Asia can be a budget traveler's dream. Meals can cost as little as a dollar and luxury hotels can often be scored for less than $100 a night. And that's to say nothing of its stunning natural beauty and abundant cultural riches, from the Taj Mahal to Angkor Wat. This easy-on-the-wallet ethos can encompass every aspect of your Asian adventure, particularly if you exercise some smarts. That's because in many cases, prices for things like tuk-tuk journeys and souvenirs in Asia's biggest markets are up for debate. And while haggling isn't always called for, and may in fact be slightly unethical, it's certainly part of the local culture, from Crawford Market in Mumbai to the motorcycle taxis in Bali. Haggling like a pro does take a bit of savvy, though, so read on for our 12 crucial tips on how to keep your budget intact during your next trip.
1. The quoted price is not the price.
If you’re being beckoned by tuk-tuk drivers, market vendors, or anyone else selling wares along the streets, rivers, and lakes across much of South and Southeast Asia, the quoted price is not what you should expect to pay (see number 8 below for exceptions). Drivers and sellers inflate prices on everything from silks to short trips from one part of town to another. There are numerous reasons for this, though it’s worth noting that your Western currency likely affords you far greater means than the man or woman trying to sell you something. As such, your wallet can be a target, and prices get inflated accordingly. Even so, it’s worth a bit of effort to bring the price down, particularly if you are on a tight budget and traveling in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangkok, or hot spots like Bali. Even though these destinations can be relative bargains, price tags add up quickly, as they can in any major tourist destination.
2. Scope out the competition.
If you’re in a market or wandering through an intersection where drivers tend to congregate, you’ll likely come across numerous vendors offering the same service or goods. This is particularly true outside of major tourist sites, where souvenir vendors sling saris and other goods that are identical to those next door. Try pitting one vendor or driver against another before you enter either shop or take a seat in their tuk-tuk.
3. Start by offering half.
The generally accepted rule of bargaining is to start by offering half of the originally quoted price. Yes, this may seem like a ludicrously steep discount, but you won’t actually get the price that you’re suggesting. Expect your offer to be met with eye rolls, scoffs, sighs, and other expressions of disbelief. However, by lowering the amount this much right off the bat, you give yourself space for the price to inevitably creep upward while still feeling like you’ve scored a bargain. If you manage to do this within earshot of another driver or market seller, they may pick up your initial offer and work with you if and when the original person with whom you’re bargaining dismisses you.
4. Decide on a price for transportation before entering a vehicle.
Keep in mind that if you’re planning on bargaining for tuk-tuk rides and taxis, you must set the price before you step into the vehicle. Otherwise, you may find yourself hit with a wildly expensive fare upon arriving at the destination. If that happens, it’s best to just pay up and learn from your mistakes. More than one incident involving fights over cab fares has erupted. In some cases, hotel staff and even the police have gotten involved — the latter are certainly not an entity we’d recommend interacting with on a foreign adventure.
5. Don't trust your hotel on what goods and transport cost locally.
While we here at Oyster.com love hotels, they are in the business of making money. And that can translate to steep fees for things that can be found more cheaply just outside the hotel’s door. This applies to everything from local transport to souvenirs purchased in hotel gift shops, which are often the same goods that can be found in the markets for far less. With that in mind, don’t expect to get an accurate quote on the cost of taxis or tuk-tuks from the front desk. In fact, you’ll likely be pressured into hiring the hotel’s own taxi service, which is usually more expensive than scoring your own ride.
6. Walk away.
One’s own feet might just be the most effective way to end a bargaining session and secure a lower price. If you feel like the proprietor isn’t willing to come down enough, especially after you’ve gone back and forth on the price a few times, simply start walking away. In many cases, he or she will follow you, goods still in hand and willing to drop their price a bit more. Of course, this isn’t always the case. For example, if what you’re bargaining for is a coveted one-of-a-kind item in an antique market, don’t expect to be hunted down.
