what he was doing and looked like anyone else. (There was a conviction for these crimes in 1995.)

LESS TRAGICALLY, hitchhiking may not get you where you're going when you want to get there. You may not have the patience to wait hours or days for a ride, or walk the miles and miles a hitchhiker must accept as part of the game. You may not like standing in the rain, in the cold, in blazing heat. For these reasons the vast majority of travel backpackers rely on public transportation and never hitch rides.

Nevertheless many people do hitchhike, every day, all over the world. Indeed in some places it's more or less a daily routine of life. Even I growing up in a small Ohio River town occasionally hitchhiked to high school. I had missed the bus, it was too cold to ride my bike, or the car wasn't starting--and all these people were driving by where I needed to go. Before long I would have a lift and ten minutes later I'd be dropped off. I didn't think much about it.

In further out parts of the world where buses don't often run and personal transportation is rare, hitchhiking is standard public transport. In some cases signaling systems have evolved to tell drivers how far you're going, or if you're willing to pay for gas.

And on summer mornings in Europe it's not unusual to see a dozen backpackers waiting at a good spot outside a major city. Many are not there solely to save money (it can work out costlier than public transport when food, accommodation, and time are factored), but because they love to hitchhike.

I am one of those people. Indeed hitchhiking has contributed to my world view that our planet is largely composed of good and friendly people. And while I cannot advocate hitchhiking for anyone, in some places the risk of violence is moderate, and the benefits can be great.

Citroen 2CV Photo: Hitchhikers' most beloved car, the CitroŽn 2CV. If one passes you by it's  full, a local, or you're having an invisible day.

In this age what hitchhikers see and do and learn may not make headlines, but on a personal level their achievements are impressive. Hitchhiking is travel by the seat of one's pants--it takes guts and creative thinking. Hitchhikers have no mission control to ask advice and no alternate switches to switch. Backup systems are feet and possibly a tiny umbrella.

For me, hitchhiking is travel at its most fascinating. I usually feel I hardly know a country until I've stood by one of its roads and waited for someone to give me a ride. Hitchhiking is also great sport, replete with a roller coaster of emotion. When you get a good ride, interesting conversation, or an invitation for tea to meet the family, hitchhiking can be refreshing. On the other hand sometimes it stinks--badly.

Hitchhiking Risk Analysis and Assessment

Since the #1 threat to travelers is from motor vehicle accidents (mortality calculated in Chapter 9 as one in one-hundred for Americans in America, greater for debilitating injury), it is reasonable that:

will significantly increase risk of death and injury for hitchhikers.

Where Hitchhikers Hitch

Hitchhiking by travel backpackers is relatively common in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Most veteran hitchhikers consider the U.S. one of the worst countries for hitching, except for Alaska and Hawaii where it's excellent. I will add that rural Texas is obliging--they always think your truck is broke down.

The north of England, Scotland, and Wales are very good. In Poland the first car or horse-drawn cart that can stop usually stops, and the hospitality is usually great.

While hitchhikers raise about as much compassion in France and Spain as the average telephone pole, your odds of getting a lift are still much better than the average telephone pole. (Now those guys...) I must give an extra star to France, however, since it's the one country where women drivers would regularly pick me up.

Hitchhikers quickly cover vast distances in Germany once they get to service centers on the autobahn. The trick is getting there in the first place. Hitchhiking in Italy, while exciting, is dangerous since about one Italian driver in five is actively seeking a meeting with God.

While few Japanese hitchhike in Japan, many westerners do because of the high cost of transport. Japanese stop right away because they think something must be wrong. New Zealand is nearly crawling with German and English hitchhikers, with a few Maoris sprinkled in to keep it interesting. Australia is good, but the distances are so vast you might end up with the same ride for days. Truckers are your best bet there.

The trouble with Ireland is--and all serious hitchhikers agree--it's too feckin' easy!

Note to Women Hitchhikers

Women must be aware solo hitchhiking is the least safe of all options. Yes, mostly you can get away with it, but odds for trouble skyrocket. A whole new subset of drivers will stop for solo women who usually whiz on by a man, a man and a woman, or two women. These include ax murderers, rapists, robbers, and general sleazeballs. (To be fair, some female drivers only stop for female hitchhikers.)

I have seen this subset while hitching with women and sitting out of sight. Cars screech to a halt or circle around, leering, toothless drivers checking the scene. They zoom on after catching sight of me, dreams of easy sex thwarted. Of course, the greatest threat to hitchhikers is the driver who looks like any other, but has evil or stupidity at his core.

My Irish friend Maureen had some experience hitchhiking in Ireland, where she considered it safe. Traveling on the continent for the first time, she didn't want to be constrained by "sexist" thinking about hitchhiking, so she occasionally thumbed a ride.

