Mastering the Art of Bargaining

On the Road

In the Western world, we are used to fixed advertised prices. What you see is what you pay. It’s an organized system that provides comfort and peace of mind that you are not paying too much or more importantly you are not paying more than everyone else. But this is not how it works in much of the world.

A lot of countries and cultures still use the age-old system of bargaining and bartering. Make no mistake, you will still see signs for the price of fruit in markets if you look hard enough or can read the local script, but bargaining in some cultures is a way of life. One of the most common complaints about having to bargain is feeling like you have been ripped off or that you are enduring the perceived hassle that is associated with bargaining.

It can be frustrating for Westerners who are used to the comfort of fixed prices, but like anything in life, your attitude will count along with a few tips on how best to bargain. The more you do it the better you will get – and soon you will find yourself feeling part of the local culture, no longer getting upset and having a far better time.

Here are our Top 10 Tips to help you master the art of bargaining.

1. Don’t Take it Personally

It can feel at times like everyone is trying to rip you off but that isn’t the case. They are just trying to get the best price they can from everyone. Even locals will tell you that shop owners or taxi drivers are always trying to charge them as much as they can.

As a tourist, they will try to take advantage of you but they also do that to everyone. So try to remember it’s nothing personal against you or even travelers in general. Everyone is fair game. Once you accept this you won’t feel so personally violated and angry.

Street stalls are a great place to get a bargain

Always try to bargain, you never know which stores are willing to negotiate and the worst reaction will only be a firm “No”.

2. Do Your Homework

An important way to improve your chances of getting the best possible price is to do a little homework on how much things cost before negotiating. While you are traveling, read up on the “getting around” section in your guidebook. Try to know how much a short taxi ride should be.

How far is it roughly from the train station to your hostel? How much is the average cost for a room in your budget? How much is the average cost of a tuk-tuk ride? Make friends with locals and ask them how much they would pay. It helps to have an idea before you start negotiating. Your new friends will often intervene and help negotiate for you when you arrive. Watch them and learn the way they do it.

Start low and shop around

If you are shopping for a certain item that is sold at various vendors be sure to shop around. A simple technique to figure out a fair price is to go through the negotiating process with a low-ball offer (generally 50% of the marked price is a good place to start but in some cases, you could start as low as 10%). Stick to your guns and see how low the vendor is willing to come before becoming offended.

A lady selling fresh vegetables
A lady selling fresh vegetables

If you can’t make a deal with this vendor that you are happy with, you will at least have a great idea of where to start your negotiations next try.

3. Stay Calm & Don’t Act Too Interested

This is one of the most important parts of successful bargaining. Often travelers get flustered, circled by touts, they are desperate to get away as quickly as possible and often accept ludicrous prices.

Don’t appear to be in a hurry. Expect to get ridiculous offers to start but don’t get angry. Just smile and be firm on what you want to pay. The main thing is not to appear stressed and don’t get cranky. A wry smile and perhaps a small doubtful frown are far more powerful and it keeps the negotiations open.

Negotiating a fare
Negotiating a fare

4. Be Friendly & Polite

This is a valuable technique, particularly when looking for rooms. Don’t book rooms in advance if you are after a good cheap deal while backpacking. Advance rates in hostels and hotels are always more expensive. Try not to have your bag with you as it makes you look desperate and tired.

Whatever you do – don’t insult

If a room is more expensive than what you expected don’t say it’s “too expensive”. The owner will likely take that as you don’t think it’s worth the money and may feel insulted. Say instead that the room is lovely but you can’t afford it. “You have a beautiful hotel but it’s above my price category. I was looking for a budget hotel”.

This generally flatters the owner and often they will provide a discount for you, as you don’t come across as rude and demanding. Always thank them if the price is still too high, they may even become transfixed by your good grace and really give you a big discount.

If you do get a discount don’t go around telling other travelers what you paid. This only causes issues for the owner and it is poor form in the world of bargaining.

Make small talk

Ask a few personal questions about the vendor to get on a more personal level. Vendors will generally be more flexible with pricing if they like you.

5. Strength in Numbers

Most businesses around the world will offer discounts for bulk purchases. This is no different when negotiating in a market or with a local vendor.

See if you are able to collaborate with other travelers so that when you go looking for a bargain you can offer greater volume to the vendor. Maybe you are in Nepal and want to buy a painting…. If you can bring a couple more buyers it will help secure a better deal for all of you. This works very well when negotiating mid-to-budget hotels also.

