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I'm an Aussie who likes wandering all over the world but keeps coming back home to paradise and my family. If you are reading this on one of my travel blogs, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed creating them. If you are reading the Diabetes and weight loss blog - I hope it helps in your battle with the beast. Cheers, Alan

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Bartering and Haggling in Foreign Lands

I'm preparing several blog posts at the moment to complete my trip to Asia and Europe last year before adding more posts on my recent trip to China. I have lots of photos to upload; expect the new posts to start appearing shortly.

In the meantime I thought this may be an opportune moment to add a post to my Travel Tips.

Street market in Yangshuo, China
One of the fun parts of travelling in exotic lands is wandering and buying in street markets. Very quickly you learn that prices are, to say the least, flexible. I've read a lot of tips on haggling with market vendors when preparing for my travels over the years, but in hindsight I was always too much the Aussie nice guy; never tough or ruthless enough. It is a bit deflating when you think you got the best price for something after a bargaining session with a market trader to then see it cheaper, and better quality, later on in a local supermarket or duty-free store. Particularly when your wife is the one who notices.

Prior to my latest trip I learned some effective techniques from the wise people who post on the reddit sub-group r/china and tried them in China and Malaysia. I was quite surprised to see how well they worked.
  • Always choose a market where there are many vendors, so that it is easy to walk on to a new seller if you don't succeed with the first. The same applies to tuk-tuks or autorickshaws; select from a group when possible so that others can join the negotiations and offer lower rates.
  • Take some time to choose your goods and don't look too excited or interested. Be fussy; look at quality. The goods will probably be fakes but that doesn't mean they are necessarily poor quality. When you find what you want, ask the price.
  • Look in open astonished wonder at the first numbers punched on the ready-to-hand calculator for haggling with laowai (foreigners) but don't be offended that the trader thinks you are silly enough to pay that much.
  • Punch in less than 20% of the asking price. Insensitively ignore the wail of anguish and haggard look of "you're stealing the food from the mouth of my baby" (only one allowed in China) and watch the numbers come down to half the original or less on the calculator. If the vendor appears truly offended, apologise profusely and walk on to the next stall. Now you know to go a little higher next time. You may also get a surprise at the new price offered as you walk away.
  • Go back and forth on the price offers until the vendor appears to have reached rock bottom. Then still offer less.
  • When the vendor eventually refuses to go lower, walk on. If the vendor lets me go, I now know the real price for the next stall in the market. But usually I'm not let go and the vendor chases me calling out successively lower prices (suddenly they seem to know numbers in English) until I might, reluctantly, accept one.
Petaling Street, Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Later, if you see the same item in a regular store check the price and hope it is higher than you actually paid. It always was for me this time, but not always in the past. It can help if you see it in a store before you go to the market, so that you know the regular retail price.

Using that technique in China and Malaysia I rarely paid more than 30% of the original asking price and always less than the store price. I based the store price on known fake copies, not genuine designer brands, because that is almost certainly what you get in street markets. I also felt no guilt, because invariably after the deal was struck and the cash paid the vendors were smiling and happy; possibly that means I still paid too much, but when both parties are happy that seems like a win/win to me. By the way - cash counts. Street market vendors rarely take credit cards and the rare few who do won't drop the price very much when cards are involved.

One of the differences when I was buying goods in China is that I was reasonably sure that was where they were made, along with souvenirs for most of the other tourist countries in the world. If you buy a fluffy Koala in Australia or Alpaca in Peru, guess where it was probably made.

Among other things after this trip I now have a $3 Casio digital watch (it was cheaper than a new battery for my old one) and some nice silk YStL and Hugo Boss shirts that cost $6 each. Well, at least the silk feels genuine; I learned how to tell on my unwanted (it reduced the tour cost) but interesting detour to the silk factory en-route to the Great Wall. My wife also has a lovely large $20 ChloƩ leather handbag. However, I suspect that neither Casio, Yves St Laurent, Hugo Boss, nor ChloƩ are getting a cut from those sales.

And always smile when you're bargaining - apart from your looks of consternation at the prices offered. Keep it friendly; it makes a difference.

Happy haggling.

Cheers, Alan


  1. Hello! Sorry to hijack your comment thread, but I am planning a trip to Russia this August and was considering going with an organized tour by a company called Express to Russia, but I've been unable to find any reviews on the internet outside of the company's website. Then, thanks to the magical powers of google, I found your post on the Fodor's forums from last year, saying that you had used this company. Would you be able to give me some advice as to whether I should use this company? We are considering their eight day Golden Ring tour. Thanks so much in advance. Sincerely, Gabriella

  2. G'day Gaby

    The Golden Ring tour is quite different to the river cruise I went on. I'll give a brief description of my experience with Express to Russia.

    I contacted them in early November 2009 to enquire about the seven-day cruise on MS Lev Tolstoy in June 2010. I chose that boat because it had single cabins available without a single supplement. Initially Elena from Express to Russia replied that there were no cabins available, but a few days later she advised a single cabin had become available on the cruise departing 4th June 2010. After some correspondence about details, including confirmation that the other passengers would be English-speaking, I booked the cruise and paid a deposit.

    That week was part of a complex 7-week European itinerary. Once I had booked the Russian cruise I made several other bookings, most of which could not be cancelled, for trains, flights and hotels in France, Switzerland, Italy, Croatia, Hungary and the UK.

    A month later Elena informed me that a French tour group had booked the boat out and I would be the only English speaking passenger. Wonderful. I could not change the dates of my other bookings; I was locked in. After some discussion Elena confirmed that I would have a personal English speaking guide during the trip. On that basis I confirmed the booking rather than change my week to a rail trip from St Petersburg to Moscow.

    I also booked the Northern Lights Hotel through a different site, discovering after the event that it is also one of their hotels. The hotel is OK, but there is no elevator and 70 steps up a dim stairwell to the front door. Express to Russia and Northern Lights provided the appropriate administrative help for visa invitations etc, although I had to monitor and remind them occasionally.

    The boat and cabin was acceptable although getting a little long in the tooth. However, the personal guide turned out to be a junior interpreter on her first work experience. She was a lovely girl and tried very hard in a situation unfair to her, but effectively I had no guide and that part of the trip was significantly diminished for me. I did not have a real guide until my final day in Moscow.

    I made a mistake in my initial bookings for the final transfer, allowing inadequate time for the drive from the dock to Domedodevo Airport. When I rang Elena several hours before the booked time to bring the time forward she refused to do so. We made the flight but that was an unfortunate end to the trip.

    Despite the problems, the cruise itself was enjoyable and I will always remember my experiences in Russia, but it could have been so much better with an English-speaking guide and a little less stress.

    Overall, the transfers, boat and administration were efficiently managed but the sour notes outweighed the good in my experience with Express to Russia.