Hitchhiking as Science

Zur deutschen Fassung.

Hitchhikers have this image of hapless hippies, too stoned to catch the bus in time. Or guys who just got out of the joint and ain’t got no money for no ticket to nowhere.

In reality, many hitchhikers are sociologists, geographers, psychologists, actresses, linguists, medical doctors or rocket scientists. And lawyers, like myself, as you may be able to tell from my standard hitchhiking attire.

Some hitchhikers also have a rather scientific or mathematical approach to this means of transport. They record wait times, average distances, speed, and plenty of other parameters. Then they upload the information to a database, for everyone to benefit. For free, of course.

Ábel Sulyok, a hitchhiker from Hungary and an atomic physicist, has gathered all the data on waiting times in Europe and compiled an interesting map. It shows the average waiting times in minutes from less than 30 minutes (green) to more than 90 minutes (dark red). Average waiting time is one of the most important factors by which to measure the “hitchability” of a country or region.

Obviously, many hitchhikers don’t contribute to such statistics. (Neither do I, to be honest. First, I often travel without a watch or a mobile phone. Second, I am much more interested in stories than in numbers.) Still, people who have hitchhiked much more than me, say that the map is a pretty good reflection of reality.

This map is especially useful if you want to go on a hitchhiking trip, but don’t really care where to. Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Albania, Montenegro, Romania, Moldova, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia look like very promising countries.

I’ve had quite good experiences in Eastern Europe, the Baltics and the Balkans myself. Hitchhiking in Belgium and the Netherlands also worked quite okay. I don’t know about Luxembourg, but as all trains, buses and trams are free in that country, you might as well make use of that.

Another thing I can confirm from personal experience is that islands are quite easy to hitchhike. The smaller, the better. I don’t know what it is, but on small islands, people seem more relaxed, open and friendly. And there are more drivers with pick-up trucks, which is always fun.

More than the difference between countries, I have noticed a difference in regions. Rural and especially mountainous areas are almost always better for hitchhiking than busy areas, let alone large urban sprawls, where nobody could guess where you are trying to get to. In the mountains, people often hitchhiked themselves as kids or teenagers, or they know that there aren’t many buses. National parks are also really good, because many people are in a good, relaxed mood when going there.

I have also had quite good experiences in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. I really have no idea why the south of Austria is painted in such negative colors in the map. Obviously, it helps to speak the local language. And in these countries, the license plates indicate where the car is from (and possibly going to), in Germany even down to the town level. It makes it much easier to talk to drivers at gas stations, when instead of asking “are you going to Bavaria?”, you can ask: “Oh, I see you are going to Passau. That would help me tremendously, because I am trying to get to Austria, and you could drop me at the last gas station before the border.”

And once you are on the highway in Germany, the famous Autobahn, people are going up to 417 km/h, so you can get really far in no time. Germany – or both Germanies, to be exact – also used to have quite a hitchhiking culture, so you meet many drivers who remember it romantically. It happened to me a number of times that a middle-aged woman, looking completely normal and un-adventurous, would pick me up and start telling me about the time she hitchhiked to Afghanistan after finishing high school.

Among the countries with longer waiting times, I got a few theories. In Sweden, people are generally averse to any human interaction. (They might take you if you put “I’ll be silent” on your sign, for all I know.) In the north of Scandinavia, I guess there are simply fewer cars. So, while a wait time of 70 minutes sounds bad, it may translate into an acceptance rate of 100%. In the United Kingdom, there is often simply no space by the side of the road.

Why Croatia is such an outlier among otherwise very friendly Balkan countries, I have no idea.

And I am really baffled by Southern Europe, with the exception of the islands, of course. I haven’t tried hitchhiking there on the mainland (except in the German-speaking, mountainous north of Italy), but I have heard from quite a number of really experienced hitchhikers who say that Italy and Spain are the absolute worst. Allegedly, if you rely purely on hitchhiking, you’ll cross Russia all the way to Kamchatka faster than you will cross Spain from the Pyrenees to Gibraltar.

But, speaking a bit of Spanish myself, I have always been tempted to try hitchhiking around Spain. Let’s just hope I ain’t gonna end up dying a sun-scorched death in the desert of Andalusia.

Anyway, I just wanted to post this map in order to ask you hitchhikers out there about your own experience. What did you notice? What are your tricks to get a lift?

And stay tuned for my own hitchhiking adventure this spring!


About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
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20 Responses to Hitchhiking as Science

  1. dnrteuer says:

    This was a great post. Can you write something to advise about safety when hitch-hiking? After WWll, when my father returned from the Pacific theatre, the military dropped him off in California and told him, “good luck getting home.” He lived on the east coast, in Massachusetts, so he stuck out his thumb. Although he was a very quiet man and shared extremely little about his time in the Philippines, he told us that the time crossing the US was wonderful, in the company of all sorts of interesting people, and full of adventures.

