Visiting a developing country can provide some of the most authentic cultural experiences and human interactions on the planet. But it also can pose challenges, especially to those unaccustomed to the rigors of traipsing through countries with modest economies, or widespread poverty, or few tourism facilities. Or all of the above.
More so than travel through Western nations with well-established tourism infrastructure, visiting developing countries requires flexibility, diplomacy, and patience—and the keen ability to shelve preconceived notions about a place.
We queried three frequent travelers to developing countries to cull their best tips.
Do Your Research
Online and print guidebooks are, of course, useful for researching a destination before traveling, but the information can be out of date. This is especially true for guidebooks that may not be big sellers and thus are not updated with regular frequency; developing countries often fall into that category.
As soon as she knows she is going overseas, Brittany G. Lane of Washington D.C. says she sets up a Google Alert for the country she’s visiting. “Two days before I went to Tunisia there were major protests. The U.S. media hadn’t reported on it yet, but Google Alerts picked up French and British news reports that were useful for me to read,” said Lane, a research associate for The Urban Institute, which works on local governance issues in developing countries.
Message boards, such as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum or the TripAdvisor forums, are excellent spots to seek out advice from seasoned travelers to your destination. Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are also good places to survey other travelers.
Learn to Communicate in the Local Language
Before you visit any country, you should learn a few basic expressions in the local language. This especially holds true in nations where English may not be taught in schools nor widely spoken. Yes, you should learn the basics—”hello,” “please,” “thank you,” “can you help me?”—but also try to learn even more. Not only will this help you navigate better, but you’ll also help create goodwill along the way.
Study Local Traditions and Taboos
Study them before you depart using resources such as CultureCrossing.net, a compendium of social customs around the world, and , where videos from developing countries offer a glance at everyday life. But also “spend the first couple of days just observing,” Lane said. Before her trip through North Africa, Lane said she received conflicting advice about whether to wear a head covering. After a few days in-country, the answer became clear. (Not necessary in most places.)
Constantly Assess Risks
What do you do if a local family invites you into their home for a meal and it’s difficult to decline their offerings? “You have to assess the risk and decide if getting sick is worth it,” said Michael McColl, director of communications for Ethical Traveler, a San Francisco-based nonprofit.
Emily Sollie is the director of communication for Lutheran Relief Services in Baltimore and a frequent traveler to such countries as Haiti, India, Mali and Nicaragua. She recalls being welcomed to a rural village in Nicaragua by a group of poor women who offered her and fellow travelers homemade salads. Generally, it’s not a good idea to eat raw vegetables in countries where the quality of the local water could be questionable.
“They were lovely looking and we wanted to eat them, but we had to turn them down,” Sollie said. “We were gracious, but it was still awkward.”
Traveling through a developing country will likely involve such risk assessment on a daily basis—and not just about food. Is it safe to walk alone at night? Is that hotel clean and secure? Are you at risk of getting robbed on that train?
Choose Transportation Wisely
Speaking of transportation … developing countries may have their own modes of transport, but not all of them follow rigorous safety standards. If you aren’t able to fly aboard an internationally recognized major airline, for instance, be sure you seek out info on a local airline’s safety records. Same goes for trains and buses.
Input the company’s name and the term “safety record” or “crash” into an online search. That’s how Lane learned of a June 2012 Dana Air accident in Nigeria that killed all passengers as well as 10 people on the ground due to a suspected dual engine failure. “I had the choice recently to fly through Nigeria on that airline, and I chose not to,” she explained.
Avoid Giving to Money to Strangers
It’s one of the most heart-wrenching aspects of travel: someone obviously in more need than you asking for money.
“Begging is not natural behavior for most cultures,” said McColl, who has visited more than 50 countries. “They probably learned it from other travelers before you—travelers who were not thinking through and taking responsibility for their actions.”
Better than giving the person in need a few coins from your pocket, McColl said, is to help those in need through a community organization, such as a local nonprofit, church or school. Seek out a respected local leader, and ask about a community initiative that feels like a nice fit for you. Alternately, you could research an organization once you get back home, or support a nonprofit organization that serves the community you visited.
Don’t Give Handouts to Children
Similarly, avoid giving items to children, no matter how tempting it may be, McColl recommends. “It could condition them to do it again, perhaps becoming more aggressive in doing so in the future,” he explained.
You could avoid such potential negative impact by instead giving the item to the parents, a teacher or other community leader, McColl recommends. School supplies are always welcomed—much more so than candy, especially in communities where regular dental care isn’t readily available. You could also research in advance the needs of a community—basic medical supplies or clothing, for instance—and bring those items.
Understand the Role Bribes Play in Some Places
In some French-speaking countries in Africa, it’s known as a cadeau, or “gift.” We might think of it as a bribe, but here’s a case where shelving that preconceived notion is imperative. Paying such fees is a reality in many countries, and a few soles or rupees aren’t going to break your bank.
Arguing over paying a so-called bribe could prove to be more trouble than it’s worth. “It’s not your time to make a stand against the rules of the country,” Lane advised.
That being said, you should know the difference between a small fee and a full-on shakedown. Again, doing your research in advance should help you determine this.
A lot of countries operate on bargaining, and taxi drivers or street market vendors fully expect you to haggle. Be fair when you do so. Again, a few extra coins aren’t going to hurt you, but you also shouldn’t walk away from the transaction feeling ripped off. For more haggling help, see Shopping Abroad: A Traveler’s Guide and Let’s Make a Deal: Haggling Abroad.
Eat and Drink Cautiously
The standard overseas eating and drinking rules apply in developing countries; our article, Food Safety: How to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling, covers the basics. Sollie only drinks water from bottles that are sealed when she herself opens them. Iodine tablets are useful if you need to purify water. (Read Drinking Water Safety for more options.)
Lane also always totes a stash of protein bars. “I find that I tend to make bad food choices if I’m really hungry,” she said. You can stave off that hunger and thus be in a better position to make smart decisions if your stomach isn’t growling.
Learn to Listen
This tip is taken directly from Ethical Traveler, and may very well be the heart of any travel experience. As an article on the group’s website says: “Travelers from the USA in particular should be aware that many people—specially in developing countries—believe that having the ear of an American is tantamount to having the ear of America. So wherever you’re from, listen well—and with respect—to all points of view.”
We hear you.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 9 Things to Do When No One Speaks English
- How to Be Safe and Culturally Sensitive When You Travel
- 9 Must-Dos Before a Long-Haul Flight
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.