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A hitch-hiker’s guide to survival

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Hitch-hiking may not be the most attractive way to travel, but its price tag certainly is. Believe it or not, this sketchy travel experience was once more common than you may think. 

Hitch-hiking today is seen by many as nothing more than a terrifying experience one would only ever encounter in a horror film, but can it still be done? It is largely taboo in the UK, and the thought of picking up a random stranger would probably send shivers down the spines of the majority of the population. But is it possible to get people past the idea of crazed murderers and strange passengers, and convince them to give their fellow human beings a helping hand? On a fairly dismal day in January 2011, I found myself with no other choice but to find out.

It was a Friday morning in Edinburgh, and I and my two American friends had just missed our train to London. Due to a mysterious, synchronized fault in all of our alarms, we had slept right through our 06:00am train, and we were now left with the not-so-attractive fates of either paying the extortionate price of another train ticket, or finding a cheaper, less pricey option that would enable us catch our plane the following morning. After much deliberating and suggestions of walking, running, flying, back-flipping, canoeing and cow riding, my friend comically suggested we hitch-hike. ‘Good idea’ I told him, ‘why don’t we also go to Texas and find a friendly guy wearing a mask and a chainsaw?!’. But after my hilarious attempt at comedy failed to lighten the modd, I thought why not? It would be virtually free, and it would be an awesome adventure! But how?

We knew the main thing we need; a sign. A good one. One that not only enticed passersby to read, but also to open their hearts whilst simultaneously reassuring them we were not freelance rapists looking for our next prey. So, we did the most logical thing possible. We got a mangled up piece of cardboard and wrote a completely untrue, illegible, message in a pink highlighter stating that we were, ‘travelling down south to catch plane home’.

Never did we consider that the sign would be unreadable. Pink, we thought, is a very prominent colour that is not only very noticeable, but also very reassuring. The cardboard might have been a bit messed up but what the hey, it made us look more desperate. And even though our card only stated that we were, ‘going down south’, giving no reference to any specific location people could link themselves to, we were friendly looking guys and that didn’t matter! But we were wrong, very wrong.

We headed to a road connecting to a motorway to hold our formidable sign and fight off the crowds of long-distance journey makers eager to give us a ride. This was a good decision we thought, people heading towards a motorway surely must plan on going somewhere far away. The only thing we did not consider though, is where the road was heading.  Due to the fact we wanted to travel down south, a road heading towards the north of Scotland probably wasn’t the best place to stand. Despite the large road-signs scattered nearby, the Scottish geographical ability of two Americans and a Liverpudlian just were not good enough to evaluate the situation properly. Two very cold and unwelcoming hours later, we realised, accompanied by the looks of hatred and confusion vetted on the faces of passersby, that maybe where we were standing wasn’t the best decision. But where else could we go?

We decided to get a bus as far away as possible; simply on the basis that as a considerable amount of time had now elapsed, we desperately needed to make some progress. We found ourselves in Penicuik, a small town situated on the outskirts of Edinburgh, but not Edinburgh, so we had at least travelled somewhere. Things seemed a bit more optimistic, cars were not exactly stopping but they were at least slowing down and noticing our existence, even if it was only to mock us. Then… Success! Someone stopped, could this be it? Our moment of adventure? No. They simply asked us for directions, laughed and drove on. With a plane ride looming, and the idea of missing our plane being a lot more detrimental to our pockets than a pricey train ticket, we decided to call it a day.

With our newly developed colds and bruised egos, we returned to the train station disheartened and paid the £100 for the ticket, but we just could not accept hitch-hiking was impossible. But how is it that you stop people laughing at you, or being afraid of you?

After searching the deserted alcoves of Britain’s hitch-hiking scene, we discovered Britain’s finest low-budget travellers, and asked them for their list of must-dos when going on a hitch-hiking adventure. Here they are:

  • HAVE A GOOD SIGN! – This cannot be stressed more, it’s all good and well wanting someone to take you somewhere, but if they don’t know where you are going, or even if you are hitch-hiking, you have no chance. A sign can be anything from a beautifully carved wooden attraction, to a piece of a paper and a biro. Just make sure it is clear, and comprehensible.
  • FIND A GOOD PLACE TO STAND – No matter how good you look, or how well your sign is laid out, if you’re standing in the Morrison’s at the end of your street, you are not going to get anywhere. Find a road that leads to where you’re going, and try to make sure it is busy and well-lit.
  • LOOK NOTICABLE AND APPROACHABLE – This may sound a bit crazy, but yes, this is another one of those situations where you have to think about what you look like. Long gone are the days when a scruffy homeless man could jump into a random shmuck’s car and life was good. Try to look clean and happy, it may be difficult, especially if you are a student, but you can do it! Put simply, if you look like you are going to rape somebody, they will think you are going to rape them.
  • TELL PEOPLE WHY YOU ARE HITCHHIKING – Help to put people’s minds at ease by giving them your reasons for getting into their car, especially if you are doing it for a good cause, people love to feel as if they are doing something charitable.
  • KNOW THE LAWS OF THE LAND – This may sound a bit strange, but if you are in a foreign country, make sure what you are doing is legal before you do anything. An expensive train journey will look like pocket change when handed a hefty fine for standing on a motorway you were not supposed to, or even worse, JAIL!
  • TELL PEOPLE WHAT YOU ARE DOING – I know Indiana Jones did not constantly inform his mother about his latest adventure plans, but the truth is, you are not Indiana Jones. Hitch-hiking can be a very dangerous experience if approached naively. Tell people where you are at all times, you do not want to be the latest star of hostel III.
  • BE SMART WHEN CHOOSING RIDES – No-matter how bad your day is, or how long you have been standing in the cold, if someone looks suspicious, DO NOT GET IN. It’s all well and good wanting to get somewhere, but risking your life is not worth one silly car journey.

And finally,

  • BE PREPARED TO FACE REJECTION – Do not be naive like me and my American friends and think hitch-hiking will be easy. These pointers will make things easier, but it is still something that is not expected in many countries, and definitely not common. Just be persistent and your time will come!


 Have any tips to add? Then let us know in the comment section!

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  • tommskdas

    Good advice and very true. I’ll use this next time I’m hitch-hiking! Sounds like a bad day for you though, unlucky!

  • http://www.cherylkeit.com/ Cheryl Keit

    Sounds like you had really bad luck! The last time I hitchhiked from Edinburgh to London, it took me nearly 36 hours to get there… So it’s definitely not a quick easy option!



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