Recently I completed my first extended hitch-hike – around 1,300km and four countries – from the south of Poland to the northern tip of Estonia.
When I tell people about this, they often seem confused about the whole idea. Who picks you up? Is it easy? Hard? What if no one stops? But hitching is actually very popular in Europe and has been for a long time.
So here’s an inside look: A no-frills journal of all my rides from beginning to end. As you’ll see there’s nothing crazy about the whole thing, just people helping people, two strangers keeping each other company on a long drive. If you’ve thought about hitching in the past, maybe this will give you an honest glimpse into what you’re in for.
Kraków to Warsaw
The idea to hitch-hike comes out of nowhere, really. I initially just want to hitch to Warsaw, as the Polish bus timetable is annoying me. And then I think, why not just go all the way to Tallinn? It’s not that far. Besides, I’d stopped finding buses and trains fun a long time ago.
So I decide that’s the mission; Krakow to Tallinn.
The first day is easier than expected. I get to a gas station on the highway to Warsaw. I have a ready-made sign in my bag that I actually spent a long time on. Just need to head to the roadside and hold it up. I feel kind of nervous, to be honest. I’ve never hitch-hiked before, at least not in the traditional sense. But it couldn’t have gone any smoother.
I pull out my sign and have barely been waiting thirty seconds before someone stops. He’s maybe in his forties, a Polish guy, drives a Honda CR-V. He gets out and helps me throw my bag in the trunk.
“Would you like some apples?” he asks, hold out a small box of green apples. “They’re organic, from my mother’s farm!”
I smile, and we each take one before getting in the car.
“So you must have kids,” I say, looking around his car. There’s crap everywhere.
He laughs and nods, taking a bite out of his apple.
He actually lives in the UK, and has driven all the way here to visit his family. Took him two days. He tells me about his two kids, both in school, and his wife, some big-shot scientist somewhere in England.
He has a few travel stories of his own. Says he hitch-hiked all over Europe as a kid, and asks me a lot of questions about what the backpacker scene is like today. He wants to know the gear we use, what apps on my phone, the whole deal. I get the feeling he picks up hitchers like me to repay the favour from his own journeys, but to also continue adventuring vicariously through us. I’ll probably be that guy some day.
The drive itself is easy; main highway, three hours, give or take.
When we get to Warsaw, he drops me at a metro station and I write down my blog and email for him. He says he’ll be in New Zealand one of these days, and I tell him I’ll be more than happy to chauffeur him around. We shake hands, give our farewells, and I head into the station to get a train to my Couchsurfer‘s place. I can’t even remember his name.
Warsaw to Bialystok
I head to a bus stop on the highway north out of Warsaw. It takes me an almost an hour to find my way there. I hold up my sign.
A lot of drivers acknowledge me with smiles and nods, but nobody stops.
An hour passes. Then another hour. Still no ride. It’s 2pm now, and I’m already entertaining the possibility that I might not be going anywhere today.
Finally I decide to walk about 400 metres down the road to the nearest gas station. As I do, it starts to rain softly. I try to ignore this enormous inconvenience. I get to the gas station and buy a sandwich. I’m tired and hungry. I didn’t have time to eat breakfast this morning. I ask a guy standing outside drinking a coffee if he’s heading to Białystok. He says yes. I get excited inside, and ask if he can take me. He says I need a helmet; he’s on a motorbike.
I stand and chat with him for ten minutes.
A car pulls in behind me. He looks over my shoulder and says, “That lady is going to Białystok”. I turn around. It’s a flash car, some huge BMW SUV. I ask him how he knows. He says to look at the number plate – BI is the registration for Białystok. A middle-aged lady gets out and starts pumping gas. I ask him what he thinks my chances are, as lone women don’t usually give rides to strangers, especially an enormous, rugged, imposing man like me.
“You should ask her, she looks strong, walks with some dignity,” he chuckles.
I laugh and walk over to her.
“Excuse me, are you going to Białystok?”
She turns and smiles.
“I’m looking for a ride there, would you be able to take me?”
I put on my warmest, friendliest smile.
She laughs and takes a deep breath, looking me over. A few moments pass.
“If you can’t it’s totally fine, I’ll just be waiting over here, let me know.” I smile and go back to my seat. She heads into the shop to pay for her gas.
