Are you nervous about haggling in Asia? I sure was! Here are my 13 best tips on how to haggle like a local in Asia – a polite, respectful local.
Us Canadians are known for our politeness. When someone names a price for something, that’s the price; take it or leave it. Well, Asia is very different. Vendors EXPECT to haggle. And I can tell you that I was very apprehensive about it and it took me a number of days – and a LOT of smirks from my sister – to get comfortable with it. But, in about a week I was scoffing at the price of a water, only to have the vendor immediately cut the price in half – yay!
If I can do it, you can do it.
Now, not every place you go will be super friendly to haggling. Markets and street vendors? Definitely. Tuk-tuks? Yup. Stores? It depends … watch what others do, or feel them out. Restaurants? Generally no.
Once you get the hang of it, haggling like a local in Asia is actually really FUN. One of my favorite memories is haggling with a young Vietnamese girl, both of us smiling and laughing and having fun; from what I could tell, we both walked away happy. I’m sure this means I didn’t get the best deal, but I got a fair deal that we were both happy with.
And THIS is what I’d encourage you to keep in mind as your haggling GOAL: that you both walk away happy. (I am a polite Canadian, after all!)
Haggling Tips for Asia: BEFORE you leave your hotel
Before you step foot inside an Asian market and face your first haggling experience, there are a few things you can do to prepare.
1. Keep small currencies on you.
This is a great place to start. When exchanging your money for local currency, be sure to get a variety of bills, including small amounts. This makes haggling for smaller items way easier.
Vendors often say they don’t have change for larger bills and will stop haggling. And sometimes, it’s true – if you try to buy a $1 water with a $50 bill, you might very well clean out all their change. So, always have smaller bills and coins on hand yourself.
2. Spread out your money.
Carry your small bills and change in your main wallet, and keep your larger amounts in a back-up spot. Vendors will eye up your wallet to see how much you really have to haggle with. If they don’t see a lot, they’re more likely to give you the price you’re asking for.
This is just a good tip, anyway, to protect your cash and yourself from being mugged. I’ll usually keep my larger back-up amounts in a separate pocket in my purse, and then carry my passport and more larger back-up bills in a body wallet (that goes under your clothes). If you suspect you’ll need to pull from either of these spots, just find a discreet spot to move it into your wallet … before approaching the vendor.
3. Note key exchange values.
I like writing down a few local exchange values on a strip of paper and keeping it in my main wallet, so it’s easy to look at it while haggling. (Not a great idea to pull out your phone when haggling in Asia … just another thing that says, “money”).
Like, how much local currency equals $1 USD, $5, $10, $50. I’m not a math person, so having this at the tip of my fingers is very helpful!
4. Ask a local for typical costs.
Getting a local to give you a sense of what something will cost you is especially helpful for haggling over taxi rides and bus tours. My go-to locals to ask this advice is staff at wherever you’re staying.
But, DO expect to pay more as a tourist. It’s like a tourist tax that you’re giving directly to the service providers.
Haggling Tips for Asia: When you ENTER a market
So now you’re armed with a variety of currency amounts, something to help you quickly do the exchange math in your head, and a sense of how much you can expect to pay.
Here are tips for when you enter the market …
5. Take your time.
The general rule of thumb is not to buy the first thing you see. Often, stalls on the outskirts of a market will start prices high, assuming you haven’t done your research. So, go in deeper and take a good look around. Then when you decide what you want, go for it.
That said, if it’s truly PERFECT, go for it, too! I’m so indecisive that I’ve left amazing things behind, thinking I’ll find it again later but never did. If you’ll kick yourself for not getting something, just go for it.
I’ll be honest, here; much of my time wandering around markets was spent psyching myself up! Trying to leave my indecisiveness at the curb and feign some confidence.
