I knew before we left on our round-the-world trip that there would be times when I'd have to use the fine art of haggling. Hailing from the US where haggling isn't done (except perhaps when purchasing a car), I felt a mixture of excitement and dread about the entire process. What if I paid too much? What if I appeared greedy? Or worse, what if I haggled in a place where it wasn't appropriate to do so?
Luckily I had some time to get my feet wet on our trip before traveling in a country where haggling was a way of life. Our first destinations, Argentina and Uruguay, weren't countries where haggling was as much of the social tapestry as, say, Peru. Although there were marketplaces where prices were accessed and adjusted, prices listed for services and souvenirs in these countries were often the price we paid. (Hostels and hotels, of course, being the exception. No matter what country you're in – England or Egypt – it's always worth it to ask if a discount is possible.)
We had four months of haggle-free travel under our belts by the time we arrived in Peru. So it was quite a surprise when we successfully haggled for the first time one sunny morning in Arequipa. After asking about the price for a bottle of water at a street cart, we debated for a minute whether we wanted to carry one or two bottles around town. Watching our faces, though not fully hearing or possibly understanding the nature of our discussion, the vendor quickly halved her original quoted price. Happily paying for two bottles, we sauntered away, eventually realizing we had quite accidentally stumbled across one of the easiest ways to haggle – hesitation.
Even after learning this trick, though, there were times I still dreaded haggling. Some days on the road are harder than others, and the interesting can become overwhelming. Such days would often find me mumbling, "Why can't they just tell me the fair price? I'd be happy to pay it. Why do we have to do this song and dance?" Hearing no reply from Tim, I'd ask him if he minded haggling. "Not really. Actually, I think it's fun," would be his reply.
It took a bit of time, but eventually I realized he was right. On the days I was frustrated, I simply needed to change my outlook. It made all the difference in the world if I approached haggling as something that was fun, like a game, rather than something that had to be done. So by the time we hit Southeast Asia – where haggling happens nearly everywhere, save for restaurants and grocery stores – not only was I good at haggling but more importantly, I enjoyed it too.
What follows are suggestions for not only how to haggle, but how to enjoy it. These approaches work best in a marketplace setting where there are often multiple vendors to choose between, though all of these tips could be appropriately tweaked for other settings too. They also work best if you're haggling for something you can live without. So if you're stuck in the middle of Bolivia when a coup has started and there's only one option available for transportation out of town, some of these rules might not apply to your situation. And as always, remember your mileage may vary.
This should be a no brainer, but I think people often forget they usually have a choice. One of the most important lessons we learned while traveling was to always listen to our instincts – that went for everything from which ATM to withdraw money to which hostel to stay at to which bus line to take. If the person working a counter at a hostel wasn't friendly, that was usually a good litmus test for what staying at their hostel would be like. The same goes with a vendor. If the woman at the stall is cold and short with you, it's a good sign that she's not going to be fair while haggling or, at the very least, that she won't be fun to haggle with. But if the person is friendly from the get go, you'll be more apt to have fun while haggling and get a fair price too.
That latter bit isn't always the case, of course. A friendly person doesn't automatically equal a fair price. But I, for one, would rather pay a bit more to someone who is nice, then to the guy who was rude with the cheaper price. And, again, it all goes back to having fun – it's much easier to have fun with a friendly vendor than a mean one. So don't be shy about shopping around.
If you think from the perspective of the vendor, who would you be more likely to give a better price to: the backpacker who is rude or the backpacker who is personable? It's an easy choice, right? If your disposition is that of a curmudgeon anyway, then this advice probably won't work for you. But if you're like most of the people in the world, you're probably pretty friendly. So open up, smile, laugh, and make conversation with the person you're trying to buy from. There's no need to be shy: haggling is expected in many parts of the world, so dive in! Remember this is an experience in and of itself, so enjoy yourself for a bit before you get into the nitty gritty. In doing so you'll have a leg up on the asshole we saw running from stall to stall without his shirt on loudly demanding to know prices.
Before you start inquiring about the price of something, think ahead of time about how much money you're willing to pay. There are all sorts of formulas to best determine a fair price (we typically halved the price the vendor started at, though sometimes we'd start even lower), but it's also important to comparison shop and go with your gut instinct. And remember: something handmade will cost more than something mass produced.
