Updated May 29th, 2017.
Let’s face it, haggling is rarely about the money. Sure, we might get fleeced some places if we didn’t bargain at all, and, yes, bargaining is part of some cultures. But most of the time, our efforts only end up saving us a few bucks here and there.
So we haggle for bragging rights, mostly, and perhaps because we believe that everything has an intrinsic “fair” price, a fixed cost for both local and traveler. At least that’s why I used to haggle so hard.
And I knew all the tricks, from asking for prices of random things to slyly grumbling to my friend in a “secretive” tone. I even had the walkaway down pat. And I still use these tricks on occasion because, well, taking the first price offered would be downright silly.
But after years of travel through dozens of countries, I don’t think of a “fair” price in the same way. No, I’ve realised that bragging rights and a couple of bucks come at a heavier cost to the person across from me.
So if you’ve ever questioned the idea of “fair” price or inwardly cringed at someone relentlessly haggling over a three-dollar t-shirt, here are a few things to think about.
1. Backpackers are rich compared to many locals
- We are, comparatively speaking, rich. I used to balk at this idea, thinking, “Who, me? I’m not some rich dude.” The truth was, and is, that being able to visit exotic locales makes me rich, at least compared to many locals, some of whom, like the average Cambodian garment worker, make less than 100 USD a month. No matter how you slice it, that’s not a lot of coin. Now your veritable wealth is nothing to be ashamed of; just be grateful for your good fortune and graceful with how you interact with the world.
2. Remember the vendor is just trying to make a living
- We are haggling with another person, a human being who is just trying to make a living— and not an opulent one. I’d bet that Bolivian orange juice vendor is not stashing away for his upcoming European tour. No, he probably pushes that cart up and down the steep streets of La Paz selling fresh-squeezed juice for 25 cents a cup to take something home to his family. Can you blame him if he tries to take home a bit more by charging tourists 50 cents? That’s not to say you should pay 50 cents if you know the going rate is 25, but be amiable about it.
3. What is a fair price?
- We look like jerks haggling over a few dollars and cents. Listen, it’s 25 cents. Is 50 cents a “fair” price for sipping fresh OJ under a Bolivian sun? You bet. Is 3 bucks “fair” for a t-shirt that says “Angkor What?” Of course. And haggling in ways that suggest those aren’t “fair” prices does not make you look good. I know because every time I made some poor vendor desperately call after me just to get me to turn around and grace them with my two-dollar purchase, I was that jerk.
4. Better stories
- We get better stories—and memories—by treating people humanely. Though I don’t tell it often, my favorite bargaining memory is of haggling for a four-foot wooden totem pole in Arequipa, Peru. After squeezing that lady out of every last cent I could, I got back to my hostel and realized what a jerk I’d been. So I went and bought a bouquet of flowers, which I took to her the next day along with the extra few bucks she had been trying to get me to pay. It’s one of the better memories of bargaining I have. Now you tell me if that isn’t a better story, too.
5. Accept that as a tourist, you will overpay
- We will always get taken for a little extra anyway. You don’t have to like it, but you might as well get used to it. Think of it as a tax for being able to see the world, and budget a few bucks every day to a “getting ripped off at least a little bit” fund. That’s not to say that you should give up bargaining or knowingly overpay, but you should accept overpaying as part of the great adventure that is traveling. And if overpaying for your coconut water or your souvenir batik sarong is the worst part of your trip, you’ve done well, my friend.
About the writer: Conan Griffin is a traveller and teacher, a husband and father. He and his family live in SW Florida when they are not off on some adventure.