Travel tips: How to haggle in foreign countries

It's an unfair fight – the equivalent of Muhammad Ali going into the ring with, well, me.

In the blue corner you have a consummate professional, a person who has spent his or her entire life immersed in the culture of haggling, who makes a livelihood out of driving a hard bargain, who actually enjoys the experience of going head-to-head over every sale in a battle of wits and wills. This person knows the value of everything. They know the exact price they can go down to before a line has been crossed and the deal has gone bad.

In the red corner, meanwhile, you have me, a naive, good-natured tourist who just wants to buy a few souvenirs and get home with having offended anyone or spent a ridiculous amount of money. I have very little clue of what anything is worth and no idea of how far I could push things to get to that number even if I knew what it was in the first place. 

Who do you think is going to win? Obviously it's not me, as evidenced by the house full of stuff that I've paid far too much for over the years. I shelled out $600 for a Central Asian carpet once without the first clue of how much it was really worth. I paid $50 for a Peruvian hat, and a few hours later met someone who'd just paid $20 for the same thing. (There's nothing more disheartening than having a fellow traveller inform you of how badly you just got ripped off.)

How do you haggle? Some people seem like they're born for it. They take no prisoners, they just get in there and wrestle for the best price, with no qualms about walking away if they don't get to a figure they're happy with.

I have none of that resilience. Shop owners can probably spot this weakness a mile away, knowing that I'm going to buy what I really want to buy regardless of how much I end up having to pay for it. There will be a half-hearted back and forth over the price, but at the end of our conversation I'll be walking away with a purchase. Everyone involved understands that.

There's a word for people like me: Westerners. We're just not built for this game. You never have to haggle over anything in the Western world. From your first purchase of lollies at the corner store as a kid to the new car you just bought for the family, there's a set price for things and that's what you pay. 

You don't walk into a McDonald's and offer 50 cents for a cheeseburger. You don't go into the Apple store and bargain them down to $500 for an iPhone. 

The shopping experience for us is a cut-and-dried game. There's a price: you either pay it or you don't.


But then you go travelling. You go to a country such as  China, or Morocco, or Turkey, or Egypt, and the game has changed. Unfortunately, no one thought to teach you the rules. Suddenly every price is fluid. The numbers you're quoted are outrageous – it's your job, your responsibility, to persuade the seller to get it down to something more reasonable. 

But what's reasonable? You're new to this country, this city. You don't know how much things should cost. You don't know how outrageous that first price is. You toss out a figure of your own and the seller looks all offended, like you're calling him a cheat or something. So you back down, you meet him somewhere in the middle, then you go back home and tell everyone that you paid a little bit less than you actually did. And really, it was a bargain. I mean, you should have heard what he wanted for it originally.  

We're useless at this stuff. So useless that people even get the terms wrong. How often do you hear travellers boasting that they "bartered" for a souvenir? No, you didn't barter. Unless you swapped your T-shirt for that Chairman Mao wristwatch, you haggled. And probably fairly poorly.

For most of us, haggling is a chore. It's an unnecessary battle, a hassle to add to a day full of hassles arguing with taxi drivers and trying to figure out what's safe to eat. Just tell me the price!

But you have to get involved with it. Haggling has to become part of your everyday existence in some countries, otherwise you'll end up being swindled over and over again. You have to bear in mind that this is all a game, that no one is really getting upset or offended no matter how little you offer or how many times you walk away.

It's a challenge. It's an art form. And it's a battle you're unlikely to win.

Have you mastered the art of haggling? Share your experience by leaving a comment below.