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Coming from an Asian background, the whole haggling thing didn’t come as such a shock to me compared to some others when I travelled (on separate occasions) to countries known for their bazaars and souks, such as Morocco, Egypt, Turkey and Israel. In fact, some of the people I travelled with got so fed up of the whole ordeal that they decided to abandon the little market stalls in favour of souvenir shopping at large stores with fixed prices. While I can understand this sentiment, I also think that there are many reasons in favour of persevering in the markets.
1. It makes your travel experience that much richer.
Haggling is to be expected in these cultures. It’s their way of life and they even enjoy it. It’s a test of wills and determination, to see just how much they can wring out of you. So, by accepting their cups of mint tea and settling down for a haggling session, you are truly experiencing the local culture.
Shisha pipes in the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, Turkey
2. You’re supporting local businesses.
I know many people who, in their home countries, would rather pay a little bit more at their local greengrocer’s than to shop at the big name supermarkets, saying that they’re supporting local businesses. The same principle applies overseas. The small market stall owner probably depends on your business more than the large souvenir store.
3. You may get a good bargain.
If you adhere to some of the guidelines laid out below, you may well come away with a good deal. At least compared to shopping at a large department store.
4. You’re not ripping them off.
But don’t worry. You don’t have to feel bad when they tell you they’re practically giving you the item for free. It’s simply not true. Remember, the price is inflated about 1000% the moment you step up to the stall with that camera around your neck, flashing neon signs screaming “tourist” hovering over your head, and dollar bills painted all over your face. If they don’t think they’re making enough of a profit, they will simply refuse to sell.
So, what are my tips for nabbing a bargain in these situations?
1. Know your exchange rate
If you don’t know what the exchange rate is, you won’t know just how much you’re spending. I find xe.com to be invaluable before and during all my trips. Before my travels, I monitor the exchange rates to decide whether and when to purchase the local currency of the place I’m heading to, remembering that you get about 0.04 less than the actual exchange rate. If no dramatic fluctuations are expected, it may be better to just withdraw money from an ATM when you arrive at your destination, which is usually more representative of the actual rate. Start familiarising yourself early with the exchange rate so that you get used to doing conversions quickly when you’re there.
2. Set your limits
Now that you’re familiar with the exchange rate, decide on the upper limits that you’re willing to spend on each item. In the local currency. For instance, you can get Moroccan tea glasses for maybe $6 each in Australia, or $72 for a set of 12. Considering the hassle of carting them all the way home and the possibility of breakages, I’d probably like to spend no more than about $50 for a set of 12 glasses in Morocco. That works out at about 380 dirhams. So I’d be aiming to pay around 350-400 if possible, and it would definitely be pointless to pay more than 500. For that price, I might as well buy them back home.
3. Look but don’t touch
You know what’s worse than flashing neon signs screaming tourist? Flashing neon signs screaming tourist who wants something really badly. These signs show up if you give anything more than a cursory glance at an item, and if you handle anything, the sirens start blaring as well. Learn to look at things nonchalantly out of the corner of your eye. The vendors will notice even the slightest hint of longing. Wait for them to come over and offer you a price. Then, and only then, can you pick up the item and inspect it, as though carefully considering their offer.
4. Feign disinterest
After you’ve inspected the item, set it down gently, shake your head and thank the vendor. You may even choose to throw in a “It’s too expensive.” Chances are, you won’t even need to. Just walk away and he (it generally is a he) will come running with a lower price. Even if he doesn’t, at least you now have a general idea of what sort of price you’re looking at. Which brings me to the next point…
5. Do your recon
If you have time, wonder around a few stalls until you know what sorts of prices each vendor is quoting. These souks and bazaars are huge and usually the ones closest to the entrance have the highest prices. The ones at the back get fewer tourists and often prices get cheaper the deeper into the markets you wander.
6. Offer less than your best
This is probably one of the few times you’ll hear this as a piece of advice. Haggling is a back-and-forth exchange, and if you start at your maximum bid, you have no room to move. Give yourself leeway so that you can work up towards the limit you had set for yourself. You can generally halve the initial offer from the vendor without offending them.
7. Play up your ethnicity
You know why prices aren’t marked in these markets? Not only are there local prices and tourist prices, there are also different tiers of tourist prices. When asked where I’m from, I found that I was generally quoted higher prices if I said I hailed from Australia compared to if I said I was Malaysian. They seem to think Americans and Japanese are especially wealthy and price adjust accordingly. Sorry. In fact, I often had people asking me hopefully if I was Japanese. Of course, I’m not encouraging lying. But, if like me, you were born in an Asian country other than Japan, I’d suggest citing that as the country you’re from.
8. Remember they need it more than you
So here’s the thing. The above are guidelines to avoid getting ripped off in the markets. But, at the end of the day, they probably need the money more than we do. Say the asking price is 50 Moroccan dirhams more than what you were wanting to spend. Ask yourself is $7 Australian really such a big deal to you?
9. Smile and enjoy yourself
Above all, remember that you’re partaking in their culture so enjoy the experience. Be firm in your dealings but polite. You may find yourself being welcomed in for the official haggling proceedings over a cup of mint tea, like I was in several carpet stores in Fes, and in a Nubian village in Aswan, Egypt. Accept graciously. It’s delicious!
10. Take lots of photos
Most market vendors are pretty happy for you to take photographs of their wares, especially if you’ve purchased something. Sometimes, they’ll even ask you to take a photo of them standing proudly next to their stall. Don’t miss the opportunity to capture all the brilliant sights and colours that abound. Or unusual scenes such as these enterprising merchants who opportunistically surrounded our boat while we were trapped at the Esna Lock in Egypt.
Have you had the experience of haggling in a souk or bazaar? Did you enjoy the experience or did you hate it? What goodies did you return home with?
Australian Traveller that loves to "Roam" our globe, creator of ENDLESSROAMING.COM sharing the experience through word and photography. Currently residing in my home of Newtown Sydney
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