02/30: Rideshare with people you don’t know

The idea of giving ridesharing a try has been on my mind for some time already. However, up till the last weekend of September, the idea of travelling by car together with complete strangers never seemed attractive enough, compared with the relative ease of travelling by train, where I get to choose the exact time of departure/arrival that best suits my schedules, mind my own business for the duration of the ride, and pay a somewhat decent price for my trip.

Things changed last weekend, as my student card expired on the last day of September. Goodbye to 50% off of the price of public transportation! In the golden age of being a student card holder, a trip to Helsinki by train would cost me around 50 euros, but now I would have to pay that same amount for a one-way trip. Suddenly the idea of train travel did not sound that tempting anymore…

In fact, the Finnish national railways (VR) do offer discounted prices even to those us mortals who cannot benefit from the student (or any other) discounts. Of course, the prerequisite for cheaper travel is, as you might guess, that you know in advance when you will be going where and can plan and book your trip well ahead. If you for one reason or another need to travel spontaneously – the situation I was faced with this week – you may wave cheap train rides goodbye.

Of course, you may sometimes be lucky enough to face the need of urgent travel during a discount campaign of VR. When the expiration of my student card became imminent, I surprisingly soon became quite the bargain hunter in the online train ticket shop. Thanks to their current campaign, ongoing till around mid-October, I have managed to book quite a few trips with quite a few €€€ savings. However, those were of no help to me now: I had to get to Helsinki on two days’ notice.

There is also a quite new bus company in the Finnish market that offers cheaper (and I mean really a lot cheaper) bus travel on certain routes. They use the same pricing policy as low-cost airlines: the earlier you book, the less you pay, with prices starting from 3€. If I’m not much mistaken (correct me if I’m wrong!), even their full prices are somewhat lower than the going rate of bus travel.

Unfortunately, their buses don’t run that often (not yet, at least) and therefore giving that a try on this occasion of urgent need to travel was ruled out as well. (But I do have a few bus rides booked with this company already, so will get to live this new experience quite soon!) Since I don’t own a car, was reluctant to pay so much for train travel so soon after the end of my student-priced era, and couldn’t fit my schedules with the bus company’s, what was left for me was to give another new thing a go.

An old Trabant in Berlin

02/30: Rideshare with people you don’t know. Could it be as much fun as a Trabant safari in Berlin?

But where to start? There are several Finnish web pages, message boards, and even at least one company that offer, in a more or less sophisticated and/or easy-to-use way, the opportunity for looking for or offering a rideshare. However, leaving a rideshare request on a web page or registering to a message board in order to reply to a rideshare offer of an anonymous user somehow felt like too big of a hurdle for a first-timer. Instead, I logged on to Facebook, requested to join a few groups dedicated to rideshares, and wrote my note there.

In principle, if you think about it, it wasn’t that much different from leaving a note as an anonymous user on a web page: you still will get a reply (hopefully! In order to get to your destination…) from someone – one or several – you don’t know. But for me, I believe, the crucial difference (excluding the fact that I already am a member on Facebook, which made things that much easier: no need to register anywhere extra) was the simple fact that on those Facebook groups you can, in most cases anyway, see a picture of the person asking for/offering a ride.

Basically what you have there is the possibility of “judging the book by its cover”; in other words, you can try to form some sort of an idea of the unknown person in your mind. I believe the web forums or services try to accomplish this by not only asking their users to fill out their profiles in as much detail as possible, but also by providing the chance for giving peer feedback.

Either way, all this is of course a way to take into account safety issues (let’s face it, one ought to think about that as well) related to this type of travel, because in the end you do end up for X number of hours in a confined space with a person you don’t know. Things could get quirky. It is simply a smart move to exercise some caution and use common sense to prevent any potential problems. (For some tips for novices in the field of car share, here is a list of some safety tips to consider.)

Anyway, back to my problem: for particular reasons (which I just might explain more in another post…) I needed to get to Helsinki. Luckily, as the capital of Finland, it is a destination where people are quite likely headed from all over the country, any day of the week. It didn’t take many hours from the posting of my note on the Facebook wall of one ridesharing group that it had received replies: one from another person looking for a ride on the same day as me, and another from someone offering a seat in his car.

I contacted him, said I’d like to take his offer, he replied with an “ok” and explained when & where we would meet. Done, and done.

Next morning at half past eight I was waiting in the agreed place to be picked up. As I was travelling with a big suitcase, I believe it wasn’t too difficult to spot the right person, and the driver, upon greeting me, immediately also commented on the suitcase, asking me the reason why I had such luggage with me. The combination of a rather big suitcase and the not so big trunk of the smallish car he was driving proved a bit tricky, but eventually he managed to fit my luggage in, and we were set to go.

Or rather, we were set to go and pick up a fourth ridesharer (the other in addition to me being a friend of the driver) before heading for our shared destination of our country’s capital region. A three-hour ride accompanied by people not familiar with each other (in this case with the exception of the driver and his friend) has, at least according to the cultural stereotype of the withdrawn, shy, non-talkative Finn, amazing potential for being a three-hour ride of painful, prolonged silence.

Fortunately my first rideshare turned out almost the polar opposite of a journey done in silence, accompanied with thoughts along the lines of couldn’t-this-trip-just-end-right-now… My co-travellers were young, outgoing and talkative enough to make it indeed a smooth, even fun journey. We discussed Finnish films, studying, travelling, tattoos – in short, a surprising variety of topics.

I was very positively surprised not only by the really nice company, but also at how fast the three hours went. Suddenly, as it felt, it was time for me to guide the driver to where we had agreed he would drop me off. I thanked everyone for a nice time and company and wished them well, thanked the driver extra for manhandling my admittedly quite heavy suitcase out of the trunk onto the pavement (sparing me the trouble of doing that… unfortunately not sparing me the trouble of carrying dragging it to the 3rd floor of a house with no elevator) and paid him the agreed sum of money for my share of the fuel costs.

As I walked away I smiled broadly to myself: what a good experience! I got to meet three new, nice people, had the possibility of inspiring interaction for the duration of the trip (compared to sitting alone with a book/laptop on a bus or a train) and got to hear about interesting life experiences. And on top of these positive social aspects I also saved my time and effort, not to mention money: the trip cost me less than one fourth of what it would’ve cost to take the train.

All in all, considering the above advantages, and combined also with the green point of view (it is more ecological for instance in terms of CO2 emissions if a car is full of passengers, instead of the driver just travelling alone – a typical sight in commuter traffic in Finland and surely also elsewhere): this is definitely worth doing again.

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