What's It To You?
(Bargaining In Good Faith)
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 weve 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 theyll 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,
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 hed 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 everyones blood pressure
to save six dollars. That alone was his goal.
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 weve 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 cant, or wont, 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 weve always dreamed of,
and not the KFC and golden arches smeared version.
Now, you show up, and prices are higher than youd 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, Its so cheap. Youve got to go.
stories serves the long-term purpose of keeping other cultures economically
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 Asias
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 isnt the money. Its 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 dont 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?
Im 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.
Youve heard the phrase, When in Rome
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 isnt 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 lets assume youve shopped around. You know what you want,
and have an idea of how much you should pay. Knowing exactly when you
can and cant 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, dont 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 youll
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 youre 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 havent
looked around, you run the risk of paying too much, or of getting something
that you will ultimately be less than happy with. Dont 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 youll 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 farmers markets while on the
road you can very often find great deals on staple foods.
However, most travelers wont 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 theyll 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
youve 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
youll 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 youll come
to truly understand that making friends is the best way to come by a true
If you buy in bulk youll 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, youll
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 Ive heard for travelers in any
age, in any country, and in any circumstance.
Copyright Glenn D. Kaufmann,
2004. All Rights Reserved