Bargaining 101: The Art of Haggling on your Travels

Bargaining 101: The Art of Haggling on your Travels

Bargaining, or haggling, is a way of life in many cultures. It is considered a normal and often expected part of any shopping experience. For many people, including me, this process can be somewhat uncomfortable. Will they be insulted if I bargain? How low is too low?

Bargaining, on the other hand, can be graciously and successfully done if it is looked more as a social event that could lead you to the best price possible.

Here are some tips that will improve your bargaining skills while keeping it casual and friendly with the locals:

Bargaining in Chiang Mai, Thailand

1.  Study the market

Hop around, scope the market, and ask for some prices before attempting your first bargain.

2.  Learn a few catchphrases in their language

Nothing opens the door for you like saying, “How are you?” or “How much?” in your destination’s native language. You don’t need to know much of their language; just a few words will bring a smile and set things flowing with the vendor.

3.  If possible, strike a conversation before negotiating

Spend a few minutes chatting up the merchant before you attempt to open negotiations.  Small conversations are great ways to connect with them. They will be more inclined to make a deal if they have already invested time in you.

Striking a Spanish conversation in a market in Cuzco, Peru got me a scarf for 10 soles versus the 70 soles my English friend paid for the same item.

4.  Know what you want, but look indecisive

Play it cool, look around, and admire their merchandise. If you like something in specific, don’t let them know you’ve fallen in love with it.  If you do, you lose all your bargaining power.

Chiang Mai, market bargaining

5.  Start at a fraction of the asking price

Deciding how low to begin your side of the bargaining depends on what you’re shopping for. Typically, on markets that are open for bargaining, you can start your offer between 25% and 50% of the marked price. It’s almost guaranteed that won’t be your final price, but it gives you room to play. There’s nothing more disappointing in a bargaining game than starting too high.

6.  Be friendly

Always keep it cool and polite, and be respectful with the merchant all the time. Casually mention that you’d be happy to refer friends if they will work with you on lowering the price.

7.  Practice a little on inexpensive items

Before you go for the big items, practice bargaining a little on things that you are less attached and can, therefore, walk away if need be.

8.  Don’t make the first offer

Ask first what’s their best price on the item you’re interested in. Posing this simple, straightforward question nudges the seller to make the first offer. If you state a starting price, you hurt your bargaining power because the amount can only go up from there. If the seller declines to answer, then start really low or at less than half the marked price.

Peru Produce Market

9.  Decide how much you’re willing to spend on an item

Before starting your haggling, decide what will be maximum price you are willing to pay for that item.  This will help you focus on the bargaining and when the price goes over what you want to pay, walk away.

10.  Don’t be afraid to walk away

If the price goes too high, give a final offer. If it doesn’t work, be friendly; thank them for their time, and walk away slowly looking at other items. Many times you will get called back with the final offer you made.  Sometimes you won’t, but you can either hop around other stalls and shops or just resign and pay the lowest price they offered.

11.  Always think of it more like a cultural experience rather than just shopping

No matter how much you haggle or what price you end up paying, always approach the haggling process as a way to experience the character of the souks, bazaars, and street markets from around the world. This is a lively activity that often gives us a taste of their culture and way of life.

Bangkok floating markets

It’s true that we want to get things the cheapest possible, but remember, in many cases, every cent that you spend on them goes directly to their living and to feed their family.  Sometimes spending a few more dollars than what we want actually does some good in this world, especially in poorer countries.

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42 thoughts on “Bargaining 101: The Art of Haggling on your Travels”

  1. Good advice! I’m always amazed at how a few tricks can significantly lower the prices. When I lived in Bangkok, my friends and I would have competitions to see who could haggle the lowest price and the difference in what we paid was usually surprising.

    1. Thanks Laurel – I bet it must have been fun to compete with your friends. It’s interesting to see how a few nice words and personality can make a huge difference in price.

  2. Awesome awesome post. I had a similar post from my time in Central America. There are some awesome tips here I left out, great post.

  3. I hate negotiating, but when I do I find that when you engage in conversation with them (#3) it’s much easier. Of course thats always a challenge if you don’t know the language but putting in the effort goes along way.

    1. So true, I always try to have a smile and use a lot of body language when I don’t know the language. It’s really funny, like if we were playing charades…

  4. Great advice!! I used a lot of these in South America. I also think it’s important to be respectful too, and understand that sometimes it’s just not worth it to haggle over $1. Chances are, we can afford it.

    When I was traveling through Argentina the first time, I was so stingy about what I would and wouldn’t pay, determined to not be another gringa that would get ripped off. After the fact, I found myself thinking about the things I actually really did want that I left behind, kicking myself that I didn’t just pony up the extra money and buy them.

    Now that I’m back, the things I have from South America are some of my most treasured items. But I honestly couldn’t tell you what I paid for them.

    Funny how in the moment it can seem so important to save a few bucks. In the end, I think, I learned that if I can afford to spare a few bucks, i will. Often, those few extra dollars are more important to who you’re buying from then they are to you.

    1. True… there is no reason why someone should be disrespectful to any merchant. It has happened to me too; I’ve left things behind because I didn’t want to pay extra, and later ended up regretting not getting them. On the other hand, sometimes when I get a great bargain I get so excited that I give an extra few dollars just for the generosity… win-win!

  5. as an australian, i can safely say we are the worst bargainers in the world. we use the phrase “you’re dreaming” (if you havent seen ‘the castle’, get on board), and thats about it. i cringe at the thought of money i have wasted not even attempting to bargain all over the world. after i had spent a couple of weeks in morocco buying everything at initial asking price, someone told me i should drop a zero off everything, and go from there. FAIL.
    great advice. i need to take it.