So think about the highest price you're willing to pay, but once you get to discussing numbers with the vendor don't mention that price. Instead start out lower so you can work your way up a few levels, if necessary, to your highest price. Knowing ahead of time what you're comfortable paying will take the pressure off. You won't have to think on your feet as much; instead you can relax and enjoy the haggling process because you already know how high you're willing to go.
Remember, haggling isn't just about getting straight to the price (see Tip #2). In fact, quite the opposite. Haggling is about making a connection and mutual respect. The vendor knows you want to buy something, you know you want to buy something, so the only questions are will you buy something and how much will you pay.
Take your time at a stall and see what happens. Once you've spied something you're interested in, don't show too much interest in it right away. That's like blood in the water to a shark. Once a vendor knows they have something you really want, they can be a bit more stubborn with their prices because they know you'll eventually cave. So if you see something you like, give it a once over and move on instead of handling it constantly. It's sometimes worth asking the price of a few other things before you get to the item you really want.
When quoted a price, don't be afraid to hesitate, hem, or haw. Silence is a powerful negotiator. Also, make sure they offer a price first – if they ask what you'd pay for it, you might drastically overshoot or undershoot. Instead pass the question back to them and say something like, "Hmm. I don't know. What price do you think?" If there are two of you shopping together, remember that Good Cop, Bad Cop (or in this case Interested Cop, Unimpressed Cop) is an effective strategy in Hollywood movies and markets around the world. And don't forget, there's power in multiple purchases. So if you know you'll want to buy several scarves, for example, only ask about the price for one scarf first. Then after a bit of the dance, ask what the price would be if you bought two scarves and proceed to dance some more. Almost always the price will reduce when you purchase multiples.
But remember when you do finally start talking about prices it isn't automatically all about the numbers. There's still that connection you're working on too. One time while haggling in Thailand, the vendor said in a sing-songy voice, "Aww come on, 20 more baht not so much" to which I replied with a smile and a similar voice, "Awww come on, 20 less baht not so much" instantly making her laugh. (And of course we both gladly agreed upon the difference.) So remember, haggling is not an auction situation where numbers are prattled off quickly. Don't rush the process. Fun things take time.
A good haggling session will have a few volleys back and forth between you and the vendor (with a mixture of hesitation and playfulness rolled in there for good measure too). Remember, the first price the vendor quotes is like the first price you say you're willing to pay – both prices are just testing the water and aren't very likely to be the true price. Need I remind readers of the classic haggle scene from the movie Life of Brian?
Part of the fun of haggling is treating it like a game – how much will they come down and how much will you come up. It'll be no fun for you (though it will be for the vendor!) if you start off too high. Likewise, don't get cocky either: if you start too incredibly below the asking price, you're liable to not be taken seriously (or worse, offend). So be reasonable in your assessment, both in your starting offer and your secret highest price (see Tip #3). And don't get so focused on getting the lowest price that you find yourself haggling for ten minutes over one peso. Doing so is not only embarrassing to you but to the vendor as well.
If you've gone a few volleys with a vendor and it appears that they're just not willing to come down even close to your highest (secret) price you have a few options available to you. First, agree to pay what they're asking. Or second, thank them politely for their time and move on. Which path you choose will depend, of course, on how badly you need or want what they're selling. But knowing it's okay to walk away ahead of time takes a bit of pressure off of you too. You can always come back again (if you've left gracefully, of course).
An added benefit of being okay with walking away is that doing so will often immediately cause the vendor to call out lower prices after you. It doesn't always happen though, so it's not wise to walk away unless you truly are okay with it and are willing to risk them not calling you back.
Chances are your life is not going to end if you pay .50 cents more than that apron should cost. Chances are your life is not going to end if you don't buy that apron at all. Likewise, chances are you'll have a much better success rate at haggling if you have fun with the process. Know your highest price ahead of time, be personable with the vendor, smile, hem and haw, be respectful, and enjoy the game. If you remember that 99.9% of haggling isn't life or death, then you'll be more apt to not treat it as such. Instead you can appreciate the times you get a great price, laugh at the deals that got away, and remember fondly the interactions you experienced. For better or worse, haggling is very much a part of some cultures. So relish a bit in that and enjoy yourself. Whether it's sitting down to share some apple tea in a carpet shop in the Turkish bazaar or getting the chance to practice a bit of Thai at the night market, haggling is an experience in a foreign land. And that last bit is something you can't put a price on.