How to Master the Art of Bargaining: Haggling Made Easy

Introduction to Bargaining 101

Coming from a country such as Canada, where a price tag allocates an objects cost right down to the penny, it came as a real shock for me to travel to countries where prices are not only negotiable, but are encouraged to be haggled over.

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Most North Americans are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with bargaining. We see it as being rude and offensive, or undermining the merchant’s integrity. In many countries, not haggling is considered very rude and often seen as a sign of economic arrogance. When done properly and in the right circumstances, haggling allows you to interact with the locals, earn respect among the residents, and merits serious street credibility with your travel partners.

Negotiating a successful deal often requires skill and a bit of patience – two things you must acquire over time. This article will help you develop the right tools to haggle like a pro, for anywhere from North Africa to Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

Bustling Marketplace, Delhi
Bustling Marketplace, Delhi © wili_hybrid

The Objective

The goal of haggling is to walk away from a transaction, perfectly content in having paid a fair price for a product. Street markets, outdoor stalls, small shops and many independently owned marketplaces are havens for hagglers.

Many travelers do not realize the amount of money lost by not having the courage to start up a haggling session. When you offer a lower price and the shopkeeper acts as if he or she is personally insulted, this is often a very good indication that they are a good haggler.

The original prices listed were chosen based on the high art of haggling. If a seller has purchased a large quantity of products for $1 each, they will probably inflate the price by at least double to $2 a piece or more. When bargaining, try to make the final purchase fair for both you and the retailer, so you walk away feeling satisfied and they can still make enough money to support their business ventures.

Look the Part

Dress for the occasion when haggling. If you are serious about scoring good deals, ditch your Rolex watch and designer sneakers for some less flashy clothing. Consider dressing down a bit to avoid projecting wealth through your appearance, otherwise the merchant will see right through you and you can expect to pay for it at the markets.

Gritty Market Seller, Indonesia
Gritty Market Seller, Indonesia © NeilsPhotography

Know Your Price

Always compare prices when walking down a vendor street or market. Don’t go bananas at the very first shop you see, but peruse the other sellers to compare prices and then use them against each other. Always keep in mind what the product is worth to you and what the likelihood of its market value is, and start from there.

Assess how much you actually desire the item in question. One of the most important tools for haggling is deciding how much you’re willing to pay well before negotiations begin. If it’s just another lame me-too souvenir, keep your price low. So in the worst-case scenario, if you don’t win the negotiation, you won’t be heartbroken.

If it’s something you really have your eyes set on, make realistic expectations but stay firm on how much you are willing to spend. Without a set limit in mind, you’ll end up paying far more than what you originally planned, so remember to stick to your decided (mental) price.

When you first approach the merchant, keep calm, stay cool and maintain your best poker face. Your initial reaction to something you want will definitely encourage the dealer to push for a higher price, knowing how much the item means to you. Don’t rant and rave over how desperate you are for that hand-woven traditional dress or how badly your mother wanted another wood-carved elephant, otherwise you can plan on paying way more as a result of your apparent need.

The Course of Action

Once you have decided what you want, and how much you are willing to pay, scrutinize every square inch of the item you want to purchase. This will show the dealer that you are serious about buying and that you know exactly what you are looking for. Also, many of the products at markets are manhandled by hordes of other tourists, packed away every night and unloaded every morning. They are likely to get damaged in the process and you definitely do not want to be the fool arguing over a broken teapot for 45 minutes.

If there is a scratch or mark of any kind, be quick to point it out to the merchant. Assuming you want the product regardless, you are now holding the upper hand since you’re bargaining for a “defective” product no longer worth its original value.

Once you have finally opened the floor to price discussion, don’t allow yourself to be a pushover. You might feel guilty for haggling lower prices in a less developed country where living standards are not up to the same level as where you come from. Remember that haggling is a process for tourists and non-tourists alike and at the end of the day, these vendors encourage bargaining as a means of business.

Keep in mind that sellers will always pretend to be offended at a low offer as a sneaky tactic to raise your bid. Feeling that you may have insulted someone may lead you to pay more as way of peace offering, but always remember that you are never obligated to buy anything, even though you may feel otherwise during some bargaining experiences.

The Toy Seller, Calcutta
The Toy Seller, Calcutta © rita banerji

Sealing the Deal

If you find yourself stuck in the middle of a no-budge negotiation and the merchant won’t come down to the price you want, try agreeing to the price he or she has offered as long as something else is included.

There have been numerous times when I was traveling through South East Asia, where I would agree to pay the semi-negotiated price, as long as an extra t-shirt or skirt was thrown in the package. Tell the seller that you would like some extra time to look around, and find something else to supplement your purchase.

If there is still no agreement between you and the seller, then start to walk away. This is ultimately your last result – the haggler’s “nuclear option”. If the seller wants to make the sale, they will stop you before you can leave with a better offer.

Of course, there is always the chance that the seller will not try to stop you and instead just let you go. Because this is a definite possibility, only allow yourself to walk away if you know that you can live without the item in question. If you return later in the day to the seller and ask for the negotiated price from earlier, you will have certainly lost the upper hand or the seller will refuse to do business with you.

Always go with your gut instinct. If you feel like you are getting ripped off, you probably are.

If on the other hand, you have successfully agreed on a price, always try to pay cash. There is no cost for the seller to accept cold hard cash, whereas they must often pay additional bank and processing fees for checks or credit cards.

While in Chinatown in New York City, I was negotiating the price of a wallet and purse and the seller wasn’t really budging. I told her I would pay her in cash, opened my wallet to show her I only had a mere $35 dollars, as opposed to the $45 she originally had asked, and we were settled. The seller, knowing the exact amount in my wallet was all I had, settled for my price since it was probably far more than the actual goods were worth and otherwise, I would have just walked away.

At the end of the day, always go with your gut instinct. If you feel like you are getting ripped off, you probably are and should walk away. But if you feel as if you negotiated a great bargain, then you probably did. As long as some kind of happy medium has been met between yourself and the seller, consider the bargaining experience a successful one and keep note of how to continue with your new winning streak.

  1. This is really excellent advice & I think you’ve covered everything! When my husband & I travel to areas where haggling is appreciated, I tell him what I want & he gets it for me while I go “window shopping” somewhere else. It works for us because I am embarrassed by haggling, but he loves it! Thanks for a good article!

  2. Thanks for the brilliant tips on the art of bargaining! Actually, I don’t think I’ll ever find haggling easy. Your story though made me start thinking about it in a more matter-of-the-fact way.

  3. Great advice! It’s hard to learn, but once you figure out how to read people, you can tell if they are marking things up more than usual. You can judge their responses if you go too low. It’s an art and a science!

  4. It is so important to ask yourself “how much am I willing to pay?” before you start. That’s such a great tip, and one I learned the hard way. Another tip I learned in Bali was if I reached a standstill with the seller, I would say something like “Well so and so on this street is selling it for less” and they will meet your price. Also, you can try the walk-away and if they yell for you to come back, you know they’re willing to come down some more.

  5. a big trick is for how long do you haggle … for the shopkeeper time is important … usually we would haggle and haggle and haggle and right at the end try to walk away … they always almost take the hook ..

  6. Great information, Amy. I was recently in China with a friend who is Chinese. I was a little shy about haggling with some of the vendors who looked to be very poor. My friend was translating for me and at one point she just took over and appeared to get in an argument. I found out later that that’s just the way they cut a deal in China. Not a big deal… and I got a great bargain.

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