Perfect the Art of International Bargaining


Frustrated or confused about how to bargain in foreign countries? Akaisha has been bargaining her way around the world for almost three decades. Luckily, she’s here to share some valuable tips to help you embrace (and even love) bargaining, an essential skill for long-term world travellers…

Vendor Petrona and I are friends

Vendor Petrona and I are friends

Cultural Clashes

North Americans or Europeans often find themselves shaking in their boots – or even angry – when it comes to bargaining for goods in foreign countries. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that most Anglos find it downright distasteful.

Yet, bargaining is inherent in many cultures around the world and is something other cultures view as both essential and a sign of respect between vendor and customer.

Native peoples have developed this communication skill for centuries, exchanging live chickens for bags of rice, or avocados for woven cloth. For them:

‘It’s just the way business is done.’

And if you want to do good quality business with them, you need to learn their art. You need to understand their perspective – and you need to engage appropriately.


Bargaining for Gems in Burma

They Start Bargaining from a Young Age

Taught how to sell by their parents or an older sibling, it’s a common event to see children out on the streets or in vendor stalls in Mexico, Central America, Asia, and elsewhere around the globe.

They start from a very young age, so it’s no surprise that they are very good at this art. This is easy to understand.

But why then do tourists shy away from wrangling over the price of their souvenirs – or even for their necessities when living as an expat in a country?

In my opinion, those who find bargaining uncomfortable simply don’t understand the true value of the choreography between buyer and seller.

I’d like to help you learn the dance…

It’s Time to Dance!

Many indigenous peoples have the expectation to bargain for the price of goods and services. This is the first thing you must know:

‘To bargain is expected!’

This dance between buyer and seller is integral to their cultures. Through the exchange of information going on underneath the dickering over price, both sides learn a great deal about each other.

Most North Americans and Europeans find it all rather unsavoury and would prefer a marked price with no messy emotional entanglement in the exchange.

However, personal interaction is an important ingredient in bargaining cultures. By eliminating this under-the-surface dialogue, there would no longer be the dance. And the vendor would lose his / her pleasure in the business exchange.

Bargaining is an accepted – and expected – form of communication. Sadly, most tourists and expats don’t know this. This lack of understanding unwittingly causes friction with the culture being visited.

Indigenous woman offering us her wares, Merida, Mexico

Indigenous woman offering us her wares, Merida, Mexico

But I’m no good at this…

Negotiating over price can trigger anxieties in those who feel incompetent in this skill. Nothing can be more aggravating than thinking you are being taken advantage of or that you might be overpaying.

Lack of trust or not feeling in control could plague you. But wait! There’s hope. You simply need to be ready to meet the challenge. I hope I can help you to do this with both confidence and enjoyment

Step 1: Know the Local Price

Check locally for costs so you know what you are talking about. This gives you confidence and a sense of fairness to stand firm.

Just because the cost of a similar item in New York City or Toronto is “X,” you are at a distinct disadvantage if you think the first number offered to you is the best deal you’ve ever heard. Sure, that amount in Dallas would be a steal! But the thing is:

‘You are not IN Dallas.’

You are dealing with a completely different financial economy and valuation structure.

Purchasing handwoven silks in Laos

Purchasing handwoven silks in Laos

You must remember:

‘The asking price is always high. It’s an out-of-the-ballpark amount the seller DREAMS to receive.’

Step 2: Don’t Engage Unless you are Serious

Bargaining isn’t a game. Vendors value their time and do not take kindly to your wasting it. Engage the bargaining process only when you are ready to purchase. If you are simply on your fact-finding mission to discover local pricing, indicate this to them:

‘I am just looking today, thank you.’


‘I’m curious, for example, what would this cost if I wanted to buy it?’

They will know today is not your purchasing day and will not rev themselves up for deal making. They will respect you for your honesty, and will save their energy for another customer.

If you begin the financial dialogue but are not sincere, you have treated him / her without courtesy, and have sullied that relationship. You can fully expect to be verbally reprimanded or rebuffed.

Step 3: Start by Offering 1/3 of the Beginning Figure

To the uninitiated, that paltry amount might seem insulting. But the truth is that experienced buyers and sellers realize that the counter offer is equally ridiculous. The real price lies somewhere in the middle.

Step 4: Get Ready to Dance

Understand that by making a counteroffer, you have just told the seller that:

‘The dance has begun!’

If you’re not willing to dance, don’t make a counteroffer, as they will expect you to see this through. In fact, show little interest in their wares – or, as outlined above, ask your questions carefully so they know you’re not officially shopping right now.

Step 5: Understand the Necessity of Bargaining

Those who refuse to bargain while living amongst or visiting these cultures place themselves and other tourists in an unfavorable financial position.

