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The digital hitchhiker: From London to Berlin with a smartphone

Author:
Category: Technology
Published: 27/10/2016

Not too long ago, travelling to a different country would mean paying a travel agent, pre-booking your minicab to the airport and crossing your fingers that your flight wouldn’t be delayed. Mobile phone switched off to avoid roaming charges, you’d clutch an out-of-date Lonely Planet looking for that “authentic Spanish bar with unmissable views”, hoping that guide book fame hadn’t turned your road-less-travelled into a tourist trap from hell.

Nowadays though, travel planning is a lot smarter, with travellers turning to digital solutions to personalise their experience, save money and get off the beaten track. This technology-enriched approach could be the future of movement, urban or otherwise. It’s just you, your smartphone and the road ahead.

The idea of on-the-go travel planning, enabled by smartphones and smart mobility services, has certainly become more mainstream. That’s why Uber is now a verb. But is this true across national borders? Can we spontaneously get around from one country to another, without having to pay a higher price – in time or money – for the privilege? Are we really close to a completely new way of getting around?

A ride without a hitch

digital hitchhiker

And just like that, our digital hitchhiker is in Brussels

Seeking the answer to that question, I find myself in the centre of Brussels on a Saturday afternoon. Less than 12 hours earlier I had booked a journey from London to Belgium with Pepe, and two others via the ride-share website BlaBlaCar.

I’d had some concerns about sharing a ride with someone I was yet to meet in person. Usually user reviews will help relieve such fears – I’m not alone here, as 72% of people are uncomfortable sharing a car with a stranger, with safety being a big factor. But as this was Pepe’s first time offering a ride, he didn’t have any reviews yet.

Nevertheless, here I am, at Clapham Junction. It’s 6.30am and I’m bleary eyed as well as slightly anxious. However, as soon as I’m climbing into the leather-clad back seats, all negative thoughts soon fade away. It quickly becomes clear that Pepe is as friendly as he seems online.

The six hour drive in the company of three strangers happens without a hitch

The journey is blissfully smooth and in a matter of hours I’ve swapped Dulwich for Dunkirk, speeding under blue skies through the French countryside listening to Bulgarian rock music. The six hour drive in the company of three strangers happens without a hitch – literally speaking – apart from one wrong turn, which is quickly remedied by TomTom via its mobile app (“not like the old days,” says Pepe. “Back then people would have been like ‘This way, no that way!’”).

After such a pleasant journey, I’m sad to watch my new friends go their separate ways. I want to suggest grabbing a coffee, but they have other places to go and real-life friends to meet. I, on the other hand, am by myself with no other travel arranged. And I need to be in Berlin by Monday. Easy, right?

Friends you haven’t met yet

img_7806_rt_blue1The evening before I had spoken to a girl named Cathy through Couchsurfing (a website which lets people share their homes with travellers) and she’d agreed to host me. Not feeling much like exploring the city yet, I send her a WhatsApp message. With no cash changing hands, I just have to hope that she won’t change her mind and leave me homeless for the night. Luckily she is quick to reply with her address, adding, “Text me when you’re here. My name isn’t on the doorbell, so I will come down and open the door for you :)”.

I’m not exactly sure whereabouts in Brussels I’ve been dropped off, so I am incredibly thankful to have my phone as an anchor (and a portable charger stowed in my bag, just in case). Getting lost in a foreign city is a romantic notion, but with a plan to leave Belgium in less than 24 hours, I don’t want to waste any time taking wrong turns or fussing over a paper map.

So, I instinctively load up Google Maps, which immediately tells me my location (the app is already my go-to journey planner at home, so navigating my way to Cathy’s in this way feels as routine as getting across London). Phone in one hand, camera in the other I follow the mapped out route to the nearest Metro station.

img_2847The first challenge to seamless movement in a foreign country comes in the form of the language barrier. There is no option to read the metro ticket menu in English, so I have to rely on my rusty French. On top of this, the machine is far from intuitive, meaning that I restart the process several times before buying what I hope is a 24-hour pass. A quick Google search which tells me that Metro passes in Brussels are valid on the buses too.

I take advantage of the commute to plan the next stage of my trip

While on the number 1 Metro – which, impressively, has mobile signal on the entire line – I take advantage of the commute to plan the next stage of my trip and book myself a ride-share from Brussels to Amsterdam using BlaBlaCar.

At Woluwe Saint Lambert, a leafy suburb in the east of the city, Cathy greets me with a hug and we quickly sink into relaxed and friendly conversation. Having travelled extensively over Namibia, Nepal and South Africa, she now enjoys hosting travellers, as a way to meet new, like-minded people while she studies to be a doctor.

