Travel topics > Concerns > Travel in developing countries
Travel in low-income countries can be challenging even to the most seasoned globetrotter.
Infrastructure for transport, electricity, water, communication and money transfer might be deficient, as well as food safety, health care, and sanitation. Poverty might induce begging, scams and crime. In some places corruption is also a problem.
- Main article: Money
The concern regarding exchange rates and that (hard) cash is the preferred and sometimes only option of payment is especially true for developing countries.
Many poor countries are high-fraud areas; don't be surprised if an attempt to use a payment card, make an Internet telephone call or access a password-protected website which always worked fine in your own country suddenly gets flagged as suspicious by your home providers just because you tried to get access while travelling to somewhere like Nigeria. Countries with widespread poverty, weak enforcement of criminal laws or ongoing corruption attract all manner of fraud. Contact your card issuers and the operators of any service you intend to rely upon while abroad, so that they know that you are travelling and can tell you if certain countries are blocked due to fraud and abuse.
- Main article: Electrical systems
Research both the voltage and plug configuration before travelling with plug-in devices. It's rather frustrating to arrive and find that your most expensive item, some piece of electronics, cannot be recharged or used. "Universal" adapters with plugs for every conceivable outlet on earth are handy, but they tend to be heavier and more expensive so if you know where you're going they're overkill (and remember that voltage and frequency also have to match).
Developing countries tend to have power failures more often than high income places. While Germany on the one hand has 15 minutes of power outage per year, some less developed places may have at least an hour without electricity per week. Also when there is power, there may be brownouts (lower voltage) and power spikes. Don't count on electricity "just working", bring patience and a flashlight. In some places, power is even switched on only for certain periods of time; check before you go, and in such locations, consider accommodation with their own generator or solar panels (usually equipped with batteries for the night but don't count on it), if available.
The quality of power supply can vary wildly within a country. While an outage of a few hours in the capital may make headlines, more rural dwellers can only laugh as they read the ridiculously capital-centric newspaper's coverage by candlelight, themselves having such outages weekly.
Vaccines and medications
Many countries will deny entry without proof of appropriate vaccinations.
Ideally, visit a travel clinic at least two months before departure to plan any vaccinations or prescriptions you may need. (See Stay healthy below for more info.) These doctors specialize in travel medicine and can give you advice that is more specific to your travels than a generalist physician, who will likely know little more about local conditions than what's on the CDC's website. Still, any doctor is better than none.
Although travel insurance should be purchased regardless of where you travel, it is especially important when travelling to developing countries, especially since the cost of dealing with emergencies can add up quickly, In particular, since medical facilities in developing countries are often not up to the standards of more developed ones, you can likely get a better standard of care by being evacuated home, or at the very least to a more developed country by air. As medical evacuation flights are very costly, you should definitely ensure that your travel insurance policy covers this.
- Main article: Visa
The availability of visas ranges from "no visa needed" or "visa on arrival for (almost) all high income countries" to "basically tourists are a nuisance to our glorious leader". While much has improved since the fall of the Soviet Union, there are still corners of the world where letters of invitation are needed or an arm and a leg are charged just for the application and visa are routinely denied for no other reason than "We don't like your face" (which on the other hand is how third world citizens are often treated in the western world). Some developing countries may also be in different stages of conflict with other countries in the region or developed countries far away, resulting in visa trouble.
To check whether you need a visa use the IATA Visa Database, provided by Delta, which in addition to being an excellent usually fairly up to date resource is the way most airlines judge whether you need a visa prior to boarding. If you lack a visa the database says you need, you will be denied boarding. However - mostly for legal reasons - they do not provide any guarantee for their information, so double checking with the embassy or embassies in question can do no harm.
Not all overland or river border crossings are open or intended for citizens of third countries (i.e. a crossing between two countries may be able to handle citizens of those countries, but not citizens of any other country) and even those that are may not routinely provide visas on arrival, which may make your trip needlessly complicated. If you can, find out in advance what's the case and ask multiple sources. Try to get the answer in writing from as official a source as you can, which not only ensures smooth travel but will reduce the risk of being asked for a bribe.
There are two schools of thought for getting visas: one says to obtain visas as far in advance if possible, so you can buffer for unexpected delays, while the other says to obtain as close to your destination as possible, where you can get your visa rapidly and with less hassle as it's a more standard procedure. Ideally you can combine both by starting your trip at a "visa hub" city where you can get visas for nearly all neighboring countries. Some examples by region include:
- Eastern Europe and Central Asia: Kiev (Ukraine)
- South-East Asia: Bangkok (Thailand), Singapore
- Southern Africa: Pretoria and Cape Town (South Africa)
You can also obtain visas for almost any country in the world in Washington D.C., Tokyo, and Western European capitals including London, Brussels, and Paris. You can also mail your visa application and passport to the nearest embassy or consulate (use registered mail). However, applications done this way tend to be time-consuming and expensive.
