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What is a Stowaway?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A stowaway is someone who hides on a train, bus, plane, or ship in the hope of traveling for free. There are a number of reasons to stowaway on board a craft, ranging from illegal immigration to a dare. As a general rule, being a stowaway can be extremely dangerous, and it can also carry serious legal repercussions if the stowaway is caught, especially on aircraft.

Stowing away is probably almost as old as commercialized traffic. Stowaways were certainly documented on Ancient Greek and Roman ships, and they included escaping slaves, people avoiding military service, and people who just wanted adventure. Stowaways also weren't limited to people; rats, for example, famously spread the Black Plague by stowing away on ships, and animal stowaways continue to be a problem throughout the world.

Some historical stowaways managed to make their way safely to their destination and even profit from the endeavor. A handful of people who made a new start in the Americas, for example, were stowaways on board ship, and many of these people were helped by regular passengers who smuggled them food and hid them from the officers of the ship.

The dangers of being a stowaway vary, depending on the type of transit used. At a minimum a stowaway risks being caught and thrown off or forced to pay a full fare. Many stowaways also expose themselves to physical risks; on trains, for example, people are injured every year by trying to hop on or off moving trains, and some of these injuries are quite severe. Aircraft stowaways have frozen to death in landing gear, while stowaways on ships have starved to death from lack of food during long journeys.

Because being a stowaway is dangerous, most people only attempt it when they feel that they have no other choice. Refugees from wars, for example, may stowaway after being denied refugee status, or immigrants may stowaway because they cannot afford the fare to travel to a new country. Criminals have also been known to attempt to stowaway while evading justice.

Some people also romanticize the idea of stowing away, and they may attempt it on a dare or for fun. This is not advised, because thanks to sweeping changes in transportation law after 11 September, many companies have severely cracked down on stowaways, making the practice extremely difficult and thereby much more dangerous. If caught, a stowaway could potentially be treated as a terrorist, and find him or herself in a very sticky situation.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WikiMotors researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By TheGraham — On Sep 07, 2011

@VivAnne - It sounds like "The 5th Element" shows stowing away a lot more realistically than "Stowaway", but they're from very different time periods and genres, so it makes sense. Many people seem to think if more movies showed the harsh realities of stowing away, people would stop thinking it was such a "fun" idea and not try stowing away much in real life, but I disagree.

I think, really, most people who actually try stowing away are in desperate situations, and probably haven't ever even seen the movies you're mentioning. Remember, a lot more travel by boat and train goes on in countries that aren't the United States (where the romanticized Hollywood movies come out), so likely the majority of stowaways are from third-world countries.

If they're in a desperate situation, I can't really blame them even if they're going into a dangerous situation.

By malmal — On Sep 06, 2011

The article talks about stowaway people and stowaway animals, but what about stowaway electronics? I guess a stowaway keyboard isn't really a stowaway if you know it's there, though. Isn't the requirement for a stowaway the fact that they are sneaking along without the transporting party knowing they're there?

By far the worst kind of stowaway I can think of is tarantulas. They sometimes stowaway in crates with bananas shipped from tropical areas -- imagine unpacking the banana crates and having tarantulas come out! That alone is enough to make me forever avoid the food hauling business, I tell you.

By VivAnne — On Sep 05, 2011

@SkittisH - Liking stowaway fiction stories is nothing to be ashamed of. People like fiction themes about illegal and dangerous things all the time -- and exploring them in stories helps prevent many people from trying any stowing away for real, so it's probably a good thing!

You talking about that Shirley Temple movie made me think of stowing away scenes I've seen in movies, too. The one that popped to mind most clearly for me is the short scene in "The 5th Element" where the priest stows away on the space plane to the luxury resort planet and gets caught by security.

He's doing the dangerous variety of stowing away -- hiding in an electrical panel tangled up in cords -- and I have to wonder how long he would've been stuck there, considering the fact that the passengers were put into a hibernation sleep during the trip. Doesn't that mean it would take a long time? It's a good thing the guards caught him as a stowaway, or he might have starved to death on the way over!

By SkittisH — On Sep 04, 2011

Reality may be difficult and dangerous where stowing away is concerned, but I have to confess that I'm guilty of that romanticizing of stowing away that the article mentions. I blame this on my childhood; many of my favorite stories involved stowaways escaping desperate situations or going out to find adventure.

My favorite stowaway movie is Shirley Temple's "Stowaway" (creative title, I know, but there's more to it than that.) It's about a little girl who ends up a stowaway on a luxury cruise liner and plays match maker for a man and woman on the boat. It's cute and fun, and since it's from 1939 there's an innocence to it that movies really ought to have again these days.

I wish there were more movies like "Stowaway" -- they romanticize stowing away, but it's okay to like it if it's just the fictional kind, right?

By Emilski — On Sep 04, 2011

I have to wonder that because of the times we live in and the fact that people will take absolute precaution from terrorist attacks what the penalty can be for someone that is a stowaway.

On a commercial airliner I imagine that if a stowaway is found it causes a very long delay with the plane, say they were caught before takeoff and be a serious issue when they are in the air. I have to wonder even if someone is simply trying to catch a ride somewhere if it would be a federal offense and include a large fine and long jail sentence due to the panic it could cause.

By JimmyT — On Sep 03, 2011

@cardsfan27 - I remember once during an episode of the show 24 the main protagonist stowed away on a commercial airliner to try and prevent a terrorist attack and was caught by the pilots in mid flight. He was in the luggage compartment and the pilots attempted to depressurize that part of the plane to kill him, thinking that he was a terrorist.

In the show the pilots feared for the safety of the passengers and did what they could, because they saw a perceived threat to their lives. This is a danger of being a stowaway, not just on a plane but say maybe on a train or a boat. We live in times where people are fearful when they travel internationally and if there is a stowaway on board they may assume the worst of that person and take whatever precautions they see as necessary and it could end badly for the stowaway.

By cardsfan27 — On Sep 02, 2011

@stl156 - You are absolutely correct. As the article stated if you are caught stowing away on a plane, due to fears of terroristic activities occurring on planes, they will assume that the stowaway is a terrorist until they are completely checked out.

I have heard stories of people desperately trying to get to one place, because of an emergency and they have either tried or have given serious thought to stowing away on a plane. This is of course just plain stupid and could result in a tragedy for the stowaway.

By stl156 — On Sep 02, 2011

Although I have not seen it happen in years I remember when I was a kid I would constantly see people in open box cars on trains hitching a ride to wherever they need to go. I could not help but think that whenever I saw this happen that that person had to get on the train somehow and since it they were illegally on the train they probably did not get on the train when it was stopped, but rather jumped on the train when it was in motion.

This clearly shows the dangers of stowing away and illegally boarding trains and I cannot imagine the dangers that would come with trying to stow away on a plane nowadays.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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