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The 21st Century Alternative to Hitching

Kate HairsineDecember 11, 2005

Want to travel from Berlin to Cologne, but can’t afford the train fare and don’t feel like hitchhiking? Then jump on the net and check out Germany’s best kept travel secret -- ridesharing.

Where do you want to go today? Chances are someone is going your wayImage: ZB - Fotoreport

Ridesharing, called Mitfahren in German, links up drivers and passengers, and is the cheapest way to get around the country. Drivers usually charge about five euros per hundred kilometers, which is significantly cheaper than the train.

There are thousands of agencies online, but the two biggest are mitfahrzentrale.de and mitfahrgelegenheiten.de. They are simple to use -- you just have to put in your departure point, your destination and the date of travel. With a couple of mouse clicks and a bit of luck, you can locate a driver and then e-mail, text message or simply ring up to see if there's still a seat in the car.

Kathrin Matzen, who uses ridesharing about once a month to visit friends across Germany, as well as in neighboring Belgium, France and the Netherlands, says that she has never had a problem organizing a lift, and that the whole thing is “incredibly easy.”

Just like any road trip

Mitfahrzentrale Leipziger Mitfahrzentrale hoch im Kurs
Drivers and travelers reap the benefits.Image: dpa - Bildfunk

In addition to saving money and helping to protect the environment through less pollution, Kathrin says she likes ridesharing because it's more fun than traveling alone on the train.

“I have had trips that were just a blast. The people can be mixed in age and occupation, and everyone has different opinions, which makes the time just pass really quickly,” she says.

But, just like any car journey, there is always the possibility that break-downs or traffic jams can slow down a trip. A couple of Kathrin’s lifts have involved hours spent at the side of the motorway waiting for a mechanic to turn up.

“You can’t be in a hurry. When you have to be somewhere on time, then it’s not always the best to go with a shared ride,” she admits.

Another drawback is that passengers can be at the mercy of bad drivers. Andreas Vierkötter used to work at a ridesharing agency, but the first time he used it to organize a lift for himself, was enough to put him off for ever.

“It was really, really bad. I was terribly afraid of the lady’s driving style, and I decided that I would never ever do it again,” he says.

Not a new thing

Ride-sharing agencies first started in Germany in the mid-fifties. By the 1970s, hundreds of official telephone agencies had sprouted up across the country. The phone agencies still exist – but more and more people are turning to the Internet because the service is cheaper (sometimes even free) and it’s more flexible.

Mitfahrzentrale Mitfahrersuche im Internet
The Internet has connected those who drive and those who are just along for the ride.Image: dpa - Bildfunk

Although it's difficult to know exactly how many people rideshare in Germany, when mitfahrzentrale.de launched seven years ago, it only had a couple hundred users. Today, the figure has jumped to 650,000 users a month.

One of the problems with the Internet, however, is its anonymity. At the telephone agencies, drivers have to leave a copy of their license in order to register. The Internet has no such controls.

When Martina Becker first started ride-sharing 18 months ago she always gave her parents the license plate number and the driver’s phone number.

“I said, if I am dead, then this is who you ring, he’s the one who did it.”

Martina says she has now stopped worrying, because she has never had a bad experience. ”Everyone who rideshares is relatively normal, so I don’t feel funny about using it anymore,” she says.

Gasoline prices driving up business

Benzinpreise steigen
Rising gas prices have increased the use of ridesharing in Germany.Image: AP

Martina’s boyfriend Tobias Gutbrodt also rideshares, but as a driver, not as a passenger. Tobias studies in Bonn and drives the 300km to his home town of Karlsruhe nearly every weekend. He says petrol prices are so high at the moment that he couldn’t afford to go home so often if he didn’t take along paying passengers.

Tobias isn’t alone in this. When oil prices skyrocketed in August as a result of Hurricane Katrina, the number of people using mitfahrzentrale.de jumped by more than 15 percent.

Tobias says that even if gasoline was cheaper he would still put an ad in the Internet because he gets to meet "really nice people.”

“They are a very diverse lot – men, women, old, young, Germans, and foreigners,” he says. But then Tobias is perhaps a bit biased about ride-sharing because it’s how he and Martina got together.