Two minutes later she comes out and looks at me. She shakes her head, with a smile.
I tell her it’s fine, and it is. I watch her drive off with four empty seats in her overpriced car, say bye to my new friend, and head back to the road. I find another spot this time, much better for hitching than the first.
After an hour someone finally stops. He says he can take me Wyszków. I ask him where that is, and he tells me it’s nearly halfway to Białystok. I decide to take my chances; better than standing around here for another three hours.
It’s a tiny little car, beaten up, and the guy can’t be older than 25. His phone keeps ringing and he keeps denying the call.
“Yeah. Ex-girlfriend. You know?”
“Yes, I know very well.”
He works at a sushi restaurant in Warsaw, and also has his own sushi joint in Wyszków, commuting each week between the two.
“Sushi is a big thing in Poland right now,” he tells me.
Wyszków is only 100km away, we arrive in under an hour. He drops me at a bus stop.
“Try here. It’s a good spot, you should get someone.”
I thank him and jump out. It starts to rain. I head under the shelter at the bus stop and wait. There are two young girls waiting beside me. I chat with them for ten minutes while the rain dies down.
“How long do you think before I get a car?” I ask them.
One of them says ten minutes, with confidence. I am doubtful.
Once the rain dies a little I head back to the sidewalk with my Białystok sign. I’ve been waiting almost an hour and it’s past 5pm now. I feel like I might be spending the night here. I take out my phone and quickly search for hostels and Couchsurfers in this tiny town. None. I may be sleeping in a bus stop tonight.
Finally a car stops. A young lady, maybe late twenties, driving a people-mover.
“I can take you to Ostrów. It’s about halfway.”
I hesitate for a moment and she pulls up the map on her phone.
“We’re here. So I can drop you just before Ostrów, here. Then I need to turn off and go in another direction.”
I decide to go for it and stuff my backpack in the trunk. She has three kids in the back, all sitting in baby seats. The eldest can’t be older than four.
“You’re actually the first hitch-hiker I’ve ever picked up.”
I’m flattered. I must have a kind face.
We talk in between her kids interrupting us and asking for chewing gum. She’s my age, so we have a lot to talk about, but we’ve obviously chosen very different lives. She looks very happy, and she looks like a great Mum. I admire her. Reminds of my Mum driving in the car with my brothers and I fighting in the back.
“My husband is going to think I’m crazy when I tell him about this.”
Just before Ostrów, she drops me at a small parking bay, on the main highway.
“I think you should be able to get someone here.”
We take a few selfies together and then say our goodbyes.
It’s starting to get dark, and now I’m really out on the open road with no hotels, bus stops or restaurants. I don’t feel too worried though. A lot of traffic is zooming by; surely at least one of them will pick up a stranded traveller.
I was right. After about twenty minutes a guy pulls over. He’s driving some expensive looking Volvo. He jumps out to shake my hand and throws my backpack in the trunk. A girl, I presume his girlfriend, is sitting in the passenger seat. I jump in and introduce myself. As soon as we take off, the two of them continue their conversation like I’m not even there. It’s in Polish so I don’t understand anything. Normally I would feel awkward sitting silently in the back, but I’m so exhausted from the day it doesn’t even register.
This guy drives fast. At least 160km/h, overtaking anyone he can. I strap myself in tight.
Just as we arrive into Białystok he starts talking to me – asks where I’m from, if I know where I’m going. I tell him bits of my story and we get chatting for the final fifteen minutes. They’re on the way back from a holiday. Judging by his clothes and his car, the guy has some money. Really cool of him to pick me up. I ask him to just drop me anywhere central, and he drops me right in the middle of the town centre. I shake his hand, say thanks, and go on my way. After a long ten hour day, I’m finally in Białystok.
Bialystok to Kaunas
My Couchsurfing host drops me at the first bus stop on the highway out of the city. Good place to hitch, my sign looks beautiful. I have a good feeling about today.
I’m actually texting on my phone when a car pulls over, I don’t even notice until they’re right in front of me. I look up and see two young guys in a super flash 4WD staring at me.
“Hey! You going to Kaunas?” I ask.
“Yep! Get in.”
