Need To Save Money On Travel? These 18 Expert Tips Will Turn You Into A Pro Haggler
Haggling, bargaining, bartering, striking a deal – call it what you will, it's a normal part of everyday life in many of the world’s developing countries, an integral component of the cultural fabric.
But for westerners that set foot on foreign soils for the first time, haggling is often a completely alien concept and a skill that must be rapidly developed lest they fall victim to unscrupulous vendors.
So why should you bother haggling in the first place? After all, it takes time and energy to strike a bargain. It’s a lot easier to just accept the trader’s initial asking price, hand over the cash and walk away with the goods.
Well, there are a couple of reasons to haggle.
Firstly, it may sometimes be necessary to avoid being overcharged or taken advantage of. Tourists don’t know how much an item ‘should’ cost in a foreign country and it’s common for merchants to abuse that information asymmetry.
This abuse tends to be more prevalent in places that receive high volumes of free-spending tourists, as the local vendors in these venues have learned that tourists are willing to pay more for goods than the locals. Merchants will take one look at your white skin and assume that you’re just as ignorant of what constitutes a fair price as all the other tourists are.
Haggling is your best way to fight back against this discrimination. By haggling you can often whittle the price back down to what it should be. You’re asserting what you want, instead of immediately just accepting what somebody else wants. Haggling will obviously save you a lot of money over the long run and that’s one reason why you should haggle. Most long-term travellers definitely can’t afford to be throwing bonus cash at street vendors every day of the week.
A second reason to haggle is that it helps to prevent inflation of local prices. When too many free-spending tourists take over a place, local vendors start to increase their prices until it reaches a point where the local people can no longer afford to live there. For this reason, it might be argued that tourists have a moral obligation to haggle. If they don’t, they are often unwittingly responsible for driving out the local inhabitants.
The third reason to haggle is that it’s often expected of you to do so. If a merchant quotes a high price and you instantly accept it without countering it with a more mutually beneficial suggestion, he may think there is something wrong with you. Haggling is natural in the marketplace so try to get into the spirit of it.
Let’s start by discussing what countries you can haggle in. You can do it in just about any country, but your results will vary. There are normally more opportunities for haggling in developing countries. The more developed a country is, the more fixed that prices tend to become, in general.
For example, in Malaysia, which is more developed than many other Southeast Asian countries, you wouldn’t really have much hope haggling for a bus or train ticket or for a discount on gasoline from a filling station. However, we all know that even in very developed countries, the prices of certain big-ticket items like houses, cars, household appliances, electronics or similar are very much open to negotiation.
A common misconception is that haggling is only appropriate in bustling bazaars, souvenir stalls, souks, flea markets and other similar types of scenarios. This isn’t true. Haggling is appropriate in a diverse range of scenarios. Here are just some of the situations in which we have successfully haggled and received a substantial discount:
- Buying long-distance bus & train tickets
- Taking taxis or local transport (trishaw, songthaew, angkot, horse & cart etc.)
- Paying entrance fees to attractions
- Buying goods from local markets, fruit sellers, street stalls, souvenir stalls and grocery shops
- Renting rooms, bicycles, motorcycles & various equipment
- Buying petrol or gasoline from filling stations and roadside vendors
- Paying fines to corrupt police officers for violating rules on a motorcycle
- Exchanging money in various situations
- Ordering food in restaurants
- Buying electronics from mega malls
- Hiring guides
- Visa processing fees at land border crossings
In fact, while we’ve been travelling in India and Southeast Asia, there have been far fewer scenarios in which we haven’t been able to haggle than in which we have been able to. We only really wouldn’t bother haggling in places like supermarkets and mini-marts with fixed prices, in more high-end restaurants or anywhere else that prices appear to be rigidly fixed.
Alright, we’ve talked about why you should haggle and what scenarios you can haggle in. Now we’re going to give you our 18 best tips on how to do it right.
Haggling saves you money but it does also come with a cost and that cost is time and energy. So when is it actually worth the time and effort to haggle? Well, it depends on the value of the item in question and also on the stubbornness of the vendor.