At her place, on the campus of the Universitaires Saint-Luc, I meet fellow Couchsurfers Cihan and Kim, two guys also travelling alone on a budget with the help of, among other things, the Hitchhiking Europe Facebook group (an online community of people hitching their way across the continent). ‘Old school’ hitchhiking, I learn, has its downsides: Cihan is back at Cathy’s for a third night after unsuccessfully trying to hitch to Bruges. While he enjoys the uncertainty, for me, one day between now and when I need to be in Berlin, it feels good to know that my ride to Amsterdam is secure.

Together we head back into town for a whirlwind tour of La Grand-Place. The streets are full to bursting with tourists looking for a good time drinking Belgian beer. We grab some street food – which in Brussels means Belgian fries – and Cathy takes us to her favourite estaminet, an eccentric bar by the name of Goupil le Fol, via the famous Jeanneke Pis statue. The other three have spent a few days together before I arrived and I quickly get wrapped up in the energy of their friendship as we all share stories from home and travels. We stay up until the early hours before collapsing on the floor of Cathy’s living room.

Car-sharing abroad

I wake up the next morning to more clear skies, and, with a few hours before I need to leave for the Dutch capital, I think it would be a good day to get behind the wheel myself – On the Road style – to explore the area around Brussels.

Car-sharing here is not easy for tourists to access

However, it turns out that car-sharing here is not easy for tourists to access, despite the many tantalising hire stations dotted across the city. I try both Cambio and Zen Car but these require a subscription and, for the former, this is somewhere in the region of €150 (relatively cheap for a local but disappointingly inflexible for a 24-hour visitor). The sign-up fee for Zen Car, meanwhile, is only €5 but requires a Belgian address, or a visit to its head office to pick up a membership card in person. Unfortunately, it being a Sunday, the Zen Car office is closed.

digital hitchhikerI’m sure for commuters living in the city, car-sharing services are a convenient alternative. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem they’re yet ideal for visitors like me. Disappointment is appeased by Plan B, a home-cooked Belgian breakfast with a Turkish twist (courtesy of Cathy and Cihan). I check the next stage of my trip using Google, say my goodbyes and hop onto the metro to Ixelles to catch my next ride-share.

A new generation of hostels

The two-hour journey to Amsterdam passes quickly as I ride shotgun while chatting to Charlotte, a Dutch lawyer visiting home for the weekend. Two Argentinians, Herman and Francesca, speak in animated Spanish from the back seat, the musical flow of their conversation punctuated by pop-culture references. “I sooo admire Miley Cyrus!” Herman explains excitedly in English. “Some Disney stars have fallen into disrepute but she is doing so well.”

During the journey I search for Amsterdam accommodation on Couchsurfing, which, unlike Airbnb, comes with the expectation of spending time with your host (a good or bad thing, depending on what you’re after). Although I receive a few offers, no one I’d feel comfortable staying with gets back to me. Fortunately, I am able to reserve a bed in a hostel via the hostelworld.com app for a reasonable £19.

Hostelworld’s mantra is “stay in a hostel and meet the real world, not a tourist brochure” but this hostel is more like a hotel than a backpackers’ hangout. From the mock-street art adorning the walls to the loud music and the ‘Instagram tour of Amsterdam’ offered at reception, it feels like it’s trying a bit too hard – especially compared to Cathy’s cosy living room, full of souvenirs from her travels.

I dump my stuff in the shared dorm room and head downstairs to hire a bike from the hostel’s supply. Amsterdam is a notoriously easy city to cycle around, and once transport app Citymapper has directed me onto the best route to the Central Station, it doesn’t take long before I’m locking up my bike in the Red Light District.

Travelling solo? There’s an app for that

Amsterdam looking splendid in the late summer sunshine

There are several apps, such as Backpackr and Tripr, which enable solo travellers to connect with each other whilst on the road. With the app already on my phone, this seems like a good opportunity to try Couchsurfing’s hangout feature. I open the app, tap the ‘hangout now’ button and randomly message a few people.

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After a few false starts, one of the groups gets in touch. “We’re heading to Cafe 420 to get waffles. Meet us there?” 20 minutes later I find myself yet again searching for a stranger in a crowd, a girl called Clare who is “wearing a grey cardigan and jean shorts”. Finally she arrives with Angela, also from Canada, and two Australians, Will and Stephen. All of us are travelling solo.

Everyone in the group has taken time out of their normal lives to travel for a few months, with apps like Couchsurfing and Hostelworld being key tools to plan the experience.

