Otavalo, Ecuador. Photo by Theodore Scott.
I wasn’t always comfortable haggling. The first time I tried it was in Marrakesh. I wanted a Berber drum but had no idea how to haggle. The only reason I didn’t pay too much was that I didn’t have much money to start with.
Since then I’ve haggled in many places around the globe. It is a useful skill for every traveler. Haggling can get you cheaper taxi rides and discounts on hotel rooms. Although, I think it is the most fun when done at the local market.
If you are new to this sport, the following advice will give you a good chance of getting what you want at the right price:
1. Don’t get too attached.
A common mistake is convincing yourself that you must get a certain item. A worse mistake is letting the seller figure that out. If they see that you have fallen in love with something they are selling, then you are in a very weak bargaining position.
Even if the item is a one-of-a-kind piece that you will never find again, that doesn’t mean you can afford to pay a high price for it. There are plenty of other unique pieces that you can afford. Always be willing to find something else if the price isn’t right.
2. Set a ceiling price.
Before you start to haggle, figure out how much you can pay. This isn’t the price that you would prefer; it is the most you will let yourself pay. This stops you from getting caught up in the experience and regretting how much you spent.
3. Walk away.
Everyone knows this and yet most don’t do it. Walk out the door. The seller will probably yell at least one lower price as you leave. If not, the item will still be there in an hour – after you have looked for similar items elsewhere. You can come back. Don’t believe the shopkeeper if they tell you it will be sold by then.
4. Learn the language
You don’t have to be anything close to fluent, but learning a few phrases helps. Simple phrases can help you state your case without relying entirely on the shopkeeper’s English. Get a phrasebook or have someone teach you. Learn how to say “too expensive”, “how much”, “you are crazy”, etc.
Practice your numbers. You will feel much more comfortable if you can name your price and can recognize the numbers they are saying. Spend five minutes reviewing them before falling asleep each night to make them stick.
5. Bargain backwards
Bargaining in reverse sounds crazy, but it works. Haggling over a figurine in Peru, I offered 20. He was trying to rip me off at 100 and wasn’t coming down at all. I countered with 15, because he was being greedy and inflating his tourist price. I was getting even further from the asking price. He quickly lowered his asking price.
This tends to shock them into realizing that you are not going to come anywhere near what they are asking. If they want to make a sale, then they can start by being reasonable.
6. Ask for a bulk discount.
Another favorite is to buy multiple items and ask for a discount. Typically, you should haggle over one item until it is down to a reasonable price. Then, pick up a second and ask how much for both. You can get a little extra knocked off, so it won’t cost twice as much. I use this on simple gift items for friends and family back home.
7. Be reasonable.
Sometimes travelers lose perspective. If you find yourself close to an agreement, but can’t make them budge that last little bit, then ask yourself if another dollar really matters. You don’t need to spend your whole afternoon making sure you got the absolute best price on a Machu Picchu shirt. Save your energy for the more expensive items.
For more on haggling, check out Lola Akinmade’s beautiful blog on the marketplace in Lagos, Nigeria.