Smartphone apps and social media have changed the way travellers approach hitchhiking
remember the exact moment that it became obvious to me that the very essence of hitchhiking had been transformed by technology. It came as we were thundering along the autoroute in the south of France. Not one moment of this long day on the road had been spent in the traditional hitching pose: waving signs or thumbs at passing motorists. Instead, I had spent a very pleasant morning back in Barcelona, using the latest generation of hitching apps and websites to set up an itinerary of interconnecting rides. All I had to do was show up and hop in.
Now, with dusk descending, I still hadn't found anywhere to stay, despite sending out innumerable requests through websites that connect travellers to kindly folk with floorspace or a couch to spare. Then I noticed an icon blinking on my phone.
"Hi, this is Emilie in Nice," read the message. "I'm happy to host you! Call when you get into town.'' A second message followed: "Hi John, I'm Karina, Emilie's flatmate. We're planning a picnic on the beach tonight. Perhaps you can come …" In an instant, I'd gone from wandering hobo to homecoming friend, thanks to the latest online travel innovations.
It certainly wasn't always like this. In the analogue 1980s, I took a year off college to hitch around Europe in search of adventure and enlightenment. Back then, not only did this involve excruciating hours by the roadside, it was also downright dangerous, with risks ranging from crotch lunges – of which I recall a few – all the way to serial killers.
Now, rides are simply posted on sites such as BlaBlaCar.com, Carpooling.com andhitchhikers.org, as well as smartphone apps such as iThumb and Rideshare4less. On Twitter, they're found using hashtags #hitchhike, #rideshare and #autostop. Hitchers book a place, or post notices saying where they want to go from and to. In return, all that's expected is a modest contribution to petrol costs, or sometimes merely company. More importantly, drivers can be checked in advance via profiles or reviews from other hitchers – making this sort of travel much safer than it used to be.
After a period of decline in hitchhiking, the net is fuelling its resurgence. So I downloaded Jack Kerouac's On the Road to my Kindle to keep me company and hit the highways, hoping to either recreate my earlier trip in a digital age, or just follow where the motorways – and websites – took me. For my maiden voyage, I settled on a ride from London to Paris, offered on BlaBlaCar by a debonair Parisian named Jean K, who, according to reviews, was de confiance (trustworthy).
As I waited with my luggage at the rendezvous point – which Jean insisted on calling "Gare de Lewisham" – I remained unconvinced that the concept would actually work. But bang on time, up rocked Jean in his Citroën C4 and we were soon blazing (as fast as a C4 can blaze) through lush French landscapes, with Bob Marley pumping from the stereo.
From Paris, my plan was to head towards the Atlantic coast then head south. My first ride on this leg, via Nantes to the village of Puybelliard in the Vendée region, was a rather more soulless affair. Then came my first no-show. "Annulé, annulé!" the driver barked unhelpfully when I called.
I had to revert to traditional methods. An improvised cardboard sign, scrawled with "La Rochelle, SVP" worked its magic on a trucker named Olivier and I was soon rolling into this sophisticated old port, perched vertiginously in the cockpit of the 18-wheel juggernaut.
Then – in one 343km leap – I was in Bayonne, a shuttered, half-timbered, riverfront town within easy hitching distance along the coast of the swish resorts of Biarritz and St-Jean-de-Luz.
By now weary of motorways, I was pleased to find online a ride over the Pyrenees to Barcelona, bearing a little blue autoroute icon with a strike-through – meaning that it would mostly be on precipitous B-roads.
The driver, who arrived in an explosion of laughter and messy blond hair, was an irrepressible force of nature who went by the name of Eglantine. On the run after some romantic disaster in Paris, she had spent three weeks criss-crossing Europe, staying in squats, on floors and, the previous night, in a field – information she imparted in one heavily accented stream of consciousness in the first few minutes of the journey.
Once in the mountains, we were immediately careering along slivers of swerving tarmac under a crystal-blue sky. As we crossed the border along the Pas d'Aspe – barely a crevice in the jagged peaks – I looked up to see, hovering above, the turrets of a chateau that appeared to have been carved into the rock. We hurtled into Barcelona at speeds that should have torn Eglantine's juddering Peugeot 205 apart. This had definitely been my most exhilarating lift so far.
A day later, I reconvened with Eglantine and her squatter friends to explore the city's Barrio Gótico. They all extolled the virtues of Couchsurfing.org, the website that, inspired by social networking, allows people to offer travellers a room or a sofa for free.
Until then, I had been using paid-for accommodation through sites such asWimdu.co.uk, and had stayed in some enchanting, unusual spots: a chateau in Puybelliard and a Mongolian yurt near La Rochelle. I decided to change tack, and got to work completing my Couchsurfing profile and sending out requests. But I remained sceptical – right up to the moment Emilie's message dropped into my inbox.
By the time I arrived in Nice, the picnic on the beach had been called off, but I was soon absorbed into the extended family of this pair of single mothers and avid social networkers. Next day, I was whisked off to a raucous party in nearby Cagnes-sur-Mer, where a noisy international gang had gathered to feast on Cameroonian cuisine. It was with sadness the following morning that I said goodbye to the women and their kids, amid promises to meet up in London.
The next ride took me via Genoa to Florence, where an eccentric gentleman named Leonardo had responded to my accommodation request. He had turned his modest flat into couchsurfing Grand Central – a Polish couple in one room, two Chinese in another, a pair of Latvians in a tent on the balcony, and me in a converted cupboard.
Next day, the Latvians – Valdis and Anita – and I stuck together. We abandoned sightseeing for drinking cheap wine in a park near the Pitti Palace. By evening, I found myself agreeing to pitch a tent on the banks of the Arno for an illegal bivouac in the heart of Florence. I woke to one of the world's most exceptional views: the Ponte Vecchio in one direction, the Uffizi in the other, with the Arno gurgling by just inches away.
I had hoped to head east – Ljubljana, Budapest, Bratislava – but rides never materialised. Instead, I travelled overnight to Munich through the velvety black outline of the Alps.
Then it was on to Prague, Berlin and Paris, and finally back across the Channel. I was dropped right on my doorstep in Blackheath, south London, at 4am. In 26 days I had covered 5,759km and taken 21 separate rides. The petrol-share costs had been €375 – making this by far the cheapest way to traverse Europe.
While some of the sense of adventure is lost if you organise lifts in advance, this was still one of the most momentous trips I've ever taken. With two or three hitchers per car, it is more social and infinitely safer than the traditional way. I'm sure that Jack Kerouac would have approved of – and used – Couchsurfing and the hitching sites, had he been around today. The age of e-thumb has definitely arrived.
• Car-sharing costs were covered by BlaBlaCar (blablacar.com). Accommodation was provided by Wimdu (wimdu.com)