First World Travel vs. Third World Travel, Explained

  • Luke Armstrong
Feb 24, 2016

Article written by Luke Armstrong and first published on

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Would you like paper, plastic, or banana leaf?

Do rural scents instill in you a feeling of poetic wistfulness or aversion?

Would you like your hotel to take major credit cards or a living arrangement where they accept your iPod Nano as payment?

Would you prefer your taxi driver to have a license or to just be a guy with a horse and cart headed in the same direction as you?

If your answers fall clearly on one side of these questions, then odds are you fall cleanly into the category of first world or third world traveler. But before we answer that, let us define our terms.

While there has been some debate about whether "third world" is an offensive term, for our purposes, I prefer it to "the developing world.” Calling part of the world developing implies that a specific, ethnocentric goal — an industry driven market with heavy investment in infrastructure — is the end game that “underdeveloped” countries should be moving toward.

What's The Difference Between First and Third World Travel?

In travel, first and third world are moldable terms loosely applied to different places in an intuitive way. Usually the terms are used to differentiate between degrees of westernized infrastructure and socioeconomic development.

Canada, Sweden, Australia, Singapore, Japan, France, and Italy fall cleanly into the list of first world countries. There is consensus that Haiti, El Salvador, Bolivia, Papua New Guinea, and Uganda all belong on the third world list. But where do Panama, Morocco, Argentina, Mexico, and Greece fall? Depending on who you are talking to and what they are trying to say, these countries could fall on either list.

Third world was a term that originally meant neither second world (communist global market) or first world (capitalist global market). In travel today, people only distinguish between first and third world.

In this article, these labels are applied to distinguish between expensive or inexpensive — which tends to correlate to whether or not horses make up a viable part of the public transportation system.

The Price Difference Between First World and Third World Travel

One of the biggest attractions of the third world is the price. Save the ticket to get there, you can have the adventure of a lifetime for the price of a paycheck.

Salaries paid in dollars, pounds, and euros can play the high life in much of the less privileged world.

In the third world, you can travel well and far on a little. For example, once you arrive in Mongolia, you can buy a horse for $500, travel across the country on it, and stay and eat with nomads for a few dollars a night. You could not do this in England, so don't even try! Just be sure to be wary of horse bandits.

At the low end of the less-developed world, private rooms start at $5/night. Full meals are scarfed for $1. Luxurious hotel suites with butler service come at you at the same price as one night in a lacking first world motel room.

If cost is your biggest concern when planning a trip, and you aren't afraid of the the Spartan side of adventure, then the third world is the place for your adventures, not your billfold, to unfold.

Always Keep in Mind: When traveling in the third world, be conscious of the ways you wield the power of privilege. Be actively aware of how to exercise it in an ethical way that appreciates and pays tribute to the culture you are visiting. Next month, I will write a piece that explores this issue further.

First World For Type A Personality, Third World For Type B Personality

When the bus runs a few minutes or hours late, are you the type to stand around tapping your feet to the rhythm of your own restless anxiety? If the restaurant runs out of goat brain soup, are you willing to sub for deep fried pig ears? If you answered "yes" and "no, gross!" then the first world — colonized land of predictable outcomes — is more for you than the third world — a wild land of uncaged strangeness.  

For type A people who like to have a set plan in place and like that plan to execute as intended, the first world is where you can have your itinerary play out to its intended tune. But if you have a dash of wildling in you, if you find the unpredictable inescapable, if sharing the bus ride with goats and Peruvian mukis is a positive addition to your trip, then the less predictable outcomes of the less-developed world will be more your cuppa.

Is it Safer to Travel in The First World than the Third World?

This is sort of like asking, "Is it better to be locked in a cage with a tiger or a bear?" You can't answer this unless you know the tiger and bear in question.

Some frequent travelers might give this a simple, "yes," but this misses the mark of reality. There is no real answer to this question. We ask questions like this not for an answer, but for reassurance that things will be alright.

Countries come at you on a case by case basis. Each has its own set of dangers and threats. Guatemala is dangerous if you find yourself in Guate City with the wrong crowd on a bad night. But if you're enrolled at a yoga school overlooking the peaceful shores of Lake Atitlan and live with a local family that goes to bed by 9pm, you could live a lifetime without incident.

Writing in the most general terms, you can travel just as confidently in the third world as the first world, if you do your research, take precautions, and make good decisions. There are more pickpockets in Berlin than all of Belize. I'd feel safer in a back alley of Havana at 3am than being on Broadway in NYC. While El Salvador has a reputation for guns, the only place I've had one pulled on me was in the suburbs of Minneapolis.

Don't take this as a license to go anywhere without worrying about safety. Safety is always your primary concern. When you put in the time to research a place — be it first or third world — you'll come away with an understanding of what you're up against and what you need to do to keep yourself on the right side of alright.

Get in with the Locals in the Third World

Never once walking the streets of Iceland did someone exit their house to usher me in for dinner. In rural Kenya, this happened twice. Never on a first world bus did the family next to me invite me to stay the week with them. But on the way from Chile to Lima, I made an unexpected week stop-off in Lima to live with a wonderful family who fed me Guinea pig and potatoes. At a university in Amsterdam, I was invited to sit in on a cross-cultural communications class. And at a school in Havana, teachers invited me to a classroom after hours to drink rum and dance the salsa.

I could add a dozen more anecdotes to the list, but the short and skinny of it is the less developed world is much more open and embracing of foreigners than much of the first world. Locked into busy modern lives, the developed world by and large ignores the out-of-towners rolling through. This is not the case in countries where life is focused on family and fun instead of "Family Guy" and funds.

We could spend an interesting semester at a table of cultural anthropologists and sociologists to get a fuller idea of what makes this a matter of fact. For our purposes here, suffice it to say it is a confirmed rule of thumb that the countries called third world win first place in the hospitality awards.

If you are looking to travel in the archaic sense of the word, if you are not just looking to visit a place, but want to know its people and enmesh yourself in the spectacle of life as it plays out somewhere else, then third world travel may just be what you are looking for.

By now, an astute reader has suspected my own bias on the matter — I'm a third world kinda guy.

I've had some thoroughly enjoyable times in first world countries and plan to continue to travel to them. I write this from one (Australia). But it's the third world — el tercero mundo — where I've lived lifetimes of encounters with the new and unexpected. The trips and travels that awakened me to new understandings and challenged me in shocking and humorously absurd ways were trips to the third world. For every raccoon that's mauled me in Guatemala, there's been a family in the Philippines who has welcomed me into their home and made me their newborn daughter's Godfather — and while only one of these incidents left me scarred, I value both the same.

Love Luke's stories? Buy his book, "The Nomad's Nomad" on Amazon now!

Buy Luke's book The Nomad's Nomad on Amazon!

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