Hitchhiking to Berlin

Lizet Wesselman - 29/06/2023

Hitchhiking to Berlin

Lizet Wesselman - 29/06/2023

Here’s the story behind my hitchhiking trip to Berlin, which never ended in Berlin. Before I started to train travel Germany, I explored the country by car several times. Starting with this hitchhiking trip and later a family road trip that did end up in Berlin. But this hitchhiking trip was an unexpected adventure that was probably even more fun than a city trip to Berlin would have been. We ended up being stranded in Hanover. A location that was on the map, but which we had all never heard of.

How it started

It was 2013 I think, while studying Anthropology. A study that revolves around learning to understand other cultures, and thus had a fairly high hippie content. So hitchhiking trips were nothing crazy, both from the study association and from my own initiative. I was also heavily outnumbered as a person who had not taken a gap year to go on a faraway trip or volunteer abroad. So everyone was quite travel-minded, but on such a student budget, you are still a bit limited.

So, why not hitchhike? We were 2 men and 2 women, ideal for hitchhiking, obviously split into 2 couples. Leiden – Berlin is about 6 hours by car, so that seemed very attainable if we left during rush hour. But completely without a plan, just with a lot of cardboard, a paper map and a final destination, we found out pretty quickly that it was not as easy as thought.

The first part went quite smoothly, as expected. Near the slip road to the motorway, it was fairly easy to find the first lifts to Utrecht. From there it was also fairly easy to get to the border, where we arrived in the early afternoon. So we still had about 8/9 hours to get to Berlin before dark, had to work, right?

Not exactly.

We met again at a huge petrol station near Enschede, just before the border. It was so big that we initially thought this was going to be a piece of cake. But nothing could be further from the truth. Refuelling in the Netherlands has, I believe, always been more expensive than in our neighbouring countries, so hardly anyone crossing the border stopped to refuel in the Netherlands. Everyone we spoke to left the motorway here and stayed in the Netherlands.

We spent hours talking to everyone and asking if they were crossing the border, but without success. By now, when it was 3pm and we still had about 500km to go, we began to realise that we were probably not going to reach Berlin that day.

So what then? A lift to a train station and further trains? Or another location?

We grabbed our paper map and looked at what was within decent distance, something we felt would be feasible. We had 2 options: Hamburg and Hanover. We made new signs for both and our new plan was put into action.

Mega succes!

And suddenly, there was our lifesaver. With our signs in hand, I and my (female) travelling companion walked up to a man with a station wagon (a family car, in which all 4 of us could easily fit). He smiled and even before we could ask anything he said “I happen to be going to Hannover!”

It turned out he worked for a German company that had an office in Hanover. So he had to go to Hanover regularly and was now on his way again. He gladly took us along. I don’t think the fact that there were four of us was ideal for him, but he decided to take us all anyway and was even kind enough to drop us off in front of a hostel.

The start of an adventure

And this was just the beginning. Although it certainly did not go as smoothly as hoped, we ended up having a lift directly to Hanover, making it a fairly easy route in the end. Except that we ended up in a different location than the original plan. But we took that for granted. Time to explore this unknown city!

Until we returned to our hostel in the evening the next day and were told we couldn’t go to our room. This was because while working in the garden, they had found a sizeable World War II bomb and the whole city was cordoned off. We had been rebooked to a hostel outside the city centre and had to leave as soon as possible.

Of course, we couldn’t resist taking a look anyway to see what was going on, and indeed, the entire city centre was closed. Metro trains were still running, but no longer stopped in the city centre. And there were fences and units everywhere to block access to the centre.

An unexpectedly good story

Of course, you rarely experience something like this, and in retrospect, this whole trip was a fantastic story. Berlin had given us a whole history lesson when we got there, but now we briefly lived ourselves in the tension that the war still sometimes brought years later.

Hitchhiking is an adventure in itself and every time I have travelled hitchhiking I have come home with fantastic stories. But this was a trip I will probably never forget. Thanks in part to my fine travelling companions, with whom we were miraculously on the same page. With whom we got to go crazy, saved money with a picnic in the park overlooking the castle and chatted with homeless people who people normally ignore for out dirt. We danced to pit music*, drank ice-cold beers at the pub where they claimed they were as cold as our exes’ hearts (can’t go wrong) and, of course, had quite an adventure.

(* Well music: this requires explanation. There was a manhole cover in the middle of the city, above a metro station (I think) where someone was playing music. You could hear the music through the manhole cover and we decided to turn it into a dance party. Cherish friends you can do random things like this with! Because 10 years later, this is still one of my fondest travel memories)

Is hitchhiking recommended?

Short answer: yes, because it really is a fantastic experience where you get in touch with locals who can tell you all kinds of things. Or other travellers, with whom you can exchange travel stories. For example, one of our lifts was a couple in a converted camper van who travelled around Europe like this, fantastic stories!

But long answer: it depends. Hitchhiking used to be incredibly normal. And I don’t mean 10 years ago, but in the 1980s when our parents were young. 10 Years ago, we noticed a lot of amazement that people still hitchhiked. The fact that it has become less normal comes with risks. People who would have lovingly picked someone up years ago are now more hesitant. Why would people still hitchhike? (Especially now that budget flights are so spotty, hitchhiking really isn’t the cheap, easy option anymore). So, can these hitchhikers be trusted? Aren’t they people who want to steal your car? That makes your chances of getting a lift a lot smaller, but therefore also increases the risk that the people who do stop don’t have pure intentions themselves.

Listen to your gut!

I wouldn’t advise a solo woman to hitchhike very quickly. I would never do that myself. It’s best to form a duo of man & woman. As crooked as it is, people generally trust female hitchhikers more. While a man, on the other hand, ensures that you ward off creapy men and you are still just a bit safer if something does happen. Although, as a feminist, I always find this hard to admit, that’s how the world works.

But I’ve hitchhiked successfully with a friend several times myself, through several countries in Europe, and never felt unsafe. But you have to trust your gut well. I once said no to a lift because I didn’t trust the driver. Really don’t get in if in doubt! And make sure you know how to get to location, in case things don’t turn out as desired or you don’t feel comfortable after all. Make sure you have money for a taxi to a train station, and so that you take a route that would also be doable by train or bus.

Want to go to Berlin and be sure to get there? Go by train. In my “by train to Berlin” city guide, I explain exactly how and give 15 pages of tips on what to do in Berlin, where to eat and even some day trip ideas. Berlin is a diverse city, so there’s more than enough to do!