Hitchhiking is one of the cheapest ways of traveling. By tradition, hitchhiking is defined as soliciting a ride by standing at the edge of a road, facing traffic, with one's thumb extended/upwards. You can meet a lot of people and make lots of friends. You can also become very frustrated, or encounter danger on the way; today's drivers are more fearful of picking up hitchhikers than in the past. But it's also a great feeling to get a ride after you've been waiting for a long time. People who do pick up hitchhikers tend to be very friendly. However, hitchhikers also risk being picked up by someone who is an unsafe driver or even personally dangerous.
Hitchhiking in itself is rarely illegal, but there are often rules about where you can do it (e.g. not on highways, near intersections, at bus stops), so read up on the rules first to avoid getting booked for "trespassing" or "obstructing traffic".
Be prepared to walk all day. It is not easy and you need to think that it is more of a walking adventure with a chance of getting a ride more than anything else. This is the most unanticipated problem of most hitchhikers today.
Buy a map of the area, so you can determine whether a ride will actually bring you closer to your destination.
Check Hitchwiki to find good spots in the city you are starting from and to find out how to best hitch into your city of choice.
Learn the language, at least a little. Hitchhiking can be a good way to improve your conversation skills. Often drivers pick up hikers to have some conversation on an otherwise long and lonely trip.
Make sure to carry enough food and drink if you're going for a long trip. Gas stations are usually a bit expensive for replenishing these supplies.
Arrange sleeping places. For example a Hospitality exchange host such as couchsurfing.org, a youth hostel, or a squat are good places to start. If you cannot arrange a place, take a tent with you, rubberized German poncho, and/or a warm sleeping bag.
Remember, hitchhiking may be illegal in some areas or on certain types of roads. Enforcement of laws against hitchhiking may vary. Ask locals. It is usually a bad idea to hitchhike if an encounter with the police would create additional problems (e.g. you are in possession of contraband or are subject to an outstanding arrest warrant).
Dress in layers if the weather is uncertain. Be sure that your heavier layer will shield you from cold winds and random showers, but is light enough that it won't weigh you down too much when you remove it. Some people (for example the "Moscow school of hitchhikers") swear that bright colors with high visibility get you away quicker.
Some hitchhikers recommend taking a foldable bike (which can be stowed in a car's back seat) as back-up transportation.
Bring a black marker, a hat, a flashlight, a pocketknife, sunscreen, etc... it is best to be prepared and these items do not weigh much.
The three most important factors for getting a ride are: location, location, and location. You need to find a place where you can be seen early (to give the driver time to decide to pick you up), and where the driver can safely pull over. Ideally, there should be some traffic, but not too much either, as this makes pulling over difficult and makes drivers assume that you can always get a ride with somebody else.
Don't try to catch a ride from downtown, instead catch public transport to the edge of town. City drivers are mostly traveling short distances, and it can be difficult for you to stand out or get them to stop in heavy traffic. Check your map, or ask around, to find a good spot.
For long-distance travel, never get taken into the center of town! You will most likely find it very difficult to get back out. Get dropped off close to the highway.
Highway rest areas are ill-advised, particularly in the USA, due to the number of "disturbing incidents" at these locales... and the reputation for them which leads many motorists to avoid them. Motorists may assume that you were thrown out of a vehicle there.
An exception to the "rest area" rule is the commercial rest area on toll roads. These may be labeled "oasis" or "service plazas". These are generally safer due to the fact that there are staffed businesses and generally more people patronizing them. You will want to purchase a small item so as not to be trespassing on the concessionaires' leased area. A CB radio (to talk to truck drivers, and other people with CB radios passing by on the main line of the highway) is a good tool for service areas. You can purchase a handheld one for around US$40.00 at many truck stops.
The absolute best place to catch a good ride is on a public highway on ramp, near a truck stop, but not on the truck stop property itself, as those are good places to get thrown out of for trespassing. In Northern California (US 101) and in the Seattle area, many highway on-ramps are also bus stops and thus do double duty in regards to catching a ride.
