That’s one of the questions that occurs frequently when I’m on the road…
So where do I sleep?
During my first few trips I would carry a little tent with me, used it occasionally (and ditched it altogether after trip four or five), but spent most of my nights in (youth-)hostels. Hostels are dry, warm, you don’t have to spend time pitching a tent and you meet more people. However, they are not free, and when you’re on a tight budget, there are cheaper alternatives.
The first time I spent the night out in the open air was in 1982. I had been dropped off at the ferry terminal in Puttgarden, but given the time and the (relative) lack of traffic, I decided that it would make more sense to cross to Denmark in the morning. So, off I went, looking for a place to sleep. I eventually found a small spot enclosed by a few trees, spread out my plastic sheet, rolled out my sleeping bag and had an abysmal night, waking up every three seconds, afraid that someone would see me, which of course never happened. A few weeks later, on the way back home another night in the open followed, this time under a bridge on the Strasbourg-Paris motorway at the exit going back into Germany. I did sleep a bit better out there, but not much.
In 1983 I went to Greece for the first time, and it was in Greece that I found a better place, an unfinished house. I managed to climb onto the flat roof, pulled up the wooden stairs, spread out my plastic sheet, rolled out my sleeping bag, had a pretty good night and was woken up by a gorgeous sunrise. That year I also spent quite a few nights on the beaches of Paros and Santorini, where whole herds of people were sleeping, providing some safety.
In the years that followed, I continued using hostels at my usual destination, Greece, but with a bit more experience, I started to hitchhike during the nights and just slept in cars, sometimes dozing of for a few minutes, sometimes for a bit longer, like seeing a sign “There 478″ and opening your eyes three seconds later to see that it has changed into “There 362″… During those years in the 1980′s I also slept in the second bed of a few trucks, usually the result of a “Where are you going to sleep?“, “Oh, I’ll find somewhere“, “I have two beds here and use only one” type of conversation.
After I moved to the UK at the end of 1990, and started hitchhiking in that country the next year, I realized that I had never realized that petrol stations on motorways are not just a fantastic places to get rides, but that they are also great places to sleep. Sure, I had on a few occasions slept next to them, but always outside. What about actually sleeping inside? Initially I tried using the toilets, but they are not very comfortable, are more often than not smelly, and sleeping with your arms resting on your legs will impede the blood circulation of your legs severely. For fun you should try sitting in a normal chair (or for a more realistic experience, on a real toilet), putting your arms on your legs for half an hour and then try to stand up…
So what’s the alternative? As it turns out, most restaurants are very quiet at night, and when you’re lucky, parts will be closed off by rope or just stacked chairs. Step over the rope, or past the chairs, making sure the staff don’t see you doing so, and you’ve got a warm and dry place to get some rest. If you’re lucky there may even be benches rather than chairs, allowing you to lie down (a little). Of course, it helps if you look like a nice kid (or in my case, a decent respectable old man), and not like someone who’s not seen a bath in the last three weeks. You should also be aware that on rare occasions you will be asked to leave, and sometimes you will be woken up very early when cleaners show up.
As for me, I’ve used the practice since the early 1990′s, not only in the UK, but also in Germany and Italy, and whether it’s because I usually get something to eat or drink first, or because I look so respectable, I’ve never been sent back out, in fact there have been occasions where it was suggested that I should move to an area that was a bit more out of sight. In 1999 I spent more than a day on Raststätte Fürholzen (just north of München) and in the evening a member of staff even apologized for waking me up – I was there to see the solar eclipse, the Raststätte was dead in the center of the line of totality. In 2010, during one of my “Raststätte-hopping” trips I spent two consecutive nights at Raststätte Nürnberg, and the staff there were actually worried that I might be homeless!
Other good places? Many apartment buildings in Europe have stairs leading from the top-floor to the machine-room for the lifts or a door to the roof. If you manage to get in, which is possible by slipping in when someone goes out, or following them when they go in, and climb up these final stairs, you are assured of a pretty quiet night.
And finally, in many big cities homeless people sleep in front of shop entrances and in some cities there are sites where homeless people congregate and spend the night in cardboard boxes, there’s no reason why you cannot do the same, you might even be offered some food from the charities that look after these people…
As for the inevitable question, “How dangerous is it to sleep at these places?“…
I’ve been lucky and have never had any problems, but you need to be careful, or very bold. In Italy I once slept in a small round border right in front of the main entrance of Area Servizio “Chienti”. The border was surrounded by a thick hedge and once I got to the center underneath it, I was completely invisible. I spent a similar night on the center of the roundabout next to the “Exeter” motorway services in the UK. These places are safe because nobody ever thinks about anyone actually sleeping there, whereas sitting in a restaurant may not just attract the usually harmless attention of the staff, it may also cause you to become the object of attention for “white trash” returning from their evening of drinking too much. Sleeping under bridges over motorways (if you’re dropped off at a junction) is also safe, especially if you sleep high up.
Of course there are minor problems associated with sleeping outside on petrol stations next to the motorway. The worst of them is the fact that the areas close to the parking are frequently used as public toilets, and it’s pretty dumb to walk around these areas in the dark without a flashlight. Rain is another problem, you can try to find a sheltered place, for example, in 2008 I slept in an empty trailer in Hungary. However, in that case you might as well take the plunge and spend the night in the petrol station or restaurant, you’ll find that staff is usually a bit more accommodating if it rains, or if it’s -10C outside. Sleeping on building sites is usually pretty safe, on rare occasions they may be guarded by dogs, but most of the time you can just slip in in the evening and slip out before the builders come in the next morning. If you decide to sleep under motorway bridges, make sure you have something to cover the concrete, these places are usually covered in thick layers of dust!
One last hint for those of you who wear glasses: learn to sleep while wearing them! I’ve been doing it for decades, not just when I’m hitchhiking, but also while I’m staying at my destination. Trying to find them when you might need them in a rush in the middle of the night in an unknown place is not something you will enjoy, loosing them when you don’t have a spare pair will be an outright disaster.