    1. Good tip on Morocco! Yes, I used to take everything with the first offer too, but then I learned on the road. Sometimes I can be brutal (meaning, I try to bargain the most) but other times I’m just lazy on the bargaining and just hope for a couple dollars less. I’m also very slow in reaching to a decision, so they usually end up lowering prices to accelerate the process. 🙂

  6. Good tips. I find negotiating quite intoxicating. And love doing it – it gives me a chance to engage with the locals, find out more about them and test my own skills. Though I have to admit in Peru I managed to negotiate to a low price and then gave said they could keep the change…. I was still getting a bargain and it is their livilihood! Sometimes I can just be to soft. However, if they don’t come down to a price I am comfortable, I do walk away – I will get it somewhere else, or get something different.

    1. Thanks Kerry-ann. That’s the way I see it too; an interaction with the locals. I had a great time in the Peruvian markets. Of course, my spanish helped a lot. In many cases I paid more than the final price just for the experience and the cultural exchange with them.

  7. This is all great advice! Your closing paragraph really rings true to me…. I try not to worry too much about not getting the best deal, because I know that these merchants are just trying to feed their families. If I can afford to travel halfway around the world, I should be able to afford a couple extra dollars for something.

    1. Definitely… In the end, in most cases, what we pay goes directly to their living and their families. So, even when I love spending less on things I want to get, I also understand that every cent can help cover their needs.

  8. These are great tips – I really enjoyed this piece! I love checking out markets, but often find the language barrier tough. It is a great way to get involved in the culture though.

    1. Thanks Andrea! When I have a language barrier I tend to go overboard with body language. It’s hilarious, I must look like a puppet exaggerating things and expressions… ha! (at least I have made them laugh in the process)

  9. Great advice, Norbert. I usually feel a little uncomfortable with haggling too, which is weird considering I grew up watching my dad haggle the sh*t out of everyone and everything. He can get anything dirt cheap. There definitely is an art to it.

    Walking away and acting uninterested can definitely work wonders too. While we were at the street market in Luang Prabang, Laos, we simply asked the price of a wall tapestry that we weren’t that interested in. We didn’t even try to bargain, and she just kept yelling out lower prices. It went from $40 to $8!

    1. Jesus! From $40 to $8, just by walking away… that’s a bargain… ha! Yeah, for me sometimes it is somewhat uncomfortable to haggle, I guess it all depends on the market, seller, and item. Looks like your dad has this art all well defined! 🙂

  10. This is one of those excellent posts that I’m putting in the Best Tips Ever file. It seems that a lot of people are pretty experienced with bargaining (esp Kerry-Ann who thrives on it!), but I am not. So far, I haven’t had too many occasions when I had to bargain, but I really want to be much more educated and comfortable with it in the future. This really helps.

    1. Thank you so much Cathy! I guess that what will make you a good haggler is feeling comfortable with the back and forth process it is based on and knowing (more/less) what could be acceptable as an end price.

  11. Great post! I’m spending a month in Vietnam beginning in early January and I’ve been so nervous about having to haggle, which I hear is really an important skill there. I just hate doing it! Your post has given me some great tips and a bit of additional confidence.

    1. How awesome you’re going to Vietnam. Yes, haggling in Southeast Asia is almost a must if you want to save. Start with cheap items where you just haggle a few dollars. That way you wont feel bad about reducing so much the price. Then try with more expensive items. You will be shocked by how much you can cut the price on pretty much everything sold at those markets. Happy Haggling in Vietnam! 🙂

  12. It’s important to know fair market prices in each country. I was just talking to a hostel owner in Ecuador today about how people have unrealistic expectations if they are coming from Peru because it’s much less expensive and they assume Ecuador will be the same.

    1. YOu got a great point Ayngelina. Fair market prices vary drastically among different countries and even cities. I normally “window shop” before I make the final decision of buying something (unless I’m short of time or somehow eager to buy it). That helps me to know the range of prices.

  13. Great tips! Sometimes I have found haggling to be easy, like in Mexico, but I have found it to be a lot harder, like in Turkey. In Istanbul, I had some merchants give in easily to some bargaining, but some got really rude when I negotiated (though many gave in a bit), and some even flat-out told me no and acted offended when I asked. Even though most of them were selling so many of the same goods! I love this advice, though. It’s hard to look indecisive when you know you really want something!

    1. Thanks Emily! Oh yeah, I’ve had a few flat-out no’s straight to my face… ha! But one of the cool things about these types of markets is that the same merchandise can be found at several places.

  14. Hey Norbert,
    I love haggling, but not while traveling. Not sure why. Maybe it has something to do with many places looking like they need the business. What I have done a lot is ask a local to tell how much something “really” costs and then I haggle so I am only getting ripped off a little. 🙂

  15. I think haggling is definitely a cultural thing, and Americans like myself aren’t accustomed to it. It takes some real practice, but by following your tips (especially setting a firm price limit on yourself) anyone can shave at least a little bit off the marked prices.

  16. Great tips Norbert!
    I loved going to Thailand and bargaining! The first time we did it, we thought we got a great price but after reading more into the subject, found we had not done that well! Oh well its still fun

    1. Thanks, Sam! haha, it has happened to me often that I bargain and get a “good” price (and get all excited), and eventually I find out I could have gotten a much better price after all.

  17. I find it funny that we use this way to bargaining. Walking away will work 90% percent of the time and it saved alot of money, few bucks for a time but hundreds when you buy more and more

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