I can negotiate my way around any airport in the world, speak a few languages, can pick out a travel bore at 20 paces and know exactly how many pairs of pants to pack for any length of trip.
Unfortunately, there is one area where my travelling expertise is sorely lacking: haggling.
In fact, "sorely lacking" implies that I have some measure of prowess in the art, which I don’t. I actually think I’m the worst haggler in the world.
Take a recent experience in an airport toilet as proof of my haplessness. On a toilet visit before a flight out of Johannesburg, I was greeted by an attendant who ran some water, pumped the soap and offered me a paper towel. As these are all things I’m perfectly capable of doing myself, I was unsure what to tip him, so I asked.
Determined to knock him down, I said, “How about 50c?”
“Certainly sir, if you want to stiff me over 50c, that’s your choice.”
His answer shocked me so much, I ended up chucking a $5 note in his tray and running away in shame. Of all the bad haggles in my past, a 500 per cent mark up from a three sentence negotiation had to be a new personal low.
Travelling and haggling go hand in hand. Most travellers love the thrill of the negotiation, going back and forth with a vendor until they meet at a point where the transaction is mutually agreeable.
The lure of the haggle is more than just about saving money - nowhere is the interaction between local and traveller more personal, more intense, and sometimes more adversarial than during the brief moment of deal-striking.
There’s also a brilliant one-upmanship amongst travellers when it comes to getting something cheaper than their contemporaries. Most people see it as a point of principle that you “never pay full price” when you’re in a foreign country, and whether you’re a backpacker on a budget or a high-end traveller buying precious stones - the buzz of buying something cheaper than the person next to you can last the whole trip.
Of course, the best places for haggling are markets; street vendors and second-hand stores. But I’ve also witnessed some remarkable haggles in some very strange places.
I’ve seen a plane ticket sold at 50 per cent to a traveller who bet the check-in girl she couldn’t sell it full price to anyone else and chicken nuggets talked down to 50c and a kiss in a Maccas in Madrid.
All the discounts were down to people being cocky enough to ask if they can get some kind of discount. Even if you’re no good at it, you quickly learn that nothing on the road is immune to a good haggle.
Personally, my ineptness at bartering comes down to that I really can’t be bothered with haggling. It’s not that I don’t understand the concept or don’t know how to negotiate. I just don’t see the point of entering into a long, protracted conversation that goes back and forth and only ends up with you saving a couple of dollars. I’d rather look at the price, and if I can afford it, then I’ll buy it.
In most of the countries where bartering is commonplace, the $5-10 you save is a fortune to the vendor and I always feel a bit hollow coming away celebrating at having saved my Sydney bus fare over a t-shirt or pair of jeans.
Unlike me, if every dollar counts, try following these rules of haggling to get the best deals on the road.
Be prepared to walk away
The golden rule of haggling: if the seller won’t budge on the price you want to pay, be ready to walk away from the deal no matter how much you want the product. You will often find the seller running after you willing to drop their price if they think they’ve lost their sale for good.
Always start low
Start at about 40-50 per cent of the asking price and work your way up from there.
The “I’m going home tomorrow” line
It might not work on everyone, but saying: “This is all the foreign money I have left as I’m leaving tomorrow” is a good opening line for the bargain hunter.
Walk around your surrounds first
If you’re at a market, take the time to have a look around to see if anyone else has the same product. Ask around for the best price and play them off against each other.
Have a local with you
In every town in the world, there’s a “tourist price” and a “local price”. If you can befriend a local and they can negotiate in the mother tongue for you, then there are bargains to be had.