Bartering 101

Knowing when enough is enough

Many of us who have travelled have been here. You’re in a new country, ready to buy some new handicrafts to bring back for distribution, as promised, to your friends and loved ones… but only for a ‘fair’ price of course! Time to break out those new bartering skills you’ve only just recently acquired. It’s a good thing that foreigner was there to give you a few pointers in the night market last night, or you might have paid close to similar prices as back home!

Ecuador - Otavalo - Hammocks
Checkin out some hammocks in Otavalo Market, Ecuador
Thailand - Chiang Mai - Lamp Shop
Lamp Shop – Chiang Mai, Thailand
Peru - Cusco - Traditional Llama Wool Weaving
Llama Wool being woven in a local village in Peru

It’s fairly common knowledge that most developing countries are accustomed to bartering on the initial suggested price. This is one of the main reasons most street vendors don’t advertise prices with price tags, as the stall next to them would then surely try to undercut them. I’ll admit, coming from a country where this isn’t common practice, it can be quite the rush seeing how good a deal you can get on an already well-priced item. It almost becomes addictive to the point of being a little ludicrous. You’ll often be taught, by other travellers or through travel guide books, the techniques for scoring the best deal in the country you are visiting. Sometimes this may be by simply turning your back on the vendor, and magically the price is half what was initially quoted, other times the 2 for 1 deal seems to work, but more often than not, it simply takes persistence.

Japan - Osaka - Gift Shop
Gift Shop in Osaka, Japan – can you spot “Gizmo”?

One thing that seems to often get lost in that exchange is the true value of these items to the vendors selling them. Many travellers start challenging themselves, even on what was already a good deal, simply for the sake of bartering.

Peru - Cusco - Traditional Llama Wool
Woman’s weaving project – Cusco, Peru
Ecuador - Otavalo - Dream Catchers
Dream-catchers being displayed for sale in Ecuador’s Otavalo Market
Thailand - Chiang Mai - Karen Hilltribe Shop
Karen Long-Neck Hilltribes selling hand-woven fabrics in Thailand

At a fairly young age, on a trip through Thailand, I remember bartering for some biking goggles to accompany a rented scooter. I probably figured I’d only need them for the day, so why not try and get a price which would reflect that. I spent a good 20 minutes in the back and forth game, until I got a price I was quite pleased with.

Later that evening, I had met up with a local fellow I had befriended earlier on, and recounted my pleasure in the day’s score. At first he came across quite impressed, expressing that I had managed a price better than he could have probably achieved. After a bit of careful consideration, and a careful choice of words, he also put it in to perspective. He told me that occasionally the local vendors, depending on the season and scarcity of tourists, are forced to sell their items at a price lower than what they paid for them. “Why would someone do such a crazy thing??”, you ask. Simply so they’ll have money that evening to buy food for their families.

Thailand - Chiang Mai - Thai Silk
Thai Silk being sold in the night market in Chiang Mai, Thailand
India - Varkala - Tibetan Market
A Tibetan market lining a cliff side overlooking the ocean in Varkala, India

What seemed like a great deal to me, may have been a desperate attempt by the shopkeep just to put food on the table that night. Of course, looking at both sides of the coin, this is definitely not always the case. Some handicraft vendors are some of the wealthiest people in their town, and bartering is merely a formality for them.

Ecuador - Otavalo - Beads
Bead necklaces for sale in 100’s of colours
Ecuador - Otavalo - Gourd Carving
Gourds with intricate carvings from a market in Ecuador
Japan - Takayama - Frog Shop
Frog souvenirs from Takayama, Japan

My only suggestions to you are these. Before making a purchase on something large, try reading up a little online about what its value ‘should’ be. Then, if possible, browse several shops to see if you can get an average price, to know what you’re looking at, and its average value, and begin bartering from there… Once you know a good starting price, you can try a couple of the techniques of turning away or asking for a 2 for 1 deal.

The most important thing to remember to bartering successfully, and sustainably to the local culture,  is to try and read the look the vendor is giving you. When bartering, please try and really listen to the words they are saying. If they try to tell you “this is less than what I paid” or look at you with desperation when you try to undercut them further, there’s a good chance you’ve reached what should be the lowest price. Gauge how much the item is worth to you, and always remember, it’s probably considerably cheaper than you’re buying it from the source.. and now are bringing back not only a souvenir but a memory and experience, in addition to contributing to the local economy of your destination!

