Knowing when and how to haggle prices in Asia is a key travel skill — it's fun and can save a lot of money on your trip! Good-natured haggling is a part of daily life in Asia. Most prices are padded because a little negotiation is expected.
Many Westerners aren't completely comfortable with the concept of haggling prices. But everything is subject to discount, from hotel rooms to outfits purchased in posh malls. Instead of feeling dread or guilt, view each transaction as an opportunity for a fun exchange.
Learning how to negotiate prices properly isn't just about cutting costs: it's a cultural interaction. Plus, doing so is a bit of a responsibility. By failing to put some pressure on prices, you're actually contributing to cultural mutation. Tourism can inflate costs for the local residents who remain long after vacations are finished.
Shop in the Right Places
You'll be at an advantage before you even begin to negotiate prices if you shop away from tourist markets and places where prices have been inflated.
If enough uninformed travelers pass through, merchants don't need to negotiate with you — a sucker will come along soon enough who is willing to pay asking price.
Remember that positions for tables and stalls in markets are prioritized and priced accordingly. The stalls nearest the entrances usually have the highest rent, and that cost gets passed down to customers. Before buying the first place you see something, push deeper into the market. You'll probably see the same item again for less.
As a general rule of thumb, try never to buy from the first place you find an item. But just in case, remember how to get back to it — easier said than done in labyrinthine places such as Bangkok's Catuchak Market!
Tip: Haggling isn't only the realm of open-air markets in Asia. You can even negotiate for better deals in big shopping malls.
If you spotted an interesting item in a night market, try arriving early the next evening as the vendor is setting up their booth.
Many times an early sale is considered the “lucky sale” and promises a fortuitous day or night for the seller. Many believe the first sale builds some momentum and sets the pace of business to come. Merchants may be more willing to bend on prices to make that first early sale happen.
Knowing an item's approximate value will give you a huge advantage when beginning to haggle prices. Shop around before making a purchase; neighboring shops in Asia often carry the exact same item. You'll get a better feel for the item's true price after seeing it for sale in different places.
If your price is met, have the right amount of cash with you to proceed with the purchase. Don't make shopkeepers wait while you run to find an ATM. Ideally, you'll have smaller denominations to pay the exact price agreed upon rather than sending the merchant to find change for you.
Knowingly or otherwise, every time you spend money you support a practice.
Be aware of what may have been involved to produce that souvenir before considering a purchase. You may be inadvertently supporting harmful environmental practices in Asia without realizing.
To err on the side of caution, avoid items and souvenirs made from animal products, marine life, seashells, turtle shells, ivory, and preserved insects.
When feasible, make your purchases from fair-trade shops or reputable businesses. Buying directly from artists and the craftsmen who make the items is even more ideal.
Note: Purchasing things from children selling on the streets isn't a good practice.
Don't Fall for the Usual Tricks
Just because an artisan has a pile of wood chips on the ground does not guarantee they made the item in question!
One tried-and-true sales tactic consists of a merchant whittling on a wooden item as if he made it there. But some simple shopping around will usually reveal that many booths in the market carry the exact same item an artist is pretending to make.
Many “local” souvenirs found in Southeast Asia are actually mass produced elsewhere in Asia. Those same carved, wooden elephants, cats, ceremonial masks, and other handmade goods can often be found for sale elsewhere, including your home country!
Have Fun and Play the "Game"
Haggling prices in Asia can actually be fun, and it should be approached that way.
Local vendors often enjoy the thrill of negotiating and striking a deal; approach the entire process as a game rather than a competition. Regardless of the final price achieved, the interaction can be a win-win for both parties.
Smile a lot, feign total shock when given the first price, exaggerate, be cool but energetic, and tease a little!
Pointing out small flaws in whatever you are buying is all part of the game. Don't be nervous; the merchant knows it's all a game. Also, they play it daily and are most likely way better at it than you!
Use the Local Language
A great way to get better prices is to at least know how to say hello in the local language. Doing so immediately sets you apart from the other tourists who don't demonstrate an interest in local culture.
Travelers who know how to negotiate prices in the local language have an even greater advantage. Shopkeepers can give you a price that won't be overheard and understood by other tourists in the shop. Knowing at least the words for “discount” and “expensive” comes in very handy.
