Traveling for Cheap: Haggling
Haggling is like riding a bike. It may seem intimidating if you’ve never done it before, but you get the hang of it pretty quick.
The common advice you may have heard is to go down to half of what the vendor advertises, and then meet them halfway up, so somewhere around the 75% mark.
While I would say that this is decent advice for a brand new haggler, you have to be careful.
See, if you go down too low, you might run the risk of offending the merchant. The idea here is to find a median value that will save you some money, while at the same time ensuring that the vendor has earned enough to make a living.
For that reason, it’s really a case by case thing. And it’s not always going to be perfect. For some items, like cheap, run-of-the-mill trinkets, you probably could start by going halfway down and then meeting at three-quarters of the original price. However, for more expensive and intricate items like locally-made clothing, you’re not going to get that good a deal. Maybe try going down about a quarter of the price, and then meeting them a bit higher. Maybe even just go down 50 or 60 units of the local currency, and see where they go from there. It all depends on what item you want to buy, and where in the world you are.
I’ll give you an example. In Guatemala, there was a shirt that I really liked. It was going for about 225 quetzales. I went down 50 quetzales, to 175, and she actually ended up meeting me at 185. So I ended up saving 40 quetzales. Not bad, and the vendor still got enough to make a living.
For a more in-depth look at haggling, I would recommend checking out Evan S. Rice’s fun little book, The Wayfarer’s Handbook. Having traveled very extensively, he offers an all-encompassing list of haggling tactics. Some of the ones that I personally can vouch for are the following:
- Set Your Mind
- Hide Your Excitement
- Don’t Make the First Offer
- Start Low (but not too low)
- Walk Away
That last one is a classic tactic, but needs to be done correctly. For example, the very first time I ever haggled was when I was exploring Teotihuacan in Mexico. There were vendors literally everywhere. I had never haggled before, so I was unaware of how these things were supposed to go. At one point, I was trying to buy a little obsidian pyramid statue, and the guy told me his final price, that he would go no lower. I considered the offer he made, but genuinely thought it was out of my price range. So, I politely told him thanks but no thanks, and went on my way. I got no more than three steps when he called out a price 30 pesos lower than his “final” price.
As my experience suggests, this feigned disinterest can definitely work. But you gotta make it look real. You have to wait until “the end” of the bartering before thanking the vendor and then walking away. Don’t move too quickly. Make them come to you. If they don’t, well, maybe it wasn’t meant to be. But if they do, you could potentially arrive at a compromise.
Me personally, I don’t try to get too harsh with the bartering. Many of these vendors don’t make too much, and as the “rich” American, I don’t want to skim too much of their earnings. I’m not going to starve if I spend Q185 on a shirt instead of Q168.75 or whatever. Unless they give you a good reason to think otherwise, vendors are not the enemy. They’re just trying to make a living like anyone else.
Like with anything, just practice haggling until you get comfortable with it. Have fun with it, and hopefully you’ll score some awesome deals out there!