5 Elements of the Art of Haggling

31st May 2017
haggling image of a bazaar with many lanterns hanging

In my previous post about saving money while traveling, readers wanted to know more about haggling. Not only is it a good way to get a bargain, it’s quite fun and pretty simple to do. There’s no science involved; only people skills and common sense!

Haggling is a chance for us as buyers to try and get a cheaper price especially those of us in the Southeast Asian region with our abundance of markets. And when I say markets, it should be emphasised that tourist trap markets and bazaars will try and wring your wallet dry. So it’s important to be prepared to fight for a good deal (not literally). Also when haggling in third world countries, you should bear in mind that selling you something is how they make a living so try not to undercut more than what it’s worth.

5 Things you need for Haggling:

Here are the attitudes or actions which I find crucial for haggling successfully. Many people have different styles but this is how I prefer to do it.

1. Have a thicker skin

It should be put forward that if you are too shy or scared to ask for a discount, the rest of the list will not do you much good. So what constitutes to having a thick skin? It’s the “ability” for you to suck it up and do what needs to be done such as:

  • Flag an unsatisfactory dish/meal to restaurant staff.
  • Asking someone to help take a photo.
  • Giving a presentation to peers and/or strangers.
  • In terms of retail, selling to customers.

If these actions make you uncomfortable to the point of inaction, it may a good idea to practice. Like playing a guitar where you build calluses on your fingers over time, speaking out can be learned and practiced. You will find that by learning this skill, you can be more confident speaking in general and able to break the ice much easier.

2.Know the market price

So what’s the “sweet spot” pricing you wanna get to when you haggle? If you do not know what’s a fair price, you might still lose out or even make a deal unfavourable for the seller. Thus, this creates a no deal situation for both of you, making it pointless to haggle.

The market price is quite subjective especially in tourist markets. You can find out by:

i. Shopping around

Unless you’re strapped for time, a good way is to go around the market and check the prices. You don’t need to start haggling unless you intend to buy so why not have a look around first? Usually shops at prime areas such as entrances or major streets will have higher prices because people see them the moment they arrive and the sellers hope they will get what they want there and then. Shops further in may give better prices.

ii. Simply haggling

One way to find out (which I usually do) is by trial and error. I sometimes just give a price so outrageous that it’ll make most sellers laugh and say “no” outright. On a recent trip to Vietnam, I tried to haggle down some trousers for my wife. Price was about BND20 in Vietnam Dong (their local currency) and I gave a price of BND2. Needless to say, some scoffed and some weren’t impressed! I finally found the prices to go around BND5 – 7; still better than being ripped off!

Though this is a roundabout and long way to do it, usually you really get a feel of the local demeanour towards haggling as well.

iii. Asking the locals

Another way to find out the price is simply asking any locals you come across; taxi or Uber drivers, hotel reception or your local guide are more likely to entertain your questions on pricing than the sellers.

3. Just ask

i. Know your price

Now that you know how much some of the items go for, you know how much you’re willing to pay. Rule of thumb is, unless it is unobtainable elsewhere, you should stick to your price as much as possible. There’s no point compromising too much when there are others who might make the deal with you!

ii. Ask how much they discount first

First thing to do is ask if they can go any lower, this will test their willingness to bargain. If they say it’s the final price and you know it’s not market price, you should probably move on. Walking away will also test to see if they really want your sale and change their mind. If they stop you, you have one more bargaining chip; exit.

I’ve tried this once in Bali when I found a shirt too expensive and told the lady “no thanks” and tried to move on. She finally caved and gave me my price but I found out at a later time that the shirt was too small! I was unwilling to try the shirt on the spot so it was entirely my fault though.

iii. The price tug-of-war

If they give you a very slightly lowered price, then the game is on! I’ll use an example item costing $10. If the price they give me is $9 and I know the item to be $6 at most, I would counteroffer $4. If they say yes, you win already! But usually it’s too big of a cut for them so they will counter $8 and you counter $5 until you reach $6 or 7, give or take. Your price is not set in stone and only you will know if it seems fair.

If the game doesn’t go as you’d like, never be afraid to move on.

4. Be friendly and respectful

Many times, sellers are weary from tourists who waltz in and think they’re better than the locals, driving hard bargains! These kind of sellers will more often than not shoot down any haggling after the first rally of back and forth.

Unfortunate that this has to be said but like every other service sector, being nice to people does not cost extra. This is even more so when you want them to discount the prices for you! So during the trip to Vietnam, I was walking through a day market with my buddy. Having no luck buying the trousers the night before, I stumbled upon one shop selling it. The lady there started talking in Vietnamese to me and with a confused smile, I told her, “Er.. I don’t speak Vietnamese..?” I don’t know why I said it as a question but I did, and she laughed saying I looked like a local.

Taking this opportunity, I asked how much were the trousers and she gave me a so-so price. So I tried haggling it down with her, seeing as she’s willing to be a little playful too! Forward 15 minutes later, I bought more than what I initially wanted to; partly because I wanted to support her business and secondly, after getting a discount on individual items, I got an overall discount for the lot! Before parting she said “You are very clever!” to which I replied, “No, It’s because you’re very nice!” I think that made her quite happy, we high-fived and I went on my way.

One of my most memorable haggles for sure! And that left my friend shaking his head and wondering what just happened. Fun times.

That being said, I usually avoid unfriendly shopkeepers; so it really is a two way thing when it comes to being nice.

5. Simple English is best English

Of course, when traveling, English will be the universal language of business transactions. When talking to somebody who does not speak English too well, we will oftentimes lower our English to simple terms for them. It’s important not to come off as patronising to the point of slowing our speech. You may be surprised that many people who interact with tourists on a normal basis will have a pretty good grasp of English.

While knowing the local language is an advantage, for most touristy places, knowing English will get you by well enough. If the seller does not speak an ounce of English, it is probably best to avoid to prevent misunderstandings if you try to make a purchase.


While we travel and have a good time, haggling can help us save some money when we shop at local markets. All it takes is the want to find a bargain and then just ask! More often than not, the experience is enriching enough and though it doesn’t work all the time, it could be entertaining. That being said, you shouldn’t blow your travel budget not matter how good the deal is! So plan ahead on how much you are willing to spend beforehand.

Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

-John F. Kennedy

I’m pretty sure I’m taking this quote out of context by referring to getting a discount on a BND10 pair of trousers. But then, I like the second part, never fear!

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