Many impassioned travellers have imagined flying for free and now one enterprising gal has breathed new life into that dream. A veteran master of creative schemes for travelling on the cheap, New York-born wanderer Amber Nolan has a new strategy she calls ‘Jet Hiking’, or hitching rides aboard private jets and small planes. Nolan has set out to prove that it can be done by journeying forth as many did aboard the trains of yore. Her ambitious goal? To touch down in all 50 U.S. states as the opportunity should arise and rediscover her own vast and unusual country in the process by getting to know the locals who live there.
We sat down to hear more from Nolan, friend of The Travel Word editors and gypsy of the skies.
The Travel Word: What’s ‘Jet Hiking’?
Amber Nolan: It is modern-age hitchhiking. Instead of sticking your thumb up and waiting for a car, it’s hitching on small planes and private jets. My goal is to reach all 50 states on a limited budget, primarily by jet-hiking rides.
The idea came to mind when I heard of two girls in Aspen, Colorado, that scored a jet ride by hanging around the airport with a sign. Their story got me thinking that, theoretically, someone could hitch rides across the country.
Personally, it’s getting harder and harder for me to raise the funds needed for travel without going back to a classic 9-to-6 job, so I was trying to think creatively about how to stretch my budget. In the process I’ve uncovered this wonderful community of pilots and aviation enthusiasts.
TTW: How do you find your flights?
Nolan: By networking. It’s a tight-knit community and one pilot can give me the name of a friend who may be heading elsewhere. I also search the Internet for pilot forums and ride-share websites, but there are only a handful for plane-sharing and they are rarely used. Soon I also hope to expand my network by attending a week-long aviation show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. It’s one of the biggest in America.
TTW: Tell us about your first flight. What was the experience like?
Nolan: My flight to Nashville, Tennessee, was smooth sailing for the first couple hours. Paul and Dorothy (the couple who agreed to take me) were the nicest people! When they aren’t flying me around, they participate in a program called ARF in which they transfer dogs that need to be rescued – sometimes to patiently waiting new owners.
The last 45 minutes or so of our flight, though, we ran into a storm. Fortunately, Paul is an instrumental pilot and qualified to navigate around it. We were being tossed around a bit as we went through the clouds, and I was scared out of my mind, but Dorothy calmed my nerves.
I had a headset on for most of the trip so I could hear all the commands and talk to Paul while he was flying. I was able to ask him tons of questions. I could also follow how, throughout the flight, as we passed into different air spaces, our plane was “handed off” to different frequencies and we would check in with each of the control centres of an area. It was good to know that someone knew where we were at all times.
At one point, I said “Hey Paul, you want some Chex Mix?” and handed him the bag. Sharing snacks and conversation with your pilot is just not something you’d be able to do on a commercial plane. I’m also a big fan of the 360-degree view.
Since my arrival in Nashville, I’ve been taking in some honky-tonk, visited the Ryman Auditorium and heard some good bands.
TTW: How does flying by small aircraft compare with travelling by commercial jet?
Nolan: You see everything! If pilots are familiar with the route, they can point things out along the way, educate you about the workings of the plane, or maybe even let you steer a bit. It isn’t just about getting from point A to point B. I can actually sit back, relax and enjoy flying. The pilots can land if they need a break or hover around something of interest.It’s rare on commercial jets that passengers are able to communicate with pilots beyond the typical “Thank you for not crashing” on the way off the plane. However, with smaller planes you can have a friendly conversation. I think it’s much more enjoyable, even if I do have to bring my own peanuts.
TTW: You’ve already met a number of pilots who are willing to participate in your project. What spurs them into wanting to help?
Nolan: Pilots don’t need a big incentive to fly. Sometimes, as the saying goes, all you need for an excuse is a “hundred-dollar hamburger” – which is the approximate cost of flying somewhere and back to get a burger.
I find most pilots just want to get up in the air. It’s a hobby for them. Others like having people come along and enjoy showing them their passion. Some are intrigued by the idea of my project. Yet others want to help shed a positive light on the aviation community so more people become involved.
TTW: In what ways does travelling by small plane allow for a more local (and personal) travel experience?
Nolan: Very few pilots of small aircrafts choose to fly into larger airports. There’s generally landing fees and tons of traffic, so most pilots prefer small airports in towns and smaller cities. For me, this means staying in local B&Bs and campsites, and chatting with people about what to do or see in their town. I become more of a visitor and skip over the commercial airport maze. Also, in smaller airports, it’s more like you are meeting a friend (that you just met) for a long road trip.
TTW: Do you have a travel philosophy and, if so, what is it?
Nolan: Porque no? – Why not!
TTW: What’s the most adventurous trip you’ve taken?
Nolan: Hm. I’d have to say a sailboat ride from Panama to Colombia. It took four days, but we spent time in San Blas – an island paradise. At night there was a phosphorescent glow to the water as giant stingrays leapt out of it. We visited the local villages and bought fresh lobster and fish from the Kuna tribe and our captain caught a giant marlin the cook grilled up. We also were able to watch a traditional ceremony because a new baby girl was born. We had dolphins chasing our boat through the most surreal shades of clear blue water I had ever seen. You could almost touch them they got so close! I woke up in the wee hours of the morning on the top of the ship as we entered Cartegena’s harbour. What a way to wake up.
TTW: What do you miss most about home when travelling?
Nolan: My family. They are very supportive of my crazy ideas and I miss them when I’m on the road.
TTW: As a jet hiker, what are some challenges you envision?
Nolan: In the U.S., we have a serious lack of public transportation outside of the large cities. I know I am going to get stuck in a city without a plane ride out, but I can figure something out when the time comes.
TTW: What advice would you have for someone travelling on a budget?
Nolan: Think outside the box and don’t limit your options. Instead of looking for hotels, check out hostels, B&Bs and guest houses. Work exchange programs on farms and in eco communities are another option as well. You may be able to stay for free or for very cheap and learn a thing or two as well. Use ride-share options if you are driving and explore carpooling. If you do fly commercially, go to the airport’s website and check for the list of airlines that service the airport. Many budget airlines will not show up in an Expedia or Kayak search.
TTW: Where are you headed to next and what are your long-term travel plans?
Nolan: By July 22, I will be in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for the weeklong aviation event known as AirVenture. After this jet-hiking project, I’m dying to get to Guatemala and work on an organic farm or with a sustainable community and finish learning Spanish.
Any takers with a pilot’s license out there?