If traveling in a developing country for the first time – or in a new part of the world – don't underestimate the potential culture shock. Many a stable, capable traveler has been overcome by the newness of developing world travel, where many little cultural adjustments can add up quickly. Especially in your initial days, consider splurging on Western-style and -quality hotels, food, and services to help acclimatize.
It may help to think in terms of "rupees" and "whoopies". The terms originated with a two-year-old who could not pronounce the Indian currency, rupees, and called them "whoopies". The parents decided that their travel budget included some of each, and that the distinction was important. When the tourist restaurant has an expensive lunch and you walk down the street to a cafe full of locals and eat basically the same meal for a third the price, you are saving your rupees. Good move. However, when it is hot, noisy and dusty, there are beggars everywhere, and you take refuge in an air-conditioned restaurant that serves bad lamb-burgers for twice the cost of the tourist restaurant's lunch, you are spending whoopies. Enjoy the cool and don't worry much about the cost.
Often a good escape is the buffet breakfast or lunch at a good hotel. Many of these are very good and some superb. These are generally outrageously priced by local standards, but often quite reasonable by Western standards.
Some of the following is also advisable in some high income countries, but is often doubly valid in developing countries.
In many places any obvious tourist or newcomer will be swamped with offers of guides, hotels, and taxi services. It's important to look like you know what you're doing, and not be forced into accepting an offer just because you arrived unprepared.
In many places, it is better to avoid the people yelling "taxi?" inside the airport or train station; they are often touting for or driving unlicensed meter-less taxis. Furthermore, they often make their money by taking you to specific hotels, which give them a referral fee. You are better off taking the airport bus or going outside and looking for a real taxi with a license and often a meter.
One way to avoid the crush, especially in India, is to use a local agent for booking accommodation or internal travel in advance. When you arrive at your destination the local agent will be waiting with your name on a notice and they will have a driver to take you to your hotel. It might cost a little bit more but it beats walking out of an air terminal at midnight after a long flight, into pandemonium.
A good arrival checklist for these situations includes all the tips for Arriving in a new city plus:
- A plan. Know what you're going to do before you arrive. No matter how much you want to get off the stuffy bus or out of the crowded airport, you don't want to find yourself pondering your guidebook in the middle of a crowd of touts and hawkers. Everyone will insist on taking you to this guest-house or that hotel. Looking like you already have a goal and a plan (even if you don't) is your first line of defense against the rain of business cards and brochures. If traveling with friends, a good strategy is to leave the luggage with part of the group at a nearby restaurant or cafe while the other half gathers information on what's available. This gives everyone the excuse 'we are waiting for our friends' and will relieve some (but not all) of the pressure. If you are traveling alone, just insist that you are meeting a friend who already has a room for both of you. As a last resort, don't hesitate to just ignore any especially insistent 'guides' or 'friends'. They will leave you alone, eventually. Sometimes just briskly walking through the crowd like you know where you are going, will do the trick. That is of course especially helpful if you do.
- Knowledge of costs. Have some idea of what a taxi into town should cost (in the local currency), and enough language (or a piece of paper and pen) to negotiate it. Expect to be charged more than the locals, but at least this way you should get the right number of 0's. If arriving by plane, just ask someone on the flight. And of course, ALWAYS negotiate the price ahead of time, before entering the vehicle.
- Knowledge of alternatives While some developing countries don't have much public transport to speak of and taking it is usually not advisable for all but the most daring travellers, there are other places (especially big cities) with remarkably good public transport, especially to/from the main airport and/or bus or train station connecting to the city center respectively. Some public transport systems are a bit complicated or require a card or coupons for payment. Familiarize yourself with the local quirks and get a map of the system as soon as possible (they are sometimes available online, but even a city as big as Managua has none whatsoever). Be sure to have an idea of the situation on the ground before heading out. If public transport isn't an option or you just prefer a cab, familiarize yourself with the look of official cabs and modes of payment. Sometimes an airport taxi has to be paid with a voucher that you can only buy in the airport, sometimes there are "city" and "airport" taxis, both legal official and safe but only the airport taxis allowed into the immediate airport area and thus much more expensive. In general "unofficial" taxis are best avoided and you should have at least a general idea what a legitimate taxi looks like. (e.g. license in the windshield, a specific color, the word "taxi" on the roof or a variety of other markers)
One sad but undeniable fact of travelling in developing countries is that transportation infrastructure is generally not up to the standards of more developed countries. Therefore, those from more developed countries should plan more time to cover the same distance that they would back home. Safety can also be an issue, particularly if air or sea travel is involved, so do some research before you go. Maybe somewhat surprisingly to European travellers rail travel might be entirely unavailable or actually slower than buses due to the network being built in the colonial era and not being maintained or updated much since. Some remote inland locations may only be feasibly reachable by boat or air travel, thus increasing cost, hassle and notably time you spend getting there. While sometimes the government subsidizes transport and even air transport, lack of competition can drive prices significantly. Why is the one hour hop on a Cessna 200 Dollars one way, you ask? Well because the alternative is an old bus that takes at least 24 hours and may or may not break down on the dirt road that gets you there.
