Travel in developing countries can pose an added challenge to even the most experienced adventurer.

One of the illogical but undeniable truths of traveling is that the poorer, less developed and less visited the country is, the harder it will be to obtain a visa for the country.

The IATA Visa Database, provided by Delta, is an excellent place to check whether you need a visa or not. While IATA provides no guarantees of accuracy, the database is usually fairly up to date. More importantly, if you don’t have a visa but their database says you need one, you will not be allowed on the plane!

If traveling by land, it is imperative to check that the border crossing you plan to use is open to foreign visitors. If the country provides a visa on arrival, make sure that the border crossing in question can supply it. If at all possible, confirm the answer from multiple sources and, if blithely promised that crossing is no problem, try to get the promise in writing in case the border guards happen to disagree.

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., London or Tokyo. 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.

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 meterless taxis. 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.
  • Knowledge of costs. Have some idea of what a taxi into town should cost, 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.

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 and “too expensive” are also quite useful.

In several countries, especially in former British colonies, you can often get by with just English. For example, in India, 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 almost any region 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 may be better 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 Portugese in Latin America. For English speakers Russian, French or Spanish may be easier to learn than the local languages.

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 mosquitos carry malaria.

Stay safe
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 and watch may each cost a few months’ local income.

Reactions vary, but be prepared to deal with:

Take precautions, but do not get paranoid about it. Of course people want your money, but don’t let that spoil a trip.

If travelling in a country that is currently experiencing widespread violence, such as a civil war, you need to take many extra precautions

Stay healthy
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. 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.

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 filter or tablets to sterilize water.

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 some to suit unfamilar foods and you may lose nutrients due to various illnesses. Using one-a-day multivitamin tablets is a sensible precaution.

See also Food poisoning, Tropical diseases and Sunburn and sun protection.

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.
  • Money belt or passport pouch for your valuables. See pickpockets for more detail.
  • A little flashlight designed to hang on a keychain; these may be useful anywhere but especially in developing countries
  • Guidebook, phrasebook or Wikitravel printouts: These can be very helpful, and the more unfamilar your destination is, the more useful they are
  • 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 of paper in your luggage and a good wad in an easily accessible spot. Public toilets and guest-house toilets will generally 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.

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.
  • 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 universal rubber plug, for use in sinks and tubs where no plug is provided
  • A clothesline

You might also need:

  • Sewing kit
  • duct tape
  • pocket knife (only in checked baggage of course)
  • lighter or a waterproof container with matches (plastic photographic film boxes are perfect)

For more suggestions, see our Packing List.