The Random Writings of Rachel: Why You Shouldn't Bargain When Traveling

Why You Shouldn't Bargain When Traveling

The #1 piece of world-traveling advice that I detest? Any variation of: "Be sure to bargain. It's the only way to get a reasonable price and you need to bargain: merchants won't know what to do with themselves if you don't bargain."

I would have to disagree.

For one thing, I dislike how this advice perpetuates a me vs. them mentality. It's almost as if it would lead the traveler to think that all the locals are out to cheat him, so he needs to protect himself and his wallet at all times.

For another thing, it's simply not true! There is no way that it's possible for a guidebook or a list of travel tips on a blog to claim that tourists should always haggle over the prices of services and goods when traveling in Southeast Asia, or in Africa, or in Central America, or any other large general region of the world. There may very well be specific communities in which this is true--it's just that I've never yet experienced them. But I have traveled in and lived in places where this is emphatically not true.

For example, we wouldn't expect to bargain for bangles in my town.
 
Because of this bargaining advice, tourists come into my town in Malaysia, and go to the night market and start bargaining over a plate of fried rice. And the lady who makes the fried rice is simply confused, because dozens of locals have already unquestioningly paid their fried rice bill that evening, and suddenly this foreigner is making a big deal about getting 10 or 20 cents off? Or they go to the wet market for groceries and want to pay a couple less ringgit than their fruit bill adds up to. (These are real cases, not hypothetical.) And I want to shake them. Foolish tourists--don't you know that nobody bargains for fruit?? Yet, you read online you have to be careful about Malaysians trying to cheat you of  your money, so you're trying to get the vendor to take less than she would take from even her best friend? That's how much value you place on her family business? I'm embarrassed for you, and you know what, I'm angry at you too. I don't like the way you treat the people who sell my groceries--I know those people and I don't want them treated badly by foreigners.

Tourists come in, knowing very little of Malaysian culture, but they realize that everything is "cheap" according to their standards, and because they've read that they need to bargain, they do, and try to get everything even cheaper. Clumsily and horribly and not according to any Malaysian rules of bargaining I've ever heard of.

You know how to get good deals in Malaysia? Relationships. Relationships are far more important than any of your so-called bargaining skills. While you may save 3 RM here and 8 RM there by some hard bargaining at the night market, you lose any possibility of building a relationship with the vendor. At certain types of shops, you don't bargain. There's a set price, and you pay that price. You don't frustrate the shopkeeper and teach him to disdain you by asking for a discount when there's none to be had. You don't bargain for fried rice, I guarantee you that. At other types of shops, when you're buying something a little pricier, or when you're buying something in bulk, you can ask, "Best price?" They may give you a better price than the one on the sticker, or they may say no discounts allowed, depending on the shop's policy. If you can't afford that price, you walk away. Loyalty is very important. My family has been buying their groceries from the same families for years. These days, the lady selling fruit always slips an extra apple or an orange into the bag. That's the loyal customer privilege, you see. The average tourist coming in from the street, who doesn't know her by name or recognize her family members is not going to get 10 apples for the price of 9. My family always goes to the same silver jewelry store. All we have to do is walk inside and we're immediately recognized and offered a 15% discount. My Auntie has been taking me to the same sari shop for nearly a decade, and she's been taking her own family there for a few decades before me--we don't pay sticker price there. Auntie doesn't because she's built a relationship with that shop over many years, and I don't because I'm part of Auntie's family.

 Angel's beloved pewter cup was discounted because the shop owner apparently loves my dad.

So, what's the traveler who neither wants to throw away money nor alienate all the local people to do?

1. Keep your hands where your money is. Do this no matter what country you're in (including your own). Don't be an easy target for thieves.

2. If you can't afford it, don't buy it. I've noticed tourists usually want to buy some sort of locally made art or handicrafts. Some of these are reproduction, cheap knick-knacks and it's pretty obvious that they are by looking at them--they should be priced accordingly. But, if you'd ever seen the beautiful, time-consuming, difficult process that goes into creating a well-done handpainted batik, you'd stop haggling over the price of that scarf or tablecloth and pay the price that it's worth.

3. Be aware of your surroundings. If the 3 people checking out ahead of you were locals who didn't bargain, don't be silly and start bargaining.

4. Build relationships. There often is a "friends and family" price, but let me tell you--if you aren't "friends and family," you don't deserve the price. Think about it. In your home country, a small business owner may well charge her sister less for her services than she'd charge the random stranger. But as a random stranger, you don't think you deserve the sister price, do you? Ask friends who know the area what prices to expect. There's a taxi driver or two out there who might want to fleece you, but if you know that it ought to cost 15 RM. to get from your hotel to the mall, you're not going to risk exasperating the honest driver who asks for 15 RM with unreasonable bargaining.