Land borders where traffic has to stop are great. One caveat to hitching just before a border, however, is that drivers may be wary of transporting you across an international border itself, thus decreasing your chances of catching a ride. You may find better success crossing the border on foot, and hitching from the other side. If you attempt this, be aware of when a border is buffered by a militarized "no-man's land," through which it is illegal to cross on foot or camp, making it crucial to find a ride within this few-hundred-meter stretch of road before dark. The border between Turkey and Greece is such an example. Also, sneaking into countries is an option, albeit an ill-advised and illegal one. There are hitchhiking travel narratives that can show you why.
Gas stations where many cars stop are good. In some countries, such as Mexico, the attendants may even help you on your journey. It takes a bit more gusto, but there is a much better chance of success if you actually ask someone for a ride. Though, if you are not doing business at the station, there is a possibility of getting thrown off the property. Just be cordial and leave if you are asked to.
Laybys and roadside picnic areas are good, although less so in the USA as roadside picnic areas tend to be in the middle of nowhere.
Avoid places where traffic cannot stop legally, like no-stopping zones, taxi stands, etc. The only people likely to give you a ride from these places are the police, and you may not want to go where they want to take you.
Getting a ride at night is very difficult. You might have some luck at a gas station, where people can see you, but realistically you are probably better off camping out for the night and starting off again at first light.
Take advice from non-hitchhikers as to the best places for hitching with a grain of salt.
Check the map for popular tourist spots in the area - Rental car agencies often have good and free maps.
Asking around doesn't hurt. If people notice you're friendly and speak their language you have a much higher chance of getting a ride from them.
Walk in the direction you want to go, especially if nobody is stopping to pick you up. However, if you wander too far from town, people may wonder what you did to get stranded there. The wisest strategy usually consists of standing at the last traffic or street light in a town on smaller roads, or the last highway on-ramp in larger ones. Also, walking away from town may put you in an inhospitable environment such as a desert, and be counterproductive. Statistically every on-ramp you pass while walking increases the chances of a person going to your final destination passing you, and hitchhiking truly is a numbers game, the more cars that pass you the more likely you are to get a ride.
Make sure you know the right gestures used locally to stop a car. The thumb up sign doesn't work in many parts of the world. An outstretched waving arm is another common gesture, but generally defer to locals. Drivers may also use gestures: pointing downwards with the index finger means that they're staying in town. A swirling motion with a downward pointed finger is the same, but can also mean that you might see them again in a minute or so as they make the trip again. A flat hand down means that the car is weighted down, aka full.
Nod or wave thanks to all who at least give you eye contact and especially those who give you gestures explaining why they cannot take you. Not only does it lighten the fear of hitchers and make you feel much better along the way, some may even come back and pick you up. Not to be counted on though.
Be aware that solitary male drivers are the most likely to pick you up. Do not completely discount female drivers as a possibility, but families are near impossible.
Wear bright clothing so that drivers can see you.
Stand in the sun so drivers can see you, unless it's really too hot. 5 minutes in the sun could avoid waiting an hour in the shade.
Let them see your face (avoid sunglasses, hat over eyes), make easy eye contact (but don't glare), look happy and pleasant.
A big cardboard sign with an indication of where you want to go can help. Short general directions like North, or West can be written bigger - and seen from further away - than a longer city or town, but a city is more useful for drivers.
Nonspecific 'general' directions are really only useful at on-ramps where traffic goes in two directions, like standing before a toll plaza, otherwise, the next town with a truck stop is recommended.
Avoid writing destinations far away, this gives you a good excuse to get off if you feel uncomfortable with the driver, you can always agree to go further if the driver turns out to be going your way. Also, indicating close destinations will attract short lifts. In Germany 200 km seems to be a good distance.
It can be a good idea to not indicate your final destination. If you can get a ride in a direction that is not exactly the best one, it could still be a good idea to take it, since you might be able to get more rides from that spot.
Some people do not believe in direction signs, and suggest funny ones ("I DON'T STINK") or nothing at all.
Holding your sign upside down may sometimes help to get a ride out of pity.
If you speak the local language, saying this on your sign may also be useful.
Some drivers will not stop based on their own racial, cultural, or gender prejudice. While this can be upsetting, consider that you may be better off not riding with such a person.
If you are travelling with a companion, stand together and make it obvious that you want a ride together. Drivers don't want to be surprised by an extra person. Do not let someone split you up unless you are very desperate.
Always stay happy - even if people react nastily.
