Traveling to a Developing Country? 10 Things to Expect (& Tips to Enhance the Trip)

McDs in Middle East

I enjoy traveling to developing countries and have been to quite a few over the past two decades. I’m drawn to them for many reasons, especially the cool cultural encounters I have and the quirky random travel moments that tend to occur.

These trips, as wonderful as they may be, are not always easy. There are plenty of surprises and challenges in these countries.

If you’re new to travel–or have been at it for a while–it’s good to know what to expect when you visit a developing country. Over the years, I’ve noticed that many of them have certain things in common. Perhaps my experiences and observations (and the related tips) will help you on one of your upcoming trips.

Developing Countries: The Good, The Bad and…The Quirky

1. Money Changing…Not So Easy

When it comes to changing money, you’d better have perfect bills—no folds, creases, tears, pen marks, etc.—or else you may be SOL (sh*t out of luck). This is especially true when dealing with banks. In some countries, the bills had better be ‘2000 series.’ Not just perfect, but from this millennium.

I ran into this in Indonesia. One day, I tried to change a $50 bill. It had not been folded and was perfect in every way (no marks whatsoever) except for a slight curve in the bill (from how I’d stored it). The bank employee rejected it. I ended up flattening it out in a book for a few days before changing it somewhere else.

Also, using an ATM isn’t always the best option due to the fees incurred. In Indonesia, many of the ATMs had a very low limit, too. This meant that the fee was even more astronomical.

Foreign Currency and Coins

Tip: When you’re getting ready for your trip and go to the bank to get some cash, go over the money with a fine-tooth comb. Make sure there are no marks from a pen or magic marker, and be sure the bills are flawless in general (meaning no tears, missing pieces or wrinkled areas). Try to get new bills. And when you pack your money away, do not fold it!

Also–and this is something I need to do before I travel again–sign up for a Charles Schwab ATM card. Your ATM fees are reimbursed wherever you go! For more information re: how this works, check out this article on the Travel by Points site.

2. Getting Change–Also Challenging

So, you’ve changed money. You’re ready to have lunch or go sightseeing. You figure, ‘I’ll try to break one of my larger bills so I have change for later.’ Good luck with that.

Chances are, when you hand over your money, the person will shake his or her head and say something (that you may or may not understand). You’ll learn fast enough. They’re saying, “I don’t have change.”

Tip: When you change money, try to get small bills and even coins if possible. If you don’t, you’ll pay for it later when you’re inconvenienced.

3. Cheap/Basic Meals Are Often the Best

In Latin America, you have the ‘almuerzo’—a hot meal with meat, (often with a veggie), rice, juice and maybe even desert–for a couple bucks. In Asia, you’ve got street food and night markets—yummy snacks and meals at bargain prices. In the Middle East, you’ll see the little falafel place around the corner, whose food and prices can’t be beat.

Try to recreate what you normally eat back home and you’ll end up paying a lot. Americanized and otherwise ‘ized’ foods will be pricey. (Having said this, if you’re on a longer trip and start to get tired of the local food, you may end up really wanting the food you’re used to. That’s what happens to me sometimes.)

Día 014: Almuerzo de hoy

Tip: Try to eat the local food as much as possible. Find out from other travelers (or locals) where to go. And if you’re worried about getting sick, be sure to get the required immunizations (eg, Hep A and Typhoid.) Also, make sure the plate is dry and eat only cooked produce.

4. Ants Find the Smallest Crumbs

In developing countries, especially the tropical ones, there are ants (sometimes very small ones) that come in droves–and mighty fast–after you’ve eaten something in your room. Even if something’s stored in a ziplock-style bag, they have a way of finding it.

Ants On Cheese

Tip: If you’re going to eat something–even just a snack–do it outside. If you have a balcony or terrace, eat out there. And keep your garbage bag outside, too, if you can. If not, then the bathroom is a possible option. Be sure to hang the bag on the doorknob; it’s not a guarantee, but it can help keep the ants away.

