The art of bargaining

Published: Sunday, September 1, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 30, 2013 at 11:04 a.m.

Bargaining is a way of life in many countries, but it's not easy for some visitors. It's especially difficult when you think of how relatively well off you are compared with the people in very poor places. You're on a vacation, not living in some shanty and having to carry your goods several miles to the market. And here you are trying to knock the price down from $5 to $2.

At the same time, it's best to get a deal that makes both sides happy. I've seen some visitors completely avoid bargaining, and pay whatever price is quoted. Others take it to extremes, such as those who brag about how little they paid and how everyone else was cheated.

On a trip to the Galapagos Islands, a fellow traveler haggled with the vendor to an unbelievably cheap price, and then left without buying anything. Yikes, that's just uncalled for! Of course, some sellers also will blatantly rip you off, so the ugliness can go both ways.

For me, the main nuisance of a haggling environment is the relentless: "How much you pay?" etc., when all I want to do is browse. In Istanbul it was worth buying a pair of socks that I could wave around saying, "I've got one already!" to the masses of sellers.

Everywhere I go, I try to learn how to say, "Just looking," in the hope of some relief. In Morocco, we were constantly bombarded with, "My friend, my friend, come look, I give you best price." And if you touch the item, it's all over, my friend; you're in for the count.

We saw a camel-bone mirror that was quite nice, and the vendor wanted $80. I told him I only wanted to pay $25. We went round and round and finally settled on $35. While haggling, we asked him about his family and such, so bargaining can be a way to interact with the locals.

If you refuse to play, or go in blindly, you may well be cheated. Here are some important tips to having a pleasant experience:

Look around formal shops to get an idea of prices. Then decide how much you would be willing to pay. If you're traveling with a guide, ask whether an appropriate bidding level is 20 percent, 30 percent or even 50 percent of the first price quoted. Also ask the guide if even the shops' prices are negotiable. Find out if local currency is an advantage over using U.S. dollars.

Try not to go so low that you insult the vendor. Walk away at least once, and if the vendor comes after you, you are probably near a compromise.

Like our traveler in Ecuador, don't haggle for an item you have no intention of buying. That's most offensive. Bargaining is a game that the vendors have practiced a lot, so if you end up paying more than you "bargained" for, remember you are on vacation, and don't let it spoil your fun.

Claudine Dervaes' travel column is published on the first Sunday of the month.

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