How to haggle


“’Eres a bloke wot don’t wanna haggle!”

Haggling is hard to avoid in most of the undeveloped world. Only a fool or a rich man (or, more likely, both) tries to avoid it. It’s a way of life in most countries. You’ll just have to live with it.

Many cities that have a booming tourist trade offer special handicraft markets where visitors have the luxury of buying (at, naturally, inflated prices) without the hassle of haggling. But this is missing most of the fun: that Berber carpet is an infinitely better souvenir with the memory of those glasses of mint tea as ‘underlay’.

These days I spend more time on assignment in third world countries than I do at home. Haggling is a normal part of my daily life and I enjoy the opportunity it gives me to interact in a far more personal way than would ever be possible at Tescos.

However, yesterday I found myself unable to haggle. I was discussing a price for a selection of surfing images I was buying from a Balinese surf photographer. I was pushing him towards half his original asking price and could see that he was about to give in.

“I’m a photographer myself…” I was pointing out. Suddenly – and to his immense surprise – I caved in and accepted his first asking price. I spend a good part of my working life pushing to improve the slipping rates for editorial photographers and it had suddenly occurred to me that there was something hypocritical about the double standards that had been temporarily spawned by my Asian mindset.

There are few moments in travel when the elemental differences between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ hit you quite as powerfully as they do in the act of purchasing something. The simple fact that we have been able to afford a flight to their country puts us on a different economic planet but from that point onwards it seems tasteless to deliberately flaunt our (relative) wealth.

“It’s just a few dollars more,” a traveller will point out – “just pay it.” But while coughing up might earn you a few moments of gratitude (though not necessarily respect) from the vendor it is a bad way to look at things. Ultimately foreigners appear as cash-cows, to be milked of the wedge of rupees/baht/ringgit/dong that they see as worthless anyway. More dangerously it can boost the street-value of everyday items to such an extent that local people can no longer afford them.

On the other hand you should not feel that you have to drive the price down to the last possible cent. “Don’t worry,” an experienced backpacker will reassure you, “they’ll always make a profit.” But this is not always true: if it’s a choice between making a loss on a business deal or letting our children go hungry most of us would give in.

Haggling is a necessary and enjoyable part of travelling but the end result should be that both buyer and vendor feel that a fair price was reached. If you don’t shake hands and part with a smile the haggling was not well done.

At its best haggling is not a way of making a deal. It’s a way of making a friend.