5. “Chicken Bus” Style Transport Is a Cheap (and Convenient) Way to Go

These types of buses go by different names, depending on which country you’re in. Whatever they’re called, they usually provide the cheapest transportation possible. Also, they provide transportation to some very remote areas–small villages, for example–that would be hard to reach otherwise.

I’m a fan of chicken buses (although I often pay a little more for long-haul trips). Why? Well, you tend to meet the locals and usually, adventure is guaranteed. :)

Man w c bus

Tip: If you’ve never taken one of these buses, then ease into it. Maybe try one for a short and simple trip from a city out to a small town. Then work your way up from there.

Or ride a roller coaster at home. That can also prepare you for trips on treacherous mountain roads.

6. McDonald’s and Burger King Cost More Than Your Room

OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a tiny bit here, but…these fast-food places do cost A LOT in developing countries–more than a basic meal. When I lived in Ecuador, Burger King was a fancy place to go. Ecuadorians dressed up, took dates there and it was primarily for the upper classes.

In the Middle East, I went to McDonald’s a couple times and saw that several of them had Internet stations and large-screen TVs. Prices were pretty high, too.


Tip: What to do regarding meals is personal choice. If you’re craving fast food, then go for it. Just remember you’ll be paying a lot!

7. Paperwork Is Required for Simple Things (and Multiple Steps Are Often Involved)

Need to buy something in a pharmacy? Well, depending on the country, you may have to stand at one counter and then pay at another. Perhaps a third person will be responsible for giving you your receipt—and that’s after he or she has filled it out and stamped it.

CT Hackerspace Stamp

Tip: Allow plenty of time to do things that you might do quickly back home. Try to be patient.

8. Getting Visas/Crossing Borders Is Not Always Easy (But Sometimes Is)

Sometimes you need a visa to visit certain countries. Sometimes you don’t. And when you arrive from a neighboring country, it may be easy to enter or not. It depends…

Applying for a 60-day visa to Indonesia in New York was tricky (the 30-day visa is much easier). I went in person (after having trouble connecting by phone). I had to bring quite a few documents and it was a big deal.

Good thing I did that here, however. I learned while in Indonesia that if I’d gotten a 30-day visa and tried to extend it when already in the country, it would have been a complicated.

As for crossing borders between countries, I’ve been pretty lucky (except for Ecuador-Peru, which was chaotic and unpleasant.) I have heard many horror stories re: people getting scammed–eg, having to pay bribes for certain permits/papers, etc.

Syria border

Tip: Do your homework. Read travel blogs, government sites (if in English and up-to-date) and see what people have experienced and what tips they offer. You may save yourself a lot of time, money and hassles. That’s what I did before going to Syria a few years ago and it made a huge difference.

9. Toilet Paper is Scarce and Crappy (excuse the pun) Quality

In some countries, you get a couple of pieces of toilet paper handed to you as you walk in to a sometimes scuzzy looking bathroom. Hopefully, you’ve got your own stash. In other countries, there’s very little toilet paper or other products are used. In Indonesia, I often had to use brightly colored napkins; that’s all there was in certain areas.

pink napkin

Tip: Bring your own. Remove the cardboard in the center so that it takes up less space in your bag. And when in areas that have toilet paper, take a little extra and always have some in your daypack.

10. The People Tend to Be Warm/Friendly and Often Welcome You Into Their Home

While this depends on the country and there are always exceptions, the truth is it does happen quite a bit. People in developing countries, often those struggling financially, tend to be the most generous. I’ve been invited to meals with families and to stay with them when we’d just met.

A Panamanian woman named Yadira gave me her bracelet after a friend and I had been invited into the family’s home (after we’d been dancing in the street). It was touching and I’ll never forget it. Here’s the story if you’d like to check it out.

