Everyone who has ever backpacked through Southeast Asia knows the best shopping is not at stores but at the prolific markets. They are indoor, outdoor, and even floating. And to make it even better the price of basically everything can be haggled over. Embroidered purses, hand painted parasols, kitchenware, knock-off designer jeans, tuk-tuk rides, surfing lessons, live chickens, freshly slaughtered lizards… don’t take the first offer! However, after that being said, here are some good rules to follow to ensure you get the best price for you, but don’t look like a prima dona doing it.

1) Never stop smiling and nodding. If you show respect and humor, you will be rewarded with it. Bargaining is fun! Enjoy the game. By nodding you are showing an attempt to place your head lower than the vendor. In Asian culture the head is considered the highest and most holy part of the body. One true stereotype is that westerners are generally taller (and hairier) than Asians; naturally placing our heads above theirs. So by lowering your head you are showing respect. Pretend to be a Bobble Head doll. Asian culture is also big on “saving face” and you will immediately be looked down upon as soon as you start to get upset. Yes, I know its really hot outside, but chill out! Wouldn’t you rather sell your handmade goodies to a happy smiling and bouncing ball of joy then to a sullen and snobby rich white girl?

photo by Katie Hayden

2) Know your tools. Whatever the first offer is, counter-offer with a quarter or a third of that price. (With a smile of course.) Start lower than you are prepared to spend. If the vendor drops their offer by US$1 or 30 baht or whatever, then raise yours by the same amount. Keep on going in this fashion until you both can find a price that works for you. Generally you can expect to get the price down to a half maximum of the first offer. There are of course exceptions, in areas heavily catered to package tourists the initial offer will be much higher. In Kuta Beach, Bali I got a pair of calf high leather gladiator sandals down from US$60 to US$15. It helped that my friend bought two sandals of her own… When you can’t get the price you want for one, try adding to your order. Bulk is good. You can also try walking away. Nothing makes a price drop faster than the vendor realizing they might not get a sale at all.

3) Don’t start what you are not prepared to finish. Many times just by walking by a booth and touching something, you are signifying the beginning of a bargaining party. As soon as you start, it is rude to stop. No one likes a tease. It is okay to ask the start price and walk away without haggling if you realize the initial offer is way too high; but walk away quickly before you are guilted into negotiation. In Muslim countries, be wary of accepting tea. Although it is considered rude not to, the tea is always burning hot, and takes at least five minutes to cool to a drinkable temperature. It is much harder to say no to buying after five minutes of hearing about Turban Man’s wife (wives?) and ten children. One good trick in Muslim countries however is a “I must check with my husband first before I spend any money.” Works every time.

photo by lechua

4) Services have their own rules. Always always always decide on every aspect of the price before you accept the services, unless prices are clearly posted. If you are used to paying US$3 for a ten minute ride, never hop into a tuk-tuk and assume you will get that price. By the time you get out it will have risen to US$15 per person. Never trust a “I give you good price!” without getting the price. Make sure the price is decided upon, and make sure you know if the price is per person or for the ride or lesson. If they quote the price to you in English and you only have local currency, make sure you are both using the same exchange rate. Especially be wary in Northern Vietnam. Last time I was in Hanoi I had such a hassle with a hotel I stayed at, they kept on changing the prices, and then since I was paying in US dollars made up their own exchange rate of 25,000 dong to the dollar when it was only 18,000 dong. I finally threatened to get a quote from the bank and they gave me the proper one. Speak firmly but respectfully up when you know you’re being screwed. Stay on your toes (easiest way is to wear heels).

5) Know when to accept defeat. You can’t always get what you want. If prices are posted, they are fixed. Menus at restaurants or bars are not to be questioned (unless you are down to your last dollar and wearing a bikini, but then its easier to find someone to buy you a drink anyways). And too bad you think that you could find that cute and mildly garish necklace for US$5 in the mall at home. Guess what? It’s made of precious stones that each took a week to carve. No, you can’t have it for US$2. There is nothing that is more embarrassing than watching Westerners try and try to get a vendor to cave in over less then a dollar. What does 50 cents really matter to you? Are you really going to go hungry because you over-payed for a bracelet by 50 cents? Get over it already. You might not think you are rich and privileged, but if running water is normal in your home country, then to most of the world YOU ARE. So suck it up and fork over that extra dollar or euro or whatever. Don’t make the rest of us look bad. Plus, you want as much good karma as you can get if you want to avoid a nasty case of food sickness right before your fourteen hour bus ride tomorrow.