how NOT to bargain

As I’ve run out of deep thoughts (come on, two months was more than any of us could have expected from me), I’ve started asking around for ideas for blog posts from other people. This idea is courtesy of my brother, Henry.

Henry asks, “Do you have any tips on bargaining? Or how not to get ripped off?”

No. I am exceptionally bad at bargaining and haggling. And I’m pretty sure I am getting ripped off constantly. If being awful at negotiating was a sport, I’d be in the Olympics for it. So, I probably shouldn’t give out any advice on how to bargain. I have, however, learned a lot of lessons from all my mistakes thus far. Maybe you’ll find value in these.

things you should NOT say (or scream)
I have a really, really bad habit of immediately yelling whatever pops into my head (I’m told I have no filter…?). Along with not being a trait that endears you to new acquaintances (“whoa, a GINGER!”), it is not at all helpful when attempting to negotiate a better price. So, my first tip is an obvious one: It is never to your advantage to let the vendor know how much you want an item or service. Therefore, do not say any of these things (which I’ve all said or yelled):

  • Oh my god, this is EXACTLY what I’ve been looking for!
  • WOW! I want that!
  • How much? <price given> What?! That’s so cheap!!!

As soon as anyone hears any of these things, negotiations are effectively over (if they had ever even started), and you’re stuck with the price given. Never ever reveal how much you want something. I suggest feigning mild indifference.

  • Oh, this little piece of art that I’ve been ogling for the last 20 minutes? Nahhhh, I don’t really want it….
  • I know we’re really desperate-looking and hiking alone on an abandoned road. And you’re the first tuk tuk we’ve seen in an hour. But no, thanks, I think I’d rather walk the 11km back to town in the dark instead of paying you an extra $5 over the normal fare.

be educated
It’s hard to negotiate if you don’t know what a good price is. There was one time I was shopping for a jacket in Hoi An, and the lady quoted me some price that I thought sounded amazing since it was so cheap in US dollars. I immediately screamed, “What? Cheap!”

No filter.

If I had actually done any sort of research, though, I would have known that I could have gotten the jacket at any of the many of the other shops for at least 30% less. However, as I’d already revealed what I thought of their price, the lady was unwilling to negotiate. When I weakly attempted to get a lower price, she just smiled at me and rang me up. Fail.

To know what a good price is, shop around a bit before ever purchasing anything. In Hoi An, there were a million little tailor shops, and it’s easy to just walk around and gauge what prices people will give you for similar items. And you can try to negotiate with some shops and see if they drop their prices at all and use those prices as baselines to negotiate with other shops. “Ohhh, this other shop said I could have it for X dollars instead.” Almost all touristy type items, from keychains and magnets to art work, can be found at many vendors throughout the city (and sometimes, country. And sometimes, all of Southeast Asia). Don’t buy anything the first time you see it. Get a baseline quote and then check out other shops for it.

Another good way to get a baseline for prices is to ask locals. We’ve been fortunate in that we meet tons of locals in our travels through ultimate or couchsurfing, and everyone has been really helpful in letting us know how much to expect to pay for certain things like cab/tuk tuk/bus fare, food, and merchandise.

How low I start negotiations at depends on where I am and the context. In Vietnam, where bargaining is a must, I start at least at half. But in places where bargaining is much less prevalent and prices are posted, I’ll just drop it a couple dollars (or whatever currency). It seems like the fewer tourists there are in an area, the easier it is to negotiate and get lower prices. In areas with many tourists, the vendors aren’t as concerned about making the sale since there’s another tourist shopping right after you, so they are less inclined to bargain. 

If I don’t know what the haggling culture is like, I start by offering half the asking price and gauging their response. Sometimes, people laugh or completely balk (one guy trying to sell us a knockoff Lonely Planet guide literally grabbed the book back out of Matt’s hand when Matt made an excessively low offer). But most of the time, they’ll start dropping their price, and you both slowly work your way towards a middle-ground. It’s definitely important to know what your highest price is and be prepared to walk away if you go over it.

walk away
The best weapon you have in negotiations is the ability to walk away. Matt and I have figured out a good cop, bad cop system that has worked well for us. Matt will approach the vendor/cab driver/whoever and get an initial price. I will immediately and belligerently react to the price we are given. “WHAT?! THAT’S RIDICULOUS!” And I will start to storm off in a huff. But the vendor will then immediately appeal to Matt and drop their price. I usually continue to act irrational and irritated until we get to a much lower price.

Sometimes, the vendor will just start yelling cheaper prices at you as you walk away because they know you can find the same item for cheaper at the next shop down the road. In Koh Lanta, Thailand, I was on the hunt for a Red Bull tank top and found one I liked. I asked how much, and the shopkeeper quoted me 350 Thai baht ($10 USD). Having found other similar tanks for much cheaper at other shops, I snorted and immediately started walking away with no intentions of even trying to negotiate. As we walked out of the shop, we heard her yell, “Ok! 150!” A common phrase yelled at our backs is “X dollars if you buy now!” so that you don’t buy it at a competing shop.