Everyone’s reasons for visiting Europe are different – Will just wants to visit the Van Gogh museum and Anne Frank House before moving onto his next stop, while Stephen has spent two weeks and counting drifting in and out of coffee shops.

The Canadian girls tell me that they have been downloading travel guide podcasts for their trip. They’re really keen on getting those waffles, and we spend at least half an hour awkwardly queuing together before spending some time wandering around the city enjoying the last of the day’s midsummer sun.

As dusk descends and with another full day of smartphone-led travelling ahead of me (I’m beginning to understand how important my phone is for commuting), I decide to call it a night and request an UberBIKE, a new service recently launched in Amsterdam where your ride arrives with a bike rack on the back. Looking at the app there are only a few UberBIKE cars out in Amsterdam tonight so it takes longer than normal. Regardless, it’s convenient, allowing me to alter my travel plans based on circumstance. It’s also easy for me to access using my regular Uber account – and the driver even helps me hang up my bike.

Full steam ahead

Who you end up sharing a dorm with in a hostel is always a bit of a potluck and my roommates return loudly at sporadic points throughout the night, meaning I don’t exactly wake up feeling fresh. With only 12 hours left before I need to be in Germany, I head to the hostel canteen to work out how I’m actually to get there in a reasonable time. One of the Australians I met last night recommended GoEuro.com, which calculates the best route option for your journey and prioritises them into the ‘smartest’, ‘quickest’ and ‘cheapest’ routes depending on your needs – taking into account trains, planes, buses and ride-shares.

img_3063_rt_blueSurprisingly, the algorithm calculates that ride-sharing to Berlin will take almost the same amount of time as the train – but I can see from the red sections on the route indicated by Google Maps that there’s a lot of traffic and decide that rail is the safer option. It’s a bit more expensive, but seeing as I’ve saved money using Couchsurfing and ride-sharing it’s still well within my budget.

This will be my first ever visit to Germany, and I’m happy to be travelling by train to enjoy the view. The landscape outside the train window changes very little as Holland melts into Germany – the only indication that we’ve crossed a national border comes from the changing infrastructure and the two Polizei that board the train to check bags.

img_2909The modern architecture of Berlin Hauptbahnhof strikes a notable difference with the old-world charm of Amsterdam’s gabled buildings. I leave the station and open Citymapper. As an urban centric travel app it doesn’t have the same seamless global coverage as Google, but when it comes to getting around the 30+ cities it currently covers, it’s really useful for commuters. The app shows me that I just about have enough time to grab a coffee before catching the m41 straight into Kreuzberg to meet my friend Sophia, who had just recently moved back home to Berlin after studying in London.

img_2910_rt_blue1After three days of almost perpetual movement, my sprint tour from London to Berlin has come to an end. I’m pleasantly surprised at my efforts – a new way of travelling is certainly on the horizon, if not, in part, already here.

Flying low

Feeling like I’ve had three weekend breaks rolled into one, I’m ready to head home. I arrive at the airport the recommended two hours early and, once through security, spot that my flight has been delayed.

It’s six hours later when I eventually arrive back in the UK, and I’m exhausted and frustrated. It’s ironic that the best laid plan of my entire trip – I’d booked the flight several days earlier – ended up, by far, the least enjoyable. Not to mention a lot more expensive and only marginally quicker than ride-sharing.

Connecting the world

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Future transport is just around the corner – in fact, it’s already started

My digital hitchhiking mission is complete. Negotiating my way across Europe using modern technology and a suite of travel services was an extremely positive experience, with ride-sharing and Couchsurfing being by far the most useful.

Being able to use my day-to-day travel apps like Google Maps and Citymapper abroad, rather than having to use precious phone storage to download new ones as the digital equivalent of a bulky guidebook, makes perfect sense, and definitely increased my sense of global connectedness with the places I visited.

There seems to be a gap in the market when it comes to making car-sharing accessible, but being able to use travel apps to easily navigate public transport more than made up for this (and again, it’s probably easier as a local to swipe yourself a car).

Die-hard hitchhikers may argue that ride-sharing takes away some of the adventure, but guaranteeing your ride in advance saves time, is still a relatively cheap way to travel and gives you the same social experience. Not to mention it’s much safer.

Back home I make good on my promise to add a few of the people I met on Facebook. Kim, who was Couchsurfing with me in Brussels, quickly messages to see if I’m available to host his friend from Mexico who is visiting London.

This reminds me what travelling, smart or otherwise, is all about – to expose ourselves to new people, new ideas and new places. Far from emptying it of authenticity, modern technology simply enhances and strengthens this experience.