Tip: Be open to the experiences that come your way. If it feels right to accept an invitation, go with it. If not, then politely decline.

Your Thoughts/Experiences?

Do you plan to travel to a developing country in the near future? If so, where? Do you have any questions after reading this post? If so, please ask. I’d be more than happy to give you some advice.

If you have done this sort of travel, which countries have you been to? Can you add any tips to the list? If so, I’d appreciate it. Maybe we can help out those who may be going for the first time.

Comment Policy: Comments that add to the conversation in some way are always welcome; disrespectful remarks and/or personal attacks against the writer or other commenters are not.

Photo Credits

Foreign currency: bradipo

Almuerzo: Cirofono

Ants on cheese: D Sharon Pruitt

McD’s: Jay Galvin

Napkins: Frankservayge

26 Responses to Traveling to a Developing Country? 10 Things to Expect (& Tips to Enhance the Trip)
  1. Victoria
    March 18, 2013 | 1:00 pm

    love the chicken bus – and suits your name :) I am really passionate about number 10, almost without exception that is the experience I’ve had everywhere from Iraq to America. When we hear the news and hear bad stories it’s easy to think the world is a really crappy place, but when you’re out in it, more often than not, it’s a wonderful place with people eager to learn and teach about cultures. great article!
    Victoria recently posted..The last kampong in SingaporeMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      March 18, 2013 | 1:16 pm

      Hi, Victoria. Glad you like the name! And happy to hear that you’re a fellow traveler experienced in this sort of travel!

      So true about the news. It can really distort the reality of everyday life in certain countries. Local people tend to be friendly and welcoming. I think that’s usually the case if/when they see that you’re open to and interested in their culture.

      How was Iraq? When did you go?

  2. Victoria
    March 18, 2013 | 2:13 pm

    hey there, we went to Northern Iraq aka Kurdistan in November 2010. We set out to go hiking but the countryside was a little disappointing as they were in drought. Met some wonderful Iranians and Iraqis though, all so happy to meet travellers. Same in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan. Loved it and so lucky to have been before things have deteriorated. What about you? I noticed a Syrian flag, how did you like Syria?
    Victoria recently posted..The last kampong in SingaporeMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      March 18, 2013 | 11:54 pm

      Wow–that’s cool. Sounds great! I visited Lebanon (just for a few day) and Jordan, too. Great trip! And yes, Syria. To be honest, it was the best part of my trip in certain ways. The people were friendly and helpful. And there was a lot to see. So sad what’s going on there now. :( Here’s a link to my Syria-tagged posts in case you’d like to check them out. The last few are part of a retrospective look at ‘life before the war.’

  3. Erika
    March 18, 2013 | 6:54 pm

    On the food note… In addition to your tips, I’ve learned to stay on probiotics while traveling to prevent stomach upset from unfamiliar foods. Just be sure to start them well before leaving so your gut can adjust. I haven’t been sick since I started using them regularly. Actually I just stay on them all the time now. I guess they help fight off the bad bugs…

    Choose a shelf stable brand with lots of strains of bacteria.
    Erika recently posted..Photo Escape: Exploring Riviera Maya’s Rio Secreto CaveMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      March 18, 2013 | 11:51 pm

      Hi, Erika. That’s a great idea! Why wait until there’s a problem; start taking probiotics before traveling. I can imagine it helps on a number of levels and if you happen to get diarrhea or food poisoning, you at least have the healthy bacteria where they need to be.

      Thanks so much for your tip!

  4. Maria
    March 18, 2013 | 11:00 pm

    Always a good time on the chicken bus and this post is no exception!

    +Pharmacies will issue a great number of Rx drugs w/out a script and usually at a much lower cost.

    -Power outages are frequent so charge your gear ASAP.
    Maria recently posted..When in RomeMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      March 18, 2013 | 11:49 pm

      Glad you’ve enjoyed the most recent ‘ride’! :)

      True about pharmacies–some good deals can be found. (Check expiration dates, of course.) And yes to the charging due to power outages. Absolutely.

