How to Bargain With Confidence When Traveling
by Suzanne Wright

During a recent visit to India, I was told by one local that “Indians even negotiate their birthdays.”

In many non-Western countries, bargaining over the price of goods or services is the norm in the consumer marketplace — price tags are often non-existent and there is no such thing as a fixed price. The practice is standard behavior, part of a larger social structure, and at times it would appear (to Western eyes) to have the ferocity of a blood sport.

A different kind of free market

As it is conducted in many cultures on this planet, bargaining determines the price of almost everything: from a guide's services, to buying jewelry or furniture, or — as is the case in India — negotiating a short trip in a motorized rickshaw.

Still, it often makes many of us (including this travel writer) uncomfortable — a minor form of culture shock. Because — for most of our consumer purchases — this isn't how “we” do it “at home,” we can tend to feel intimidated, less in control than we would feel in our local supermarket, and even incompetent. A bargaining system in the marketplace tests the traveler's adaptive skills and ability to set aside ethnocentric attitudes.

And then there are the after effects; I have often had the lingering feeling that I was not getting as good a deal as a local — that I'd been taken advantage of. This may or may not be the case given the nature of this skills-based system even though the bargaining form of commerce is less competitive and based more on a mutual understanding of the process that many Westerners think. Nonetheless, I was relieved when an Indian hotel manager said even she had trouble knowing if she had got a good deal when shopping at many places.

Without question, some merchants see non-natives as walking dollar signs, easy marks to be exploited during a hard sell. As in any marketplace, however, you do not have to assume that this is the case. Clearly, many vendors in developing nations especially are struggling to make a meager living, and for the traveler, knowing this brings an emotional element into the process — bargaining can tug at your heartstrings, and vendors are aware of this. For the most part, however, vendors are honest and fair in their dealings; because this too is fundamental to the system.

So, how does one navigate these tricky social, political and cultural shopping waters? In order to feel more empowered, less frustrated, and part of the process, try these tips to increase your bargaining skills:

(a) Establish a rapport with a vendor. Maintain a positive attitude. Be polite, calm and respectful. A sense of humor is often useful. Be aware of the unintended signals you might be sending out.

(b) For major purchases in actual stores, “Please Madam, have a look,” is an opening that in some countries may be followed by an
invitation to drink tea. Unless you have 30 or more minutes to spare,
consider passing. In many Asian countries, the concept of “browsing” doesn't exist. So a polite “No thank you” as opposed to “I'm just browsing ” will avoid any cultural-linguistic misunderstanding.

(c) Don't bargain when you are jet lagged, tired or your judgment is
impaired by alcohol. Street markets in countries where bargaining is the accepted practice can also lead to sensory overload. Be aware of this and and if you are seriously looking for something focus on the goods, not the surroundings.

(d) Do your homework prior to the trip. (Travel guides often help. One such guide to India suggests offering one-third of the offered price but being prepared to settle for about 60 per cent.) If you plan to buy antiques, jewelry or other expensive items, know what you are looking for and approximate values.

(e) Don't bargain unless you are really serious about purchasing an item. Ask the price, then make a counter offer of between 50-75 per cent of the quoted price. But don't insult a merchant by offering 10 per cent of his stated price. Bargaining involves negotiating between human beings; inherent in the practice is that the deal has to be a win-win situation for everyone.

( f) Determine in advance what you can afford to spend in order to avoid getting in over your head. Establish a ceiling for any item you are serious about buying, so you can avoid emotional overspending and the subsequent buyer's remorse.

(g) Trust your gut. Does this feel like a good deal? Are you being
uncomfortably pressured? If so, just say no thanks and leave.

(h). Use common sense. A cheap knickknack may have more “give” in its selling price than an antique rug. Bargain appropriately according to the real value of the product.

(i). If you love an item and it seems to be one-of-a-kind, be decisive and buy it now. You may not see that antique doorknocker again.

(j) If you have a guide or driver, consider asking her or him to bargain on your behalf. But as a wise consumer, be careful that you hire such a guide or driver using a reputable source (a local tourist office or your hotel concierge). Be aware that part of the “job” of some guides is to lead you to places where they may receive a commission (“My cousin has a shop you will like.”).

(k) Keep things in perspective. Driving a hard bargain to establish some kind of dominance is not the point. So, even if you overpay by $10 or $20, think about what you would have spent for the same or similar item back home. Does the merchant need the money more than you do? Remember, the idea is to bring back something you love.

The rewards of bargaining

I cherish the exquisitely embroidered and mirrored antique tohan*, door hanging I purchased in India with a little bartering. It welcomes visitors to my home. Whether I paid $10 too much for such a singular souvenir doesn't matter in the end. What does matter is that I engaged in cultural practice that brought me just a little bit closer to an understanding of the country and its people — and I now have tangible evidence of that interaction.

* A tohan is made of fabric, an embroidered garment that hangs above an entranceway to a door to someone's home, as a sign of welcome


For more information


Polishing Up Your Bargaining Moxy
by GORP Travel Expert Rob Sangster

The Singapore Model from Frommer's

Photographs by Bob Fisher