Night markets in Seoul
Night markets in Seoul

6. Learn a Few Phrases & Local Customs

Knowledge is power as they say and so it is when it comes to bargaining. Along with doing your homework, the use of just a few local phrases will go a long way in your negotiations.

Useful phrases

How are you today?
Can you help me, please?
How much is this/that?
Sorry that’s too expensive
Thank you

In some cultures, a male can take the vendor's hand and hold it until he gets what he wants. It’s an extreme example but you would be surprised how knowing just a few of these local customs and the odd sprinkling of the local language can help your cause.

Some local language knowledge goes a long way
Some local language knowledge goes a long way

7. Be the First or Last Sale of the Day

You can often get a good bargain at the start of the day or at night time when superstitions play on a vendor’s mind. It’s good luck to get a sale early in the day so the vendor may give something away quickly to get the ball rolling. Closing up is another time when vendors are keen for a cheap sale.

As the day goes on, if the vendor is still yet to secure their first sale, you might be in luck and grab a crazy cheap deal. Just be sure not to be too extreme in taking advantage of the situation.

8. The Walk-away & Smoke-screen

This is a pretty common technique. It’s almost a charade so when you do it make sure it’s believable. When it comes to bargaining you may have to walk away only to be chased and told the price is okay. If for example, you are looking to buy a painting in a market make sure you look at several pictures.

Pay closer attention to the ones you don’t want giving your real objective little attention. The chances are you will get a better price if you are not so besotted with what you want. Always show casual interest in what you want and tell them you will think about it. As you walk away they will often try to get you back in by bringing down the price. Show a little more interest before leaving again. If they get close to what you want then take it. If not try again later on but give the appearance you are not in a rush.

Whatever you do, don’t insult the vendor!

9. Don’t Negotiate

Well, you may be thinking: “What does this mean?” Sometimes it’s best not to negotiate. If you have been traveling for a while in a country and you have a pretty good idea of what the real price should be for a ride in a taxi, try this technique – just get in and go to your destination without discussing price. This has several advantages.

  1. You don’t have to waste time trying to get someone to agree to your price.
  2. You get taken to your destination so now you have the power over what you pay.
Just jump in
Just jump in

The secret here is to always pay slightly more than the correct fare and have the right change. Don’t look doubtful as you pay the driver. Just hand him the money with utmost confidence and turn and walk.

If they call out to you or chase you just ignore them. If they really come after you just smile and wave your hand. Learn how to say “No” in the local language. Stay strong, most of the time they don’t challenge you and if it gets really bad you can always give just a small amount more to appease them. But it will be less than what most tourists pay.

Above all don’t feel bad about this. They are still getting paid more than what they would normally and you didn’t have to waste time when you were tired trying to negotiate.

Important Note

This method only works as long as you have a good understanding of the correct fare, remain confident, firm, and calm.

10. Come Prepared

Keep your wallet or purse in your pocket until you need it and always carry small change. The worst possible situation is negotiating a great deal only to then ask for change of a large denomination bill or pulling out a wad of cash.

This is a sure-fire way to make the vendor angry and potentially lose the deal.

Money in wallet
Money in wallet

First impressions are important

People are judgemental and first impressions count so don’t go shopping looking like you have a ton of cash. Take off any jewelry you might have and wear casual clothing.

Make sure you are well-rested

Bargaining can be an exhausting process after a while so it’s best not to try if you are feeling tired, jet-lagged, or grumpy. If you find your attitude going downhill you should recognize when it is time to call it quits for the day.

Above All – Enjoy Yourself

Try to have a good time and bargain with good grace. Your bargaining partner this way will respect you more. Charisma goes a long way in this world and even more so when it comes to bargaining. Be charming, be graceful but be firm and canny. It’s all about respect.

As a person who gives respect, you will in return be shown respect. Display honor and virtue while bargaining and relish the opportunity. It won’t be long before you are back home in your supermarket scanning fix-priced items while suffering post-holiday blues. So often we realize too late what we were missing out on while traveling.

Don’t push too hard!

Be aware of exchange rates when you are haggling for a better deal. Is it really worth fighting for that extra 500 Indonesian Rupiah discount? Of course not! An extra 4 cents is not going to break the bank.

Remember that the vendor you are haggling with needs to make a living too. Try to end with a price that you are both happy with and you will be rewarded with fantastic karma.

So bargain hard with good manners and enjoy yourself. See it as a challenge rather than an obstacle and realize you can’t win them all!

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