I'm not saying that there's no region in the world where you should always in every case involving some kind of expenditure try to drive a hard bargain. I've yet to see such a place, but it could exist. However, consider that it's possible that that's not at all true in the country you're planning to visit, and show some respect to the small family business in a country that's not your home. What if, while you were traveling, it was not your goal to get as much as possible for as little expenditure as possible, but, instead, to be a blessing to the people who live in the country that you're blessed to visit? How could you act in such a way to make them glad you came?

What do you think about this matter of bargaining while traveling?

30 comments:

  1. When I first started reading this, I was like WHATCHUTALKINBOUT?! because I am a firm believer in bargaining and not even just whilst traveling. I will bargain in a shop in England if I feel I can save money.
    But I completely agree with some of the points you've made here and I think tourists take it to the extreme where they assume anything off a market stall/street vendor can be haggled down because they are used to a different environment for purchases like these.
    People just need to stop being ignorant I think and use a little more common sense!

    Kate | Diaries of a Essex Girl

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  2. I can't stand people who try to bully/bargain with people in third world countries. If you've flown into another country for a week long vacation, you should be able to afford the extra $5 dollars for that lamp. The majority of people selling handmade crafts/services in third world countries are unbelievably poor. It is so incredibly rude/condescending to sit there and try to bully them into accepting less in exchange for their hard work. That's the equivalent to going out to eat and not tipping the waiter. If you can't afford to pay full price for whatever it is that you're purchasing, you probably shouldn't be purchasing it in the first place. To some people, bargaining is a game. What they fail to realize is that to some people, it is not a game, it is their livelihood. Be respectful.

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  3. what a great and thoughtful post. when i travel, if i don't like a price, i just don't buy it...i usually never argue or try to bargain.

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  4. I bargain well and the best bargain is when both parties are happy with the end result. It is funny to read that some tourists bargained for a plate of fried rice in Malaysia! By the way, I didn't know that you live in Malaysia.. I am Malaysian myself but living abroad. I still think Malaysia is still relatively cheap and yes, once a relationship is built the business gets better for us customers and for them the sellers as we will keep going to the same vendors!

    Greetings from Dubai :)
    MRS JACK OF ALL TRADES
    http://mrsjackofalltradesdaily.blogspot.ae/2013/10/a-touch-of-rock-and-roll-with-lena.html?showComment=1382334548455#c4360610148039598997

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  5. Such good points you make, and I agree. I'm too chicken to bargain anyway though ;)

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  6. I can't believe that someone tried to bargain down a plate of rice! The nerve of some people! I love the points you brought up. I don't try to haggle unless I buy more than one item. I also don't buy anything unless I really want it so I'm always prepared to pay full price. One time I got an accidental bargain on some paintings in Rome. I genuinely wasn't ready to purchase anything and was walking away to move on, not to drive down the price. He caught me by surprise by yelling out an insanely low price that I couldn't pass up. I'm surprised more people around me didn't try to cash in on the deal he was offering.

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  7. I am so uncomfortable with bargaining that I normally don't partake, not even at a garage sale. :) But how embarrassing that tourists bargain for fried rice.

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  8. i completely agree with this post. bargaining is fine when you are in a touristy area and i think it's even expected. but going into the town where people actually live/work/and aren't catering to tourists is tacky.

    i was shaking my head at the plate of rice.

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  9. been out of the country once. Bargained (this was a tourist post in Mexico)

    Hey!! ask your husband if this is true for Mexico? I would love to know! :P

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  10. Personally I hate bargaining and rarely do it. It's just not me. Also I can't stand it when I'm at a show selling stuff I've made by hand and someone tries to bargain with me.

    This was an interesting well written post.

    bisous
    Suzanne

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  11. I can tell this topic hits a nerve with you! Definitely something to remember if I ever travel to Asia. Not that I'm any good at bargaining anyway :)

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  12. Good to hear...I haven't traveled anywhere where I have to try, but I'm sure bargaining isn't the norm in every single non-US location!

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  13. I have never done a travel bargain . In fact , I don't bargain at all . I know I am loser at prices so why should I put my feet into a pond I don't know the depth of it??? YES!

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  14. Truthfully, I'm not a big bargainer to begin with. The only times I like to offer less than someone is asking is if I know for a FACT that they're asking too much. Around here, people will try to sell things at garage sales for far more than they're worth, and I have no problem offering less...and if they say no, I just walk away.