Try acquiring some knowledge of the local language. Yes, you can probably get by on just English in most of the world, but even the ability to say "hello", "please", "thank you", "excuse me", and so on in the local language goes a long way. "Leave me alone" and "don't touch me" aren't far behind. Numbers, "how much does it cost," and "too expensive" are also quite useful.
In several countries, especially in former British or American colonies, you can often get by with just English. For example in India or the Philippines, nearly every educated person speaks some English and many are fluent. Even many of the less educated have some English, at least recognize some simple words and phrases. In such situations, it is possible to travel using simple English – basic words and phrases. The key is to use just such common words and phrases, and learn to pronounce them in a more local (or locally comprehensible) accent.
For long trips in a region, consider learning a regional language if there is one. For example, Russian is widely used in Central Asia where many countries were once part of the Soviet Union. It is easier to learn a bit of Russian than to tackle all the local languages — Tajik, Uzbek, Turkoman, Uighur — and may be almost as useful. French plays a similar role for parts of Africa, Spanish and/or Portuguese in Latin America. For very basic communication a pidgin of Spanish and Portuguese is often understood by native speakers of both languages if you speak slow enough and use simple, clearly enunciated sentences. Your chances are better when using Spanish with Portuguese-speakers than the other way round. For English speakers Russian, French or Spanish may be easier to learn than the local languages.
All other things being equal, the age of a person (young adults often speak foreign languages better than old people), the urban or rural character of a destination and its general economic situation are good predictors of foreign language proficiency. For example, most young people in Costa Rica speak some English, whereas only a small subsection of the urban youth does in Western Nicaragua, a much poorer region.
See our talk article for more detailed discussion.
Do not sleep on a mattress or pad on the ground in areas where you do not know the local fauna. If you are going to camp out, bring a camp cot or hammock to keep you away from snakes, scorpions and such. Use mosquito nets around your bed in countries where mosquitoes carry malaria, dengue or yellow fever.
If you are from the developed world, your income is likely enormous in relation to that of many people in some developing countries (though not in others). The UN estimates that over a billion people live on under $1 US a day. If you wander into their territory waving around a camera whose price exceeds local annual income, expect a reaction. Even your backpack, boots, watch and clothes may each cost a few months' local income, sometimes even more than a year's income for the poorer locals. If you insist on using these items, consider altering them to (1) make them look dirty or rusted, and (2) reduce their potential resale value.
Reactions vary, but be prepared to deal with:
- aggressive sales tactics and being charged more than locals. See Bargaining for more.
- police and other government officers requesting bribes. See Authority trouble.
- various scams aimed at tourists. See Common scams.
- thieves. See Pickpockets.
- beggars, including children being exploited by adults as street beggars. See Begging.
- violent crimes such as armed robbery and snatch theft, particularly in big cities like Johannesburg and São Paulo.
Take precautions, but do not get paranoid about it. Of course people want your money, but don't let that spoil a trip.
In parts of Asia and Latin America, aggressive dogs are another concern.
If travelling in a country that is currently experiencing widespread violence, such as a civil war, you need to take many extra precautions, see War zone safety.
One unfortunate fact of life is that police corruption is likely to be more of an issue the less developed a country is. As such, you should not expect much help from the police if you have been a victim of crime, as criminals often bribe police officers to avoid arrest. You should still make a police report as the police report would generally be required for you to make an insurance claim on the value of any items stolen.
It is also not uncommon for police officers in developing countries to ask for bribes, especially with regards to traffic offenses and the like. Although this may be somewhat unethical, your best option would generally be to try to negotiate with them as best as you can, and eventually pay them the money agreed upon. Unfortunately, refusing to pay them can often bring you more trouble than is worth, especially if the officer involved is one of significant clout. Reporting the incident to higher authorities often proves futile, as in many poorer countries, even the top echelons of the government and police can be more interested in collecting bribes than actually keeping the country safe.
Developing countries pose health hazards. Many have poor sanitation and/or poor health care and/or a hot climate that allows various diseases practically unknown in temperate Western countries to propagate. Quite a few have stray or feral dogs and cats, and some have rats, so rabies vaccine may be a wise precaution.