If you are more of an adventurous type, try hiking around with a large or unusual object. Tony Hawks hiked through Ireland with a fridge (see http://www.roundirelandwithafridge.com/) and wrote a book about it. It seems to help getting rides and... there's always something to talk about!
If hitchhiking in the USA, you may want to buy a military-style carrying sack at a Military Surplus Store. These items are easily recognizable and can incite interest/sympathy from drivers. They're also relatively cheap. If the driver asks about your military background, a white lie such as "My cousin gave it to me" will usually do the trick. Be prepared to have a small, believable story ready if you use such an explanation. The downside to a military carrying sack is that they're harder to carry than a framed backpack.
Another writer, based on decades of hitching in the USA, has developed these rules:
Wear white or a very light color. It implies cleanliness and is far easier to see, plus the cops react favorably.
Remember that the driver has only a second to see you. Stand near a highway sign so drivers have a better chance to focus in time to stop.
If you cannot walk where you're going, don't try. Better to spend some time at a fair spot than waste that time trudging through the boonies.
If possible, carry your belongings in a large briefcase or similar. You'll be welcome in clean new cars and in places where a duffle bag is inappropriate. Visiting a laundromat pays off in better rides.
Use signs. A piece of yellow lightweight plastic sign material is ideal, along with strips of black electrical tape to make the letters. A big LA works better than a smaller Los Angeles.
Do not smoke while trying to catch a ride. Decide which is more important to you.
Finally, ask yourself...would I pick me up? Think like a driver who might enjoy giving you a ride.
If you're waiting for a long time and all the cars that want to take you go in the wrong direction it can be a good idea to let them take you anyway - just to drop you at a better spot.
Sometimes you get an offer that brings you a little way in the right direction. This can be okay, but if you're at a place where lots of cars stop, it could be a better idea to wait for an offer that brings you a lot farther.
Ask if you can be dropped at a good spot for getting more rides if your ride isn't bringing you to your final destination, e.g. a gas station or a toll place.
When possible, try to agree about where to be dropped off so you don't end up in a bad place.
As an alternative to waiting by the roadside, many websites allow users to try to pre-organize hitch hiking trips. Sites in different countries use different systems, but it is best to find a site which concentrates on long-distance and one-off trips rather than regular commutes , .
Using a digital system is good for safety as it provides a record of communication between driver and passenger should anything go wrong.
Take care who you get a ride with. Some criminals prey on hitchhikers. If in doubt, turn down the ride. If you're in doubt, ask the driver where they're going and tell them you're heading elsewhere.
Note the vehicle registration, and its make, model, and color before you take a ride. If you have a cellphone, text this information to a friend.
Better yet, take a picture of the car as it approaches and send to a friend. Ask if the driver minds if you take their picture, too (explain your safety concern - it may also reassure them that you're safe).
If possible, hitchhike with a friend.
Choose a car with a single occupant or a couple rather than the last seat in a car full of people.
Regardless of gender, choose wisely; some people have loose hands. It's more dangerous when you're riding with multiple people.
Sit in the front passenger seat, if you can. Rear doors often have child locks on them, meaning they cannot be opened from the inside. If you must sit in the back, check the child lock is off before you close the door.
Keep your bag or backpack in easy reach, so you can grab it if you need to bail out. Be prepared to lose it if it is locked in the trunk.
Wear at least some of your valuables (i.e. passport, wallet, money, I.D., bank and credit cards, etc.) under or in your clothes, rather than in your pack. Keep them in different places, so that if you lose one item, you don't lose them all. It is a good idea to have your wallet plus two hiding places, an obvious one and a not so obvious one. A good guideline is that criminals will go for your sock before padding up the groin.
In some places, the police take a dim view of hitchhikers and will arrest you based on the slightest excuse (or at least cost you time you could use to catch rides by running field interviews on you).
While pedestrians may have the right to walk along most roads, doing so in some places can get you arrested, cited, ticketed, or verbally warned. Find out about which roads you can and cannot walk along.
As a general rule, avoid walking along freeways, particularly if it looks unsafe to do so or the jurisdiction you are in prohibits it. In some areas where it is legal to walk on the freeway, it may be wiser and safer to stay on the on-ramp anyway, based on the infrastructure of the road.
If you arrange a ride through a ride-matching website, you can request the ID number of the driver who offers the ride; give this number to someone at home. Ask for this ID when you meet the driver; most will understand this precaution.