On her last solo ride in Poland she climbed into a van with a group of other hitchhikers, thinking she would be safe with them. Gradually the others were dropped off until only she remained. The driver turned off the highway onto a back road. Night was falling, and she had an uneasy feeling. Then he pulled over, nothing but forest around for a long way. He began looking at her significantly and motioning to the back of the van. Panicking, and thinking how stupid she was for being there, she grabbed her pack and tried to get out. The driver also grabbed the pack but said no, it was okay. He restarted the van and they went on without further event.

Maureen considers herself lucky, and says she will never again hitchhike alone. She wanted to make clear, however, that her solo journey around Europe, and especially Poland, was one of the best experiences of her life.

Photo: Kiss up to Batgirl and you'll get there fast! Hitchhiking partner


Hitchhiking Signs

There is a decades-old controversy among hitchhikers about whether signs are a help, a hindrance, or a waste in stopping speeding automobiles, and even what type of sign works best. I am of the school that advocates signs as powerful travel tools.

I carry a large magic marker and notebook for sign-making. Sometimes I use the back of a map for a big sign, or a found piece of cardboard. I firmly believe a well-made sign will occasionally convince an ordinarily merciless driver to pull over. He reads the destination city, say BOPO, and thinks, "Hey, I'm going to BOPO," and his foot instinctively goes to the brake.

That is the theory. In practice the foot usually returns to the accelerator as senses are regained. Members of the lazy camp contend almost no one will stop who doesn't normally stop, so it isn't worth the effort to make signs.1

It is true that most rides come from a core of regular stoppers, many of whom are former or current hitchhikers. There are, however, some drivers who stop occasionally, plus those majority of drivers who still require education in the pleasures of picking up strangers and taking them places. Every one of those rides is not only good for you, but good for all hitchhikers. (Assuming you're half-way pleasant to be around, that is.)

The very clever or less industrious may find greater success with message signs. Instead of a destination, these communicate something that can be used over and over. Examples are: GOING MY WAY? and the classic, I DON'T STINK. The idea is to create a smile and an acknowledgment of your humanity, which, by the way, is a challenge at the on-ramp of a superhighway. A Hitchhiker


Making Signs

Whenever possible I use the big magic marker to make big, bold, beautiful signs that are readable from two or three seconds drive-time away. A big sign may give the driver a crucial extra second to stop. The only canvas I usually have, however, is my notebook, so most of my signs are not big, bold, or beautiful.

I normally don't use far-away destinations (like PRAGUE from Paris), but shoot for a closer destination en route. Then if the driver offers to go further, I have that choice. On the other hand if you go for the whole shebang, you just might get it.

There's a lot to think about in sign-making, which is okay--you'll have the time.

Another trick is to use the native spelling of a city, such as KÝbenhavn for Copenhagen, Athina for Athens, La La for Los Angeles, etc. Many drivers naturally prefer riders who speak their native language.

A border makes the sign stand out. Look like you have somewhere to go, and that you really want a ride. Finally, be nice when they don't stop--they probably have good reason.

Road Literature

For interesting reading check the light posts and road signs where hitchhikers traditionally ply their craft. Scrawled there will likely be a poem or message to you, the future hitcher, from some rhapsodic or desperate soul from long ago. Hitchhikers exude inspiration, and there is nothing between you and it but time.

Sadly, many fade away as sun and weather take their toll. But new ones take their place, and new ones after that, as wave after wave thumb down the roads of glory.

If you are standing there reading this, God has forsaken you, and you are going to die a slow, agonizing death from exhaust fumes, hunger, and indifference. Seen near Oxford, England

You have entered the Twilight Zone. You can never leave here. Do Do Do Do Do Do Do. Seen near Leeds, England

You poor dumb suckers, if I had to wait as long as you I'd have already thrown myself in front of a cement truck. Seen near Amsterdam

Thanks for the fast ride, man! Photo: Thanks for the fast ride, man! (Driver races this cherry Fiat on weekends.)

Hitchhiking Etiquette

USA-style hitchhiking employs a thumb pointed positively into the air or jauntily in the desired direction of travel. Yes, this has a beauty and simplicity all its own and, as an American, I'm proud to stick out my thumb anywhere in the world. But mostly I want a ride sooner rather than never, so it pays to hitch as the locals do.

In some countries you casually hold out an open palm or a few fingers, or even flap your hand like a little bird wing. In other places only eye contact is required. Nearly everywhere women hitchhikers need only to find some shade, sit on their packs, and try to work in a postcard before a Mercedes screeches to a halt.

There is one important worldwide hitchhiking rule, though. If dropped where there are already one or more hitchers, do not be so bold as to think you can take a position at the front of the line just because that's where you were let out. No way, Josť. Proper etiquette insists you take a position twenty yards behind the last hitchhiker already there.

Of course this doesn't necessarily mean you will be last to get a ride. If you reel one in by virtue of your pleasant smile, superb sign, or huge thumb, it's yours, baby. That guy ahead could be badly jinxed for any number of reasons.

Gallant hitchhikers, however--and there are many--inquire of their driver if there might also be room for the poor sunburnt chap up the road. For some guys on some days it's their only freaking chance!


