My first experience with hitchhiking was in the fine city of Porto, Portugal.

It was early July of 2011, Mia and I had just finished our first stint of walking the Camino de Santiago, and we were stuck in Porto after a rash decision had prompted us to hop on the first train going south out of Santiago. Our initial few days in the city were glorious and mostly consumed by eating francesinhas — a “sandwich” typical of Porto that incorporates ham, sausage, and steak, is covered in melted cheese and tomato sauce, and then topped off with a fried egg. YUM. I limited myself to just one of these bad boys a day, because, you know, I gotta watch my figure. ANYWAYS. We soon realized that our bank accounts had taken a beating in recent weeks, and that our flight to Ireland out of Madrid was fast approaching. Thus, we did what all poor, backpacking hippies do. We hitchhiked.

Who wouldn’t want to pick up someone with a face like this?

Ended up trekking an hour out of the city to a “good” hitching spot, only to have to wait an additional hour before anyone offered us a ride. Eventually found ourselves sitting shot gun in the truck of a Portuguese man whose name and destination will forever remain unknown as he didn’t speak a word of English, nor did we know any Portuguese. Mia tried a few phrases in Spanish, I in Italian, but all attempts were futile; there was absolutely no understanding each other. So there we were, trapped in a truck with a man we didn’t know and with whom we couldn’t communicate, driving in a country we were completely unfamiliar with. That’s when I started to think that maybe the whole ordeal was a mistake. You, clever reader, have already probably been banging your head against table in disbelief and disapproval. Forgive me. Our lovely adventure ended 10 minutes later when he dropped us off at a truck stop about 2 miles down the road from where he found us. I wish I could say that we were the ones to request to be dropped off as that would show some sense of responsibility and intelligence, but alas it was all his doing, not ours.

This is where we ended up. Literally in the middle of nowhere. Not even sure what that sign means…

We walked a very long walk back to our hostel that evening, only to put all our pride and poverty aside, and purchase a train ticket back to Santiago and then another to Madrid. There would be no hitchhiking for us for another a few weeks, and though our maiden voyage was utterly unsuccessful, we did become very well versed in the art of thumbing a ride during our 2 months in Ireland. Thus, without further ado, here are a few lessons we learned…

Lessons Learned in Hitchhiking

Lesson One: Only Hitch in Countries Where You Know the Language

Duh. This is probably obvious to everyone except Mia and I, but because of its importance, I must include it as the first lesson for emphasis. It is absolutely essential that you be able to communicate with your driver. Namely, for safety reason, but also because getting to know your driver is the best part of hitching. Scandinavia, Holland, and Germany are possible exceptions to this rule as most natives to those countries speak English (and usually very well), but do not assume the same in many other countries (i.e. Portugal).

Lesson Two: Always Use A Sign

Signs work wonders for those hoping to hitch a ride. As Mia and I quickly learned, people are much more inclined to pick you up if they see you holding a sign that reveals your destination. We rarely found someone who was going directly to our final location, but by having a sign that indicated the place we hoped to go, many drivers who were heading in that direction were kind enough to give us a lift at least part of the way. The universal gesture of holding out your thumb also works, but it was not nearly as effective as carrying a clearly labeled sign.

Look at that beautiful sign!

