How to Haggle Respectfully in Poor Countries

You may equate bartering to taking from people who have less than you, but in many places it’s actually expected and if done respectfully can be mutually enriching!

Like many privileged to have been born in one of the world’s richest countries, I have struggled with whether to barter when shopping in poor countries, and if I do, how to haggle respectfully. On the one hand, I don’t want to be taken advantage of. It’s not uncommon for people to overinflate prices for “wealthy American tourists” and it probably doesn’t matter to them that “barely solvent” would be a more accurate description of my finances.

On the other, as unfortunate as I would be considered by American standards, I still have a solid brick roof over my head, food on my table, health insurance, access to credit, and myriad luxuries that those of us who live in first-world countries often take for granted. Who am I to fight over a couple bucks with someone in a third-world country?

This is the dilemma that confronts me every time I visit an Asian country–the clash of my privileged country guilt, with the desire to experience the culture without losing my shirt.

As my well-traveled grandma would sometimes remind me, haggling respectfully is actually part of the culture in many Asian countries, and is a form of social bonding. For Chinese people, haggling while doing business with friends is as natural (and friendly!) as wrestling for the check at a restaurant after dinner.

Top Tips To Haggle RespectfullY

Adopt the right mindset.
Realize that there is a price that will be morally acceptable to both of you, and if your mission is to haggle respectfully, you should not be trying to push beyond that point. Above all, bartering is a compromise. Driving a hard bargain can be perceived as extremely offensive in some countries, including Bali where I have seen, and was sometimes with, people who have been chased out of stores and sometimes even manhandled for haggling too aggressively.

Prepare to make concessions.
The first step in Negotiations 101 is that you must give some things up (or we would have called it Stubbornness 101!). The good news is that what you want and what the salesperson wants, doesn’t have to be diametrically opposed.

What you want and what the salesperson wants, doesn’t have to be diametrically opposed.

Even when it seems like the only thing there is to negotiate on is price, there are almost always other ways to sweeten the deal. For example, could they cut a lower price if you offer to pay in cash? What if you’re willing to buy 2 or more, or you and your friend will each buy 1? If you’re buying a surfboard, will they throw in the leash and fins? Get creative, and remember that haggling respectfully is not about winning, but helping each other win.

Offer to pay in cash.
As a general rule with small businesses or individual sellers, cash is king because if helps the vendor avoid paying credit card transaction fees, and it leaves less of a paper trail than other payment methods. In most places but especially underdeveloped countries, few prices are set in stone if you’re willing to pay in cold, hard [insert local currency]. Offering to pay in cash should be a key tool in your repertoire on how to haggle respectfully.

We make a practice whenever making a purchase to ask if we get a discount for paying with cash instead of credit card. Most of the time, we get a small discount (e.g. $10 off a $90 shuttle to the airport) but we’ve also gotten non-monetary perks like a few free days on our surfboard rentals, which doesn’t cost the vendor much but makes us both happier about the purchase.

Go in with a plan.
I was an Entrepreneurship major in college, and my favorite class ever was Selling and Negotiations with Professor Emanuel, who was a masterful salesman and had the lustrous career to prove it. One lesson I never forgot was to go into every negotiation with a plan.

Know what you want, what you’re willing to give up, and what your walking away point is. How much is this product worth to you? How much is too much? Would you be willing to accept a non-monetary perk? Just as importantly, you need to know your opponent and what he or she ultimately wants in order to know what to offer them to get them to cooperate!

Know when to back off.
As I mentioned before, haggling aggressively in some countries can get you into hot water. If you detect signs of anger, frustration, or impatience, it may be best to leave and try to find the same product somewhere else, or to come back another day.

How to Haggle Respectfully in Poor Countries.

Aren’t we all just cute puppies trying to make a living selling some mango? Who can’t relate to that??

Strategies to Haggle Respectfully

There are many, many approaches to haggling, but I’d like to introduce you to a few strategies to get your feet wet with bartering. I can tell you from first-hand experience that 99% of haggling comes from your experience for 3 reasons.

  1. You learn how to read people better (and will know how to react appropriately).
  2. You’ll gain confidence in your haggling ability.
  3. You’ll be introduced to many more situations, and develop your own strategy for handling different situations.

Approach #1: Offer Half
I often hear that a good default strategy for haggling respectfully is to ask how much the product is, and then offer half. It’s such a commonly used strategy that most vendors will be expecting it, and won’t be offended that you are trying.

If you have never paid anything but full-price for things in your life, this is the easiest way to begin your bartering career. You’ll see that negotiating doesn’t have to an insult to the person you’re buying from AND you’ll taste the thrill of scoring a deal (which will hopefully whet your appetite to try it again!)

However, the problem with this approach is that many shop owners may have doubled their prices when they quoted you expecting this strategy, in which case you’ll still end up paying more for the product than it’s worth. Start here, but don’t stay here.

Approach #2: Do Your Research
For mass-produced trinkets and tourist paraphernalia (think every shop in Bali’s Kuta area, or Kuala Lumpur’s Central Market), I’ve found it best to shop around and do a couple of bartering test runs. Let me illustrate my point with an example:

I was in Kuta looking for a couple pairs of those baggy, cotton pants (you might know them as “gap year pants” because of all the college kids who come back from Bali wearing them!) and managed to haggle a pair I liked down to 50,000 rupiah (about $4) from 100,000 (about 8 bucks).

Not even halfway down the street, I was looking at the same thing in a different store, and a salesperson asked me how much I paid for the one slung over my shoulder. I lied and said 30,000 rupiah to see what would happen, and he immediately offered to sell me more of the same pants for only 25,000! These pants were of the same quality, similar patterns, and probably came from the same factories/warehouses that stock every store on the block!

