Travel Tips

Ethical Haggling: How to Bargain Without Being a Jerk

A few weeks ago, I read a terrible story about a Nepalese woman who ‘attacked’ a British woman because she was haggling (I won’t even give it the dignity of a link here, but you can search it). Appalled, I looked for more information. Upon digging further, I learned that this British woman had actually attempted to bargain down a cup of tea that cost less than $2 USD. Seriously?

The Nepalese woman, I discovered, ran a mountain hut high in the Himalayas, where she offered a place for backpackers to rest and purchase refreshments. Because of the location, the price of the tea was more expensive because it costs money to transport to rural villages. After being quoted a price of 1 GBP and attempting to haggle the price, the British woman took photos of the shop in an attempt to ruin business for them on the Internet. That’s when the Nepalese woman lost it.

To be honest, in this situation I would have been pretty pissed too.

Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, and for a Western tourist to come and haggle the price of a cup of tea seemed unreasonable to me. While traveling on a budget, it’s often common to negotiate, but sometimes it is not appropriate. To help you determine when you should and shouldn’t bargain, I compiled my tips on haggling politely.

Determine the Culture of Bargaining

In some countries, bargaining in shops and markets is common. In others, it’s unheard of. For example, in Guatemala and Morocco, the expectation in many artisan markets is that travelers will attempt to haggle. In the United States or Canada, however, bargaining with a storeowner will often get you escorted out of the building. Be sure to research local bargaining customs, or simply ask around with locals or your hotel staff.

Always Be Polite

One of the things that upset me about the story of the Nepalese woman was how the British woman treated her. Instead of simply paying the 150 rupees (just 1 GBP), the British woman made snide remarks and attempted to slander her on international media. This treatment is simply dehumanizing and rude.

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When dealing with people in foreign countries, always treat them as humans and as equals. Even if you know someone is trying to rip you off, yelling at them probably won’t help. Instead, talk to them. Listen to them. Show interest in their products and their work. If you treat others like fellow human beings, they’ll be more likely to work with you on a price you want. Don’t be a jerk.

 

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

In general, there are things you should and things you shouldn’t negotiate. Souvenirs, apparel, and artisan items? Go ahead and try. Food or drinks? Less likely. If you’re buying in bulk, your chances of being able to haggle are much higher. Before you attempt to bargain something, ask yourself, Does it really matter if I get this price down from $1.50 to $1? If the answer is no, don’t bother haggling. Save your energy for the larger items, and give people the wages that they need to live off of.

When Possible, Speak Their Language

One of the most effective ways to bargain is to try and see eye-to-eye with the seller. If you’re hoping to make that connection, one of the best ways to do it is by learning to speak their language. Even an attempt at simple words like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ can make a huge difference in how another person perceives you. It shows that you’re making an effort to connect with them in a way that they understand.

Let It Go

When it gets to a point where you really can’t justify the ‘final price’ of an item, just let it go. When you’re willing to walk away from something, the ball is in the seller’s court. If they really do want to sell it to you, they’ll chase you down and continue the conversation. If not, they most likely couldn’t justify lowering the price any more.

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Remember Your Privilege

Many of these shopkeepers in foreign countries make their living off of selling these items. If you’re hung up on bargaining down from $10 to $8 and the seller seems reluctant, there’s probably a good reason why. After negotiating unsuccessfully, if I still really want a product, I’ll usually just suck it up and pay the extra $2. If I’ve already paid thousands of dollars to fly around the world and travel, I probably can spare an extra dollar or two here and there.

If I know the money is going towards a local economy, I don’t feel that bad about spending a little bit extra. Often, these small-scale business owners and families support themselves with the proceeds from these items, and supporting these families is worth the extra few dollars.

The Bottom Line

Much of the world lives off of only a few dollars a day, and by supporting local businesses by paying fair prices, you can help to alleviate that. However, many times vendors will attempt to prey on tourists’ wallets by jacking up prices on items. It’s a fine balance to strike. However, by treating other sellers with respect and being smart about your haggling tactics, you can walk away with a fair price for almost anything you want to buy.