    As far as visiting other countries, I don't really have much experience, considering I've only been to Canada and Mexico. When I was in Mexico, the VENDORS were the ones trying to bargain, which led me to believe it was okay to haggle a bit. (For instance, while buying a traditional Mexican blanket, I originally said "no thank you"...the vendor responded by offering it to me for a bit less, a bit less, a bit less...until it was finally at a price I was willing to pay.) If I was buying food, there's no way I would try and bargain - it's FOOD for goodness' sake and I'm pretty sure local food vendors wouldn't be trying to rip you off. And if I was in an area with mostly locals, I probably wouldn't try and haggle over anything. I think a lot just depends on the environment, and you can usually tell if someone seems receptive to haggling.

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  15. Very interesting! I don't bargain to begin with, I'm a chicken, but I can't believe people tried to bargain over rice..

    http://fizleglitz.com

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    1. Oh, I forgot to mention that I found you through the Collective blog hop and I'm now following! :)

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  16. I'm a terrible haggler so I never even bother to. Maybe that's bad on my part and sometimes I could get a deal but I figure if I can't afford the price of something then I don't need it.

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  17. So true! When I went to Africa they told us to ask the locals what we should expect to pay for certain items and services and then you don't bargain below that price. It was very helpful!

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  18. I have always heard that you should bargain while traveling but I'd only ask for a lesser price for things that I would here at home. I don't leave the country often and I did haggle a good price on earrings once but honestly, I was much younger and the guy was really flirting with me and that's the only reason why. We were just having a good time ribbing each other. I've paid full price (or declined to purchase) everything else.

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  19. Great advice! I love that you're able to bring an almost-local perspective to places I don't know much about, like Malaysia. I agree - watching tourists bargain is an embarrassment. It makes me want to be extra accommodating, to make up for their shenanigans.

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  20. I agree with Kristen's comment. I am not very good at haggling either so I refrain from doing so :)

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  21. I really enjoyed reading your perspective on bargaining while traveling. I went on a mission trip in Tijuana last year and we were always told to bargain with the locals. I just felt terrible doing so. There I was, trying to spread God's love, yet feeling pressured to cheat these people of how they make a living.

    Thanks for sharing!

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  22. Wow, I'm embarrassed for these people too! Who in their right mind would act like that?

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  23. I'm an indepedent rep for a traveling company.

    Corporate just opened shop in Malaysia.

    So I got a good chuckle or two reading this....but it's so true too!

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  24. Very interesting, really enjoyed your points of view. I dont know the first thing about anything travel related.

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  25. First of all, I can't believe I didn't realize that you live in Malaysia! I feel slightly silly now. Secondly, I don't ever bargain with anyone - even if I'm in a place where I know 100% for sure that it's "acceptable" or even "common practice." It's just a personal preference. I think I'm too shy or something...but at least I know there's no way that I can walk away feeling badly, as long as I pay someone what they're asking. Which means sometimes I will pay more than I could have, or more than someone else might pay. But I'm just okay with it, so that I can stay in my comfortable little bargain-free shell as I shop! Haha.

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  26. I'm glad you shared this... I've never traveled internationally, but I've heard a lot of people talk about negotiating or bargaining. I would feel horrible haggling over something someone made, especially in a poorer place. I find what you said having relationships that is the key to trade. I hadn't heard that before.

    What do you think about Craigslist bargaining? My husband and I disagree about it all the time- I say if something is listed for a reasonable price, I don't mind paying for it. Joel thinks everything is negotiable and people buffer their prices for negotiating. I don't know, just curious what you think about it.

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    1. I've never really done shopping on Craigslist, but my general opinion of the matter that if the price is out of reach for you or is unreasonable for the condition of the item involved, go ahead and ask if they can go lower. But if you can afford it and it's already a fair price, I'm not really a big fan of pushing for an even better deal. That's just me! I don't really have much, if anything, 'moral' to base it on, but I know I never want to err on the side of cheating anyone or being dishonest (i.e. "I don't have $100, but I could pay $75 cash right now!" when all the while I do have 100 in my wallet)

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  27. I love this! Americans need to know that not everything has a right to be bargained for. I do know certain places like Mexico where they do try to rip off tourists, and you are expected to haggle, but people need to realize when and if that's appropriate!

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  28. Interesting, it is very different in every country. Prepared food is something I'd never bargain over. Although, fresh veggies and fruits, that I will always bargain over. It was nuts, when buying things, if you talked in English they'd say oh this costs $9, and then you switch to Khmer and the price automatically drops. I remember once we were in a clothing stand in a market and a friend was buying a pair of lounge pants and we were talking only in Khmer and she got the woman down to something like $5, and another western woman came in and she told us she was going to charge her $9 for the same thing. I think it's important to know what's ok for each country. You can't bargain in every country, and you can't bargain over everything in the countries where you can bargain.

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