I throw my bag in the backseat and jump in.
They’re both Lithuanians, coming home from a business trip. They sell security systems, or something like that. They’re heading straight to Kaunas.
After the previous leg, I’m glad today is shaping up to be an easy hitch – straight to my destination, no changing rides, friendly guys, super nice car.
“This is a really nice car man.”
I run my hands over the leather linings on the door.
“Thanks, it’s actually my wife’s car. We drove all the way to Germany to get it.”
We have a really interesting conversation about Lithuania. He says they speak the oldest language still used today, that a quarter of Lithuanian people don’t live in Lithuania, and they’re struggling to attract immigrants, even refugees.
“You know, we are actually trying really hard to bring refugees in. We are like out there campaigning to get them here. But they won’t come. So on one hand it’s good that we don’t have all these political problems other countries are having. But it’s also bad, because what does that say about our country if even refugees don’t want to live here?”
They speak great English, and we have a long talk about politics and business and other good stuff. Smart guys.
Like many people around here, the driver used to hitch-hike a lot as a kid, almost every day, to and from school.
“I lived in a small village, man. I had a long way to walk to school each day. So I know how it feels to have cars go by and nobody pick you up.”
There are no controls when we cross into Lithuania from Poland. No border patrol, no customs agents, nothing. Just open road and a sign saying welcome to Lithuania. But I still get that little buzz you always get when you enter a new country.
The guys are great hosts. They tell me a whole bunch of stuff to see and food to try, and wish me well on my journey. He even drops me right outside my Airbnb in Kaunas. I can’t thank them enough for such hospitality. A perfect day of hitch-hiking and a heart-warming start to the Baltics.
Kaunas to Riga
Apparently the best place to hitch is outside a mall on the outskirts of town. Seems easy enough. But I get there and have no idea where I’m supposed to hitch from. The motorway is there, but there’s hardly anywhere to stand, let alone room for a car to stop. I walk around in circles for about two hours trying to find a place, before I finally get to a bus stop on the correct highway, about 45 minutes walk from the mall.
While waiting I see a guy with a backpack walking towards me along the highway. Traveller, obviously. He sees me holding my Riga sign and smiles. I assume he’s heading to the same place. When he finally reaches me we shake hands, and he tells me he’s also hitching to Riga. Turns out he’s actually from there, heading home from his Eurotrip. I tell him he’s welcome to wait with me.
A car stops after half an hour. He says he can take us to Panevėžys, around halfway to Riga. We decide it’s good and jump in. The dude I’m with falls asleep almost instantly, so I chat with the driver. He’s heading out to meet a business partner somewhere. He’s got wifi in his car and everything. Really cool guy.
We get to Panevėžys and there’s no obvious hitch-friendly spots. He offers to take us past the city, out to the highway. There’s a gas station there where we’ll find a ride a little easier. It’s at least a twenty minute detour for him but he doesn’t think twice about it. I wonder to myself, what compels someone to go so far out of their way to help a stranger? Most people struggle to put a dollar in a charity bucket.
The gas station he leaves us at is a flawless hitch hiking spot – lots of traffic, huge off-road area for cars to stop. We thank our driver and say goodbye – I wish I had a New Zealand tiki or something to give him. I make a note to bring some on my next trip. We both head into the store to buy some food and water and use the toilet. It feels good to recharge. My travel buddy asks a couple of customers filling up their cars if they’re heading to Riga, but nobody bites. It’s okay though, we’re only standing by the road for about twenty minutes before someone picks us up. He’s a young guy, 25 maybe, also Latvian. He takes us all the way to Riga.
Riga to Pärnu
Hitch-hiking out of Riga is a little more complicated than the previous cities. I need to take a regional bus out of the city, and hitch from one of the bus stops out there. Finding the right bus is already a challenge, but I get there. Two other Latino guys are on the bus too, they’re hitching all the way to Tallinn today. I see their cardboard sign and make some small talk with them. It’s kind of funny – with the internet all the best hitch-hiking spots are shared online, so we all end up in the same spots. I try to imagine how much more hit-and-miss things would’ve been back in the day.
When we get to the bus stop I stand up front with my Pärnu sign, them with the Tallinn sign right behind me. A car stops after twenty minutes and picks all three of us up. He says he can take us to the border, where it will be a lot easier to find rides.