If you’re buying something that costs more than say $1,000, then it might be worthwhile to haggle for a few minutes or even a few hours, if the end result is that you save a couple hundred bucks. You have to think about the time lost to haggling and how much you could have earned if you had worked during that time instead. If it makes sense economically, then haggle.
On the other hand, it probably wouldn’t be worth haggling over the price of a chocolate bar for 10 minutes if that only manages to save you 10 cents. You could have earned more than 10 cents if you had instead worked for those 10 minutes.
Even though the poorest backpackers are often still wealthier than many of the local inhabitants in certain countries, avoiding open displays of wealth definitely won’t harm your haggling success. When entering into any situation where you’ll need to be at the top of your haggling game, you should dress modestly and definitely shouldn’t flaunt your high-end smartphone, watch or jewellery.
This will keep the expectations of the merchants lower from the outset and will mean that you won’t have to try to whittle sky-high asking prices back down to something more reasonable. If you’re haggling with a vendor over $1 while wearing a high-end Omega watch, he’s just not going to take you seriously.
If you ruthlessly pare down a stallholder’s asking price until he’s eventually forced to sell the item for less than he bought it for from the supplier just to feed his family that day…. you’re doing it completely wrong.
Haggling done right should be a draw or a win for both parties. Both the seller and the buyer should shake hands afterwards and should feel satisfied with the transaction. It’s about a mutually beneficial exchange. You shouldn’t exploit the tool of haggling to make the poor poorer.
When you approach a new merchant, make sure to greet them with a hello and a friendly smile. Ask their name. Try then to build some rapport by asking a few non-business related questions or making some small talk. This can of course be difficult or impossible if the merchant doesn’t speak a word of English but try your best.
Having built some rapport, it will be more likely for the vendor to give you a discount or at least quote you a fair price initially. This is probably because once a good relationship has been established, a merchant deems it more likely that you’ll be a repeat customer and a loyal regular customer is worth a lot more to the merchant in the long run.
Remember also that some harmless flirtation may also help your chances of closing a deal. Turn on your charm, give a compliment, make the other person feel special and you might just see doors open up.
The state of mind you want to try to be in when haggling is one of total indifference or nonchalance. You want to be outcome independent, so that whether you get your way or not, you’re completely unaffected and you can still graciously shake the merchant’s hand and walk away looking forward to the next round of haggling.
In a haggling scenario, indifference is not best displayed by being overly serious or poker-faced. Yes, you want to avoid leaking any feelings of interest or excitement with wide-eyed looks towards the product that you’re looking to buy.
However, during the negotiations you want to keep things light and playful. Haggling is a game, not a matter of life or death. It doesn’t need to be and shouldn’t be awkward or serious.
Getting angry or frustrated will not usually help you to close a deal and if it does, it’s only because the merchant complied with your request out of fear, rather than out of genuine consent.
It’s better to laugh, smile, joke and enjoy the whole process and if you don’t get that bargain you were looking for, just shrug your shoulders and move on to the next vendor.
After having built some rapport, the next step is always to ask the merchant to quote a price for whatever it is that you want to buy.
It’s really important that you let the seller speak first here and don’t volunteer your own price suggestion first. The person who quotes the first price is always the one at a disadvantage. Hence why a lot of savvy vendors will often try to get you to cough up the first figure by asking a question like “how much do you want to pay? “
Buy why is that so? Here’s the first reason. Imagine that you’re completely clueless about the typical price for an item in a foreign country (very likely scenario). If you were the first person to suggest a price in this scenario, you might unwittingly overestimate the value of the item and volunteer a highly inflated price. Had you let the merchant quote his price first, he may have quoted a much lower price. However, now that he has heard your much more appealing offer, he’ll probably agree to it and you’ll get a bad deal.
A second reason to let the merchant quote the price first is that it allows you to gauge whether it’s even worth haggling with the merchant in the first place and saves you from wasting time with somebody who simply isn’t going to agree to your price. You can see where the seller stands at the beginning of the negotiations and make a quick call as to whether they’re going to ultimately agree to your offer.
For example, if your goal is to buy an item for say $2 and a merchant quotes $10 for that item, it’s normally going to be extremely difficult to get that particular merchant to accept your offer (only 20% of the asking price). You’ll know immediately not to enter into a haggling match with that merchant and you can move on to another vendor that has an initial asking price that’s closer to the price you were looking for.
