What's It To You?
(Bargaining In Good Faith)

Glenn Kaufmann


A few years ago a trip to Morocco brought me face to face with a hideous boil on the face of travel. I wanted to take home some memento of my journey, but I also wanted to spend as much of my money as possible on travel and not on trinkets. The natural outfall of this conflict was twofold: the disdainful glare and frustration of shopkeepers; and me, the traveler bent on bargaining for less. But who was “right”, and where should you draw the line?

What is it worth?

Beyond the question of, “What is it worth?” lies the question, “What are we willing to do for it.” Or, more succinctly, “How far will we go to get the trip we’ve always dreamed of?”

The guidebooks announce that bargaining is inextricably woven into the fabric of Moroccan culture. This is absolutely true. Everything from milk to morals is negotiable in Morocco. Yet watching two locals bargain is a wholly different experience than watching a Lonely Planet reader bargain with a shopkeeper. Because they know they’ll have to see each other again, locals generally have a common goal of reaching a price that accommodates both parties, whereas the bargain travel public just wants it for less, period.

In the coastal town of Essaouira I watched a Frenchman haggle for a pair of handmade leather slippers. He wanted them for two dollars, and the salesman had asked for eight. The traveler yelled at the salesman. The salesman scowled, made a snipe about the French, and ultimately sold them for six. The Frenchman felt cheated, and the salesman continued to spew about the French. Handmade sandals for eight bucks sound pretty good to me. If the man had really needed the slippers he would have left with them much sooner, realizing that eight dollars easily satisfied his need. As it was, they were a dalliance, a trinket that may well collect dust for years. But, believing that it was his God given right, he simply wanted something cheap – VERY cheap. These were handmade slippers. In his home country, if he’d needed them, they would easily have cost him between twenty and fifty dollars. But a thousand miles from home; their value is next to zero. He was willing to raise everyone’s blood pressure to save six dollars. That alone was his goal.

But why?

I fear the sad truth may be that we, the bargain traveling public, want to keep the third world in third place so it will continue to be there for our enjoyment, exactly as we’ve envisioned it. Be honest with yourself. How many times have you heard, or, worse yet, said yourself, “I really want to go to COUNTRY X before it gets commercialized, overrun with tourists, or becomes too expensive.” One sure-fire way to insure this is to keep these countries in economic stasis. If their economy fails to thrive then they become less attractive to first world businesses looking to expand into new markets. If these western, and predominantly first world, influences can’t, or won’t, penetrate into COUNTRY X then the culture may more or less stay as it is. As a result, we stand a better chance of visiting the country we’ve always dreamed of, and not the KFC and golden arches smeared version.

Now, you show up, and prices are higher than you’d been told. You go back and talk down about the shopping on your trip. Tourism in the area drops, and, because shopkeepers are now desperate to sell, prices fall again. Granted, you are only one person, and prices are probably not going to plummet between the time your friend raves about the place and the time your plane lands. But, it is a process, and the tendency of travelers to swap, “It’s so cheap. You’ve got to go.” stories serves the long-term purpose of keeping other cultures economically stagnant.

As these cultures grow and evolve, in whatever direction, the economic influence that we, as travelers, exert on them, and on our own experiences in these countries, continues to evolve as well. As budget travel expands to include every nook and cranny of the world, shopkeepers and craftsman gain economic experience from every traveler that comes through their door. According to Jon Miceler, the owner of High Asia, an adventure travel company specializing in unique guided expeditions, the locals in Asia’s remote interior either shy away from bargaining because they have no experience trading with outsiders, or on the other hand, they are so eager to engage that they present themselves as easy targets for unjust buyers. It stands to reason that as these regions see a higher volume of visitors the willingness of locals to engage in trade, their ability to assess a fair price, and their desire to maximize profits will likewise increase.

So we come back to the question, “What is it worth?”

The citizens of our mythical COUNTRY X have a right to make whatever they can for their labor, the same as you or I. They may depend on travel dollars to pay the rent, but it is not their life. They, and their culture, are not, and should not be, defined solely by the price of their goods, anymore than you deserve to be defined by the output of your cube back at the office. Nobody, and I mean nobody, works their fingers to the bone weaving a rug so they can one day stand in a store and scream back and forth about money. The point isn’t the money. It’s the rug.

The merchant/craftsman has earned a fair price. The question is, how far are you willing to go to get it?

While it is true that many items in third world, and even second world countries, will cost less than at home, this fact is not a license to economic plunder. The items still have value, and if you don’t really need an item you must first ask yourself why you want it at all. Why do you want it? How will you use it? What does it mean to you? These are all questions to be asked and answered before you ask, “How much?”

I’m not saying that wanting an item just as a mantelpiece is wrong. I am saying that this should necessarily have an impact on what you are willing to do to get it. If you find yourself in Morocco in the heat of summer with two dollars in your hand and no shoes on your feet, then yes, by all means, fight with the shopkeeper, but not in January, and just because you can.

You’ve heard the phrase, “When in Rome…” It applies to negotiating a fair price as well. Bargaining may be endemic to the culture, but it is probably not appropriate in every situation. Part of the joy of travel is learning the culture, and this includes learning when bargaining is and isn’t appropriate. You must be aware enough to learn which goods and services it is appropriate to bargain for. If you become an expert in this one area of local culture, your trip and the everyday difficulties of travel will ease immeasurably.

