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Hitching around America, one free flight at a time

Nov. 6, 2012 at 10:14 AM ET

Courtesy Amber Nolan /
Freelance travel writer and blogger Amber Nolan, 28, travels around the United States by what she calls "jethiking."

Given the growth of grassroots budget-travel movements such as ride-sharing and couch-surfing, it was just a matter of time before a thrifty wayfarer figured out how to sidestep the expensive quagmire that is commercial air travel.

Amber Nolan, a 28-year-old freelance travel writer and blogger, has been hitching free rides around America since last summer on small private jets and prop-engine planes. "Jethiking," as she calls it, means relying on the kindness of strangers—something Nolan has found in abundance in the aviation world.

“I've discovered that there's a really wonderful community of pilots out there who enjoy sharing their love of flying with people,” she said.

Nolan’s goal is to bum rides to all 50 states; so far, she has flown to 12 in as many weeks and estimates it will take about nine months to get to all the remaining states. After landing in one place, it can take a few days to a week to line up her next lift. “I can’t plan more than a flight or two in advance,” she explained. She spends much of her remaining time sightseeing, blogging about her journey at JetHiking.com and writing freelance travel stories.

Getting started wasn't easy, Nolan admits. After hatching her idea, she realized how little she knew about aviation and began reaching out to pilots on online forums. Things started falling into place after she connected on a plane ride-sharing site with Ryan Flanigan, a pilot living in her hometown of Rochester, N.Y., who offered to sit down with her to help map out a strategy.

“I thought the idea was fantastic,” said Flanigan. “So we met, and Amber’s enthusiasm for the idea was infectious.”

Flanigan suggested that small prop planes—“the heart and soul of aviation”—were the way to go. “I thought her chances of success would be much better by plugging into the more personal, weekend fliers or those that fly themselves for either recreation or business, as opposed to the business jets,” he said.

To date, all but one of Nolan’s flights has been free. “I chipped in some gas money for one flight,” she said. “It’s a myth that all private-plane owners are fabulously wealthy.”

“General-aviation pilots are normal people,” agreed Dan Rowe, a nuclear engineer and pilot who took Nolan from Seattle to Portland in mid-October. “We are passionate about our hobby, and willing to sacrifice our time and money to spread our enthusiasm.”

In Rowe’s case, that’s an understatement. Three years ago, he and his wife spent their honeymoon summer at an airport, living in a motor home, while restoring a 1965 Beechcraft Debonair that had been sitting in a field for over 15 years. “Like most pilots, I look for any excuse to go flying. If the gas money is in my budget that month, I will give almost anyone a ride,” said Rowe.

Anyone who he’s vetted, that is. It’s an important difference between jethiking and hitchhiking. “I’m not just sticking my thumb out and getting a ride with just anyone who pulls over,” said Nolan, who lands most of her rides on online forums where small-plane pilots hang out.

“It’s all very public,” she continued. “I’m in touch with the pilots in advance, and I have their names and phone numbers. Plus, I always send the plane’s tail number to my parents and friends.” Pilots must file their flight plans with the FAA, she explained. “And every flight can be tracked on FlightAware.com using the tail number. My family and friends always know where the plane is,” she said.

Besides the obvious benefit of free transportation, jethiking lets travelers experience the American landscape in a way they can’t with commercial airlines. “The beauty of this country is much more evident from a low altitude, and the nice thing about flying in these small planes is that we’re not 40,000 feet up,” Nolan said. “In New York, for example, we flew right up the Hudson River, right next to all the buildings at nighttime. It was amazing.”

For shoestring travelers dreaming of their own cross-country adventures, Nolan advises copping a Nike attitude: “Just do it. No waiting and no excuses. If travel is important to you, then put a bit of money aside and always be saving for your next trip.”

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