Attempting the local language shows respect, interest, and will almost always land you a better price.
Tip: Whether you can negotiate in the local language or not, using a small calculator will help avoid any miscommunication about the final price. Shops often have one on the counter; you'll each take turns entering a price until a number in the middle is met.
Offer an Unrealistic First Price
Shopkeepers know the old guidebook advice of suggesting tourists offer half the asking price; that haggling tactic stopped working a long time ago. Prices have already been set to compensate — often more than double what the merchant hopes to get.
Instead, start with a drastically low price so that you actually have some bargaining room. No matter that you won't get the first price. More important is that you have expressed interest as a potential buyer, and you've now forced the seller to counter with a number to start the game.
All professional negotiators know an effective strategy is to keep the ball in the other party's court. Make them come up with the next number.
If a vendor asks the trick question, “how much do you want to pay?” they're trying the same strategy. They hope you'll throw a number out that's higher than necessary.
To keep the initiative, smile, then reply with an honest answer along the lines of “as little as possible!”
Be Ready to Walk Away
Appearing too eager or happy about an item is a sure way to pay more.
Instead, appear uninterested, and make sure that the vendor knows you can certainly live without the item. Ideally, the purchase should be completely optional to you. But if not, you've got to at least fake it!
If you absolutely cannot get a vendor to budge any on a price, simply say a polite “thank you” and walk away. If the shopkeeper chases you with a better offer, you can continue haggling. Merchants know that there are many more shops and stalls out there vying for your attention and money — they don't want you to get away.
Be aware that in busy tourist places, vendors may not chase you at all because they know someone else will come along and pay the asking price.
After threatening to walk away, you've essentially gone "all in." If for some reason you have to return to the same shop with your tail between your legs, don't expect to do any more bargaining!
Purchase in Bulk When Possible
Buying more than one item from the same seller greatly increases your bargaining power.
When souvenir shopping, try to make all your purchases in the same place at the same time. Even if you have to bend and pay slightly more for some things, you can make up the difference with discounts on the other purchases.
Generate excitement by queuing potential purchases on the counter or in your hands. Show that you're there to spend some money. The seller will often be more reluctant to nickel and dime you on each item for fear of losing the whole sale.
Work as a Team
Haggling prices as a team makes negotiating that much easier.
One person can point out flaws or state how expensive something is, as if they are trying to talk their partner out of buying an item. The one holding the item can visually begin to cave, making the seller feel the pressure of potentially losing a sale.
These tactics sound "mean," but don't feel too bad about it: locals utilize the technique frequently.
Allow Sellers to Save Face
The concepts of saving and losing face in Asia come into play during every interaction, certainly during haggling.
Even if a seller wants to make a sale, they may be reluctant to do so when there is a risk of losing face. Avoid being rock solid and inflexible about the final price. Using expressions such as “I won't pay a penny more” puts the seller into a position of potentially losing face.
Never make a seller feel cheated or small; give just a little on the final price to allow the vendor to save face.
After the sale — assuming you received an excellent price — appear extremely happy with the item purchased, thank the seller, and even mention that you will tell your friends about their shop or may return later to give them more business.
Connect With the Seller
If you absolutely cannot live without making a particular purchase, simply be open and honest with the seller. Acknowledge the obvious and be politely human. Ideally, they will reciprocate with a fair price.
Tell the other party that you understand they are only trying to make a living or support a family — most likely the truth. Try using expressions such as “Please help me give you this business” or “I really want this item, but I need to feel that I'm getting a fair price.”
Breaking out of the usual game will sometimes yield a little respect and ultimately a slight discount on the final purchase.
Be Fair and Follow Through
Don't waste a seller's time and energy by making an offer that you aren't prepared to keep.
Just as at auctions in the West, if you begin negotiating and a seller accepts your offer, you are expected to purchase the item for the price you offered.
Walking away after a successful negotiation is very bad form — don't do it!
Return to the Same Shop
Assuming that your first interaction went well, returning to the same shop later will sometimes help you get a fairer price when the vendor recognizes you as a return customer.
Bringing a friend or another traveler to the shop adds additional credit!