Specializing in Upscale Lodging, Gastronomy, Cultural Tourism and Adventure Travel

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How to Barter Without Bitterness

"Indians even negotiate their birthdays," I was told by one native during a month long trip there, where hardly anything is priced.   In many non-Western countries, haggling is the only way to purchase something--price tags are non-existent and nothing is "fixed."   Somewhere between a social activity and a blood sport, bartering determines the price of everything from a guide's services to jewelry to furniture.

Still, it makes many of us (including this travel writer) uncomfortable.   I often have the lingering feeling that I was not getting as good a deal as a native--that I've been "had," so to speak. So I was relieved when an Indian hotel manager said even she couldn't get a good deal when shopping at many places!     

Without question, unscrupulous merchants see non-natives as walking dollar signs, easy marks to be exploited during a hard sell. Clearly, many vendors are trying to eek out a meager living, which pulls on heartstrings. Still others are honest and fair in their dealings. How to navigate these tricky social, political and cultural shopping waters?  

So your next transaction leaves you more empowered and less frustrated, try these tips to increase your skillful bartering.  

  • Establish rapport.   Maintain a positive attitude: be polite, calm and respectful.   A sense of humor is key.  
  • "Have a look" is an opening that will likely be followed by an invitation to drink tea.   Unless you have 30 or more minutes to spare, consider passing.   In many Asian countries, the concept of "browsing" doesn't exist.
  • Don't barter when you are jetlagged, tired or your judgment is impaired by alcohol.
  • Do your homework prior to the trip.   If you plan to buy antiques, jewelry or other expensive items, know what you are looking for and approximate values.
  • Don't barter unless you are really serious about purchasing an item.   Then counteroffer 50-75% of the first quoted price.   Don't insult a merchant by offering 10% of his stated price. The deal has to be win-win.
  • Determine what you can afford to spend. Establish a ceiling for any item you are serious about buying, so you can avoid emotional overspending and buyer's remorse.
  • Trust your gut.   Does this feel like a scam?   Are you being uncomfortably pressured?   If so, leave.
  • Use common sense. A cheap knickknack may have more "give" in its selling price than an antique rug. Barter appropriately.
  • If you love an item and it seems to be one-of-a-kind, buy it now.   You may not see that antique doorknocker again.   
  • If you have a guide or driver, consider asking he or she to haggle on your behalf.   Just don't let them lead you to places where they may receive a commission ("my friend or my cousin has a shop").   The money you tip them will be less than the typical tourist markup.
  • Keep things in perspective.   Driving a hard bargain may not be the point.   So, even if you overpay by $10 or $20, think about what you would have spent for the same or similar item back home.   Does the merchant need the money more than you do?   Remember, the idea is to bring back something you love. I cherish the exquisitely embroidered and mirrored antique tohan , door hanging I purchased.   It welcomes visitors to my home. Whether I paid $10 too much for such a singular souvenir doesn't matter in the end.


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