Germany has an excellent train system—its cabins are neat, its passengers are polite, and its trained crew are ruthlessly efficient. But for adventure and economy, you might consider hitchhiking. Unlike hitching in the US, thumbing a ride in Europe is still a fairly safe and viable travel alternative . . . most of the time.
To get anywhere in Germany by car, you have to take the Autobahn, the nation’s souped-up interstate highway. Traveling on the Autobahn means never having to say “Geschwindigkeitsgrenze,” which is a lot of syllables that mean “speed limit.” Drivers on the Autobahn average 100 miles an hour, regardless of the weather. Accidents, when they happen, involve everybody. There’s no such thing as a fender-bender in triple-digit driving.
For obvious reasons, pedestrians aren’t allowed on the road itself, which limits hitchhikers to entrance ramps, rest stops, and the prize of them all: Tankstellen (gas stations). This law, however, does not limit hitchhikers’ success stories.
Experienced hitchhikers—like us, the ones who live to retell the tale—have fond memories of their time on the road, but if you are among the faint of heart, you might want to dig deeper for train fare. Hitchhiking is not without its inherent risks, which goes double for hitchhiking on the Autobahn (picture trying to score a ride from the pit stop during a NASCAR race). While you can get lucky and reach your destination in record time, you might also end up on the ride of your life. All you know about your host is that he or she had the decency to pull over and open the door.
We’ve been lucky. Hitchhiking has taken us to brave new worlds. We’ve ridden the waves of centripetal force in the back of an empty dump truck skidding around sandy corners on a Turkish mountain byway. We’ve sweated bullets while bumping along in a gas tanker marked EXPLOSIVE. We’ve crawled along a road in an old pick-up going slower than we could have walked. We’ve been left at the side of the road in the middle of the night with nowhere to sleep but among the trees. We’ve even been picked up by the driver of a stolen car speeding toward the border.
We’ve been honked at, faked out, and passed up by caravans of Brits when our sign clearly read “London.” We’ve been given a lift by the Dutch Highway Patrol when stuck at a crossroads and nearly arrested in Austria for soliciting a similar service. We’ve been put up for the night, invited to parties, introduced to artists, taken to breakfast, and seduced by married women. Some of our greatest travel memories started with a long walk and ended with a ride to remember.
Which brings us back to Germany’s Autobahn. It was the setting for our scariest ride ever—a few hours that forced us to review our past, repent our ways, and swear off hitchhiking for weeks.
It was late at night. That was one problem. We’d been drinking. That was another. But we somehow scored a ride going all the way to our destination. Silly grins. High-fives. We got in the car. The next thing we knew, we had entered the stratosphere. We had unknowingly booked passage for a pre-dawn flight in an Audi rocket cruising at 150 miles an hour through a fog thicker than Egyptian cotton.
Our fingernails dug into the upholstered leather seats. Our hearts crawled up into our throats for protection. Our breath came in quick spurts, as if our lungs sought to remind us we were still mortal. The driver straddled the center line to keep safely away from the Soft Shoulder of Death. We’ve never been so glad not to see another car. At a Tankstelle stop to refuel, we actually fought for the right to sit in the back seat.
We made it home in record time, but with damaged nerves and soiled underwear. It was a ride we’ve never been able to forget. Not even with alcohol.
Little Known Fact: Germans find it offensive if you join your index finger and thumb together in the “OK” sign. Don’t do it!
Lessons Learned: When hitchhiking on the Autobahn, you get to ride in some of the highest-performing automobiles in the world as they try to exceed the speed of sound. Hitchhiking isn’t for everyone, but if you’ve got more time than money, there’s no better feeling than seeing a car slow down and pull over, especially if the wind is blowing and the pavement has spent the last two hours sending shivers through the soles of your feet. You’re living on the edge, balanced precariously between hope and despair, safety and danger, life and death, a rock and a fast lane. You’ll probably be fine, but don’t say we didn’t warn you.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 5
Spontaneous Consumption: 1
Fun Fraction: 2/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Most traffic to Germany still goes through Frankfort Airport
Native Population: 82,500,000 (Germany), not that you’ll meet them all on the Autobahn
Normal Attractions: German history, culture, art, museums, and of course, the automobiles.
Final Point of Interest: Twenty years of debate and study haven’t proven the Autobahn any more dangerous than other roads.