Now let’s assume you’ve shopped around. You know what you want, and have an idea of how much you should pay. Knowing exactly when you can and can’t bargain for things need not be one of the great mysteries of the ages. A few ground rules will help you down this road.

The Short Course:
In general, most of the items in open-air markets or smaller stalls can be bargained for, whether food or handicrafts. Remember that at the end of the day they will probably have to pack up and haul off any unsold merchandise. As the day progresses they are that much more motivated to sell. That said, don’t just run up and start haggling.

Do your homework by watching others in the market. How are prices posted? Are they listed on a sign, individually marked, or in priced bins? If the price is not listed then most likely they are open to offers. Are other shoppers accepting the stated price, or are they bargaining? What are people paying for similar goods? As you study the market you’ll quickly learn the ropes. Perhaps individually marked items are set in stone, but the price board is up for grabs, etc.

If you get a pushy shopkeeper, tell him you’re shopping around. If he/she offers a reduced price, then the door has been left open for you to counter the offer, either now or later. Let the dance begin. But try not to start down that road until you are ready. Take some time to get to know the market and hone your sense of quality and value. If you haven’t looked around, you run the risk of paying too much, or of getting something that you will ultimately be less than happy with. Don’t get badgered into a purchase.

In general the bricks and mortar establishments will be a bit less likely to bargain. They have set overhead, expenses, and more often than not have priced their goods accordingly. But, again, keep your eyes and ears open and watch the locals and other buyers for clues.

The prospect of bargaining for food and everyday needs come with their own set of rules. If you are coming from the US/Canada, and most parts of Western Europe you’ll be surprised to learn that in many shops and stalls you can bargain for everyday staple goods in remote locations. In many developing regions, the person who sells produce, meat, and dairy products will also be the person who grows and produces them. And when the chicken laying the eggs is in the building next door as opposed to a factory farm in the next state, odds are good that pricing will be flexible. By staking out smaller Co-Ops, and farmer’s markets while on the road you can very often find great deals on staple foods.

However, most travelers won’t have access to cooking facilities and prefer to simply grab a bite here and there and keep moving. In many places this is not only made easy, but is encouraged, by a preponderance of food stalls and street vendors as opposed to sit-down style restaurants. At most open-air stalls, where, again, the products are locally produced, overhead is low, and they’ll have to take the leftovers home, pricing can be somewhat more flexible. Watch the locals, read the signs, and ask for a few rupees off on that Samosa.

The heart of all travel is transportation, and here again there is a great deal of latitude in pricing. Cabbies the world over will usually strike a flat rate deal for longer trips. If you come to an agreement for a flat rate to the out of town airport/train depot, or to the next town, make certain that the meter is turned off. The first trick of cabbies is to insist upon arrival that you pay the metered fee for all trips, even if you’ve bargained for a much lower flat rate.

Bus and train fares the world over can likewise be bargained for. This can be a bit harder in North America and Europe where larger carriers have standardized rates. Smaller regional bus lines are far more likely to make you a deal than the big national carriers. Your concern here is to make certain that the ticket seller actually represents a bus line. In Asia, Africa, and South America disreputable vendors will often try to sell you a seat without giving you a ticket. I know it sounds sketchy, but, because it lowers overhead, in some areas ticketless boarding is the standard practice. That said, whenever possible get a ticket. In many countries, where private car ownership is too expensive, bus and rail travel is the primary form of transportation. Do as the locals do, and you’ll be fine.

You may be offered the “friend” rate for items. Be wary of this, as it sounds very good. As with most things, if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is. In this instance the shopkeeper is telling you exactly what you want to hear to make you feel safe and at home. While they may be telling the truth, you must do your sleuthing. Buying from local growers and merchants will not only prove fun and engaging, but you’ll come to truly understand that making friends is the best way to come by a true “friend” rate.

If you buy in bulk you’ll usually get a somewhat reduced rate. The amount of the reduction will be determined by the size of your order. The reduction is in direct proportion to the quantity of your order. This is true almost anywhere in the world, for any product. However, as a traveler, unless you are buying 30 sets of shoes for a team of porters, you’ll rarely have the space or inclination to buy in bulk. Just be aware that this option always exists.

I like to think that the goal is a “fair“ rate as opposed to the “best” rate. This indicates that you may not always need top quality, or a recognized brand, and can pay a bit less for a lower quality or less known product. By the same token, if you need top quality you may pay more for that item. This is all fair and part of the process.

At a certain level all of this comes down to one question. What kind of trip do you want to have? If your goal is to have a low stress, conflict free, engaging experience then your choices must reflect that. Your choices must err on the side of fairness, and respect. It may cost you a little bit more, but it's nothing compared to the cost of getting home and realizing you had a lousy time and didn't like anyone you met.

According to Pat Shipman, in her book, To the Heart of the Nile, for early explorers, “The art of giving a little, or refusing without insult, was one that travelers needed to perfect.” This, I believe, may be the best advice I’ve heard for travelers in any age, in any country, and in any circumstance.

Copyright Glenn D. Kaufmann, 2004. All Rights Reserved