Thumb Tactics

15 August, 2007

Hitchhiking (known as “Autostopping” on the continent) is a truly underrated way to travel. It’s free, it’s good for the environment and you’re guaranteed to meet pleasant people – after all, they’re willing to swerve to the side of the road to do a favour for a stranger.

It’s also surprisingly easy. You don’t actually need anything to give it a try, although warm clothes, a small road atlas, a giant permanent marker and some cardboard will make life easier. However, there are a few things to bear in mind when trying to get a lift.

Where to Stand:

On a motorway, the basic hierarchy of places to stand is as follows: petrol stations are a lot better than slip roads and slip roads are a lot better than laybys. The only exception to this occurs in countries like France, which tend to accumulate queues at toll booths. In this instance you can spend a happy minute wandering through the slow-moving traffic, brandishing your sign and smiling at people.

Otherwise, head for petrol stations. Position yourself where all the traffic merges before it begins to accelerate onto the motorway. The great advantage of petrol stations is that if you’re not having any luck, you can actually go and ask for lifts at the pumps. If you’re unfailingly polite and good-natured then you stand a good chance of being offered a lift by someone who wouldn’t have considered picking up a sinister-looking figure by the side of the road.

Slip roads that feed motorways are much less travelled and people are less likely to want to pick you up, but they’re certainly better than laybys, since drivers will travel relatively slowly where there’s a change of direction. If you stand wisely then they’ll have a chance to safely stop for you.

Unfortunately hitching at laybys is an efficient method of ensuring you only get the very slowest of the traffic, unless people stop there anyway for amenities. It’s also a useful way to sample a variety of exhaust fumes and practise standing up with your arms outstretched for long periods of time.

Attempting to get a lift on a hard shoulder is normally both illegal and dangerous. There’s probably as much chance of being arrested or run over as there is of successfully getting a ride.

Wherever you stand, try to look friendly and remember to hold your sign where it can easily be read.

What to write on your sign:

Truly successful signwriting requires a profound understanding of human psychology and migratory trends and possibly several years of academic study.

However, my advice would be to write somewhere as far away as possible. If you write somewhere nearby, you resign yourself to endless short lifts and also disregard the (surprisingly likely) coincidence that someone will be driving all the way to your destination. Showing a bit of ambition is always a good strategy, though beware of taking it too far. You’ll find that few people travel overland to Ulan Bator, at least not from Surrey.

The most important thing to remember is to use the correct language on your sign. Just as nobody in Britain will be driving to “Londres”, nobody in Österreich will be driving to “Vienna”.

Learn a Language:

It’s commonly known that slow, emphatic speech in English is universally understood, perhaps by some form of magic – and frankly, why shouldn’t it be? However, in many cases, English-speakers will need to employ charades to help them illustrate more complex points. This can be tricky when trying to communicate with someone who ought to be looking at the road.

So when travelling abroad, a basic grasp of some appropriate languages is useful if you prefer your journeys to be free of resentful, xenophobic silences. In fact, hitchhiking provides a fantastic environment to learn and practise language, since there’s little else to do. If your vocabulary becomes very advanced you can even attempt to play “I Spy”!

It’s important to remember that if you ever have trouble with the police in a foreign country, reverting to English and speaking loudly and slowly will probably convince them that, in common with all British people, you are mentally retarded and not worth the paperwork.

Being Dropped Off:

Unless they’ve kindly offered you somewhere to stay, most people will give little thought to where they’re going to leave you at the end of the journey. This normally results in a panicked consultation as they are forced to leave the motorway at speed, followed some time later by them abandoning you in a completely inappropriate place to try and get your next lift. If you take the initiative (and a map) you can ask them beforehand to drop you somewhere good, such as the last petrol station before they leave your route.

It’s also worth thinking about the nature of your destination. One of the advantages of hitching is that you can either travel very fast, sleep in trucker’s cabs and see a lot of motorways, or travel significantly more slowly on more provincial roads, getting a flavour of the country and seeing places of interest. This choice is crucial when cities are involved. It’s approximately fifty thousand times more easy to get into a city than it is to get out – the difference between asking someone to drop you off in the centre (simple) and standing on a busy suburban trunk road, feeling self-conscious while trying to get a lift in the right direction out of town (complicated). Escaping from even a small city may well require a long walk to somewhere sensible, perhaps down motorway verges.


Italy is lovely and Italians are lovely. But if you ever have the chance to hitch through Italy – don’t.

Ever since compulsory military service was scrapped, the only members of the Carabinieri (the military police) are the kind of people who enjoy dressing as metrosexual Nazis and making people’s lives miserable. And the only members of the civil police service are the people who were too stupid to wield machineguns in the Carabinieri.

As well as being the butt of the national equivalent to Irish jokes, the police in Italy are deeply unpleasant and nurture a fanatical hatred of hitchhikers, such that “NO Autostop” is written on every Autostrada sign in the country. My worst experience so far was being stopped and forced to throw away my sign, two metres from the border with Switzerland – while clearly trying to leave Italy.

Italian police aside, hitchhiking in Europe and throughout the world is a superb way to actually meet people of different cultures and see travel from a more local perspective. And, although the risk to personal security is very well-publisised, most of the people you meet aren’t really closet murderers. Just be careful not to get in a car with a drunk driver.