Intense budget backpackers and broke runaways who desire to travel from England to France or vice versa, are in luck. Despite increased immigration procedures, it is still possible to hitchhike across the English channel and avoid the 30 pound foot passenger fare. However, as you can imagine, hitchhiking onto a car that is boarding an international ferry is a little bit trickier than regular domestic hitchhiking. Though it does require some new strategies and will take a bit longer to find a lift, when you’re riding high atop the ferry for free and with new friends, it is totally worth it.
While initially I was planning on hitchhiking out of London, given it’s wide circumference, I decided it would be a lot easier just to catch a budget bus. So, after a 3 hour ride on the National Express and 14 pounds later, I arrived in the Port city of Dover.
I asked one of the port employees, ” Do you know which road is for cars boarding the ferry?” Knowing that I was a backpacker she suspiciously asked, “Do you have a car?” To which I seamlessly responded, “No, but my friends do.” It wasn’t a total lie though. I did have friends with a car, I just hadn’t met them before. At least that’s how I justified it to myself.
After discovering the right road, I got right to it. I stuck my thumb out while smiling as unthreatening as possible. Some people laughed, others frowned, but most just ignored me. Hitchhiking is a lot like an audition, and the key is to not to take it personally.
After a few minutes, the port police arrived. “O shyzzer” I thought as I tried to keep cool. “Mate, you can’t be here,” said the officer, “but if you go outside the port, you can hitchhike there.” Relieved that I wasn’t being arrested and stunned at his helpful suggestion, I thanked him cordially.
After an hour at my new location, at the side of the road just before the port, I realized that this wasn’t going to work. “I need to be able to talk to people,” I thought. “They need to know that I am not trying to smuggle drug filled Cornish pasties or commandeer their cars but that I am just a regular backpacker.” So, despite the officer’s warning, I decided I would head to the car park at the ticket and travel information center. “If I am discreet and just talk to drivers as they walk in to get their tickets, it shouldn’t be a problem,” I thought.
It was there that I met Ivo, the coolest and most intense budget backpacker from all of Czech Republic. Like me, he hadn’t had any luck at the side of the road. So together, and for the rest of the day, we asked every driver walking in for tickets for a lift onto the ferry.
It soon became clear that there was another reason why drivers would not take us. That being, all car reservations must specify the number of passengers in advance. It was not to charge for additional people, because the car-fare is fixed at 40 pounds regardless, but more so to inform immigration.
Despite asking at least 40 people, the night ended without a single bite. Luckily, the port arrival terminal made a warm and quiet place to sleep, and none of the guards gave us any trouble.
After a solid nights rest, I awoke at around 7am to the sounds of a bus load of Romanians. I brushed my teeth and headed back out to the car park. With High hopes and a stomach full of my beef jerky breakfast, I got to it.
But Before I knew it, it was midday, and the rain and rejection was beginning to take a toll on my morale. “Man o man, maybe I should just see what money I can pull together and buy a ticket,” I contemplated. Then I turned to Ivo and said, “I will give it 2 more hours and then I’m gonna buy a ticket.” Though I didn’t realize at the time, I couldn’t have bought a ticket even if I had wanted to.
Just as I was ready to give in, the clouds dispersed, and Gods warm rays poured upon us. “The sun!” I exclaimed. Re-energized, I got on the offensive. I walked over to a young couple getting out of a range rover, and told them of my plight and ambitions.
At first, and to my delight, the Dutch couple agreed to take me. But after consulting with the ticket agent, who warned them that they would be responsible should I be trying to smuggle something into France, they decided not to. They did however give me 10 pounds to match my 20 pounds, in order to buy a ticket, to which I was extremely grateful.
Later, on board the ferry, I found the Dutch couple having a smoke on the top deck and I joined them. We talked for almost the entire hour and a half ferry ride. The guy, it turned out was originally from Nigeria and he told me of his struggle to get to Europe and of the people who helped him along the way. He was extremely wise and well traveled and it was a privilege to hear his stories.
When it was time to depart, he handed me another 20 pounds, but I refused to take it. He insisted though and ended up throwing the note on my chair while walking away.
Though hitching a ride took longer than usual, and I had to adopt a new strategy, I managed to make it across to France for free.
However, in the end, the great thing about hitchhiking is not the money you save, but the people you meet. So, if you’re on a tight budget, have the time and the patients, and have good social skills, hitchhiking from Dover to Calais is the way to go. For general hitchhiking tips, check out A Guide To Hitchhiking.