Remember what I said earlier about bracketing your price points. How much should this product cost? What is the range between what you should or want to pay for it, and the price that is too expensive (your walk-away point)? Know your limits, and you’ll never be swayed by a fast-talking salesman! Remember: You can haggle respectfully, and still protect your own interests.

Approach #3: Be Upfront (Or Appear to)
If you know what you want and how much it should cost, be specific with the vendor about what you’re looking for, but understate how much you’re willing to pay. I’ve found this works much better for big-ticket items, such as a surfboard or a car, where you’re expected to haggle a little (respectfully).

For example, you could say “I’m looking for a board that’s between 6’ and 6’4, quad-fin, and I don’t want to pay more than $250, show me what’s in that range” or (to a taxi cab) “I need to get from here to the airport, will you take me there for $50?”

Some sleazy salesmen might try to show you items that more expensive, or tell you that you won’t find anything in your price range. If you have done your research and know how much you’re willing to pay, you can use this opportunity to walk away. The salesperson will know they tried to trick the wrong person, and will usually be much more accommodating to make up for being caught.

If you aren’t sure exactly what you want, or how much you’re supposed to pay for it, try a combination of approach #2 and #3. When Jake and I moved to Tamarindo, we went back to the same store that we had rent boards from when we were here for a 3-week test trip a few months earlier (to secure an apartment, and make arrangements for moving here, etc).

We had a friendly relationship with the shop owner and were happy with the boards we were renting, but because we hadn’t rented from any other stores, we didn’t have anything to compare it to, had no idea what other boards were available, and weren’t even sure how much the ones we’re using were worth.

I persuaded Jake to visit at least 2 other surf shops with me, just to get a benchmark of what we should expect to pay. Our plan was this: since the original surf shop was right on the beach and allowed us free use of lockers to keep our shoes and keys safe while we went surfing, we would buy from them if the price for a comparable surfboard at a different store was the same or less than $50-100 cheaper.

In other words, we put the price of the added perk (not having to hide our sandals on the beach and risk losing them when we go surfing) at about $50, or how much it would roughly cost to replace our flip-flops if we lost them.

Approach #4: Don’t Haggle
A good rule of thumb of whether you can haggle respectfully or should just pay full price is whether the person selling the product is in a position to barter with you. An old woman weaving handmade baskets and selling them as her only source of income is not someone who can afford to lose your business.

You can certainly be a jerk and try to rip her off, but keep in the mind that you wouldn’t be the first or the last person who tries to take advantage of someone in a poor situation. Is that really the kind of person you want to be? The kind of traveler you want to represent?

The poorest among us in the developed countries are still incredibly privileged to even have the desire to travel. There are places in the world where leaving the country you’ve lived in forever isn’t even an aspiration because there are much more pressing things to worry about, like food and survival. Have some respect that we are welcomed into their country and offered the opportunity to lift up another human being. Haggle respectfully, but also know when to just show some respect.

I’m currently working on in-depth guides for haggling respectfully in specific situations, such as vacation rentals, buying a surfboard, and more, so stay tuned!

Do you have any killer strategies for how to haggle respectfully in a poor country?

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17 thoughts on “How to Haggle Respectfully in Poor Countries

    • Steph says:

      Thanks so much for reading and you’re very welcome! Between you and me, I’m STILL intimidated by haggling sometimes, and have to remind myself that it’s totally OK not to haggle all the time if you’re not feeling up to it!

  1. Lauren Meshkin @BonVoyageLauren says:

    I love haggling and these are great tips! Thanks for sharing and happy travels 🙂

  2. Nathan says:

    I completely agree with this. Sometimes it can be a fine line. I saw someone haggling over the price of a bottle of water one time. Great post.

    • Steph says:

      Wow, that’s pretty extreme. Some people just take haggling way too far, we’re all just people on this earth trying to make a living! Thanks so much for reading, and for your kind words!

  3. Nancy Pitman says:

    I love this article, it brings me back to the most masterful haggler I ever met. My dad! He once got a $45 shirt down to $5 at the Grand Bazaar in Turkey. It took him all of about 5 minutes to get the vendor down. After he bartered he decided he didn’t want the shirt anymore it was all about making the deal. I ended up giving the guy 7Euro for his time and gave my son the shirts. He was expert, he was a master and I miss him very much. Thanks for the memory and the smile!

    • Steph says:

      Thank you for sharing such a special story about your dad! I know what it’s like to miss a loved one and to take comfort in a memory of them, and am just glad I was able to remind you of one with your father!

  4. Sophie Whelan says:

    Awesome stuff. I think that too many people ‘fear’ haggling, in case they offend anyone – this explains it in a way that you can understand about haggling and hopefully save some money.
    I would love to see a similar thing for everyday or common purchases, such as a phone package or TV!

    • Steph says:

      What a great idea for a blog post! One of the projects in my selling and negotiations class was using these skills in a real life situation and reporting back on the results. I called my phone company and convinced them to give me a faster and cheaper internet plan than was currently being offered. I’ll write up what happened, and be sure to let you know personally when it’s published!

  5. JetsetterJenn says:

    This is good advice! When I worked in the corporate world I negotiated all the time, and it’s definitely a different experience out there at the markets (though many principles are the same). This is great advice for starters… the most important thing is to read the situation and never be afraid to walk away. Good post!

    • Steph says:

      I really appreciate that coming from someone so experienced! I worked in M&A so I totally know what you mean, the principles stay the same, it’s the environment and the people you’re dealing with that are different. Reading the situation is definitely the best advice!

    • Steph says:

      Thanks so much! I’ve never been to Brazil! Is there a culture of haggling there too? I really appreciate knowing this approach is also useful in South America too!

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