See a doctor with experience in travel medicine, or visit a specialist clinic, at least 8 weeks before your planned departure. This gives enough time for the vaccinations. It is also a good idea to ensure you do not have any major ailments before travelling, as access to good medical care in the event of an emergency is often limited in developing countries.
Contaminated drinking water is one of the leading sources of health problems for travelers. Check country listings for your destination(s) for details of hazards there, and for availability of bottled water or alternatives. Consider carrying a means of purifying water. A good filter takes out everything down to 0.2 micron, all bacteria and many viruses. Boiling or ultraviolet (UV) radiation may be even more effective, depending on what you want to get rid of, but those require equipment. Iodine tablets are widely used. Consult a doctor with knowledge of the area you are going to.
Inorganic water contaminants, such as insecticides or heavy metals, are a different problem and cannot be dealt with by the usual sterilization methods. Check our destination articles and government health warnings to see if these will be a problem.
Malaria existed in Europe until at least World War II, so mosquitoes may carry malaria even in relatively cold climates. Generally the best prevention against the most common mosquito transmitted diseases — malaria (mosquitoes active mostly at night, various types of treatment available), yellow fever (vaccine available) and dengue (day-active mosquitoes, no treatment, experimental vaccine not yet widely available) — is not getting bitten by mosquitoes in the first place. Covered skin will be bitten less often, so wear long trousers and covering t-shirts or pullovers if you can. Mosquito nets are a effective and cheap way to protect yourself at night. Consider using permethrin-treated fabrics for both clothing and gear.
Carry a diarrhea medicine; you are almost certain to need it at some point. For many destinations, sun screen and/or mosquito repellent are also essential. Carrying your own anti-bacterial soap and/or hand wipes can be a useful precaution. For some journeys, a full first aid kit is advisable.
AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are poorly controlled in many developing countries. If there is any chance you will have sex with anyone except a long-term partner, carry condoms.
Your diet will change somewhat to suit unfamiliar foods and you may lose nutrients due to various illnesses. Using one-a-day multivitamin tablets is a sensible precaution. To greatly reduce your risk of food-related problems remember this rule for fruits and vegetables: peel it, wash it, boil it or reject it (though be careful, too, about the safety of any water used to wash a vegetable).
For travel in developing countries, you may need to carry things you would not need nearer home:
- A sarong is useful as a sheet, beach blanket, towel, and of course, sarong wrap.
- A luggage lock: Expedition shops and airports sell these. Or if backpacking, consider a 3D flexible lock that wraps around your entire pack.
- Money belt or passport pouch for your valuables. See pickpockets for more detail.
- A little flashlight designed to hang on a keychain
- Guidebook, phrasebook or Wikivoyage printouts (and a memory stick with the pages you did not print): These can be very helpful, and the more unfamiliar your destination is, the more useful they are. Don't count on finding consistent Internet access once you arrive.
- Map: often these can be bought cheaply in the destination country, but you should bring your own for countries such as China where you cannot expect to read the locally-printed map.
- Toilet paper: Keep a roll or wad of paper in your luggage and a good wad in an easily accessible spot. Public toilets and guest-house toilets will often not provide any. If you're short on space, remove the cardboard tube and flatten the roll. Keeping it in a large zip-lock bag is another good idea.
- Food: trail mix, granola bars or other sports snacks travel well. They can be very handy when airport food is ridiculously expensive, when nothing nearby looks sanitary, or when everything is closed for two days because of some festival or strike.
- Medication, including personal supplies of medications that you are currently taking
Budget travellers will also need:
- A sleep sheet (sheet sewn into a bag): the cheaper hostels do not provide bedding
- A towel: Hotels and hostels may not provide one, or not clean ones. In cold weather areas, drying off quickly is much more important than on a tropical island. Making room in your pack for a good towel can keep you healthy and happy. Bath and beauty shops sell small super-absorbent towels for drying hair, but they work just as well for general use, and dry quicker than regular cotton. To save space, go with the smallest size you're comfortable with.
- A padlock: Some hotels don't have door locks, but give you a padlock with which to close the door of your room. People who work at the hotel almost certainly have duplicate keys for that lock. Using your own lock is more secure.
- A rubber doorstop: Works wonders if you don't have a padlock.
- A universal rubber plug, for use in sinks and tubs where no plug is provided
- A clothesline
You might also need:
- Sewing kit
- duct tape (to save space, consider wrapping a few feet around a large marker or Sharpie, instead of bringing a whole roll)
- pocket knife (only in checked baggage of course)
- lighter or a waterproof container with matches (plastic photographic film boxes are perfect) (note that most airport restrictions prohibit the carrying of matches onboard)
For more suggestions, see Packing list.