After the vendor gives you his initial price quote, a very powerful tactic is to remain silent for a few seconds afterwards. It looks most natural when you say “hmmm” and then furrow your eyebrows, making it look as if you’re a bit confused or unhappy with the price he quoted. The idea is to create an uncomfortable tension so that the seller starts to wonder if he has offended you or said something wrong.
If done right, the silence kindles a subtle fear of losing a sale in the merchant and he’ll often then feel compelled to win back his apparently unhappy customer by restating a lower price. If it doesn’t have this effect, the merchant will usually prompt you again for your opinion or feedback, at which point it’s now time to issue your counter-bid.
After you get the initial quote from the merchant, now comes the tricky part. Questions are probably swimming through your mind. Is that the same price the locals pay that he quoted you? Or is he overcharging you slightly? Maybe he’s totally ripping you off?
The trouble is that if your counter-bid is inappropriately low, the merchant might be insulted, as they will feel that you are devaluing their product or service. You might then lose all hope of striking a good deal.
But if your counterbid isn’t low enough, you might still end up being overcharged and you’ll leave with the nagging feeling that you didn’t push the merchant as low as he might have been willing to go.
To know how low to bid, it would therefore really help to have an idea of what is the typical price for the item you’re buying. But if you’re really new to a country or region, it can be almost impossible to know the typical prices for the thousands of unfamiliar products that one could potentially like to buy. This is something you only learn with experience and time on the road. That’s why at first you’ll need to rely on the following rule of thumb.
The rule of thumb is that if you’re in an area that receives a high volume of tourists, you’re more likely to be overcharged and even totally ripped off by vendors. Your counter-bid should therefore be much lower in touristy places.
A good place to start is at about one-third of the asking price. Some merchants might balk at such a dramatically low offer but this is often just an act or performance to make you think that you have no idea what the product is worth in their currency. If the merchant responds to your offer with something like “That’s less than what I bought it for from the supplier”, then you’re probably on the right track.
In destinations that receive a dearth of tourist visitors, overcharging is less common and you can let your guard down a little. However, it can still happen here too. It’s just that in these places it tends to happen less frequently and when it does happen, you won’t be quite as several overcharged.
Okay, so let’s say you’ve placed your counter-bid but the merchant doesn’t agree to it. What now? Well, you can either raise your bid and reach a compromise between his price and your price or you can try some of the following tactics to give the merchant additional incentives to accept your offer.
One of the first things we’ll tell a trader who won’t reduce his price is how we’ve been buying that same that same product or service for a much lower price at some other nearby stall or shop. We usually only say this when it’s actually true, but you could also lie about it if you think you could sound convincing enough.
This informs the vendor that they have nearby competitors who are offering a better deal and if they don’t follow suit by reducing their price, they won’t be able to compete in the market and you’ll just walk over to the next stall.
It’s usually no good however saying that you buy it cheaper in another city or another country because the vendor is not in direct competition with those places. You’re hardly going to fly all the way from Indonesia to Thailand to buy something because it was a dollar cheaper in Thailand and the seller knows that.
In this scenario, the merchant will usually just respond by saying something like “Oh, Indonesia has very different economy to Thailand, not same price here.”
Another tactic for getting a bargain is to buy in bulk. At a fruit market, you might try buying 10 apples instead of 5 and ask for a discount. A room is cheaper to rent for a whole month than for one day for the same reason; you are essentially buying more ‘nights’ in one go.
Obviously this tactic won’t work if you’re just purchasing one or two expensive items but it works great with things like fruits, vegetables, eggs and other foods that you might buy a large quantity of. Slow travellers have a big advantage here. If you’re travelling fast through a place, you’ll have nowhere to store large quantities of food (except your already full backpack) and you won’t be able to rent a room for a week, let alone a month.
“15,000 rupiah, ok?” we again repeated to the Indonesian banana seller, pointing at the large bunch of plump bananas on his stall top. “No, 20,000 rupiah” he repeated again, apparently unwilling to budge on the price.
“We are staying here for 2 weeks. Our guesthouse is just down the road and we will buy bananas from you nearly every day.” The sellers suddenly eyes lit up and he softened. We had disarmed him. “Okay,” he said while handing over the bananas, “15,000 rupiah.”