He’s a young, married guy, maybe in his early twenties. He’s commuting every day from a border town to Riga for work, and picks up hitchers quite often. I guess he does it to make the long drives a little more interesting. All four of us have a good conversation about our home countries and our travels.
At the border there’s a big cafe with toilets. I consider buying some food, but Pärnu is less than an hour away. I decide to wait.
The wait is longer than expected. I’m there for at least an hour and a half until someone finally picks me up. He’s a guy with tattoos all over him and a long ponytail. Looks like a musician or artist of some sort.
“Hey man, you going to Pärnu?” he asks, in perfect English.
“Cool man, jump in.”
I ask him about the car, which is a very expensive looking Mercedes minivan.
“My friend has a transport company, I drive for him sometimes. People get off the cruises in Tallinn and then I drive them down to Riga.”
I take a quick look in the back. Very roomy, slick black leather seats.
“How much does it cost them?”
“I don’t know exactly, but it’s several hundred Euros at least.”
I feel so satisfied with my free ride, it’s almost embarrassing.
I get to know him a little bit. He owns a club in Tallinn, and has his own music festival. He tells me a bit about his past – played in a few bands, travelled all over Europe and America. Now he’s just settled down with this girlfriend and living easy.
“You know, I’ve already done all the crazy shit I need to do in my life. That stuff gets kind of boring after a while.”
I admire what he’s done.
He proceeds to tell me all about Estonia – the history and the language and the old medieval town in Tallinn. He might look like a tough dude, but he’s obviously intelligent, and friendly as they come.
As we pass through Pärnu he drops me in the centre and the continues on his way. I take down his details and shake his hand.
“Thanks for everything mate.”
Welcome to Estonia.
Pärnu to Tallinn
The final leg. I catch a city bus as far as it goes, and set myself up just outside a cafe on the highway. I ask the guy inside if it’s okay to hitch in front of their store, just to be sure.
After half an hour, two kids start hitch-hiking about fifty metres in front of me. I wonder if there’s some kind of hitch-hike etiquette that says you shouldn’t queue-jump like that. But it doesn’t bother me. They don’t even have a sign, while mine is a timeless piece of art. Surely any rational driver will choose the guy with the awesome sign over two unprepared children.
However, I’m standing there for at least an hour. Estonia is actually not the most hitch friendly place. Both times I’ve had flawless hitch-hiking spots; lots of traffic, ample stopping space, but cars just drive on past. In other countries drivers acknowledge you with a nod or smile, or make a hand signal to tell you they’re going a different direction. But in Estonia the truck drivers stare back at you like they want to fight, and the other drivers avoid eye contact at all costs.
But finally a guy pulls over. Old BMW. Drives straight past the kids in front of me. I see them looking back at me with sour looks on their faces.
The driver’s a young guy, maybe my age. I ask him if I can throw my bag in the trunk, and he gets out and helps me. His trunk is full of crap, so we shuffle stuff around until it fits. Then we head on our way.
“So were you here for the festival?” he asks.
“Yeah man, and you?”
“Yeah, it was awesome. I’m so hungover.”
He’s talking about the Weekend Festival, a huge music festival in Pärnu. We talk about all the shit that happened, and then he starts telling me about his business. He owns coffee vending machines, around 300 of them, and he enlightens me on how the whole business works, how much he has to pay to people, where the machines come from. Really interesting.
“I just always liked machines growing up,” he says.
I take a look at this kid. He probably wakes up at 7, works 50 hours a week, does well for himself, heads down to the beach in Pärnu on the weekends to chill out and party. Eats three meals a day, fixes his hair in the morning. For some reason it always fascinates me that people on the opposite side of the world live pretty much exactly the same lives as we do back home. Weird.
When we finally get to Tallinn, he drives me around the old town a bit and finally drops me at my friends place, where I’ve arranged to crash for a few nights.
“You know, my mission was to get to Tallinn from Kraków, this was my final leg. Thanks for getting me here!”
He laughs and we shake hands, add each other on Facebook and say goodbye.
Tallinn. Mission accomplished.
Have you hitch-hiked before? Got any funny stories? Share them in the comments below 🙂