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Haggling Tips for the Common Backpacker

2010 June 22

Knowing how to haggle when backpacking abroad is a very important skill to have. Unfortunately, living in America has left us ill prepared. I’m willing to bet that the majority of people living in the US don’t know to haggle. It’s no fault of our own because we live in a society where the prices are always set. Think about it, you don’t go into Starbucks and ask the cashier for a discount on your coffee, nor do you go to Safeway and haggle down the price of lettuce.

About the only times that haggling does occur in the States are when we buy big-ticket items (cars, houses, TVs, mattresses, jewelry, etc.) or when we deal with second-hand sales. But even then people might be hesitant or shy about it just because we never do it/don’t know how.

But if you’re thinking of backpacking, you need to learn the art of haggling.Ā Places like Southeast Asia, South America, China, India (or really any place outside of the States and Western Europe) often view us as walking ATMs. It’s unfortunate but it’s something we have to deal with. As such, backpackers are often subjected to ridiculously over-inflated prices and let’s face it, no one likes getting ripped off. It sucks, it bruises your ego and you feel like an idiot when you realize how much you overpaid.

Mastering how to haggle will prevent some of that. Pretty much anything is fair game in those countries (food, water, alcohol, trinkets, hostel rooms, rides, visas, tours to name a few) so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to do it. You can’t expect to get the best price every time but you also won’t be the clueless guy with cash flying out of his pockets to the joy of the locals. I’ve cut my teeth in the markets of South America, Southeast Asia and China and here’s a couple of haggling tips I’ve learned along the way:

1 .Know the lay of the land – Knowledge is power. It’s key to look around and get a general feel for how much something costs. Checking out a couple of vendors or a supermarket will usually give you a good idea. If you don’t know the price of an item, you could end up overpaying and thanking the guy for giving you such a “great deal”. This happened to me when buying suits. This also signals to the vendor that you’re no fool and he’s more likely to give you a realistic price.

My metaphorical lay of the land. Cusco, Peru.

2. Don’t act interested – The death knell of haggling is appearing interested. The vendor isn’t stupid and will see that gigantic smile on your face and translate that to a gigantic wallet in his pocket. Even if it’s the reincarnation of Christ, just play it off as mild curiosity. The moment the seller knows you’ve “got to have it” is the moment you lose leverage.

3. Low balling – A trinket is selling for $100. You want to buy it at $60. First price you name is $30, low balling the vendor. The reasoning for doing this is because that first price serves as a mental tether. The vendor hears it and that price subconsciously becomes the price he’s working off of. He’ll try to work his way up while you try to keep it down. By setting a price that low, you give yourself a lot of wiggle room and you can concede (making it seem like he’s winning) up to your price of $60. Obviously you can’t set a ridiculous price like $1 and sometimes it won’t work at all. But setting a low price gives you a higher chance of buying at your desired price.

4. Vendor Mortal Kombat – Most of the stuff you’re going to be buying are a dime-a-dozen so why not use that to your advantage? Example: I was sitting in the Plaza de Armas of Cusco, Peru when a hat lady comes up to me and asks if I want to buy an alpaca beanie.

Where I succeeded in buying my Alpaca beanie for 3 soles.

Although I wasn’t particularly interested, curiosity got the best of me and I asked her how much it was: 7 soles, or about $2.33 dollars. I thought about it and decided I would buy it only if it were for 3 soles. Of course she wouldn’t budge but as luck would have it, another hat lady comes strolling up at that exact moment. Score! Two hat ladies selling identical wares, with me being the only buyer. I threw my price out there, the two ladies conversed, and I soon parted ways with my 3 soles in return for an alpaca beanie. By pitting vendors against each other, you can often get the best price. And don’t feel bad doing it. They aren’t stupid, they’re not forced to sell to you, and they won’t sell to you at a loss so you shouldn’t feel guilty for haggling.

5. The “walk away” – You’re in the heat of a haggling match and the guy just won’t budge. You’ve named your price and you’ve tried everything: being nice, being mean, begging, maybe even shedding a few tears. Nothing’s working. Here’s when you pull out the x-factor, the ace in the hole. You walk away. This puts the ball in the vendor’s court. Half the time he’ll come running after you and if he does, you have to buy it. To put so much time and effort in it, it’d be disrespectful of you and him if you didn’t buy it. The other half he lets you go. You can’t turn back. You walked away and if you flip a U-turn, it’s a major sign of weakness. Find it somewhere else or forget about it. The walk away is quite the double-edged sword so use it only in the direst of situations.

These 5 tactics have served me well over the years and you’d be surprised at what kind of results you can get just by trying. When backpacking, you’ll have plenty of chances to hone your skills so don’t feel bad if it doesn’t work out the first few times. Keep on practicing and in no time you’ll be kicking ass and taking names.

Readers, am I missing anything?

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Caveat: sometimes haggling too much just isn’t worth it. If you’re spending 30 minutes haggling to save $0.25, you might as well pay the extra. But the other side of the argument is that it’s not about the $$$, but rather the principle. Like I mentioned, no one likes being ripped off, even if it’s a few cents. When you are backpacking, you also tend to think of everything in the local currency. While it may be only $0.25 in USD, it could be the cost of a beer in that country. Drawing the line is something I struggle with and you’ll need to find your own balance between paying the extra $$$ and sticking to your guns.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. June 22, 2010

    Nice tips for haggling! I always think I’m a haggling pro until I find out someone else got the same thing for cheaper. I’ll have to practice some of these techniques next time I travel!

  2. June 22, 2010

    In the sitcom Green Acres, Lisa Douglas bartered by constantly lowering the price she was willing to pay. For example:

    Lisa: “I’ll pay $10″
    Vendor: “I can’t let it go for less than $15.”
    Lisa: “Okay, $9.”
    Vendor: “Okay, $14. No, wait. What?”
    “Lisa: “I’ll give you $8.”
    Vendor: “But I lowered it to $14!”
    Lisa: “Fine. I’ll give you $7.”
    Vendor: “Okay, okay. Take it lady, just don’t lower the price any more.”

    Always wondered if it would work in real life.

    • June 22, 2010

      Hahahaha I’ll give that shot next time.

      • June 22, 2010

        By the way — good piece. Nicely categorised and explained. It will never help me, of course, because the one time I tried haggling (at the encouragement of my girlfriend) the guy quoted his price, I quoted one lower, and the guy looked at me and said, “Come on,” like someone who knew I didn’t want to be doing this. And I didn’t. So I paid him what he’d asked.

        From what I understand, that’s not the way it’s supposed to go. Right?

  3. FLPN permalink
    June 23, 2010

    Very interesting. haha, your post reminds me my experience buying shirts at Xiu Shui Jie.

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  1. A Tale of Two Countries « Life in a Sack
  2. Ways to Backpack Cheaply « Backpacking the World | Life in a Sack

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