Lesson Three: Don’t Try Hitching With A Lot of Stuff

I told a bit of a fib at the beginning of this post. True, our hitchhiking experience in Portugal was the first time either of us had successfully (or should I say, “successfully”) hitched a ride, but it was not the first time that we had attempted hitching. Rewind about three weeks from when we found ourselves stuck in Porto, and we would’ve been in the Pico De Europa mountains in northern Spain, attempting to hitch a ride to a work exchange program we were doing up there. We had been in contact with a green-living, self sustaining, yoga aficionado who had offered us a bed in exchange for some farm work around his property. Simon — the yogi’s name — suggested we hitchhike from the bus station to his property, as there weren’t any buses that drove through that area and taxis were hard to come by. So that’s what we did. Or, I should say, that’s what we tried to do. Spent a solid 45 minutes (which, looking back on it, really isn’t that long) standing on the side of the road with our thumbs out and at the ready. But no one stopped. Simon said it was easy to hitch there, but all the cars that went by would just honk at us, or occasionally throw up their hands in perplexity (the driver, not the car — just wanted to clarify). We took this to mean that hitching was frowned upon and that we were offending locals of the area. What we later realized is that the reason no one would pick us up is because we were packing too much stuff. Mia and I each had a large backpack and small rolling suitcase, making it impossible for us to fit into anyone’s car. OBVIOUSLY. We ended up selling a bunch of our clothes and disposing of our rolling suitcases a few weeks after this incident so it was no longer an issue, but just in case you too thought you’d be able to hitch with a bunch of shit in tow, the answer is NO.

Lesson Four: Keep Your Expectations Low

Please do not think that you’ll be able to hitch from Porto to Madrid in one day. Do not even think that you’ll make it more than 50+ miles. Hitchhiking is hard work, and the ease at which you can catch a ride varies immensely and is nearly unpredictable. Therefore, keep your expectations low. If you need to be in a certain place by a certain time — and your time is limited — then it may be best that you take a bus or train to your destination. Even if you can hitch half the way there and then plan to catch a bus for the latter bit, there’s a chance that your thumbing will take you to a small town that has no buses or trains. You must be flexible and you MUST have minimal expectations in regards to the amount of distance you plan to cover.

Lesson Five: Have a Back-Up Plan

It is easy for plans to go awry when hitchhiking. Therefore, it is essential that you have a back-up plan in case shit hits the fan. For some, this may mean that you only hitch through areas that you know have hostels, or that you be willing to pay for a taxi/bus/train when necessary. Mia and I carried a tent with us so that, on the off chance we got stuck in a town after dark, we’d at least have a place to sleep. And yes, that tent came in handy.

Our home for the night. Pitched him in a farmer’s field.

Lesson Six: Don’t Expect to Feel Like a Character in a Kerouac Novel

It’s easy to romanticize the notion of hitchhiking across the country, however the reality of it differs greatly from anything you’ve read in On the Road. A lot of the time, it sucks. You spend 8 hours trying to cross a distance that’d normally take you just under 2 if you’d been traveling in your own vehicle. Most of your time will be spent waiting expectantly on the side of the road, only to be picked up by some woman who lives 3 miles down the street. There’s no time for rest. Once you finally get a ride, you have to sit and chat with your driver — which is my FAVORITE part about hitching, yet sometimes after a long day of being on the road, you just want to get in the backseat and close your eyes. There are some definite negatives to traveling this way, and therefore I think it important to point them out.

Lesson Seven: Trust Your Instincts

I’ve been asked if I ever felt unsafe while hitchhiking. Save for that first disastrous attempt in Portugal, I can thankfully say that, no, I have had no safety issues in my 50+ times of catching rides with strangers. There was one incident that made use uncomfortable. Mia and I were trying to hitch out of a city in Ireland and a man stopped to ask if he could give us a lift. He seemed a bit odd and a little too eager to get us in his car. We declined but he continued to drive next to us, suggesting we quickly get in as it was a busy roadway. Finally, we told him that we were going in the opposite direction of where he was driving (this was true, according to the lane he was in), but he then proceeded to tell us that we were walking the wrong way and that we need to come with him. Having already looked at a map and ensured the validity of our path, we knew he was lying, which was quite unnerving. However, we continued to walk away and eventually he drove off. Trust your instincts. Never be so desperate for a ride that you hop in a car with just anyone.

With all that being said, I highly encourage anyone and everyone to try hitchhiking at least once in their life.

It’s a different style of travel, and one that provides some invaluable life lessons and experiences. Actually, when I started writing this post, I intended for it to be entitled “The Humanity of Hitchhiking” and for it to detail the ways in which hitching can both humble and enlighten one. However, I figured it best to explain how to do the damn thing first.