Willing to pay 3, 5, even 10 times or more than anyone in the vicinity, vendors take advantage. It’s easy to think:

‘Well, it’s just a few bucks and they really need it more than I do.’

But that attitude will put you in a weak purchasing place and botches the balance between you. Understanding the necessity of the bargaining process will help you see it through once the dance has begun.

Thirteen year old Maya selling textiles at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Thirteen year old Maya selling textiles at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Step 6: Bargain a Greater Discount for More

While living in Thailand, I commissioned my seamstress to make six reversible Chinese silk robes.

Initially, I gave her a drawing and discussed the price for one robe. We agreed on the timeline and amount, and then I told her I wanted five more.

‘Could I get a discount for ordering six?’

Smiling, she realized she had more work, which meant making more money. She gladly marked my price down even further. We both received what we wanted. Guaranteed work mattered to her, and price mattered to me.

Thailand offers a wide range of Chinese silks

Thailand offers a wide range of Chinese silks


‘The more you buy, the bigger your discount.’

Step 7: Be Willing to Leave the Deal

A good negotiation requires your serious willingness to walk away. Leave emotional attachment to what you’re trying to buy at the door!

Vendors have been selling their wares since childhood and they read facial expressions and body language extremely well! You might think that you are dealing with a youngster, but they are both seasoned and skilled.

‘They know the value of their goods and can read your wallet well.’

You might want something terribly, but you have to be willing to leave the deal – and be serious about walking away if you’re not getting the price you want.

Push the boundaries to find out what they will and won’t accept. If the vendor calls you back, then your price is considered workable and you can keep dancing. Remember:

‘Vendors will not sell at a loss.’

That means that if you walk away and he or she holds firm – and doesn’t call you back – then you have found the bottom price. This is valuable information.

Step 8: Try Again with Greater Knowledge

If you’ve done step 7 properly then you’ve either been called back – or you’re still walking away. Either way, you know more than you did when you started your dance.

If you really want that particular item, you could try again later in the day and increase your offering to something they will entertain. Or go back the next day and try to open the business deal again.

Amber for sale in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Amber for sale in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Now that you know what the definite bottom line is, you could also try with another vendor.

Step 9: Keep the Financial Ecology Balanced

Indigenous people honour and value the skill of bargaining, and they know what something is worth. Even if they make faces or have drama with their hands up in the air, it’s all part of the play. It may be tough to believe, but:

‘If money is thrown at them due to (what we might perceive as) compassion, the native who finds himself wanting and needing the money you have, will dislike you for tossing it around so carelessly.

He will also dislike himself for having taken your money without the expected bargaining process.’

If you simply give them money for an item without the proper bargaining ritual, a disrespectful and distasteful posture often develops between the two cultures at this point.

Vendor Petrona and I are friends

Vendor Petrona and I are friends

The vendor takes pride in earning the price he / she receives. How can an Indigenous person respect someone who does not know proper value when they see it and simply casts money away like that?

‘This exchange between vendor and purchaser is financial ecology.’

If this interchange becomes unbalanced, emotional attitudes on both sides sour. Tourist destinations become rip-off locations because the authenticity between the two parties has been lost.

Sadly, few North Americans and Europeans understand this tradition and the cultural clash causes problems for both the present and future visitors to that culture.

The Importance of Making the Effort

Even if you feel that you are a horrible haggler, make an effort (!) – or no respect will be given to you. You will be wearing a neon sign saying:

‘Easy Target’

The next time you find yourself in a bargaining situation, take heart! And try to have a little fun!

Implement the suggestions I have made above, arm yourself with knowledge of local pricing – and go shopping knowing that bargaining is a pleasurable activity for the vendors you’ll meet!

Do not think you’re trying to rip the vendor off. And do not think they’re trying to rip you off. By engaging in the bargaining process, try to remember:

‘You’re engaging in an age-old art that offers respect to the vendor.’

Have a little fun and let me know how you get on! I’d love to hear your bargaining stories in the comments below.

2 responses to “Perfect the Art of International Bargaining

  1. This is an excellent article, and I really appreciate the emphasis on cultural interaction, the dance We’re looking for the fair price, not the best for our side. Having bargained in many countries for many different sorts of goods, often for business, I would add that not all countries and not all vendors follow the same rules; I haven’t found “offer a third” to apply everywhere. Also the belief that a vendor will never sell under cost is common but untrue. A vendor desperate to feed the family today will sell for almost anything. So we need to be careful.

  2. Hey Meredith, thanks for your worthy comments. Once we make a solid deal with a vendor and both sides know we are being fair, this can be an excellent business connection for future purchases. Irreplaceable.


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