Safe Hitchhiking: Get Where You Need to Go–For Free!
It all started when the bus didn’t stop. All through the 90 minute ride, I stared out the window at the unfamiliar landscape, prepared to signal my desire to disembark when we turned off the highway. Proud of myself for recognizing the spot based solely on Google Maps research, I stood up. But the bus driver ignored me, even after I asked him to please stop, and drove on. Way on. By the next stop, I was too far from my destination to walk.
I was determined to visit Lahemaa National Park, about an hour’s drive from Estonia’s capital, Tallinn. I particularly wanted to visit Viru Bog, which looked beautiful from the photos I had scoured through online. The problem is Lahemaa National Park isn’t the most straightforward place to visit for fiercely independent budget travelers like me. Renting a car was too expensive.
Joining a tour meant thwarting my aspirations to wander alone in the woods. There are self-guided bike tours, which, while probably enjoyable, were also out of my price range. After consulting the internet and a host in another town, I decided to attempt taking the bus, which was supposed to stop near the trailhead and should come by in the afternoon for the trip back to Tallinn. Clearly, no such luck.
I am convinced that women can hitchhike safely. You just have to put yourself out there, armed with a strong dose of common sense along with flexibility and friendliness.
But here’s the catch: one thing my travels have taught me is not to fret. Something will work out. Walking back in the direction I had come, I stuck out my thumb.
Being a solo female traveler means being bombarded with well-meaning but not always well-founded safety concerns. Just the act of setting off alone spurs the warning bells. And hitchhiking! The bells go mute with astonishment.
It’s true, there are risks to hitchhiking, as there are risks to, well, everything. But I am convinced that women can hitchhike safely. You just have to put yourself out there, armed with a strong dose of common sense along with flexibility and friendliness. Of course, there are some general guidelines to follow.
1. Trust yourself. If something doesn’t feel right, excuse yourself. Don’t accept rides unless you feel comfortable. Have an excuse ready, or pretend you had a question instead.
2. Know where you are. Some places are safer than others. There are countries that are known as hitchhiking-friendly and others where hitchhiking is much more risky. Low traffic in some areas might also make hitchhiking more challenging. Despite my enthusiasm, there are places where I would not hitchhike. If you’re considering it, do some research ahead of time to see how common hitchiking is in your destination and what others say about it. Signaling methods and drivers’ expectations may vary by location.
But here’s the catch: one thing my travels have taught me is not to fret. Something will work out.
3. Know where you’re going. A basic familiarity with the area’s geography will serve you well. You’ll be much more confident and will be able to effectively communicate where you’d like to go. This is especially important if you want to be dropped off in a city. Know the name of the neighborhood you want to go to and nearby major streets, or be prepared to find the rest of the way yourself from a well-known landmark.
4. Be friendly and ask questions. Part of the appeal of hitchhiking is that it allows you to momentarily connect with a generous person. Take this opportunity to learn more about them and be prepared to tell a little about yourself. Your driver is probably curious about why you’re wandering around on your own, after all!
5. Know at least a few words in the local language. This will increase your chances of getting you where you need to go but it is also a sign that you’re curious about the area. Especially in smaller countries, people are often flattered if you thank them in their own language. And don’t worry about making mistakes! People are overwhelmingly patient and accepting when they know you’re trying.
6. Don’t assume thumbing it is the only way. Be open and talk to people. Ask for directions and about worthwhile destinations. People you begin conversing with may be eager to help once they discover you have a place to go. This is also a method to be more selective about your company. Sure, this technically isn’t hitchhiking but it meets the same ends!
If something doesn’t feel right, excuse yourself. Don’t accept rides unless you feel comfortable.
Within minutes of reaching out my hand, a car pulled over. Two older women were peering curiously at me. When I told them I wanted to go to Viru Bog, they smiled and the woman in the passenger seat graciously climbed into the back so I could get in. On the brief ride they pressed me about myself: Was I traveling alone? What did I think of Estonia? They went out of their way to drop me at the trailhead and I stepped out of their car with a wide grin.
The serene beauty of Viru Bog was further affirmation that I was right to go on my own. I walked slowly through the trails, and, after hiking all I wanted, I spent hours picking, and yes, eating, blueberries. Knowing I couldn’t trust the bus, I had all the time I wanted—until dark, anyway.
After picking my fill of blueberries, I proceeded to the highway and alighted on a woman by her car. After finding a common language (Russian), I asked about a bus back to Tallinn. She turned to her male companions—her husband and an older man they referred to as “grandfather”—asking if they could give me a ride.
The couple offered to drop me off at a bus stop on the outskirts of town, near where they lived. I readily agreed and we began chatting. Our conversation carried us to Tallinn, and, after dropping off grandfather, the couple changed their mind and proceeded to take me to Old Town, much closer where I was staying. This was extra effort for them, but it goes to show, hitchhiking can be fun for all parties.
That was easy. And it was wonderful. Hitchhiking can be convenient, but also extremely rewarding.