How to Haggle and Barter Successfully on Your Gap Year

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Vicky Philpott

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Written by: Michael Huxley

If there is just one skill inexperienced backpackers need to develop quickly on their travels, it is the ancient and noble art of haggling. In many of the countries along the traditional backpacker trail, bartering the price you pay for goods, food or even taxi fares and accommodation is not only expected, it is considered the norm. Many inexperienced backpackers find this difficult at first, because they quite often come from societies where it is simply not done. They feel rude, cheeky, embarrassed even, but there is absolutely no need. Remember, in many places prices are hiked artificially high for tourists and foreigners, so if you want to avoid paying way over the odds, you need to become a black belt in the secret art of Not Getting Ripped Off-Fu! Also known as haggling.

Choose your battle ground

Do your research beforehand and know when and where it is appropriate to haggle. Some countries have a tradition of it, such as India or Thailand for example. Others such as North America or the UK on the whole don’t. If it is culturally acceptable in the country you are visiting then also be aware that it is usually fine to haggle for items in markets where there are no fixed prices or cheap accommodation for example, but not in malls or more expensive restaurants where prices are displayed. So don’t walk into the 7/11 and try to get half price on that bottle of coke!

Practice your sparring

Haggling is a game, a ballet, a back and forth verbal battle between you and the vendor and it should be treated as such. Have some fun with it and don’t take it so seriously. Some of the best haggling sessions in markets or back street shops come off as a really bad performance from the local amateur dramatic society! You may even be invited into the shop for a sit down and a drink as the negotiations begin and the vendor quotes you a massively inflated price. You quote a more realistic price in turn and the vendor acts shocked and offended that you could dare offer such a low sum of money. The entire idea is of course an affront to the very core of his being. You act equally as wounded, deploring the serious transgression of such an obviously marked up price.

At this point you may have an audience who have gathered to enjoy the show and refreshments are being passed around, but obviously you don’t even want the item in question anyway, it is only of passing interest to you. The vendor then implores your sense of fair play, reminding you that he has two wives, 23 kids and a really annoyed mother in law to keep happy, you reply with the fact that you are simple backpacker and are obviously very poor and destitute, look at your fisherman’s pants for god’s sake, you haven’t even had a shower in three months! At some point in the game you will both arrive at a price you are happy with, shake hands and make the deal.

Your enemy is your friend

Remember to keep things light and friendly, smile a lot. Never under any circumstances get angry. Yes the vendor is blatantly trying to rip you off and yes this may be the 10th taxi driver who has quoted you a fare not far off the entire countries annual GDP, but getting angry or sullen will help no one and cause everyone – yourself especially – to lose face.

Respect your opponent

Respect and saving face is as ingrained in many cultures as haggling is, and you should never disrespect the vendor you are bartering with. Being polite, respectful and firm is the name of the game, and if you give it out, you will receive it in equal measure.

Know your opponent

Be aware that where there is no fixed price and the vendor, driver or desk clerk is used to seeing tourists, then the price you are initially asked to pay is never the final price. Then you also have to remember that there is the dreaded ‘tourist tax’, where anytime an obvious tourist or backpacker tries to use a taxi, get a hotel room, shop in a local or tourist market and buy a crappy souvenir or knock off ‘genuine original copy’ of a branded item, all of a sudden the average asking price gets jacked up four or five times the going rate. Do you really want to pay all that unnecessarily just because you felt too shy or cheeky to ask for a discount?

Shop around and find out what prices other vendors are asking for the same items. Use your common sense to tell you how much an item is worth and know roughly what you should be paying, if the vendor starts insanely high (which they will sometimes) then you start insanely low. If it is a little high, then you go a little low. Although there is generally no fixed price in these bartering sessions, there is a reasonable buffer zone of what can be expected by both you and the vendor. Saying that, you should be aiming for roughly between a third and half of the original quote. Remember the dealer will not sell an item to you at all unless he makes money on it, so no matter how much to the contrary they tell you, they will be making a profit on the sale.

Keep your limits in mind

Whatever you are buying, set yourself a firm price limit that you will absolutely under no circumstances go over, and then keep it a firmly guarded secret. Try and barter as far under that as you can, but stop the negotiations if the haggling hits that mark.

Retreat and fight another day

One of the best weapons you have in your arsenal is simply walking away. Honestly, it works! If you are quoted an outrageous price or the vendor is seemingly unwilling to budge on his or her price, then simply smile, thank them for their time and walk away. Most of the time you will instantly be chased down the street with a better offer or even an agreement to your own quoted price!

The friend of your enemy can tell you the real price!

If you know beforehand there is something specific you want to buy at a market or you want to make a specific journey in a taxi, then simply ask a local how much it should cost. Then you will know how much they have jacked the price up by and can work from there.

There’s no honour in being a cheapskate

There is no reason to barter excessively to the last pound, baht, rupee or peso just because you can. Remember that the vendor is just trying to make a living too, and often whatever you are being asked to pay is still cheap by western standards.

There’s no shame in defeat either

If you buy something that both you and the vendor considers a good price and later come across the same item for a little less, or you pay a little more for one taxi journey than you did for the last one, don’t worry. You haven’t been ripped off, as long as the difference isn’t the equivalent of a few nights accommodation anyway! Often the difference is literally pennies by western standards, and it is easy for many backpackers to forget that fact. As long as you are happy with the price you are paying and the vendor is happy with the profit they have made, then it is a good deal.

So there you go little grasshoppers, you have learned all you can from your Master in the ancient art of Not Getting Ripped Off-Fu. You can walk the markets of the world with your heads held high and deal with even the most belligerent taxi driver as black belted masters of the highest order in haggling. So go out there, practice your skills and enjoy it!

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