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How to Master the Art of Haggling
Bargaining tips, even if you're the shy and retiring type

Bargaining isn't for the faint-hearted, and for some reason women don't try it as often as men. But like many social skills - and it is a social skill - the art of haggling can be learned.

Trinkets on sale at Istanbul Grand BazaarTrinkets, like these at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, are great for haggling. Quantity is important: if you buy several items, the unit price should be lower than if you only buy one.

Haggling is really quite basic.

Start small: just ask how much. (Always memorize this phrase before going shopping.)

Once you've been answered, add a question: Is this your best price?

Or if that's too forward for you, simply say: "This is too expensive."

This technique will get the bargaining ball rolling no matter how unaccustomed you are to debating prices.

I have a distinct advantage in this area, having been born into a Mediterranean family in which bargaining was always worth a try. Even in the poshest shop, my father would smile broadly at the salesperson and ask for a discount while I ducked behind a rack in embarrassment.

And to my surprise and mortification, it often worked! Over the years I saw him get upgrades on flights, discounts on designer goods, and free drinks in restaurants.

I don't go as far, but I'm not averse to asking a shop whether this is their best price (and it often isn't). At the garden shop the other day, I bought an armload of plants and asked if there was a discount for quantity. The clerk looked at me strangely, then smiled broadly: "5% for you." A garden shop in France!

Blackjack game: upping the anteImagine trying to up the ante in this Costa Brava casion by smiling and asking, "Come on, please, just one little Ace?" No. In this case, what you see is what you get

A step-by-step guide to haggling, even if the thought makes you cringe

The art of haggling and bargaining are fine arts of travel, but like many age-old customs, they are governed by unwritten laws.

In some parts of the world, like the Middle East and Asia, prices are artificially hiked for tourists in the expectation that bargaining will take place.

Being a woman is both good and bad: countries who respect women less might see you as easier to intimidate, especially if you're traveling solo. On the other hand, there's always a certain undercurrent between buyer and seller during haggling - if you sense it, you can use it.

WHEN BEING FOREIGN HURTS: Don't get angry if the 'local price' is cheaper than the 'tourist price'. In countries where bargaining is the norm, the average person is poorer than you are. You're looking for a trinket; she's trying to feed her family. The pennies you save might pay for a week's meals for her family. Admittedly it is irksome but if you feel that strongly about it, make a few connections and take someone local along. 

Before you even start haggling, there are a few things you need to know:

  • Make sure the art of haggling is indeed a local custom. There's no point in trying to lower the price at a Swiss watchmaker or in a Wal-Mart store.
  • Most government-run shops have fixed prices: don't bother bargaining. The same usually goes for supermarkets, bottles of alcohol, or public transportation fares.
Public transportation mosaic in MadridPublic transportation is one of the many places you can't bargain. In most countries, buses and trains have fixed prices, although prices of taxis and minibuses can sometimes be brought down.

The Art of Haggling 101

  1. Do your research first. Ask people the value of a certain object - ask your hotel clerk, other travelers, the waiter in your restaurant. Anyone who speaks your language.
  2. Set an approximate price in your mind. There is no set rule for this but I usually assume the price I'm first quoted is about 50-75% too high. If someone quotes me $100, I'll assume the real price is more around $50 so I'll start by offering $25. It depends where you are. Again, ask people first.
  3. Learn a few words. The most practical ones are: how much, too expensive, thank you, and no. When it comes to numbers, you can either write them down or tap them out on a calculator (not on an expensive smartphone if you happen to be in a crowded market or bazaar, please, or you may never see it again).
  4. Expect to be pressured. Plenty of tactics will be brought to bear on you. You'll be told it costs nothing to look, but once you're in the shop the hard-sell begins. Stay in control and remember, as long as you haven't made an offer, you don't have to buy.
  5. Make an offer. I usually offer about half of what I'm willing to pay. The vendor may look apoplectic at your offer: great! The bargaining has begun in earnest and a counter-offer should be around the corner.
  6. Appear disinterested. The seller is watching your every move and his counter-offer will go up in tandem with your apparent interest. The seller will now respond to your offer.
  7. Refuse. That's right, you always refuse a first price. Ask if this is their best price or tell them it is too expensive. Then make a counter-offer that is still less than you are willing to pay.
  8. Go back and forth. This is the essence of bargaining. He will come down, you will go up, until you meet somewhere in the middle. You may pay a bit more than you wanted to, he may sell a little cheaper than he wanted to. But if you're both relatively satisfied, this will be a successful sale.
  9. Leave your guilt aside - especially when hearing about starving relatives or expensive merchandise. They are simply part of the art of haggling. Just don't start unless you are truly interested in buying; Western-style comparison shopping is not the norm everywhere.
  10. Be prepared to walk away and give up. If you can't agree on a price, there's no point in prolonging the agony.

Some words of wisdom about haggling and bargaining

  • Courtesy lies at the heart of most bargaining. Aggression, arrogance or anger will usually be counterproductive so please, leave your frustration outside.
  • In some countries you'll be offered tea, coffee or sweets during haggling. This is intended to lull you into buying, but stick to your guns. It's a normal part of bargaining and you're under no obligation to buy as a result - no matter how pushy the seller gets.
  • But once you start bargaining and make an offer, honor it. Notice the word honor - it's a question of principle. Backing out of an offer is considered shameful by most. If someone else is being dishonest, there is no reason for you to reciprocate.
  • If you're brought to a shop or stall by an 'interested' third party, like a driver or guide, the final price will be more expensive. Your middleman will be getting a cut.
  • If a seller refuses to negotiate, her price may already be acceptable.
  • If you buy several articles, the unit price should go down. (Remember my garden store plants?)
  • If you feel you're really being taken for a ride or if a vendor becomes abusive, leave. You're there to carry out a transaction, not to be insulted.
  • Being a woman often doesn't help. You may be considered an easier sell: you're not, so don't give anyone that satisfaction.
  • All's fair in love and shopping. Don't believe you are buying an original Vuitton or Rolex (you aren't) - or even real leather, for that matter. Expect to be lied to.
  • If you're not planning to buy, say so. Tell the vendor you'll be back another day and that you're just looking. It won't stop her from trying to sell, but at least you'll have a clear conscience as you walk away.
  • If you really don't think you can handle it on your own, try taking a professional with you, like I did in Istanbul.
  • And finally, haggling is a smiling and pleasant activity, so leave that attitude at the door and get ready for some jousting.
Silks for sale in IstanbulHow can I resist?
Cloths and carpets for saleI don't.

One last thing: courtesy is always important when you haggle. While vendors might get upset or angry, I've seen equally bad, even insulting behavior on the part of foreigners.

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(and to say thank you I'll send you the 'list of 9' indispensable items I NEVER travel without!)