And part of that confidence comes from tackling the next tip …
6. Decide how much you’re willing to pay.
This goes back to knowing your exchange rates. If you don’t know how much $500,000 Vietnamese dong is in your currency, you’ll have no idea if you’re happy to pay it for that marble chess board.
I kinda love this concept of what something is worth to YOU. We’ve largely lost this critical thinking skill in the west. It helps put relative costs into perspective.
7. Watch what you say.
In certain areas, like Cambodia, “Maybe later” means “Yes, I’ll buy from you; find me after I’m done here.” And they will find you! These kids will hunt you down and nag you until you buy from them.
If you don’t want to buy something, a simple “no thank you” is perfect.
8. Respect a seller’s first sale.
Learn from me on this one … To be a respectful haggler in Asia, keep this in the back of your mind: A vendor is eager to make a good first sale, because it’s seen as good luck or a good omen for the day. So, be especially kind when shopping in the morning.
Here’s a not-so-good story to reinforce this point. I had it in my head that I really wanted coasters and was in search of them the entire trip (it drove my sister crazy). I found some that were okay; but being super indecisive, I was obviously debating it in my head and started walking away. Clearly desperate to make her first sale, the vendor chased after me and gave me a steal of a deal. And I still feel SO guilty for it. First, because I was so stupidly indecisive and showing it all over my face. And second, because I didn’t just give her a fair price. I can still see the desperate, near-tears look in her eyes.
Now, I know it’s unreasonable to just buy everything we look at when a vendor gets a sad look in their eye; you’d be coming home with a LOT of stuff, because they know how to play the game. But my point is to listen to your conscience, don’t wear your indecisiveness all over your face like I did, and be kind.
Haggling Tips for Asia: MAKING the deal
Now here we go … you know what you want and you’re ready to give haggling a try. Here are my favorite tips to haggle like a local in Asia and seal the deal.
9. Smile, and be polite.
I would think this goes without saying (you are on vacation, after all!), but it’s amazing how grumpy tourists can look when haggling. A simple smile and basic politeness will go far. As will knowing a little of the local language.
So give your warm, winsome smile, and say (or try to say) “hello” and “how are you?” I promise, it’ll also make it SO much more fun.
10. Start at half the asking price.
Now THIS was the tip that helped me the most. Sometimes you just need to know where to start!
Initially, I felt so rude offering half … and the vendors usually played it up to make me feel really guilty! They’ve had a lot more practice than me, that’s for sure. But, remember it’s a dance. Take your time and feel out the person across from you. And try to have some fun.
In about a week, it felt pretty natural. I’d ask, “How much?” My internal voice would coach me: Don’t show how much you want it; maybe furrow your brow a little at the price. Hum and haw a bit. Then, I offer half and likely meet somewhere in the middle. Done!
11. Offer an odd number.
Apparently, offering an odd amount, like 597, will make you look like a pro. I rarely do this other than in the final stages of haggling … there must be something psychological about odd numbers??
Please, give it a try and let me know how it works for you. I think it’d just make me smile, which is a good thing, too!
12. Buy multiple items to sweeten the deal.
If the vendor isn’t giving you the price you want, take a look around the stall. See anything else you like? Vendors are much more likely to sweeten the deal if you buy more than one thing.
13. Be willing to walk away.
You’ll see a lot of tips saying to feign disinterest if the vendor isn’t budging, and start walking away. My coaster example shows how this got me a great price (even though my disinterest was actually sincere).
But it can also go the other way; the vendor might not come after you. If they don’t, stroll around other stalls and think about the latest price. If you think the price is fair, you might just go with it. If it’s a bit high … well, you win some and lose some.
And sometimes, you might just decide to walk away. Which is okay! So long as you didn’t really want it?? (Being an indecisive haggler SUCKS!)
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Dreaming. Planning. Exploring. Finding that “wow” moment. Cora loves the journey nearly as much as the destination. She wants to experience the wonders and the stories of this amazing world for herself. Cora has toured with friends, family and now three little ones (eek!).
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