On the (Budget) Road

Thomas Handy Loon
Suzanne Sheridan

When you’re traveling on a budget, sometimes it seems like you can’t get anywhere. For the resourceful and cash-strapped hobo/wanderer, however, there is always a way. Getting out of Minneapolis and most other cities isn’t so hard. There isn’t one way that is perfectly safe, and thus none of the following suggestions can be officially recommended. That said, here are a few options.

Riding the rails

In spite of its many challenges, many railfans swear by the rails, and the scenery, adventure, and panorama of characters along the way is hard to top, as is the knowledge that you’re part of a profound tradition. When riding the rails, keep the following information in mind:

  • If you’re lucky, you may know a hobo or rambler who can help you with the challenges (otherwise send an e-mail to trainhoppers@nw.com to get on a listserv and meet one).
  • Trains can, and do, kill people who slip up.
  • Fellow hoppers can be challenging to deal with.
  • You may wait for hours or days for a train heading your way, and even experienced hoppers end up in the wrong state sometimes.
  • Security (“bulls”) in some yards will send you to jail, but in others they’ll offer helpful advice; the same bull may do either on any given day. Most hoppers try to avoid bulls entirely, since you’re more likely to get help from ordinary yard workers.
  • Schedules and routes can be hard to assess, and often change (Rand McNally Handy Railroad Atlas of the United States can help, though it’s out of print, so check a used bookstore or your local library). It takes some finesse, knowledge, and a fair amount of workin’ it with the yard workers to get an idea of an approximate schedule.


Hitchhiking is still quite feasible, despite the dwindling number of thumbs seen on the road these days. Hitching alone is easiest, although two is not so bad. Three or more can be difficult because of space issues and because the larger group can seem threatening to drivers. It’s essential to find a good on-ramp or main highway on the edge of town, drivers need time to size you up and room to pull over. Local busses or a friend can help you get to a suitable location. Destination signs really help; bring a magic marker and scavenge blank cardboard where you can–bring an extra piece, you might need it later.

General awareness, especially for women, is essential when hitchhiking or riding the rails. You only have a few moments to size up a ride, so use your intuition and skills of observation. Look for weapons, leering smiles, guys in the back seat but not the front, etc. If it doesn’t feel right, make an excuse and turn down the ride. Remember: you can always say no. Just because a car pulled over for you doesn’t mean you’re obliged to take the ride. Women hitchers report being pawed sometimes, harassed or even worse. Most female hitchhikers would advise other women to hitchhike with a partner rather than alone. It’s best to hitch with, or at least seek the advice of, others who’ve done it before trying it yourself.

That said, hitching can be filled with respectful, often interesting characters you may otherwise never meet, including helpful bigots, racists, evangelists, fellow travelers and former and current vagabonds of all sizes and colors. Be judicious with your own opinions, or you might get kicked out. Don’t get frustrated if you must wait hours for a ride. If you take out your frustration by giving cars the finger, it’s bad karma, and a guarantee that no other car within view will stop either. It’s a free country, and few people are in the mood or have the interest in giving free rides to strangers.

Driveaway cars

There are several nationwide companies that offer driveaway cars. You pay the gas (the first tank is provided), promise to cover 400 miles a day or so, pay a refundable cash deposit of around $350 and promise to deliver a car for someone. Sometimes you may find one going your way – be flexible. Plus, if you don’t mind driving and you’ve got some traveling companions, just pack them in! Defying the rules by sleeping or camping in the cars is a way to keep expenses down. www.autodriveaway.com lists available vehicles. Check “Auto Transporters and Driveaway Companies” in the Yellow Pages, and look for those who offer driveaways (many don’t). Most companies usually don’t check your driving record.


If you’re really flush and have a credit card, www.priceline.com or www.travelocity.com lets you bid on otherwise empty airline seats. Some people have found some good deals at these sites, but other airfare sites offer low fares too, try: www.orbitz.com, www.sidestep.com or www.hotdeals.com. You could also consider being an air courier, where you pay very little for your ticket, but you must be flexible for destinations, dates and times of travel. You can only bring a carry on because the courier company uses your luggage space for delivering packages. The following web sites offer air courier opportunities: www.intrepidtraveler.com, www.aircouriertravel.com, www.courierlist.com or www.courier.org. You can even try hitching a ride from one of the smaller area airports with a business traveler in her/his own plane, but you should probably dress well and be prepared to schmooze, and don’t expect many destination choices.


There are also ride boards at various colleges, universities and co-ops, the trusty ol’ grapevine for sniffing out drivers, and www.lonelyplanet.com (choose “Thorntree,” then “Branches,” then “Travelling companions”). If you have more cash, www.greyhound.com offers some decent fares (one-way as low as $49 for up to 100 miles), especially if you can plan 14 days in advance.

Good luck! Without a doubt, my best adventures have all come from trips that were barely planned, if at all. There’s something special in our overly structured society about people who hit the road with both destination and a flexible sense of adventure in mind. Happy trails!

Read Up

Hopping Freight Trains in America, Duffy Littlejohn, 1993

Rand McNally Handy Railroad Atlas of the United States, 1982

Minnesota Hitchiking Laws


169.22 Hitchhiking; solicitation of business.

Subdivision 1. Soliciting ride. No person shall stand in a roadway for the purpose of soliciting a ride from the driver of any private vehicle.

Subd. 2. Soliciting employment, business, or contributions. No person shall stand on a roadway for the purpose of soliciting employment, business, or contributions from the occupant of any vehicle.

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