[Note: I wrote this post two years ago during my time as an au pair in Germany, but what I feel about hitchhiking still stands today. More than just reliving the good ol’ days of thumbing my way around town, I would like to share again the beauty of this seemingly-outmoded way of travelling for those who are heading to Europe or the Americas, or wherever it’s legal and safe to do. Unfortunately where I’m living right now, it is an illegal (and unfashionable) way of getting around – a damn shame really. I hope this post helps my fellow wanderbugs out there. I have also made some updates — the price of a Happy Weekend Ticket or Schönes-Wochenende Ticket has increased from €37 to €44 now.]
There are mostly two reactions when people talk about hitchhiking. It’s either a lifestyle, or an absolute no-no. More than two weeks ago, I would rather walk or pay for an exorbitant ride than embark on such a supposedly dangerous activity. I mean, we often see on TV and in movies where the guy picking the hitchhiker up is some sort of serial killer who would undoubtedly kidnap the hapless traveller and slice him into pieces, not before torturing him à la the movie Saw.
I have never considered hitchhiking as a viable transport solution. First, I was worried that the driver might turn out to be someone on the wrong side of the tracks. Also, I did not believe that I was brave enough to stop a stranger’s car and ask for a free ride. I know tons of people probably do this everyday, especially seasoned but cash-poor travellers, but when you have already passed the coming-of-age period marked by wilful rebellion and a serious lack of inhibition, you become ‘old and boring’, that is, always fearful and suspicious of the people around you.
I wasn’t about to think of myself as ‘old and boring’! I want to think young, think wild, think freely. Or basically, stop overthinking and start doing. Embrace the situation. Have faith in people.
Finally, it took me a desperate situation to take the plunge.
It was an unfortunate day hexed by Murphy’s Law, with me getting locked out of the house with absolutely nothing on me, crashing my bicycle in my haste and sustaining some nasty-looking superficial injuries. With blood oozing from the wounds and a dishevelled and fraught look on my face, I stubbornly stuck my thumb out to get a ride to town. The second car I stopped picked me up readily. It was a well-dressed businessman who let me in without hesitation and drove the ten minutes into town, dropping me at a convenient spot upon observing my rather wretched situation.
(It also helped that I am, and do appear, as an nonthreatening and vulnerable-looking female traveller with my newly forged guts of steel, or not.)
Despite the mild trauma and pain that I had undergone, that day has brought me the gift of grit and guts, to hitchhike, that is.
Suddenly, I am a convert. Perhaps it is not that scary after all. Or maybe I was lucky that it wasn’t some weirdo in the car. Nevertheless, I now know, for sure, that it’s not just something that penny-pinching backpackers or runaways do.
Hitchhiking by car is one thing. (And most people already know how to do that in theory, from watching all those Hollywood movies.) By now, I have no qualms standing at the side of the road with my thumb out. The only problem is that I’m worried that people are starting to recognize me as ‘that girl who is always hitchhiking’.
And then, in Germany, you can also hitchhike by train. Which a lot of German people and savvy travellers already do.
As for me, I am new in the game. Emboldened by my successful attempt at car hitchhiking, I decided to hitchhike for my train journey to Ulm. While it is a little trickier than hitchhiking by car, it is also infinitely safer.
Before I go on, I shall explain briefly, to the uninitiated, about how this works. In some parts of Germany, you can purchase a group ticket, called the Happy Weekend Ticket or Schönes-Wochenende Ticket, that applies to a particular region, say Bayern or Baden-Württemberg, where up to five persons can travel on one ticket costing one flat rate. A similar concept also applies for weekdays. The tickets are called simply the Baden-Württemberg ticket or the Bayern ticket for the respective regions as the name suggests. Obviously, all the travellers need to be physically present on the same train journey in the same direction within the particular region when the train conductor comes along to check the ticket. If you manage to find four “hitchhikers”, everyone pays less than €10! If I were to travel alone, I have to pay easily upwards of €15 for a one-way trip. If you manage to get more companions, i.e. if someone only rides for a short segment and you find another hitchhiker as replacement, you can go on to divide that up. Think how far those savings will take you! (Don’t forget to write your name on the ticket if you are the one bringing everyone together.)
However, be forewarned: If you manage to go one way by hitchhiking from Station A to Station B, and later you return on a single-trip journey back to Station A alone, you end up paying MORE. So it also pays to figure this out.
For example, if you paid €8,80 via sharing a ticket with 4 other people (by hitchhiking: €44 divided by a maximum of 5 travellers) but had to pay € 17,40 (a single return journey for one person) because you can’t find a ticket to ‘hitchhike’ on back, that might be more expensive than a return ticket for one person , if it costs less than € 26,20 in total – which is easily the case.
