If you come from a ‘fixed price’ country, you’re used to walking into a store, seeing the price on the package, and knowing that when you go to the cash register, that will be the price. No questions asked. No bargaining optional.
Many countries operate on a bartering system. Perhaps in larger malls or hotels fixed prices are the norm, but when you venture into the markets, smaller retail shops, or road stalls, or arrange for a taxi, it will be expected that you bargain to reach an agreeable price.
Bartering can be fun. But it can also be daunting. Here are tips to enjoy the process and not completely lose all your money while bartering:
Always split the price in half.
You’re a tourist. You look like a tourist. You dress like a tourist. The shop owner knows you’re a tourist. And (s)he will use this to her/his advantage, making you pay a premium. If that shop owner starts at 100, you should start at 50. If she starts at 50, start your bidding at 25. Always go by half. You might think this ridiculous, but trust me, that shop owner is giving you a completely exaggerated price because she knows you’re new to the country!
2) Find out the approximate price before you begin the bargaining
For example, before you step onto the road to negotiate with a taxi, find out from your hotel what the normal price is for that route. Before you go to the market, find out the normal price for your desired purchase. This information will help you know the good bid.
3) Be prepared to walk away
Sometimes all that’s needed is for you to put down the object you were debating and start walking away. The shop owner may decide that your price is better than receiving no money at all – and finally give in!
4) Use local language
Any words you know in the local language will make you look as though you know the country and therefore the prices. Also, the shop owner will be more inclined to offer you a deal because he/she saw that you tried to speak the local language.
5) Use a calculator or a pen and paper
There’s not much worse than thinking you’ve agreed on a price, only to realize that the shop owner thinks you said a higher number than you actually did. If clarity is needed, especially where language is concerned, use a pen and paper or a calculator to make sure both parties understand.
6) Know when to stop bargaining
Sometimes when you do the currency exchange, you realize that you are arguing over 20 cents – an amount that means nothing to you but could genuinely be needed for your shopkeeper’s family that day. One of the saddest days in my traveling memory was in Zimbabwe. The economic situation was so dire that shopkeepers were selling everything for a dollar. Beautiful handwoven artefacts that took hours to create were going for one dollar only! To bargain even further down for people who were obviously so in need of a day’s wage did not seem moral.
Sometimes travellers get upset that the locals are inflating prices. Remember, if you’re in a community that is in poverty, you are their means for economic survival. It’s good business for them to be asking for a slightly raised price of the tourist who could afford the luxury of travel.
7) Have fun!
Bartering is a challenge, but one that can lead to smiles, laughter, and stories shared between locals and yourself.