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How to Barter Like a Pro

Given my life-long passion for exploring the most off-the-beaten-path corners of the globe (nearly 40 countries and counting), I’ve surely had my fair share of experience bartering for most every trinket and tuk-tuk ride on the planet–steaming bowls of pho and motorbike rides in Vietnam, luscious handmade wool rugs in Morocco, delicately carved ostrich eggs in South Africa and luminous batiks in Swaziland, exquisitely woven huipil blouses in Guatemala, nubbly knitted sweaters in Nepal, tattered antique textiles in Mongolia, and carved bone earrings in Borneo. And in Ecuador? Daily bartering for the freshest vegetables and fruits at my local, open-air mercado, as well as the daintiest of silver filigree earrings in Chordeleg. In most every corner of the globe, I’ve happily bartered for everyday staples and exotic treasures to remind me of my travels.

While many travelers and expats are reluctant to negotiate in markets and souvenir shops when they travel, my own experience confirms over and over again that not only is bartering the norm in most every corner of the developing world, but it helps to keep the local economy stable and strong, for it’s not just travelers who barter for trinkets. Trust that all the locals, too, barter daily for most everything. Indeed, for us expats, NOT bartering for local foods and services in our adopted country can seriously upset the local economy by artificially pushing prices up for the folks who earn but a fraction of even the most frugal gringo’s fixed income.

But the good news is that, with a few guidelines, the lovely art of bartering can be a most fun and welcome “dance” for both vendor and foreigner.

Bartering is but a simple skill that anyone can learn. Just follow these few tips, and with a little practice, you’ll soon be enjoying “win-win” bargaining. Nothing particularly mysterious or difficult about it, mind you, but there are a few guidelines to ensure that BOTH vendor and foreigner have a good time:

Before we move on to my handy tips for mutually happy and successful negotiating, let me first state emphatically what bartering is NOT:
Bartering is NOT a means of getting the absolutely LOWEST price on some trinket that’s caught your fancy. It’s not at all about slowly and painfully wearing down a vendor to an insulting pittance (indeed, a simple worker who, when it comes to that stunning hand-woven textile you’re haggling over, likely spent hours upon hours, perhaps even WEEKS, laboriously weaving it by the light of a kerosene lamp) just so you can have bragging rights to how incredibly CHEAP you got that fabulous trinket for.
Rather, bartering is a pleasant means of getting a fair and reasonable price that benefits both merchant and buyer while coincidentally having a lot of fun.

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Learning a few words of the local language, while not absolutely essential, will go a long way towards making the bargaining “dance” a graceful waltz rather than a clumsy tango. For starters, at least learn the words for “please”, “thank you”, and, of course, “how much?” And while you can use your fingers for the numbers 1-10, for bigger spenders it might be useful to learn the local words for 15, 20, 50, and 100. These few words can easily be learned in but an hour, and (for example) in Spanish, these would be:

Please = Por favor (poor-fa-VOR)
Thank you = Gracias (GRA-cee-us)
How much? = Cuánto cuesta? (QUAN-tow QUES-ta)
15 = quince (KEEN-say)
20 = veinte (BANE-tay)
50 = cincuenta (seen-KWEN-ta)
100 = cien (SEE-en)

Do your homework. Most folks get ripped off simply because they don’t know the going price for whatever item or service they’re after. So do spend an hour or so just wandering amid the various shops and listening to other travelers’ negotiations (or lack thereof) to establish the range of prices for whatever it is you lust after.

Look disinterested when browsing the vendor’s goods. Ask the prices of many items, not just the one you’re after. That way, you can get an idea of the vendor’s (starting) pricing. At this stage, just ask the price, and then simply say “thank you” and move on to another item or another shop.

Now then, you’re fully ready to bargain. Read on for additional tips:

Always begin bartering with a bottom line in your head as to how much you’re willing to pay, then start by offering the vendor about a third less than that. Don’t worry, you’ll never get the item for your first offer, but you’ve now tipped off the vendor that A. you’re not the usual naive tourist, and B. you’re ready to do the “bartering dance”, and the vendor will likely be delighted to have a little fun with you.