      Thanks for the great tips!

  5. Wil @ Where's Wil
    March 20, 2013 | 12:19 am

    The Schwab account is a great tip! No fees so you don’t have to carry lots of cash on you.

    I’ll be backpacking Southeast Asia in a few months and I’m super excited!
    Wil @ Where’s Wil recently posted..How to Make Money from Anywhere – as a Self Published AuthorMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      March 21, 2013 | 8:50 am

      Heading to SE Asia? Excellent! If you want to do some volunteering (conversational English with teachers/students, making recordings of yourself reading from books, etc.) in a small village in Sumatra for a few weeks, let me know. I might be able to hook you up. Check out some of my Indo posts re: a town called Payakumbuh. That’s where I was. It’s gorgeous and the people are really nice and appreciate your help.

  6. Naomi
    March 20, 2013 | 2:18 am

    Getting the correct information about visas can be a headache (as I remember you were struggling with over the Indonesian one). The countries change their rules but don’t inform the consulates so they aren’t giving up to date information, and the rules will be different in different consulates. Certain embassies/consulates make it much harder to get a visa than others. The only way to get this information about the best places to go to get visas is on travel sites like thorn tree or expat websites because they are dealing with visa issues all the time.
    eg KL has a bad reputation for Indonesian visas, better to get a visa extension in China in a small town, not in the big cities. Neither make sense intuitively, but are facts I’ve gleaned from those travel sites.
    Naomi recently posted..Inspirational travel storiesMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      March 21, 2013 | 8:47 am

      True re: Thorn Tree and expat websites–they definitely know best! And interesting re: going to a small town in China for a visa extension.

      Thanks, Naomi!

  7. Tom @ Waegook Tom
    March 23, 2013 | 7:50 am

    Love this post, Lisa! I’ll be travelling to developing countries for the first time this year (in Africa), and these are always worth repeating. I’ve never actually crossed an international border overland, well not outside Europe, so that may well be interesting in some places.

    Two other notes:
    1) I can’t believe Ecuadorians get dressed up and take their dates to Burger King. I suggested that to my (Korean) partner, and he’s not to keen on the idea.
    2) Toilet paper. ALWAYS CARRY IT. Agree 100%.
    Tom @ Waegook Tom recently posted..Galbijjim: Carnival for CarnivoresMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      March 26, 2013 | 12:47 pm

      Hello, Tom. Glad you liked it! Good luck to you in Africa! I’ve only been to South Africa and did not cross any borders on the continent, but I would imagine they present their own unique challenges. I’m sure you’ll do well, however, because you’re a savvy traveler and because you know so many bloggers (and can easily learn what you need to).

      Funny re: Burger King! Your partner doesn’t want to dress up for a BK run? He’d fit right in if he did–LOL. :)

  8. Erik
    March 24, 2013 | 10:17 pm

    Great tips!

    Traveling to developing countries can be scary, but these simple tips can go a long way in taking the nerves out of traveling to these places.

    I’m thinking about one of these trips in a year or two…
    Erik recently posted..On the Road in New Zealand- A Photo EssayMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      March 26, 2013 | 12:45 pm

      Erik–Hi and thanks. Glad my tips may be of use to you in the future–that’s great!

  9. Simon
    March 25, 2013 | 9:50 am

    Fabulous advice!

    I think the think the most unsavoury bit is having people ‘hard core’ begging at you everytime. Sometimes I feel less like a person and more like a walking $$ to them. I understand its tough in 3rd world but man.

    • CB Driver
      March 26, 2013 | 12:44 pm

      Hi, Simon. Thanks for the feedback–glad you like the advice!

      Re: the hardcore begging–yes, it’s hard to deal with at times. Sometimes, I feel bad for the people (especially if it’s a mom and kids or just a kid), but sometimes, it’s too much. I definitely understand the feeling you’ve described.

