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UK to Poland via France: hitch-hiking Europe

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You could stay in a hotel in Egypt for a week. Or you can spread the same amount of money over a month and a half for a trip of an alternative kind: hitchhiking Europe. Here’s one way to do it, which included 30 drivers, volunteer work and new friends

I started my trip in the UK. Travellers here are luckier than those in central and eastern Europe, where I come from, because many cheaper destinations are available. Still, I’d recommend hitch-hiking part of or an entire trip, especially if it’s a more obscure area and where people would be more ready to take you. Like on the final leg of my route to Espalion, a little French village in Aveyron. Here, I had the luck of having a really nice driver, a backpacker himself, who took me double the distance he was supposed to go. Some drivers will get you not exactly where you are meant to go (it takes ages to escape from the wrong petrol station). Others go ‘slower’ (have you ever hitchhiked Germany?) As you go more local on your travels, you get more proposals to be fed or accommodated; sometimes with scrambled eggs thrown in for breakfast! If you’re not that lucky, carry a tent on you and sleep at petrol stations or at a distance from one in a more secluded place; I did this on a three-day-drive from Paris back home to Poland.

Volunteer work camp, France

©brian_kuzma /FlickrI hitchhiked to do volunteer work in France. Rempart is a heritage association; I got its details from the French institute in Warsaw. The aim is to get there by yourself using the directions given. You choose a (sunny!) place where you want to go for about two weeks to help with the renovation of a monument. This can be in the Loire Valley, in Normandy, close to Perpignan…the choice is vast. They are mostly calm small places, close to nature. The voluntary work is usually physical, which is great if you like being active, and the atmosphere usually impresses people for how much they are inspired to do. From my experience at two camps, the Village de Coustouge in the south and Calmont d’Olt Castle in central France, you pay around eight euros (£7.22) a day, with a €38 (£34) sign-up fee and insurance. It gets more than you would ask for: very interesting friends from different places, locals with a totally different lifestyle, fun at work, cooking together, games, sports, tourism, sleeping in the ruins of a castle with the stars above you, water-rambling in a special wetsuit and life jacket in the Verdon Gorge in south eastern France, where the current runs at your back, with you facing the beautiful cliffs... We have witnessed the construction of the Millau Viaduct (the longest in the world!) across the Tarn valley in south west France as insiders, all thanks to the friends of our camp animators.

Hitchhiking to hospitaity

Car sharing is a popular activity for budget European travellers

Going home is boring, so make it an adventure with the friends you make! In three teams of two we concocted a hitch-hiking competition: who could get to the Mediterranean coast first? We camped together at a savage beach in Valras, Languedoc; beach fun comes for free, as do showers. We cooked at a travel stove from supermarket supplies, using foam pads as wind protection for faster cooking. Ham packages served as plates. Finding ourselves in the southern French city of Nîmes we dined at a cheap chinese and slept in a park. Watch out for the sprinklers by night and befriend the park guards! Morning shower and hair-doing in the park toilets is pure fun.

©chudo.sveta /FlickrSpontaneously, our trail took us on a turn from France to Poland, where we spent a few days hiking in the Tatra mountains. Couchsurfing or the Hospitality Club can find you marvellous hosts, as it did for us in Krakow; our personal full-time outstanding city guide showed us places no outsider would reach (including the peculiar student dormitories) and gave us a taste of local student nightlife. You can share your stories or help to prepare dinner in return. After a cultural night in my city at Singer’s Warsaw – a street festival in a former Jewish district including jazz concerts, little cafés and a pantomime – I helped my friend catch a car for her way back home the next morning.

Tips on organising a budget trip

- Don’t fear the crazy or impossible – if you want, you can do it! Start by being very positive about your trip

- Thoroughly research the place you are heading

- Once there, listen to people and exploit occasions to share your voyage with them

- Make your backpack compact but useful; small bottles for shampoo, a headlight. A small tent is very useful – find cheap yet reasonable one in a supermarket. Buy a good map if you are hitch-hiking

- The good news is that hitch-hiking is free. If some people ask you to pay you should say that this is against the philosophy of hitch-hiking. Beach showers, petrol station toilets (though these two don't come in every country), drinking fountains

- You can also try to find free voluntary destinations. There are no strict deadline to sign up, though places may fill quicker in the spring for more popular destinations. Sights are often free – museums, churches, nature, mountain hiking

- Keep an eye out for the local town market (especially towards the end of the day, the sellers are keen to get rid of what they came with) or supermarket discounts

Images: ©Claytanic / Flickr; ©brian_kuzma /Flickr; ©chudo.sveta /Flickr