Sometimes, you have to accept that you won’t get the price you want from a particular vendor. At a night market in Penang, Malaysia, Matt and I were looking for cheap sunglasses to replace the cheap knockoffs we’d both lost. I picked up a pair of “Ray-Bans” for 10 MR (~$3.30 USD). Matt later found a pair he liked and asked how much. The guy selling them said, “60 ringgit.” Appalled, Matt scoffed and began walking away. Unwilling to let Matt leave without some “Oakleys,” the guy said “Sir! How much would you like?” Matt, still in sticker-shock from the quoted price, replied, “I can’t even start to negotiate with that!”

on not getting ripped off
One of my greatest frustrations of this trip is how often I feel like I’m getting ripped off. I think part of the reason that Vietnam is a polarizing place to visit is because it constantly feels like people are trying to scam you… and they often are. Part of the reason I hated traveling in India in 2012 was because it always felt like people were trying to get money from us. It’s exhausting and unpleasant to always feel like a walking ATM and constantly wonder if people are trying to scam you.

Unfortunately, occasionally being subjected to scams is a part of traveling. There will always be people who want to take advantage of others, and travelers are easy targets because they are not as familiar with their surroundings or the local culture.

The greatest defense against getting ripped off for us has been just being educated. Matt does a lot of research, and he’s been able to find advice from other travelers on TripAdvisor on local scams to watch out for. Lonely Planet, WikiTravel and other travel sites also have good, current information on things to be wary of.

On our way to Hoi An, Vietnam, we had to transfer from our long-distance travel bus to a local public bus. Matt had read online that it was a common for the local bus operators to try to get a ridiculously inflated fare from travelers when the actual price is only 18,000 VND (less than $1 USD). We were traveling with a Swiss couple, and we let them know to be prepared for this. Matt and I prepared 18,000 VND each so that when we were asked for the fare, we could demonstrate that we know the actual rate and were unwilling to pay any more. Simply showing that you’re knowledgeable goes a long ways in avoiding getting ripped off.

The people collecting the fare approached our Swiss friends first and attempted to try to get them to pay 40,000 VND each (lower than the price we had anticipated getting). After a brief period of hand gesturing and confused language miscues, I summoned the lady in Vietnamese, “Chị oi!” The woman, acknowledging that perhaps a “local” was traveling with these white foreigners, grudgingly accepted 20,000 VND from each of them (no change given). When she got to Matt and I, she attempted to tell us that we also had to pay for seats for our giant backpacks. But Matt stuck to his guns, “Nuh uh. 18,000.” and the lady quickly relented, took our money, and left us alone.

when you don’t know wtf is happening
Often in Vietnam, we had no idea what sort of price to expect. We would be at a street food stall where no one spoke English and my Vietnamese wasn’t passable or we had hopped on buses where we couldn’t find any solid information on the correct fares. How were we supposed to know if we were getting ripped off or not? Were we being charged more than the locals?

There are a couple things that we tried to do to figure out what the correct prices were when we had no previous intel. We would sometimes befriend the people sitting next to us and ask how much the food was — even if they didn’t speak the same language, people appreciated us being goofy and enjoying the local fare. With enough hand gestures, anything can be figured out. Other times, we would surreptitiously watch other people pay for their dishes or bus fare to figure out what an appropriate price range was.

Sometimes, we still didn’t know how much to pay and couldn’t figure it out with our powers of observation. And we just couldn’t be bothered to care enough to avoid getting scammed. So, we would just get the smallest bill we thought would cover the price of the ticket (using past similar experiences as a baseline) and see what change we got back. Most of the time, I think we were charged a decent rate when we did this. And if we were ripped off, it couldn’t have amounted to more than a dollar. Even if we’d paid 40,000 VND for that local bus ride, that’s only 22,000 more than the actual fare, or just over $1 USD. It sucks to feel like you’re being cheated, but sometimes it’s easier to just accept the hit and not haggle over a dollar. Pick your battles.

I started out on this trip as a terrible bargainer/haggler. I am still a terrible bargainer/haggler. I find it horribly uncomfortable to try to argue my way to a cheaper price, but I also don’t want to feel like I’m just throwing money away. I like to think that I’ve gotten a little better at it in the last two months, but maybe I’m just imagining things. At the very least, this experience has taught me to NOT immediately yell the first thought that pops into my head.

That won’t last.

About lisa

28-year-old Asian-American hailing from Denver, Colorado, USA. Traveler. Adventurer. Ultimate frisbee player. Snowboarder. Photographer. Giffer. Blogger. Sarcastic / snarky / sassy comment-maker. Fond of eating, sleeping, and wandering.

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