The difference is even bigger if you didn’t have all 5 people on your first outward journey. So, you need to stick it up for both the outward and return journey to make it worth your while. Up for the challenge?
My six hitchhiking tips tried and tested:
*Works best with spontaneous, on-the-fly type of travellers who don’t like to plan too much in advance*
Bonus starter tip: Be bold. Realise that nobody knows you in a foreign land, and to hell with people who judge.
1. Know how to ask.
My go-to opening line is always “Hallo, wohin fahrst du? Ich gehe nach (insert destination). Hast du einen Wochenende Ticket? Darf ich bei dir mitfahren?” (You are welcome to correct any grammatical or stylistic errors, but I get understood when I say this.) Or you can always be lazy and ask “Sprichst du Englisch?” and carry on the rest in English. Naturally, by doing so, you effectively shut out all the options from people who don’t speak English, and make the quest harder than it really is.
2. Give yourself a one-hour time buffer before your intended departure and keep asking around using that time.
My first strategy of looking over people’s shoulders as they keyed in their destinations on the DB Bahn ticketing machines was met by mixed reactions of amusement and annoyance. Not everyone is cool with this kind of arrangement even if it helps them save some money. Plus, it’s pretty much an invasion of privacy when you peep at where they will be going. Nevertheless, I soldiered on, asking every other person I see if they wanted to share the ticket. And voila, with 15 minutes to spare before the next train pulls out of the station, I found a girl travelling my way, and she was looking for the last of her four travelling companions, all strangers meeting for the first time, to use the group ticket together. (And common sense would tell you that travelling at daytime and preferably peak times will yield more successful results.)
3. Look out for relaxed-looking travellers in groups of two or three.
I have realised that solo travellers are actually not particularly keen to share a ticket as they are often wary of your intentions (hardened by their arduous journeys perhaps?). Some people also prefer to pay more to be free and easy, and not have to be bogged down by a gatecrasher to his one-man party. Students going on a day trip are often a good bet, as they are usually pretty cool, they would love to save some money to get an extra beer or coffee, and they get a chance to strike a conversation with a foreigner, which often lead to some interesting conclusions.
4. Don’t judge.
So some people don’t look exactly like the kind of person you would befriend on a daily basis. The rocker chicks with pink hair and piercings. The grandfatherly-looking gentleman in a sombre brown suit. A trio of skateboarders in flamboyant outfits. No matter how they look or dress, when they are in a train station, they are also travellers, just like you. And you can always ask if they are going your way. The worst that could happen… is that they would say no to you. In a crowded public place like the train station and on the train, they are not likely to do much harm to you, and of course you need to apply the same precautions and be wise about how you handle sticky situations while travelling. I travelled with two burly-looking Polish guys, all leather jackets and shaven heads, who did not speak a drop of English, and we had a fun conversation in broken German before we parted ways.
5. Eavesdrop on people’s conversations.
My German is far from perfect. But I could still barely make out the context of simple daily conversation if I tried very hard. I loitered around the huge display of departure times next to the ticketing machines, pricking up my ears as travellers scan the timings to look for their departing train. Learn as many station names as you can, especially the bigger ones and the final destination, on your intended route, because as long as you are on the train travelling in the same direction, you can share the ticket. When you catch them muttering ‘München’ for example, and you happen to be heading that way, then you know you have won half the battle by asking someone who is going in the right direction instead of blindly pouncing on everyone you see.
6. Make friends.
If you already have travel companions coming with you, then it wouldn’t exactly be called ‘hitchhiking’, would it? Here I am talking about a bonus if you manage to make new friends as you hitchhike. If you build up a network of frequent travellers around where you are staying, of whom you can plan future trips with together, you can work around each other’s schedules and share that ticket.
Meanwhile, websites such as Mitfahrgelegenheit.de that facilitate a more organized way of “hitchhiking” do exist and work quite well, but that doesn’t really help if you are a spontaneous traveller who decide to see a nearby town or city at the last minute.
For all it’s worth, besides the fact that you may occasionally get a free ride from generous fellow travellers (it happens), hitchhiking really spices up the journey in more ways than one.
Battling the unknown as you search for someone to travel with delivers a sweet adrenaline rush, which complements the anticipation of visiting a new place perfectly.
Finally, I just want to say that I was reprimanded a few times by some kind drivers that hitchhiking is unsafe and that I should really quit doing it. I appreciate their concerns. I will also leave out the horror stories I’ve heard. That said, exercise judgment and common sense in all situations!
Whether you are getting a little bored by your usual routine or strategy of travelling, or you are just an adrenaline junkie like me, if you haven’t done it, please try it! Perhaps you’ll find yourself addicted to it. ♥