These are ride-sharing companies, usually run by students or young people, found in the bigger cities of Germany and Austria. Drivers inform them of destination and departure time. You pay the mitfahrzentralen about $10 in advance for this information, and the driver $10 to $25 for gas, depending on distance.

If the ride doesn't work out, your money is refunded. Sometimes their numbers are listed in guide books--otherwise look up "mitfahrzentralen" in the phone book.

Similar companies are called Allostop in France, and are available in many cities across Europe. Also check noticeboards around hostels, universities, and student cafes for rides. These are good ways of traveling cheaply without hitchhiking.


After mind-numbing immobile hours (perhaps days) in central Greece (on the E75 south of LŠrisa, scattered hitchhiker remains foggily recalled), I finally came to realize that stern, side-to-side shakes of the head by truck drivers roughly translates from Greek to: "Jump in, dude. The door ain't locked!" Time to destination thereafter greatly improved.

Hitchhiking Tips

I believe the greatest danger is from being run over. Always be on the alert, watch every car carefully, don't stand in the road, never stand with your back to the traffic, and be aware some motorists most of the time and all motorists some of the time have poor vision and/or attention, and may pull or swerve off the road onto you. Have a safety area in mind, and be prepared to dash there.
your take-off spot carefully. A common hitchhiking mistake is looking for a ride where most of the traffic is local or heading elsewhere, when a superior site is a short distance away.
Inquire at hostels or among locals for tried-and-true hitching spots. Consult a detailed map to determine traffic patterns. I often find it faster and safer to take a bus or train a short distance away from major cities.
The slower the better
Hitch from intersections, gas stations, toll booths, and roadside stops where automobiles stop or slow down. This gives the driver a few extra seconds to look over you and the traffic situation. It is difficult and dangerous to stop a car going more than fifty mph.
Think for the driver
A competent hitchhiker must think for the driver. You are asking him to make a maneuver he doesn't regularly make, and other drivers around and behind may not expect.
No ride is worth risking an accident. All good, traditional hitching spots have a safe place for cars to pull over.
Hitchhiking directly on major highways is usually illegal and dangerous. It's better anyway at roadside stops, at the beginning (or before the beginning) of on-ramps, and on smaller roads.
Standard Procedure
When a car stops, first ask the driver where he's going. Then it's easy to decline the ride if you don't like the smell of his breath, or if something doesn't feel right.
Suspicious but desperate
If the driver looks suspicious but you're so desperate you get in anyway, make sure the door opens from the inside, stay next to the door, and never get between two men. (Anywhere among four fun-loving Swedish girls in a Volvo is probably worth the risk.)
A driver with evil intent may indicate something is wrong before a confrontation begins. Trust your instincts and get out. Say you've been sick all day and are about to throw up. Don't encourage or tolerate inappropriate behavior.
Risks vary
Many people and cultures still have inhuman attitudes toward women.
The best hitchhiking combinations for safety and getting rides, in order, are: a woman and a man; two women; a lone man; and two men. Three is slow but not impossible for short periods.
Travel light
If you have a lot stack it behind your biggest bag. There is usually room, and usually the driver doesn't mind the inconvenience, but sometimes he does.
When a car stops don't make the driver wait. But before opening the door ask where he's going and take a good look at him. Hitchhikers often politely turn down rides because they aren't going far enough, or for other reasons. You never have to get in.
Seat belts
Always wear a seat belt and shoulder harness. Put it on immediately so there isn't an awkward moment later when driving proficiency becomes apparent. If he drives unreasonably, ask to be dropped off.
Two-way street.
Drivers stop for two main reasons: they genuinely want to assist the traveler, and they may be looking for interesting conversation.
While hitchhiking is mostly great fun with friendly people, be aware of, and prepare for, real risks.

Truck Left Truck Front-Right

Travelers' Tips

It's nice to offer to pay for gas. Most of the time they tell you not to worry about it and when you do pay it's minimal. AJ


When hitchhiking across Germany, a good map that indicates autobahn service centers and roadside stops is invaluable. Have the driver drop you at one of these, instead of an exit, since they are by far the best hitching spots. Also, the first few letters on German license plates indicate where the driver is going about half the time. Jason, San Marcos, Texas


Always carry a flashlight when hitching or walking at night. In rural areas when the moon isn't out, man, does it get dark! Les, Waco, Texas


Summer hitchhiking in the extreme latitudes is great. It doesn't get dark until midnight, and then not very, so you've got plenty of time to get where you're going, and everyone is in a cheery mood. Turbo, USA


As a woman I get rides quickly, but turn many down. When I do accept, I always insist on keeping my pack on my lap, no matter how hot or uncomfortable or safe the driver seems. If you must get out quickly, the last thing you want is to have to get the trunk or back door open. Elly, USA

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1. About five percent of hitchhikers belong to a wildly proud third group which never makes signs and only rarely holds out a hand. Wherever let out they immediately stride on down the road in vainglorious confidence someone will pull over without being asked. While many claim great success, I believe they in fact suffer a high casualty rate. back