    When I’ve travelled in Europe, I have usually elected for the small cabins with six places to sit and the luggage rack overhead. I enjoy the serendipitous nature of the people one meets that way and also enjoy the challenge of multi-lingual conversation (especially when I have no familiarity with one or the other and we all have to search for some language commonality to get by). Anyway, I have been warming up to the idea of hitch-hiking, but have concerns about safety because I am female, and because I am no longer young. I am in my 60s, a physician, and a writer of sorts. I studied enough Latin, Spanish, German and French in school to allow me to get by, and before making a planned trip to Hungary, I learned enough of the language to write short notes to my landlady during my stay. Alas, I can only really remember now how to ask for two scoops of ice cream.

    Thanks for your wonderful posts. May the wind be at your back,
    Donnah Nickerson-Reti

    • Hello Donnah,

      with your openness for adventure and your language skills (I couldn’t imagine that anybody could learn any Hungarian), I think you would really enjoy the experience. And if you have already been thinking about it, you know you want to do it.

      Being an elderly lady might also make it easier to get a lift, because nobody will be afraid of you. You may have to explain more often why you are hitchhiking. (This also happens to me, a man in his mid-40s, not looking like a hippie at all.) Sometimes I say that it’s faster than a complicated train connection, sometimes I explain it’s out of adventure, sometimes I say that it was a bet whether I would be able to make it. People like that.

      For a start, I would recommend a few short trips, to get a feeling for it. Like visiting a friend or a relative who lives a few hours away. Or going into the next town. Or going hiking and using hitchhiking to go back to your own car or the bus stop or the motel.
      I started small, just like that, out of necessity, until some of the people linked to in the second paragraph showed me that one can really travel the whole world like this.

      As to safety, here are a few thoughts:
      – Statistically, you are safer going with a woman, because men are one of the biggest risks women face. (Not only in hitchhiking, but everywhere really.) It’s also completely okay to tell a male driver that you only go with women. (I myself am still surprised when young, single women pick me up. I really wouldn’t expect that.)
      – Some hitchhikers ask the drivers whether they can send the license plate number to a friend (or even take a photo). If the driver declines, they don’t get into the car.
      – But the real danger is traffic. Look for a spot where you are visible from afar and where cars can stop safely (or have to stop anyway). It sounds like you are in the US, so you won’t have too much of a problem with speeding, unless things have changed since my last visit. (For me, reckless drivers are the biggest worry. Once, in Germany, I asked a driver to stop and let me out before we got to the destination, because I was sweating fear. He was a very young driver, trying to show off.)
      – You may also want to team up with a friend, although I know it’s hard to find someone who is up for it, especially among people who own a car. If you are two females, this shouldn’t limit the likelihood of you getting lifts. (For two men, it’s really tricky, unless you are very obviously hikers caught in the rain. Or soldiers, like your father!)

      Come to think of it, re-hitching that route from California to Massachusetts, only using roads that were already there in 1945, trying to imitate the route your father took, mixing your own adventures of what you remember of his, that might make for a good story. (You mentioned the serendipity of train companions, and serendipity is what I appreciate most about hitchhiking. You just have no way of knowing who will stop, how the conversation will go, how far you will get. But, because it’s a self-selecting group, you will encounter mostly good people.)

      Please let me/us know how it will go!

  2. I haven’t seen hitchhikers in a long time here. It made me wonder if it had become illegal. There are actually 6 states where it is completely against the law. In California it is permitted only from truck stops or rest areas. You can’t stand by a highway/freeway on-ramp or be on the side of the highway/freeway at all.
    I guess the laws were passed with the thought of safety🤷🏼‍♀️ That, and the “Stranger Danger” xenophobic American attitudes🙄🤦🏼‍♀️. Not everyone, but it’s definitely there.

    I hope your Spring Trip isn’t to Ukraine. Looks like that might not be a safe place for a westerner or a lawyer for that matter😂😂

    • It’s like you can read my mind, because Ukraine is really too tempting right now… :-)

      The other idea was to hitchhike to the three European Capital Cities of Culture. This year, they are Kaunas in Lithuania, Esch in Luxembourg and Novi Sad in Serbia. As I would start from Bavaria, that would make for three trips into three different directions, covering quite a bit of Europe.

    • The laws against hitchhiking are really a problem. Because they are different in every state or province, people often get confused and prefer not to stop at all.
      Although I have also had people stop for me (in Canada), telling me: “I thought hitchhiking was illegal,” yet they gave me a ride.

      And then I always wonder: If it’s illegal and the police come and arrest me, they will give me a ride into town, which is where I might want to go anyway. :-)

      Sometimes, it’s really about safety and the police even take hitchhikers to a better spot.
      Or they stop a truck driver and convince him to take on the hitchhiker, like it happened to this guy in Pakistan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szBn04d0PDc

    • Thank you SO SO much for that link! It took me several hours to watch it all cuz life is full of interruptions of the boring kind, but WOW!! What a wonderful adventure!

