11 Lessons I Learned About Hitchhiking in New Zealand

An honest conversation with two girls from Italy and France about riding for free around New Zealand

Psychopaths, rapists, and murderers were what I associated with hitchhiking, that is…until I moved to New Zealand.  I’d like to give a big shout out to horror filmmakers and overly paranoid parents for instilling that stereotypical murder plot in the back of my mind.

When I arrived in New Zealand two years ago, I soon saw a hitchhiker for the first time in my life.  It felt like seeing Marty McFly on the side of the road in a yellow HAZMAT suit plopped into the wrong decade.  “People really do that here?” – were the first words out of my mouth.  I quickly came to realize that it’s actually a very common way to travel in this country {without being murdered}.

Now that I’ve been here a while, I see hitchhiking in a whole new light and can hopefully persuade you to give it a go with these 11 lessons I’ve learned for myself and from others.  While you’re visiting Aotearoa, the Māori name for New Zealand meaning Land of the Long White Cloud, I encourage you to dig down and find your inner Jack Kerouac.  It’ll make your adventure here that much wilder; trust me.

I was totally perplexed by the concept of getting free rides by merely using your thumb instead of a bus ticket, so I decided I would do some research by speaking to a few seasoned hitchers and lift givers, so we can understand from both sides of the street.  By the way, hitchhiking is not practiced in where I'm from in New York (probably because it's illegal there), which is why I figured it’s a notion worth investigating.

Back in 2016, a couple of misfit backpackers – one Italian, one French, and one American (that’s me) – found each other on a campground in Blenheim, New Zealand and traveled around the South Island together sharing stories, wine, and laughter all while practicing each other’s native languages.

I interviewed these two ladies, Lara (Italy) and Anne (France), one evening during our journey about what their experiences were like the first time they hitchhiked and what their take was on the whole process.  We sat around drinking wine on a campsite near Nelson when this all unraveled. 

Out of this conversation, I was able to capture a list of lessons that I believe can be super helpful to any traveler exploring New Zealand by means of hitchhiking.

All right, let’s get into it…

Lesson #1: Be confident!

When I asked Lara how she felt about sticking out her thumb on the side of the road for the first time, she giggled out her response saying, “I was embarrassed. I couldn’t look at the eyes of the driver.  The first time, I used to take my thumb back when they came by because I was nervous, but I was with my boyfriend so I was okay and I didn’t have any problem.”  

She explained to me, in her adorable Italian accent, that her first time ever hitching a ride happened to be in Queenstown, one of the most hitchhiker friendly cities in New Zealand and probably the world.

 My gal pal, Alesha, nailing a confident hitchhiking stance

My gal pal, Alesha, nailing a confident hitchhiking stance

No matter how self-assured you are as a person, asking for a free ride from a stranger is pretty intimidating.  Try to don a genuine smile, stand up straight, and hold that thumb out strong so people will be inclined to pick up your sweet, innocent self. ;)

Lesson 2:  Be selective if you have to.

Next, I asked Anne about her concerns with hitchhiking, if she had any.  Her answer was honest and blunt:  “There was actually…obviously I’m concerned about being harassed by the person who could pick me up. I would say as well that when you’re doing a long travel hitchhiking being dropped in the middle of nowhere without arriving where you need is a worry, too!” 

After a pause, she added the anecdote, “I’ve always been thinking if something bad were to happen here, but no, not in New Zealand.”

Even though New Zealand is renowned for the stigma-free concept of hitchhiking, you still need to be smart.  It’s very, very rare that a driver who picks you up in New Zealand would show you any harm, but I’d be cautious of getting in the car with someone who’s acting just a bit too nice and/or perhaps has had too much to drink. 

Don’t get into the car with someone who you suspect is driving under the influence of alcohol or substances.  Although a kind gesture is always appreciated, your safety is at the utmost importance.

Lets talk about a free-ride factoid for a second.  In many places in the United States, local governments have actually outlawed hitchhiking. In Canada, they have made it illegal to hitch on a few highway systems across the country, but it’s not 100% forbidden within state borders.

In a few places in Europe (Germany, U.K., Italy, for example), hitchhiking is banned on high-traffic motorways, but that’s due to safety reasons, not because the country is against it.  I mean…I wouldn’t want to be hitchhiking on the side of the Autobahn.  Would you?  Food for thought!

Lesson 3: Be friendly.

In New Zealand, hitchhiking is a legal activity that has many pros when done correctly.  You can meet some AMAZING people when you hitchhike or when you pick up hitchhikers.  Case and point: Lara and Anne.  They hitched a ride with me from a campsite in Marlborough into Blenheim’s town center.  We ended up doing the Queen Charlotte Track together (read about it here) and remain friends to this day – even after meeting two years ago.

Some rides last for five minutes, some for hours.  Being friendly and grateful will make this good karmic practice ongoing, which is very awesome.

Lesson 4: Make conversation.

Anne touched on the conversations she’s had with New Zealanders while hitchhiking, “When the people who pick you up are kiwis, they are keen on showing us stuff, like sharing what they know about their own country, their own culture, the politics, and well,” she paused, “Some of them even stopped so we could take pictures and stuff!  They are curious as well, asking us, ‘Where you come from? Why are you here?  Are you an assassin?’” Anne laughed.

