RTL, L'EXPRESS (France), LA STAMPA (Italy)

PARIS - The scraggly hitchhiker with his thumb out on the road has given way to the plugged-in free (or almost free) rider with both thumbs on his smart phone. And it is Europe that's leading the way in finding efficient new ways of hitting the road on the cheap.

Both would-be hitchhikers and their more button-down ride-sharer counterparts are turning to new digital models like the French-based websites BlablaCar.com and Covoiturage.fr, and Munich-based Carpooling.com.

All three boast at least a million registered users, and 200 to 300 percent annual growth, as cash-strapped Europeans are flocking to their sites to hook up with car owners with spare seats who just ask for help in covering the costs of the trip. Rider and driver can connect by twitter, text or email after signing up for the service.

In the U.S., the site Ridejoy.com was founded last year with a similar model, and has recently launched mobile apps. But it is the Europeans who have been leading the race to get cheap rides online.

For Nicolas Brusson, the French-born, UK-based co-founder of BlablaCar.com, his six-year-old company's success is part of a new form of traveling which is both environmentally conscious and social. "You'll learn about something you had never thought you'd get the inside picture on, discover a shared interest, or swap stories about landmarks as you travel," he blogged on the Huffington Post UK. "We named it BlaBlaCar to describe the amazing social experience it adds to travel. Car sharing is much more than just getting there."

Covoiturage.fr implemented a pay-model for its service this year, and has still attracted more than one million new users, reports the French magazine L'Express. The company has also seen the number of last-minute cancellations go from 35 percent to 4 percent since the introduction of the pay model.

Obviously, the tough economic times play a part in Europe's new-found enthusiasm for getting into cars with strangers: Blabla.com brags it has helped its users save a collective 150 million euros over 6 millions trips since its conception in 2006.

Olivier Bremer, founder of Italy's first online car-sharing company postoinauto.it (which was bought this spring by Blablacar.com) told La Stampa that use has tripled in recent months. Bremer says that beyond the most-traveled route between Rome and Milan, the summer has seen a sharp rise in northerners using his service to get to the beaches in the south of Italy.

But the trend is not only for long-distance trips. The French website Scoléo.fr has recently launched its own car-sharing service aimed at families looking for help getting their kids to school. Scoleo boasts that it can cut traveling costs by almost 75 percent, reports RTL.