Your guide to hitchhiking through Europe

Fiachradh McDermott spills the details on his time hitchhiking and tells us why it's an unbelievable way to travel

It’s the summer and people are thinking of travelling. If you're considering a different way of doing it, like hitchhiking across the continent, here’s a few things to consider:

Hitchhiking is a dirty word

Hitchhiking is fraught with negativity in modern day times, though for the most part, much of this is false. Bad things happen, just as bad things can always happen, but I’ve always found it one of the most enjoyable ways to travel.

Skirting through a countryside so foreign to your own is a beautiful feeling, but nothing compares to the absolute freedom of being able to say, “I want to go there so I will.” You’re commanded only by your ingenuity rather than what your capital can muster.

Pack light

It’s always important to pack lightly, and you’d be surprised how little clothes you need when you’re used to not showering for extended periods of time. Sounds bad, but when you walk across the border from Bulgaria to Serbia wondering how you ended up here, you tend to forget the little insignificant things. Three t-shirts, two pairs of shorts, endless underwear and water are really the only essentials. Everything else is somewhat arbitrary, but up to an individual to decide.

Sleeping free

Hostels in Europe are dirt cheap compared to home, so upon arriving in any city, you can sort yourself out easily enough. However, the unfiltered liberty of being able to pitch a tent along a road in the middle of the countryside is even better. When you realise you can sleep anywhere you want and you’ll be comfortable, you’ve found inner freedom. Some nights, weather permitting, you can kip out on the grass or on some tarp. It sounds unfavourable, but you’ll find yourself in a hostel with a soft pillow straining your neck because you’re so used to resting your head on your arm.

Serendipitous discovery

My favourite aspect about hitching is the fact that I ended up in places I hardly even knew existed. Aiming for Italy, I ended up in Romania for two weeks. Someone says they’re going this way so grand, let’s go that way. There’s no itinerary to follow so it’s not like you’re losing time going on an adventure.

I ended up on the Black Sea kicking it on a beautiful beach that used to be a hippy commune. I walked across the border into Hungary, then later again into Serbia. Then I spent time in the Serbian mountains, that took my breath away. I also stayed in Bratislava four times that year, three on the hitching trip, and became a local in a bar. Hitched alone for the first time into Warsaw, Poland and nearly lost my mind I was so terrified. Spent a week hitching around Lake Balaton in Hungary in 40-degree weather, spending all day in the lake and each night in the forest. Got an overnight train in Bulgaria because we were absolutely exhausted with hitching and the mental toll it can take on you (it happens, but it’s not a total negative). Lived on a steady diet of cheese sandwiches and cans of beans. Learned how to say hello in strange languages. Discovered Romania was incredibly different to any other country I was ever in, and just how beautiful the people are there.

People on the road

Places are great and cities have wonderful breath-taking architecture, but people always matter more. I’ve met the most amazing people in the most unlikely of places, and still keep in contact with a great many of them to this day. I’ve always felt that meeting someone on the road is a special connection, one traveller to another. Seeing another hitchhiker on the road is always fun too, and stories are endless.

Lessons learned

I learned a great many lessons about people and myself through hitching, most notably that people can be nice, and people will go far out of their way to help you for no gain to themselves other than just wanting to genuinely help. I also discovered a great deal about myself and how to handle situations you don’t encounter at home, like where do I sleep, or where food is coming from, or where on Earth am I standing?

Most importantly, I found freedom, a feeling that never leaves your mind once you taste it.

All I have to say really is just do it, stand on the side of the road and stick the thumb out.

Looking out at the longer evenings makes me want to hit the road again and end up somewhere I didn’t know existed.

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