The Art of Bartering
Some of my latest bargaining adventures have included trading the shirt off my back in exchange for a new one, with a pair of sunglasses thrown in, while in Thailand; trading my friend, Holly, for a fleet of Egyptian camels; and purchasing seven exquisite Moroccan carpets.
Regardless of the country, there are differences in bargaining etiquette required for each culture. With a basic knowledge of how to play the game, it’s easy to adapt to local practices. I did some experiments and have compiled a sure-fire list of “tricks of the trade” – a set of guidelines to finding the best price. All it takes is a little know-how, commonsense and a lot of nerve. Once you acquire these useful skills as a traveller, you’ll use them for the rest of your life. Get ready to shop!
1. Knowledge, knowledge, knowledge.
Ignorance is not bliss. The first thing you should do while strolling around the market is to suss out some prices. It is excellent if you know a local person who can help you obtain the “local” price rather than the “tourist” price. Pump this person for information. Or, ask your hotel receptionist, waiter, taxi driver for information before entering the market. Also, your guidebook should offer some price ranges for basic items.
The most important rule of thumb is to be aware of the going price of an item. Then know how much you would be willing to pay. The worst scenario is to be caught in a situation where you are completely ignorant. That’s when you wind up paying more than necessary. Commonsense is your most important ally, so follow that gut feeling. Don’t be caught unaware.
2. How low can you go?
When bargaining, start ridiculously low. It isn’t as low as you think and you won’t end up paying that price anyway. Experts say to cut the offered price in half, but I disagree. If you offer 20%, then work your way up, you’re much more likely to finally agree on a lower-end price. If you’re used to a higher economy, you might think a quoted price is a good deal, when it’s actually a scam. Arm yourself with knowledge.
3. Taxi Tips!
Know the price range when you have been rendered a service and when payment is demanded. (Usually, this happens in situations with transportation or local tours.) It’s best to agree on a price beforehand. You don’t want the driver to use the meter because he knows you’re not from the area. He will drive you all over creation before reaching your destination.
In some countries, all taxis are unmetered. You will have to barter at the end. Start low because no matter what you offer, the person will appear scandalized. It is the culture. Work your way up and if more is demanded, tell him you know what a fair price is. Quote a reliable source, like your guide book. If he continues to argue and you find yourself teetering on the edge of monetary annihilation, be firm. Tell him you refuse to pay more and that you will not allow yourself to be scammed.
In extreme cases (not recommended, although I have done this, and it’s proven to be quite effective), if a price is not accepted and you know you’ve gone above and beyond the fair amount, you can walk away. You’ve paid more for the service than need be. Even if he threatens to go to the police, it’s not likely the police will believe him. You will be gone by that time, anyway!
4. Less tears, more beers.
Don’t ever feel badly. Despite the fact that the nature of haggling is an exaggerated bout of arguing – which might feel uncomfortable if you’re not used to it – locals are accustomed to it. For them, it’s merely custom, nothing personal.
Once a price is settled on, the merchant often becomes extremely nice and hospitable, shaking your hand and reconcilling the agreement. Don’t let your emotions get in the way of bartering. Let me use an example to illustrate this point.
Holly and I knew that 75 Egyptian pounds was the going rate for hiring a taxi for a half-day sightseeing trip. Prior to getting in, I bartered it down to 60. We had such a good time with our driver, we ended up using him for the entire day. We hadn’t agreed on a full-day price, but since we had struck up a friendship, we decided to give him 100, which is a lot of money by Egyptian standards.
We thought he would be thankful. Instead, he acted outraged. He demanded more. After arguing for a long time, we gave him another 20, as a personal tip. We were upset that our driver was purposely trying to make us pay a ridiculous amount. It wasn’t that we minded giving him a bit more for a job well done. We sensed our kindness was not being acknowledged. We left feeling our new friend had betrayed us.
The point is we should have started with 60, bargained our way up to the 100 we were prepared to pay. We would not have felt unappreciated. Both parties would’ve recognized this sum as appropriate. There are many wonderful people in these countries. You will fare better by playing their game. Know exactly what you are paying for and everything it includes.
5. One last thing.
If you’re stuck in a jam, claim that you don’t have any more money. Use the “I’m a poor student” excuse. BE FIRM. Never act too interested in an object. Remember you are NOT obligated to buy something, as pushy as the merchant can be. Also, never put money in his hand until you have already agreed on the price. (On the converse, if you come to an agreement, don’t worry about the size of your currency. The merchant is honorable and won’t run away with the rest of your change.)
Walking away always works. It will usually get the price decreased drastically. Don’t invest a lot of time arguing about a price, then receive the price you quoted, then decide you don’t want the product. You might have an angry merchant on your hands because you wasted his time. Before you get into a steamy debate, make sure you really want the product and have shopped around thoroughly.
Sound difficult? It’s fun! I really enjoy the art of bartering and honing the skills required. This article is not meant to frighten, but rather to empower. Nothing feels better than to score an object for an excellent price, solely through your powers of persuasion. Don’t be scared. If you do your research, remain level-headed and firm. A new world of cheaper prices awaits you!
Keep in mind that these skills can be used in societies even where a marked price is the custom. I have haggled for many items in the U.S. – quoting competitor prices, inquiring whether I can get an item at a future or previous sale price, even showing the sales clerk undetected damages in a product resulting in a lower price.
I know I’m not ripping anyone off because I follow the golden rule – not to let my emotions get in the way of a bargain. No merchant will sell an item at less than cost.