Getting in a car, truck, or van with a Kiwi is usually a really heart-warming experience.  The people here are kind and genuinely want to get to know you and even help you.  Like Anne mentioned, they’re proud of their country and all it has to offer, so they’ll talk your ear off about it, in a good way.

So, make conversation with the kind person who has picked you up, you never know what bond you might form.

Lesson #5:  Hitchhike with a mate.

 Hitching with my mates :)

Hitching with my mates :)

When the topic of gender and hitchhiking solo vs. in a pair came up, I asked the girls, “Do you think there’s a difference traveling as a woman (or in this case, two women) versus being a guy or traveling with a guy?”

Lara answered, “Definitely!  I think it’s the safest for the driver to pick up women as well.  To be honest, I think two women with backpacks are the same as one man without a backpack. Two men with backpacks are fucked,” she grimaced.

According to Hitchwiki The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hitchhiking the World, women do tend to have the advantage here.  Females usually stop for other females. Families, as noted in Hitchwiki, often want to make sure the woman(en) they see hitchhiking is taken to “safety.”  Protective parents often show their mama bear and papa bear instincts by helping someone in need such as a harmless looking backpacker.

 Some of the happy guys I've seen hitchhiking in Queenstown

Some of the happy guys I've seen hitchhiking in Queenstown

However, lads, don’t fear!  I regularly see pairs of male hitchhikers getting rides, especially when they stand with smiles on their faces and arms out with welcoming thumbs.  It’s very rare that a dude will be left hitch-less in Queenstown for much longer than five to ten minutes (depending on the distance you’re traveling and the level of passing traffic, however – see next lesson).

Lessons #6 & 7:  Be patient and stand in a good spot.

Out of curiosity, I asked the girls what the average amount of time was that they waited to get a ride when hitchhiking.

Anne said, “Honestly, between zero seconds and half an hour.  In New Zealand, we’ve been picked up so quickly and easily.  The only reason we’ve been waiting more than five minutes is because we had the wrong spot.”

When hitchhiking, sticking out your thumb isn’t the only thing you need to do to get a lift.  There are a few factors to consider to decrease your wait time and to get in the car with someone going exactly where you need to go.

“Put yourself in a place where lifters can pull over easily,” Anne said, “…and don’t stand in a place where people are accelerating, like right before the 100 kph sign, or before a roundabout.”  Consider where you would pull over if you were driving.  You don’t want to put a driver or the traffic flow at risk of an accident, so stand somewhere that’s ideal for a car to easily pull off and pick you up.

Lesson #8:  Make a sign.

Lara emphasized, “Write your destination clearly on a piece of paper or cardboard and with a thick font so drivers can see it easily.”  Presenting your destination to drivers may give you a better chance of giving you a ride, especially if passersby are going to the same place. 

Standing on Route 6, or Frankton Road (Queenstown references), with your thumb out could mean you’re heading to Te Anau/Milford Sound or it could mean you’re headed to Mount Cook/Christchurch – totally different directions.  It could even mean you’re going to Invercargill!  Write the place you’re aiming to get to or drivers may not be as inclined to help you.

Lesson #9:  Choose your destination thoughtfully.

“If you have to choose a closer destination to get to first, then get another lift to reach a farther point, it may be better to break up your journey when traveling far distances by hitchhike,” Anne noted.  If you’re venturing to Christchurch from Queenstown, it’s highly unlikely you’ll get someone who is able to drive you the whole way.  Consider Queenstown to Cromwell, then Cromwell to Mount Cook, for example, and then continue in segments from there.

Lesson #10:  Be prepared.

Depending on your journey, you never know where hitchhiking will or wont take you.  Make sure you have snacks and water with you along the way if you’re traveling a far distance.  Routes can change, driving situations can end earlier than expected, and the wait for a ride may drag on for a while.  Ensure you have enough food, water, warm clothing for cold weather, and a charged cell phone {with credit} in case of emergency.

If you’re hitching a ride to work, however, give yourself some extra time to prepare for the possibility of a long wait time.  You may not need snacks and water for this type of hitchhiking, but you do want to have some extra time under your belt seeing as the probability of getting a ride can be unreliable.

Lesson #11:  Use your common sense.

“What would your parents say if they knew you hitchhiked here in New Zealand?” I asked the girls.

Anne:  “They know I do it, but they are really anxious about it.  I try not to tell them too much when I’m hitchhiking because I don’t want to make them worried.”

Lara:  “My parents never said anything about being worried.  I remember when I wrote to them about my trip around New Zealand that I was going to hitchhike, but all they said was, ‘You are crazy.’” Lara threw her hands up saying, “This is an adventure!”

No one wants to be on the cover of a newspaper or the headline of the news for a trip gone wrong.  Be smart and use your head when traveling anywhere.  Fortunately, New Zealand is chock full of good people, but keeping your wits about you is always wise when traveling with strangers or somewhere new.

Well, there you have it! 11 lessons that should help you find a ride successfully to get from here to there in New Zealand.  I hope this article was helpful!  Please feel free to leave feedback and comments down below.

 Try  hitchhiking , it's not as scary as you think!

Try hitchhiking, it's not as scary as you think!

Happy traveling!

Kelsey PowellComment