Looking forward to shopping for locally made goods during your next trip?
Whether your heart is set on a Turkish carpet or Italian leather goods, the best place to shop for deals is open-air markets.
The hustle and bustle of navigating crowds through a maze of stalls makes shopping feel like a treasure hunt.
However, when it comes time to buy, many tourists are stumped by proper protocol.
How do you know if it’s ok to haggle? And, if so, how to go about getting a good price?
Here’s how to strike a bargain in markets around the world, even if you don’t speak the local language.
How to Know If Bargaining Is Appropriate
In the Mediterranean, a displayed price tag is seen as little more than a starting point for conversation.
There, bargaining is accepted as a method of finding a happy compromise between the merchant’s high hopes and the buyer’s budget.
Basically, it’s outright foolish not to bargain.
In Europe, negotiating prices in brick-and-mortar shops is only common in the south. But feel free to fight prices for goods with the street vendors at flea markets anywhere.
However, deciding to “make an offer” in London? Well, that’s outright seen as poor etiquette.
If you’re in unfamiliar territory, the simplest way to determine if bargaining is acceptable is to ask the concierge at your hotel, your vacation rental host, even the waiter who serves up your lunch.
Once You’ve Got Your Eye on Something, Shop Around to Learn What Locals Pay
Prices can vary drastically among merchants even within the same row of market stalls.
Chances are that you’ll be able to sense if there’s a double price standard in use. But, one way to know for sure is if the prices aren’t posted.
No price tag means that the cost depends on who’s shopping, and you can be sure that, as a tourist, your price isn’t the best deal.
Before buying, shop around to see what other prices you’re offered for the same item.
Ask a local what he or she would pay. Then, tack on a dollar or two—since it’s very unlikely that a merchant will offer you the same deal.
If the item that you’re interested in is something only tourists buy, find out what tourists from other countries have paid.
That’s because it’s easy to take where you’re from for granted, but merchants around the world think American tourists are rich—and that’s reflected in their pricing.
Ask others that you meet who are from Spain, Italy, China—anywhere else—what they’ve paid for the same goods, and base your offer from there.
If you’re unable to ask someone or if you find that something’s unexpectedly caught your eye, don’t worry—you can still make a smart move.
Determine What You’re Willing to Pay Beforehand
Unless you traveled to a destination with buying an item in mind, given prices can be meaningless and often even distort your idea of an item’s true worth.
Beyond the value materials used to make something and the time it took to craft it, pricing is a psychological game.
Many tourists think that if they can cut the price by half, they’ve struck a heck of a bargain. Sure—but only if you’re their first ever sale.
Merchants know that tourists are going to haggle, so they quadruple their prices and play along with the act of driving a hard bargain before allowing tourists the pleasure of paying double the fair value.
So, what can you do? Simple: Decide what an item is worth to you before looking at how much it costs.
To do so, think about if you’ll use it in the future, and if it’s unique to your location. Finally, depending on its size and weight, don’t forget the hassle of shipping or carrying it back home.
Get a Sense of How Badly They Want the Sale
You see something you like and move in to examine it more closely.
While doing so, don’t be shy about speaking with the merchant. Ask if he or she owns the shop, where the item is from, and respond in kind to develop a rapport.
After examining the item, make a move to hand it back to the merchant (who is almost always hovering right next to you at this point) and say, “It’s just too much money.”
Stating that it’s too much shows that you’re interested, but puts the merchant in the position to make the first offer.
If he or she comes down even a fraction, you now know that there’s nothing sacred about the stated price.
Also, watch their body language as you try to return the item to their care while stating that the price is too high (as opposed to just placing it down).
If they move back, forcing you to keep hold of the item, it’s an indication that they’re hungry for the sale.
Pro Tip: Curb your enthusiasm unless you’re willing to pay full price. As soon as the merchant perceives the “I gotta have that!” in you, you’ve lost the upper hand, since he or she assumes that tourists have the money to buy what they want.
Now It’s Time to Bargain for the Lowest Price
Most merchants hate to lose a sale. However, it’s vital to gauge their interest before countering the price—otherwise, you might waste your time haggling with an apathetic employee.
Use the information that you’ve learned to work the cost down. But, if they’re not agreeable, walk away.
Chances are good that by the time your foot hits the pavement, the merchant will holler out a final offer to lure you back inside. That’s the best price you’re going to get, so if it’s right, go back and buy.
If not, keep on walking, and check out another shop later in the day. Prices often drop towards the evening when merchants are considering packing up and going home.
Pro Tip: Bargaining is a friendly act in which two people attempt to find a middle ground. Too many travelers view higher prices as a personal affront designed to rip them off and respond aggressively.
This doesn’t just hurt your chance at getting a better deal but sours the entire experience. Bottom line: If their best offer is still too high, just move on.