    • I was also blown away, especially by the beginning in the Middle East, which brought back wonderful memories. Beautiful footage and quite thoughtful, I though (except for the philosophizing about Covid in the end).

      But I couldn’t have tasted half of the food that Jojo ate. And I would have fainted if somebody killed a goat right next to me.

    • Definitely agree. The covid thing kind of got to me too. Jojo seems very young with youth’s privilege and grand sense of their own wisdom🙄. Yes, the goat… ☹ I’m not a huge meat eater and I believe that people should understand where their meat comes from but that was unexpected. Which I guess is good. That’s kind of the point, right? Seeing ALL the parts. At least it was a goat and not a dog.

  3. danysobeida says:

    El mapa de autostop es loco, tienes algún detalle sobre los viajes cruzando el mar? Realmente hay “capitanes de barco” aceptando personas sin boleto en sus embarcaciones … o lo hacen en transportes de carga o … disculpa si resulto preguntona, pero me llama mucho la atención.

    • Si, es posible hacer el dedo con un barco. Hay que esperar en los puertos, hablar con mucha gente, y esperar más.
      Normalmente son los barcos pequenos que buscan a alguien para ayudar cocinar o navigar por la noche, cuando el capitano duerme.

      Pero no es nada para mi, porque no tengo nada talentos utiles. Y tengo miedo del ocean.

      Acabo de ver un documental de un jovencito que lo ha hecho:

      Entre Francia y Inglaterra o entre las islas, normalmente son ferrys. Hay que ir con un camion o con turistas en su coche. Eso es más facil.

    • Me pregunto cómo sería el mapa de tiempos de espera en Bolivia… Probablemente es dificil, porque siempre hay un colectivo que llega más rapido.

    • dany sobeida says:

      No es una actividad muy común pero ocasionalmente se realiza, lo hacen sobre todo las personas del área rural, por la carencia de transporte. Lo que si es seguro: No hay rutas de autostop por MAR.

  4. eimaeckel says:

    Die Karte ist exakt: An der Grenze zwischen Belarus und Polen ist es gerade schwierig voranzukommen. In Irland wirst du auch mitgenommen, wenn die Leute selber keinen Platz mehr im Auto haben. Gute Reise wünsche ich dir -wohin auch immer.

    • Das mit dem Platz finde ich auch interessant:
      Manche Leute haben eine Sporttasche auf der Rückbank ihres SUV und sagen: “Tut mir leid, Auto ist schon voll.”
      Andere sitzen zu viert mit drei Kindern und sieben Umzugskartons im Kleinwagen, aber schaffen es noch, Platz für einen Tramper mit großem Rucksack zu machen.

    • eimaeckel says:

      Sogar für zwei Tramper mit großen Rucksäcken in einem Austin Mini 1979 in Wales ;-) Vielleicht wäre es ein interessantes Abenteuer, das heute noch mal auszuprobieren. Ich bewundere deine Unverzagtheit.

    • Ich glaube, das wäre tatsächlich ein Abenteuer und eine tolle Geschichte!

      Ich selbst bin ja noch relativer Anfänger und muss mich auch selbst immer wieder zwingen, meine Schüchternheit zu überwinden.
      Aber ich habe ein paar der oben verlinkten Supertramper (Timo aus Rumänien und John und Eva aus Kanada/Russland) persönlich kennengelernt, und das hat mich motiviert. Ich dachte mir dann: “Okay, um die Welt Trampen, das schaffe ich nicht. Aber wenn die DAS schaffen, dann sollte ich es zumindest von Nürnberg nach Wien schaffen.” Und so fängt es dann an. (Außerdem habe ich manchmal einfach echt kein Geld für den Zug oder Bus. Das hilft bei der Entscheidung. :-) )

    • eimaeckel says:

      Ich wünsch dir Glück und bin gespannt auf deine Geschichten.

  5. gabegstone says:

    Great post! Did my share of hitchhiking with a female friend back in the old days, but it was more common then. Hitchhiked through the Rockies and once on a hay wagon from Salzburg to Berchtesgaden. Great way to meet people (I guess not the Swedes, though) and the price is right. Even my little, foreign-tongued mom (born in Ukraine, 1919) hitchhiked here in Canada during a bus strike in the 1970s. Yes, safe travels to you. I don’t know about visiting Ukraine though . . .

    • Yeah, I think I’ll have to cancel those plans. :-(
      The friend whom I wanted to visit again in Odessa, he fled last night, reached Romania this morning. (Pretty tragic, because he had moved to Ukraine – his ancestors’ country – from Israel to escape the constant barrage of missiles.)

      On a hay wagon in the Alps, now that’s the jackpot in the hitchhiking bingo!

  6. Pingback: Trampen als Wissenschaft | Der reisende Reporter

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