Thursday, November 18, 2010

Travel haggle

Haggling is fun. What could be more satisfying than having an animated argument with a complete stranger in broken English and getting a discount at the end of it? I literally can't think of anything.

I don't buy souvenirs - I'm not on holiday, this nomad existence is my life now, and I don't want to be burdened by unnecessary items when lugging my lightweight bags around. Anyway, most souvenirs are really, really rubbish.

But as a human being (roughly speaking) with basic requirements such as food, shelter and getting to ride on a camel every once in a while, not getting ripped off is still a part of my daily routine, and it's a lot more entertaining in Africa.

Haggling can be a bit intimidating at first, if you've been brought up in a cosy, Jennifer Government-style capitalist dystopia, and its existence does unfortunately encourage some pretty unreasonable asking prices at the onset, which can end up being the RRP if you're an inexperienced or lazily wealthy tourist.

But the way some travel books talk about the dangers of haggling, they make it sound as if you'll be heading on your merry way to a museum, then suddenly find yourself emerging from a shop having accidentally spent a fortune on bottles of perfume, aromatherapy oils, papyrus art and customised cartouche jewellery, wondering 'oh dear, how did that happen?'

While some of these touts demonstrate impressive perseverance in their attempts to snag custom from innocent passersby, it's easy enough to reject their advances without coming off as rude - even if some of their patter can be very irritating in its falseness, particularly when you've already heard the same shtick from plenty of people and see the familiar lies coming a mile away.

But if you are genuinely looking for something and want to get a good deal, here are some potentially inadvisable haggling tips that have served me well so far. Just bear in mind that there is doubtless proper, professional advice elsewhere on the internet, and I'm not exactly normal.

Haggling tips

  • Don't be in a hurry
  • Do your research - check prices online or ask your tour guide or hotel staff what prices you can expect. They may be a little optimistic, but it gives you a benchmark
  • If you're not paying in the local currency, learn the exchange rate - that includes the number after the decimal
  • Offer 50 per cent and don't budge too much
  • If the price is finally approaching fair, the walk-out can be an effective set piece - if they don't follow you, you can usually buy all the same things in a million other places along the same street
  • Get a business card from every establishment you check out - this can come in useful as evidence when exaggerating to the next shop owner about how the last guy offered to sell things to you for lower than he actually did, but that you had to turn him down
  • Be unenthused
  • Dress strategically - designer clothes and nice jewellery won't get you student prices. This is not a problem I've faced
  • Chase your change - people have tried to short-change me by small amounts, but always relent when it's pointed out. I find this the most irritating part
  • Voice common sense, even when it goes against established commerce rules - two people sharing a taxi should only pay a single fare, as the taxi isn't going any further, right?
  • Don't get carried away - you shouldn't haggle for crisps and things, and if you're in a poor country and are aware that you're taking advantage, you are a poo.

Avoiding touts

  • Avoid eye contact
  • Quicken your pace
  • Learn how to say 'no thank you' in the native tongue - English will only add fuel
  • If you do converse for the sake of human interaction, be aware that everyone's father allegedly spent time in your home country, and their sisters sometimes live there too. You can test how far they're willing to take the fable through interrogation, if you feel like being a dickhead, but the important thing is not to be impressed
  • If someone tells you they are after 'no money, no business, just talk' at several points, they're reciting from a sales script
  • If they are young, or use really unconvincing parts of their sales repertoire (like telling someone as pale as me that they thought I was Arabic), they should be humoured, but not encouraged
  • When they spin 180 degrees to take you to their family's rubbish shop, resist. It isn't that hard
  • If you do end up in their shop, and have one specific, unflinching thing you are after, don't drink their tea and spend 15 minutes in there. It's an annoying and lengthy process of refusal, and the tea doesn't even taste that nice.

Novel progress: 32,246 words (64%)


  1. Hey Dave,

    I forgot blogs exist but now that I remembered I'll do my best to keep up with yours. I am so amazed by how you've uprooted and done this, though it is you, Mr I-live-in-my-suitcase.

    One day I might give it a go, after I've whined all my insecurities to you and had you reassure me that nobody dies :)

    Egypt looks amazing - hope it is.

  2. Haggling is lots of fun! I visited Morocco and Tunisia and got two very different experiences. In Tunisia I went shopping with my friend Martin and two girls we met at the hotel. They were walking in front of us, so the shopkeepers would try them first then if they walked on they'd speak to me and Martin. Sometimes they'd speak to us. Other times they'd just pull us in their shops or they'd pinch the sunglasses from our heads and say they're just trying them on (of course they'd need to check themselves out in a mirror in their shop). Other other times they'd just call the girls fat (which they clearly weren't) as they walked by.

    In Morocco the walk-out was an amazing technique. We tried it in many, many places and the only time it didn't work was in quite a fancy actual shop. Also, I reckon you can go lower than 50% a lot of the time. On my last day in Morocco I was looking for souvenirs and foolishly asked how much a necklace was. I was quoted a price in dirhams that was easily more than £30 and I didn't like my friend THAT much. I couldn't be bothered haggling but because I'd asked the price he thought I was going to buy it so told me to make an offer. I suggested something pretty insulting and eventually bought the thing for less than a fiver. We were told that they'd never sell if they weren't making a profit so I was pretty amazed at how much he was trying to charge in the first place.

    I also have a story about a man we met in Casablanca who not only claims to have been to Scotland, but also to have been in jail in Scotland after 'being set up' for raping a teenage boy. Later on as one of my friends rudely rejected tea from one of his friends, he disgruntled shopkeeper said to our 'guide', "Don't forget what Scotland did to you!" That made us a little bit scared.

    I also discovered that I look French. If I was walking ahead of the others, shopkeepers would nearly always say 'Bonjour' to me. My friends both got English greetings.