Ecuador - Otavalo - Woman Selling Hangings, ready for bartering
Wall hangings for sale in Ecuador

When you barter in a fair way, everyone’s a winner! You can leave happy knowing that you’ve done the right thing, and ended up with some cool swag in the process!

Thailand - Chiang Mai - Marionettes
Traditional Thai Marionettes
Peru - Cusco -Wool Clothing
Llama wool clothing and necklaces in Cusco, Peru
Thailand - Chiang Mai - Metal Working
Metal-works in the streets – from the artists’ hands to your hands
India - Varkala - Tibetan Handicrafts
Tibetan Handicrafts ready for some bartering in southern India
Ecuador - Otavalo - Wrestling Mask
The classic “must-put-on-crazy-masks” shot with a rainbow wrestling mask!

Have you ever been in a situation where you had to barter? Did you feel that you got a good price? Was there ever a moment in the process that it felt like it was going a bit overboard? Did the locals seem satisfied with the final price as well? Please share your experiences in the comment section below!

21 Responses

    1. That’s a wonderful way of putting it Stacey! Exactly my feeling of the situation – yet most tourists get into the mindset of ‘I can do cheaper than this’, with no real though of what it’s doing to the person selling it!

    1. Thanks Erin! It’s a touchy subject sometimes, as many argue that things are ‘just cheaper over here’… or that ‘bartering is just part of the game’.. but many of those same people don’t know all the rules to the game, not realizing they won long ago.

    2. Bartering is such a great and often overlooked tool. One of the bggeist stigmas I run into when I try to explain it to clients or even friends and family is the feeling of working for free. You are really trading value for value and you should treat it like that. So in your bartering adventures keep track, write contracts, and treat barters as sales and expenditures. It will help come tax time and it won’t leave you feeling like your giving work or resources away. One caveat though is that you should make sure you are benchmarking or checking often. That way expectations are always managed until the barter is completed.

    1. Hey Talon – my pleasure to voice up for the little guy! I know there’s a whole lot more to the ‘other side’ too… would love to read any similar (or opposing) views you may have on this too!

  1. true enough! a dollar saved for you could cost a meal on the table for them!

    always survey the price in advance if possible and pay what you think is worth.. if you bargain for the sake of bargaining or because you don’t trust the vendors are selling you at the good value, don’t buy! 🙂

    1. You’re dead-on – there’s two sides to every coin. Some people definitely do try to rip off the tourists, charging obscene amounts… while others are barely scraping by. Make sure to do a little homework before going too crazy with the bartering! Nice one 🙂

    1. Haha.. yes, sometimes indeed! Be wary of those who abuse the system from the other side as well. Ah, the world we live in! Good thing there’s people in it to keep it exciting! 😉

  2. It took me a while to get used to bartering but the best advice I ever got was to know first “how much the item is worth to you”.

    If and when I got that deal then I could be happy with the transaction. If it was too expensive for me, it was too expensive for me. I wouldn’t try to push a vendor too much toward my price if I was way off on my estimate.

    This habit usually worked fine for me and I had to give up on a lot of things because I realized they just weren’t worth the price (or the hassle)!

    1. It’s a very good philosophy you live by, Adam! Needless to say that we live in a world where we’ve put too much value on possession as it is. If it’s too much to spend… do you really need to clutter your life with even more material possessions? Something I’ve had to give up while travelling with Carry-On Only for the past 6 months! no space for knick-knacks!

    2. LOL, City.But something inieresttng….we have sold a few things on Craigs List (my husband does the work; I can’t deal with it), and he has noticed that more and more people are wanting to “trade”, let’s say, a motorcycle for a car, or vice-versa. I think we’ll see more of that.

  3. “(t)ry and read the look the vendor is giving you. When bartering, please try and really listen to the words they are saying” –> I feel this is the best way to know. I’ve encountered shopkeepers who seem really desperate, and I’ve encountered those who also just want to see if they can sell you the item for a greater profit.

    By the way, in the Philippines, we even have a very specific term for haggling, or bartering, as you call it. We call it “tawad,” and it’s a very common practice here, particularly in public markets. 🙂

    1. Ah yes, I’ve heard the term Tawad before. It can be really fun, but a lot of common sense should be used as well. Sometimes the suggested prices are a test of how much they can charge, other times, it’s really the value of the item, at least the value to the vendor. When it’s nickels and dimes (small denominations) that are making the difference, sometimes it’s best to just pay the little extra and still recognize a good value.

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