  10. Laura Zera
    March 25, 2013 | 2:16 pm

    Good coverage here, Lisa! And spot on. Regarding border crossings, I’d also add to make inquiries about hours of opening/closing if doing a land crossing. Many borders in developing countries are only open during daylight hours.

    Also, I totally agree with trusting your instincts on accepting an invitation to stay in someone’s house, and also urge people to do it if they feel good about the invite. It can lead to such amazing encounters.

    And finally, the section on ants really made me laugh. Back in 1987, when I was 18 and in Egypt (okay, have just totally given away my age), ants got into a bag of pita bread that my friend and I had bought. We were almost out of money — there were no ATMs back in those days — and so we brushed all the many ants off and ate the pita. Ahhhh, good times. A couple of weeks ago, mice got into my granola bars in a room in Georgetown, Guyana. Luckily I can now afford to throw them out! :)
    Laura Zera recently posted..Travel: Suriname’s Amazon Jungle – Part IIMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      March 26, 2013 | 12:43 pm

      Hi, Laura. Thanks for your additional tips–excellent! Good idea re: the border crossings. Nothing worse than getting stuck there if the border closes. Some of them are very unpleasant places to be.

      Re: the ants–that is SO funny!!! I hope that none of the ants were hidden inside the pita! If so, I suppose you got to have some extra protein–LOL.

      Mice in the granola? Oh crap. I forgot about rodents.

    April 3, 2013 | 7:25 am

    All totally asccurate and very useful. Excellent piece.

    • CB Driver
      April 5, 2013 | 10:53 pm

      Thank you so much! Really happy to hear that it’s useful.

  12. Amber
    May 7, 2013 | 5:20 am

    I have had experiences with so many of these. I am currently doing indoor-outdoor living in Bali, and bugs are a way of life. There has been a spider in our shower for weeks.

    Also, the TP issue – I carry it with me everywhere. You just never know. But, the worst was in Cuba. It is rationed, expensive and most locals never get the opportunity to use it. The family bathroom at one of our homestays at newspaper instead of toilet paper. Communism at its finest!
    Amber recently posted..Searching for a Villa Rental in BaliMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      May 12, 2013 | 9:28 am

      Hi, Amber. Indoor-outdoor living in Bali? Yes, those bugs must be omnipresent! Funny (sort of) about that spider.

      Thanks for mentioning the TP issue in Cuba. There’s a chance I’ll be going this summer. I’m a full-time ESL professor here in the U.S. and may be able to do a research project to make it happen. Still working on it. I may have some questions for you, too. Will stop by your blog and see what you’ve written about it.

      Newspaper?? Holy crap. (Excuse the pun.) :)


      • Amber
        May 16, 2013 | 6:36 am

        My site has a bunch of blogs on Cuba. But, definitely let me know if you have questions before your go.

        And, yes, TP!
        Amber recently posted..Balinese Blessing of a Harley DavidsonMy Profile

        • CB Driver
          May 22, 2013 | 2:02 pm

          Great to know about the blogs on Cuba. Will keep it in mind! Still now sure if I’m going. I’ve been too busy to plan…

Leave a Reply to CB Driver

Wanting to leave an <em>phasis on your comment?

CommentLuv badge

Trackback URL
Hop on Board...
Join Our Facebook Fan Page

Like this blog?

Get my book!

don't miss the bus! sign up for the monthly newsletter


I was syndicated on


Review on

Chicken Busology
Learn more about chicken buses by checking out these links:

Chicky Bus: The Real Story: Join me on a wild 12-hour chicken bus ride through Central America. Meet cheese smugglers and other characters. 

Chicken Bus Q & A: I answer all the questions you might have about chicken buses, but were afraid to ask. 

Want the quick fix
Watch the YouTube video to the right of this box. Vicarious thrills guaranteed!

come ride a Chicken Bus