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Do you have any tips to add on haggling politely while traveling? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!

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Kay is a full-time media professional located in Washington DC who takes every spare day of time to travel the world. In the last year alone, she's visited over 10 different countries and taken a dozen short trips in between. You can typically find her wandering the streets of a city, taking ridiculous self portraits, or hiking a mountain somewhere. Connect with Kay: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

11 Comments

  1. Gosh, what a nasty incident. I can see in the comments to the piece you linked that people have stated several times that the price offered at the shop was not out of line with others, and even it was a bit higher than other places, so what, that’s the vendor’s prerogative. The idea that this expensively kitted-out foreign visitor feels cheated by being charged a higher price in one place than another is the craziness here — it’s not like we don’t have a million tourist-oriented caffs in England where the prices differ according to what the owner wants to charge! To make a snide remark about the price (even if she did indeed pay it), and to immediately follow that up by taking a photo of the tea stall — I can easily imagine the vendor getting upset, and we conveniently don’t have anything on video to show the escalation after that… not until the tourist is able to present herself as the victim. Utterly vile. And I agree wholeheartedly on the haggling too, I’ve been to places where I’ve seen travellers from wealthy nations (who even if they are on a backpacker’s budget have more money and privilege than the vendors they are so brutally haggling with) and they push so hard as some kind of false point of pride — perhaps they think they’re a better backpacker if they haggle someone down to the bare bones of profit but for me, as you say, I remember that the difference between $2 and $3 to me is so little, but it may be the difference between meals and clothes for the vendor’s family.

  2. It’s so cool you wrote about it – although – too bad it still needs explaining… How not to be a jerk;) Nicely written:)

  3. I saw the vid in social media but had no idea how the media reported it. It’s ridiculous that they focused on the Nepalese woman’s action and not how haggling down in this type of situation is just plain wrong. 🙁 I come from the Philippines and it’s in our culture to haggle too, but I refrain from doing that when traveling especially when I can see that the money helps the locals. Glad that you wrote this piece!

  4. So glad to see an article about this! Like you said, it’s so important to keep your privilege in mind. Of course I don’t want to get ripped off, but when I find myself haggling with a shopkeeper in Tanzania, I just think – I’d rather have this two bucks go to her and the local economy than sit in my wallet where it makes no noticeable difference to me. Thanks for a great post!

  5. Interesting article. In a way, I can understand that British woman because 1GPB for a cup of tea in Nepal sounds much to me, too. However, I wouldn’t have reacted in such a way, I would have simply refused the tea. The difference between a fair price and being ripped off is often very subtle. And in some cases, it results into disadvantages for locals when certain vendors are getting used to higher prices paid by tourists. Not with those small things but have a look at housing, for example. I rented a room in Lima, Peru for US$400/month, a big room with a private bathroom, utilities and wifi included. First, the owner asked for US$600, we negotiated and agreed on US$400. It was ok for me but I was aware that most Peruvians cannot afford this. On markets, I usually stroll around and listen first, that gives me an idea what other people pay and makes negotiating easier. Only possible when you understand the local language (Spanish in my case) well enough, of course. It’s a difficult topic and there’s no easy answer.

  6. What a fantastic article. Some people get so wrapped up in winning the game of haggling by trying to get the cheapest price. But often in countries where you haggle, you could be haggling away the salesperson being able to feed his/her family for the night. I generally like to evaluate what an item would be worth in my own country and try to get it slightly cheaper than at that price.

  7. Thanks for the tips! The best advice I ever got about haggling is to remember it’s about finding a price that both you and the seller are both happy with, not trying to get the cheapest price you can. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Great tips! Always important to have these in your back pocket. I’ll pin for later so I can remember them while shopping lol

  9. Nobody wants to pay ‘too much’ and nobody wants to be ripped off. However, if you are bargaining to lower a tuktuk ride with 100 roepies (or 0.1$) then you should ask yourself what you are doing 😉

  10. I agree that travellers need to respect the people they bargain with abroad, but resent being expected to pay more for being foreign. I look up the minimum wage before arriving, to have an idea of what locals can spend and to bargain accordingly.

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