The Fine Art of Haggling

Bargaining in markets and stores is a part of everyday travel life, and learning how to haggle is as important as learning a few basic phrases in the local lingo

Bargaining for spices in the souk of Aswan, Egypt.Bargaining for spices in the souk of Aswan, Egypt.

Say what you want about soccer, bargaining is truly the most popular non-contact sport around the world.

Unfortunately, the art of haggling is something most Americans—coming from our world of straightforward price tags and discount coupons—are uncomfortable with at best, and often try to avoid entirely.

This is a shame, as bargaining—in street markets and shops alike—is one of the easiest (certainly one of the most visceral) ways at your disposal to interact with the locals, and, when done properly, helps earn you respect and serious street cred. In fact, in most countries, not haggling is considered rather rude, a sign of economic arrogance, or even a downright insult.

When to Haggle

Market culture
For the most fun shopping anywhere in Europe, head to an outdoor market. It may be the fruit and vegetable market open each morning, the daily leather market stalls of Florence, the weekly antique market of London's Portobello Road, Madrid's El Rastro flea market, or the monthly antiques extravaganza in Arezzo. Even non-shoppers will have fun exploring street markets. Shoppers will find great bargains.

Market stalls are where you'll find the most colorful characters (among merchants and shoppers alike), the best deals, the widest variety of goods (from fine art to used plumbing supplies), and the best chances to haggle.

Markets are also where you'll find the most attempts to fleece the unsuspecting tourist, the most cunningly disguised Gucci or Hermés knock offs (although, if all you want to buy is an imitation, this is perfect), and the potentially shoddiest merchandise.

Aside from commerce, markets are also great for taking pictures, soaking up local character, decompressing from too many museums, and getting cleaned out by pickpockets in the crowd. Have fun; be careful.

As you probably know, don't bother bargaining in North America except at the very low end of the economic spectrum (flea markets, yard sales) and, for some reason, the very high end (houses, cars).

Anywhere in Latin America, Africa, or Asia, haggling is expected everywhere but in the most Western-style shops. (Though you don't really bargain over food.)

When it comes to Europe, definitely haggle in any street market —as I said before, in most it's insulting (not to mention economically unsound) not to.

When it comes to shops, bargaining may not be appropriate and, at any rate, is always more low-key. Bargain harder as you move south in Europe. Shops in London never haggle (and will be offended if you try). Those in Greece often do.

Read your guidebooks to find out which countries honor this ancient art in the shops as well as on the streets.

How to Haggle

Take your time throughout the haggling process. Get to know the shopkeeper. Especially in Greece, Turkey, and as you get closer to the Middle East or North Africa where haggling is a high art, you may spend an hour with the owner on big items, drinking tea, showing each other pictures of the family, getting friendly.

This is all part of the ritual. Hurried hagglers overpay and may truly offend the merchant.

Marketplaces are bastions of bargaining, havens for hagglers, and here's how to do it:

  1. Never go to a market or souk on your first day or two in country if you can avoid it. Jet lag will leave you too tired to bargain properly and too cranky to deal with the incessant hustle of the marketplace with the necessary good humor.
  2. When you see the trinket or craft item of your dreams, never look all that interested. It's merely something that caught your eye briefly.
  3. Determine what the item is worth to you, and don't let the bargaining end up much above this figure.
  4. Let the stall owner make the first offer. He will insist over and over "How much do you want to pay?" Wait him out and politely keep angling for his first asking price. Once he says it, look shocked.
  5. Counteroffer with at least half as much (even less if his price seems outrageous), at which point he will act extremely offended. Don't be fooled or frightened away no matter what his reaction. It's all in the unwritten script, and being horribly insulted by your paltry offer is part of his role. He will grumble and complain and look like he's mad if you end up getting to the right price, but that's how he's supposed to act. Trust me, he won't sell you an item for less than he's willing to get for it. He's the pro; if anyone's going to get a raw deal, it'll be you if you don't bargain stridently. Any price he ends up agreeing upon is fine with him, no matter how wounded he acts.
  6. Now begins the back and forth, a ping-pong match of prices that draws closer to some median as you go. This median depends on the place, the merchant, and the item. The thing may only be worth as little as 25% or as high as 75% of his original asking price. This back and forth is a way to feel each other out and decide where the price should be. It's supply and demand on a person-to-person basis. At the beginning, however much he comes down in price, you go up by, at most, half that much. For example, if he knocks off 20, you add 10 to your next counteroffer.
  7. Consider each counteroffer you make theatrically and carefully. Re-examine the item as you ponder. Find flaws in it, maybe the price will come down (don't harp on this one or you will eventually insult the merchant, plus co-opt your own position; if it's so shoddy, why would you want it?). The higher you're forced to go, the less enthused you should appear.
  8. Play good cop/bad cop. Your companion who's standing next to you has the job of appearing completely uninterested in the item and trying increasingly to drag you away. She's tired and wants to leave, or thinks the thing is outrageously overpriced, or doesn't like it. If you're at the stall alone, make up a spouse back at the hotel and invoke him or her as the reason you can't spend too much.
  9. If you truly can't budge the merchant quite as low as you want, try walking away. Don't do it until you're getting close to the right price, and do it slowly so he has time to call you back with a better offer! This offer will usually be the right price (or at least his final offer), and the haggle is over. Sometimes this strategy backfires, and he'll let you leave. If you truly still want the item, swing by the stall later on, after having comparison-shopped (whether you did or not). Appear only marginally still interested, and drop your offer down from the last price you were offering (say to two-thirds of the offer) to prove you'll only take it now if it's a true bargain. Often, the shopkeeper will spit out a figure closer to the original median you two were working toward, and that's it. The deal's sealed.
  10. Once you agree on a price, you must buy the thing. If you can't get the merchant down to a fair price, don't buy it. But if he comes down to your asking price, you are honor-bound to purchase the item. Only pay what you're willing to pay (but be willing to pay fairly; don't expect a leather jacket for $10).

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in August 2011.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.