If Your Objective Is to Get the Best Price, There’s No Substitute for Bringing a Local
Perusing shop stalls and negotiating prices provides a value beyond snagging the best deal on souvenirs—it’s an immersive experience.
However, if you’re shopping for a high-priced item and want to be assured of the best possible price, there’s no substitute for bringing a local.
They can negotiate a win-win much more quickly—and effectively—than a tourist, and are more likely to be offered a local’s price.
Depending on the general feel, sometimes it’s even more effective to let your friend go in alone!
Not right off the bat, of course—you’ll want to shop first. But, unless I see something that stands out as special or there’s a sentimental reason to buy in the moment, I generally save my purchasing for the last day.
Instead, I keep a notebook handy and write down items that I’m interested in, along with the prices that I’ve been offered.
Then, if I’m in a country where there’s an obvious difference between the prices offered to locals and tourists, it’s time to hunt for some help. Your best bet is to ask a friend, though hiring a guide for a small fee can’t hurt either.
Buy in Bulk to Strike the Best Bargain
Once you’re in the act of haggling, it’s easy to get hung up on the idea that a lower price is your primary goal. However, there are other ways to sweeten a deal in your favor.
If you like an item and are also in the market for souvenirs intended for family and friends, ask if you can get a better deal for buying in bulk.
Often, a merchant is more likely to yield to your offers of a lower price if you buy three of something instead of one—the more you buy, the lower their price will go.
An Informed Buyer Has a Better Chance of Saving Money
If possible, take the time to research what the craftsmen in your vacation destination are famed for making, or what natural resources are prized.
Your best bet for bartering is to focus on locally-made goods, art, and handicrafts. Doing so means that there will be more wiggle room in price since the merchant hasn’t had to build import taxes into the price.
It’s also part of the fun! After all, no one wants to flip over a souvenir only to discover a stamp signifying it was made in China. With that in mind, here’s an overview of what different locations have to offer:
Argentina - Offers high-quality leather goods such as gloves, bags, belts, or wallets at a fraction of US prices.
Belgium - Known for offering some of the highest quality lace in the world, particularly in Brussels and Bruges.
China - Anything tea related! A hand-painted teapot makes for a lovely memento, and don’t forget to pick up some hand-picked tea while there.
Germany - A stoneware, porcelain, or pewter beer stein can be purchased from artisans who still create authentic, handmade pieces.
Iceland - Anything wool, from performance fleece to fashion-forward handbags, or even an iconic Lopapeysa sweater.
India - Jewelry, particularly shiny glass and gold bangles, and fabrics galore. Delhi is a shopper’s paradise, boasting dozens of markets and shops. Chandni Chowk, where you can find affordable textiles and antique jewelry, is one of the oldest wholesale markets in the country.
Italy - Painted Venetian masks can be found for sale in markets everywhere. But, to buy one that’s made with the same methods used for 800 years, visit Ca’Macana—the oldest mask making shop in Venice.
Morocco - Colorful, hand-painted ceramic bowls that feature intricate floral or geometric designs can be purchased from galleries and open-air market stalls alike.
Russia - Lacquer boxes made from multiple layers of papier-mâché that have been pressed together and oven-dried are decorated with unique folk art.
Turkey - In a country that’s famous for its production of copper and its unique way of brewing coffee, there is no better souvenir for someone who loves a good brew than an authentic Turkish copper coffee set.
Being Good at Bargaining Means That Both Parties Win
If you’re having a bad time while bartering, you’re probably doing it wrong.
The easiest way to ensure that your excitement over getting a good deal doesn’t take a turn for the worse is to decide up front:
- The ideal price that you’d like to pay.
- At what price it just isn’t worth it.
Once you know where your budget tops out, bartering is now a no-lose proposition, and it becomes much easier to have a little fun.
Ideally, you decide on your top-price beforehand with a little research and observation. However, don't discount your gut.
In the spur of the moment, imagine a non-negotiable price tag and ask yourself if you’d be willing to pay that much for the item. If no, imagine a lower price tag until you can determine how much it’s worth to you.
If you still can’t quite agree on a price point, but the two of you are getting close, see if there isn’t another item that you’d like in the shop—and, would the merchant be willing to sweeten the pot?
Granted, you have to actually want the thing for this to be an actual bargain. But especially when on the verge of selling a big-ticket item, merchants are often willing to sweeten the deal with something else for free.
The Final Rule of Haggling
Take your time, but stick to your word. Bargaining is rarely rushed—not just so that no one appears too eager, but, again, it’s meant to be a mutually beneficial (and pleasant) exchange!
Bid with purpose, build rapport, and if a merchant accepts your price (or vice versa), buy the item with a smile.