Which brings us to the final two most important rules of bartering:[color-box color=”gray”]

NEVER barter unless you’re serious about purchasing the item. It’s the unspoken rule of bargaining that you’ll inch up if the vendor inches down. Though you may not get him/her to come down quite a far as you’d like, it’s exceedingly rude to walk away after the vendor has come down near to the amount you had in mind initially.

MAKE IT FUN. The bartering dance is much like flirting. Offers and counter-offers, ever inching up and down to a price that’s agreeable to both partners in the “dance”. Infusing the dance with friendly jokes, lots of smiles (and a few feigned frowns) is all a part of the game. Think of it as a little Shakespearean play–turn on your charm and show the vendor that you have a sense of humor. Remember, the vendor is fully aware of the “dance”, so twirl and cha-cha to make it fun for both of you.

Of course you WANT whatever trinket you’re currently coveting. Indeed, you likely LOVE it, else you’d not have initiated the bargaining dance to begin with (see tip # 6 above). Nonetheless, try not to show that eagerness to the vendor. Better to feign some reservation–an air of nonchalance that you could (reluctantly, but nonetheless easily) go on with your life without tucking that particular trinket into your backpack.

Some of my own “feigning disinterest” tips:

Even if I absolutely ADORE the color, size, detail, etc. of said lusted for item, if the vendor is not coming down near the bottom-line price I’ve got in my head, I might ask questions like… “Do you have it in any other colors?” (i.e. this isn’t my perfect color, I might need you to come down a bit for me to buy my 2nd choice color), etc.

This is also when a dependable chum can come in handy. If there’s two of you, it’s often a good idea to play “good cop/bad cop”, i.e. a chum who can interject a few “I’m in a hurry, let’s go!” or “Remember? We saw that same xx for less at the shop near our hotel.” Or “Come on, you don’t need that! Where are you going to put it? You don’t have any more room in your backpack.”
As a last resort, if you can’t get the vendor to budge closer to that bottom-line price in your head, try smiling sweetly, shaking your head sadly, and… begin to slowly walk away. Rarely will you get out the door without one last counter offer from the vendor–his final price.

If you plan to buy more than one of the same item (e.g. gifts for friends back home), DO bargain for an extra “volume” discount. Indeed, even if you plan to buy two or three items from the get-go, begin the bartering with a single item. Later, if the vendor isn’t coming down as low as you’d like, casually suggest you might like two or three of that item, so it’s fair to ask how much for 2? 3? 4? Likewise, when the vendor seems to have reached his lowest price on a single item, that’s the time to suggest a bit lower price should you buy several different items in his shop.
In the end, if–after a bit of tap-dancing–the merchant clearly isn’t willing to at least come close to that original bottom-line price in your head, then it’s up to you to decide whether to cough up the dough or smile weakly, and leave your treasure behind.

I hope these simple guidelines will encourage you to try a little “dancing” of your own. Give it a go. Even if it’s only baby-steps at first–a single counter offer. You’ll get better with practice, and soon it will be fun! Not only will bartering save you a few pennies, but I can guarantee that it will add a whole new level of authentic local experiences to your travels.

Feature Photo Credit: Family O’abe

7 Responses

  1. Very good description of the process, but you don’t always want to bargain. If you are buying fruits or vegetables in the Feria Libre, for example, the vendors will have containers or piles for a fixed price, 50 cents, a dollar, two dollars, etc. These prices apply to Ecuadorians and Gringos, and with just a little effort you can figure out what they are. If you look like a newby, they may try to charge you $2 for a $1 pile, but if so, just walk on. There are hundreds of competitors to choose from. What you can ask for, however, is the “yapa”, which is kind of like a bonus or “extra”. If you buy a tub of onions or tomatoes, they will usually add one more at this request, and other produce in a similar manner. But you only ask for the yapa when you have already confirmed that you are buying. If they refuse, complete your purchase with a smile, but don’t go back to that vendor. And many vendors add the yapa without you even asking, so if they already put an extra onion with the pile you just bought, there’s no need to ask.

  2. I actually disagree with this. So, here you are, in their country, you, being able to afford to travel, getting a vendor to lower his price? Theses are people who make a living selling their stuff. They are putting food on their tables, providing shelter for their families, and you want a better price? No. I never barter. If I can’t afford the price they are asking, I don’t buy it.

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