We live in a world of unprecedented choice when it comes to travel. In an age where planes, trains, buses, trams, trolleys, and subways are more widespread and affordable than ever before, it might seem as though hitchhiking is a bit redundant. And the truth is that, in many ways, it is.
Some people have the impression that hitchhiking is an ultra-cheap way to travel, and it can be. But – although you aren’t directly paying for transport – you are still paying with your time. In the USA, a 12 hour bus journey might cost $100 – but hitchhiking the same route could take 3 days. If you plan poorly and end up buying your food as you need it at rest stops, you’ll very quickly exceed the cost of a bus ticket. Carrying your own food and cooking equipment will reduce costs, but at the expense of more weight on your back. Even with food handled, you may have to spend a night in a town or city where you are not willing to sleep outside – in which case a room in even the cheapest hostel or hotel will greatly reduce the money you thought you were saving.
Along with costing time and money, hitchhiking also takes a toll on your health. Days are spent exposed to the elements, breathing polluted air, and nights consist of sleeping with one eye open in places that are often noisy and uncomfortable. If you are on your own, there can be little time to relax. You must always be aware of what is going on around you: is this a good spot, is this person trustworthy, am I on the right route, have I left anything behind? On top of this, you must be prepared to hike several miles a day with all your gear, and provide interesting and engaging conversation for every driver that picks you up.
Suddenly a $100 bus ticket doesn’t sound so bad.
So why should you choose to hitchhike? If you don’t have any particular destination in mind, or no particular time you need to be there, then hitchhiking is a good method of travel. There are also some types of journey where hitching can work out cheaper: if you are planning to camp anyway, you need to cover a long distance, and transport is particularly expensive or infrequent to your destination, then you may save some money; if your destination is only a few hours away and you eat a packed lunch from home, then you’ll definitely save money. But you’ll still have spent more time, and be arriving more exhausted, than if you’d just coughed up for public transport in the first place.
The important thing to understand is this: hitchhiking is most rewarding, and makes the most sense, when it’s the purpose of your journey – not just a means of moving from one place to another. The one true reason to hitchhike is simply because it’s really, really fun.
You will meet people you would never ordinarily meet, and they will tell you stories you’d hear nowhere else. When you get picked up by a local, they’ll tell you more about the place you’re travelling through than you could ever hope to learn simply by staying there; they’ll tell you the best places to eat and to go out and have fun; they’ll tell you the safe places and the dangerous places; they’ll tell you the town gossip for decades past. When you get picked up by a tourist, they’ll take you to viewpoints, beaches, and sideshows that you’d never have been able to reach without owning a car yourself.
Some people will share their philosophy on life with you. Some will tell you their biggest fears and regrets. Some will tell you about the best things that have ever happened to them, and some will tell you the worst things that are happening to them right now. You are unceremoniously tossed out of your personal sphere of existence and exposed to what is real and honest and authentic: the incredible variety of human life as it exists on earth. It’s exhilarating.
Every person you meet has made the decision to help you, to be kind to you, to treat you as a friend – and you do the same to them in return. When you hitchhike, you take nothing. A driver does not lose anything by letting you in their car – in fact, they gain your company. Of course, there are some people who may try to give you money. Some may want to take you to dinner, and some may invite you to meet their families and sleep on the sofa. Sometimes you might even accept these offers – it doesn’t matter. Because if you are a good hitchhiker, everybody wins.
Don’t hitchhike because you want to get somewhere. Hitchhike because it will remind you that everywhere there are good people, and because the experiences you will have while hitchhiking are experiences that you could not have any other way.