The story above is a true story from a recent interaction with a banana seller in Indonesia. We touched on this already at the beginning of the article but just promising a merchant that you’ll be a repeat or daily customer is often a strong enough incentive for him to give you a discount. Just give him assurance that you’re a traveller who’s sticking around the town a bit longer and not one that’s just passing through.
This tactic can be very powerful if you have a strong presence online, like a website or youtube channel with tons of traffic or a social media presence with thousands of followers.
Bloggers, vloggers and Instagrammers with large fan followings will often receive a complimentary stay at a hotel or guesthouse in exchange for promoting the business to their audiences.
If you don’t have a large following on any online platforms, you can still just tell any vendor that you’d be happy to recommend his business to all the people inside your social circle. It might just be the straw to break the camel’s back and get you that discount.
If nothing appears to be working, you can try physically taking out the amount of cash that you’d like to pay for the item and exhorting the merchant to accept it. Just like a fish is only going to bite when it actually sees the bait in front of its eyes, a vendor on the street might get more excited about the amount you’re offering when it’s presented in its real, tangible, physical form. If nothing else is working, this is worth a shot.
Sometimes you will be genuinely short of the full amount when buying something but pretending to be short is actually a tactic that you can use, although it is admittedly a bit underhand.
However, if you feel comfortable using it, it can be effective sometimes. The idea is to explain to the merchant that you’re currently short of the full amount that he’s asking for but that you’ll compensate him next time you see him.
Then of course, you usually don’t see that vendor again because you’re travelling to a new town the next day or because he has disappeared somewhere or because you just avoided him since you weren’t happy to pay the asking price in the first place. The end result is that you effectively get a discount and the vendor most likely forgets about you.
This is certainly quite a bold thing to do and will take some nerve on your part. The wrong situation to try this in is the one where the vendor is in total disagreement with your price. If you try it here, it’ll most likely lead to a big row or worse and that’s never good for you as the ‘away’ team in a foreign land.
The only time you may want to try this is in the type of situation where the seller is teetering on the fence about whether to give you a discount or not. You’re essentially making the decision for the seller by handing over the cash and walking away with the goods. Don’t be surprised if you hear a call back though.
If absolutely nothing seems to be working, the last resort is to thank the merchant, turn your back and start slowly walking away. While the fear of losing a sale can be a very powerful impulse for the merchant, it’s important not to walk away so hastily that the merchant doesn’t even get a chance to call you back.
Often when you begin to show an interest in the adjacent stalls of the merchant’s competitors, you will magically hear his humble voice amongst the cacophony of other voices in the bazaar, finally agreeing to your offer and calling you back.
If this tactic doesn’t work, then you know well and truly that the seller is not going to budge on the price and there’s really nothing else you can do except move on to the next one or try to get more value for the same price.
Some sellers just won’t budge on the price, but they might be willing to give you more value for the same price. It’s really important to remember this when haggling. That fruit seller might not be willing to lower the price of his mangoes but he might throw in an extra one for free if you ask for it.
A last thing we must warn you all about is that when you do successfully negotiate a discount or strike a good bargain, make sure that there isn’t a corresponding drop in quality or value.
For example, if you get a discount on the price of a meal at a restaurant, make sure the seller doesn’t reduce the size of the portion of rice or deliberately give you a smaller piece of chicken.
Dishonest fruit sellers have been known to swift-handedly swap the fruit piece a customer wanted with a low quality or rotten piece when the customer was distracted or looking the other way.
More often than not, neither party involved in a successful negotiation completely gets their way. A deal is usually only reached when both parties are willing to compromise and meet somewhere in the middle.
As a buyer, you mustn't be so selfish and inflexible as to only tolerate one particular outcome during a negotiation. If you do this, nobody will want to do business with you or worse, you'll end up forcing some already destitute stallholder to sell his goods for a lower price than he bought them for.
So be flexible, be willing to compromise and don't abuse the skill of haggling at somebody else's expense. Likewise, don't let anybody take advantage of you by not haggling hard whenever the situation calls for it. Always remember that you'll rarely get anything in life unless you're willing to ask for it.
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