Racing across Europe – Charity Hitchhike

Jailbreak: 36 hours, no money, how far can you go?

Every year hundreds of students, from the University of Warwick, set off in teams to see who can get the furthest from campus in 36 hours, without spending any money on transportation – all in the aid of raising money for charity.

Antwerp station
Antwerp station

I was both nervous and excited for my first hitchhike. Was it going to be an exciting adventure, or would I be stood at the side of the road for hours on end, drenched by rain? And if we were picked up would our drivers be interesting or would the miles go by in awkward silence? The potential dangers of hitching lifts with complete strangers was just one of my concerns.

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Holding my whiteboard, stating our next intended destination.

Most people reluctance to hitchhike seems to stem from safety concerns, but as long as you trust your gut and don’t hitch alone, hitching in Europe is pretty safe. The drivers are usually as worried about giving you a lift as you are. Plus you can always take extra precautions like texting the cars number plate and your location to friends.

We had a fantastic start; a friend gave us a sneaky lift off campus to the nearest motorway service station, and from there we got a lift almost immediately, from the first person we asked. In fact the lift with a friend was probably the riskiest part of our journey, as he was hardly the most cautious driver (the car full of straw and dozens of copies of the yellow pages should’ve been a tip off). Getting across the Channel, from England to mainland Europe, is the hardest part. Your only real option is to get a lift in a car that’s going on the ferry. They pay per vehicle, not per passenger, so as long as you’ve got your passport there aren’t any issues. A Dutch-Belgian family with six kids, gave us a lift from outside Dover all the way to Ghent. We were one of the first teams that made it across the Channel and we were feeling pretty chuffed as we drove past some of our friends in Dover who, we found out, were still stuck there 14hrs later. (Hitchhiking tip – don’t dress like a scruffy hobo, dressing smartly will increase your chance of getting a lift).

Sometimes it can take a bit of patience waiting for a lift but it was a lot easier than I had anticipated –  so long as you have plenty of snacks and pick a decent spot to stand with your thumb out (it has to be somewhere with plenty of traffic passing through, but with enough space and time for cars to pull over once they’ve seen you). In the end however, a lot of it is down to luck. In Maastricht, The Netherlands, we were told we would never get a lift to Germany from where we were hitching… one minute later and we are in a car heading to Dusseldorf!

In the end we traveled through five countries, making it to Cologne, Germany, after spending the night in Antwerp. It was a fantastic experience. The people who pick you up usually do it because they want someone to chat to on their long journeys and we were often taken aback by the kindness of strangers. We were given food, people went out of their way to drop us off in convenient locations, and a number asked us to keep them updated as to how we did. One man we met in a café gave us a summarized history of Antwerp, that spanned a couple thousand years in about 30 minutes over breakfast – it turns out that doing something crazy for charity is a real ice breaker. All in all I’d definitely recommend hitch hiking at least once, as it offers a whole new way to see a country and meet such a variety of people.

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We stuck around for a couple of days in Cologne before buying flights home. It’s a beautiful city and we were lucky that the Sunday we arrived was a special holiday – so everything was open, unlike on a usual Sunday in Germany.

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The winners that year made it to Tel Aviv, after persuading the airline to give them free tickets, whilst the furthest a team made it by land was to Poland. An amazing achievement by the Tel Aviv team (I really don’t know how they managed it) but I wouldn’t trade the experience we had for a couple of hours sitting in a plane.

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