7. Carry plenty of cash, particularly small bills.
Markets, in particular, can be crowded places, so exercise caution about how you store your money. Divide up your bills into various pockets, a money belt, and possibly even your sock (though be prepared for sweaty cash and odd looks in the latter case). That being said, you certainly shouldn’t go flashing rolls of big bills in any bargaining situation. For starters, you might appear greedy while haggling a vendor down to 50 rupees when you have several 1,000-rupee notes in your billfold (and insist on paying with one). Additionally, a shop owner or driver may claim to not have the appropriate change, thus upping the total cost. It’s also worth noting that cards aren’t widely accepted in Asia’s markets or as a payment method for transportation.
8. Fixed prices do exist.
Don’t think that simply because you’re in Asia, everything can be had for nothing. Plenty of shops, restaurants, and other outlets have set prices. In touristy areas, these shops will often have a sign near the entrance noting that goods are a “fixed price.” Even within certain markets, like Chatuchak Market in Bangkok, many vendors operate with fixed prices. Most brick-and-mortar shops, including Bangkok’s massive malls and Connaught Place in Delhi, are also no-haggle zones. Bargaining for food or drinks is pretty much forbidden as well, whether you’re eating street food in a night market or sitting down in a restaurant.
9. Do research on local customs.
Like any other diverse region of the world, Asia is not monolithic when it comes to how commerce is handled. For instance, in Singapore, Japan, and much of South Korea, haggling isn’t nearly as common as it is in the continent’s more notoriously budget-friendly destinations like Thailand, India, and Cambodia. Even within those nations, bargaining isn’t always welcome depending on the part of town you’re visiting. When it comes to transport, Uber won’t always be an option either. In Bali, taxi syndicates control transportation options in towns like Ubud, and both drivers and passengers can expect plenty of harassment for using ride-hailing apps. Instead, you’ll have to bargain for your late-night ride back to your hotel. Visiting the temple can also cost you. Many of the major temples in places like Varanasi, Chiang Mai, and Bali rely on offerings from visitors — you may be asked for donations by temple caretakers and should give what you can.
10. Wait to book a budget hotel until you arrive in town.
This tip is aimed at travelers who don’t mind a little adventure, and — to be clear — there are risks in waiting to find a hotel until arriving in a destination. Popular cities and regions can be booked out far in advance, especially during major festivals. You’ll also be tasked with carting your luggage around until you find somewhere to bed down for the night. However, South and Southeast Asia hotels can be test cases for bait-and-switch practices, where one’s expectations don’t align with what’s delivered. Additionally, the rates charged online are often far higher than you’ll get by walking in and comparing prices at similar properties. This is especially true in backpacker neighborhoods like Khaosan Road in Bangkok or Paharganj in Delhi, where seemingly identical budget hotels are lined up side by side. Make sure you see the exact room that you’re getting first, and check to make that the features you need all work. Additionally, you may score a score bargain if you agree to stay for multiple nights.
11. Be kind.
Unfortunately, the anything goes reputation of South and Southeast Asia often translates into tourists treating the locals and local customs with disdain. Don’t become one of them. That goes for dealing with hotel staff, taxi drivers, and market vendors, too. In fact, becoming openly hostile in a bargaining situation will only work against you. Yes, the sheer number of vendors or drivers continually beckoning for your attention can be taxing, but showing anger gets you nowhere. You’re certainly not the first tourist they’ve seen and won’t be the last. After all, they’re just trying to make a living.
12. Consider whether you really need to haggle.
Aside from saving a few dollars and having fun stories to tell your friends upon returning home, think about whether haggling is even worth it for small-scale items like souvenirs. We get it: Backpackers might have extremely limited funds to navigate their journeys of self-discovery. However, in many cases, your Western wages far surpass what locals are living off of in countries like India, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Yes, haggling is all in good fun, but remember that this is often a matter of survival for many of the retail and transport workers you’re likely to encounter on your next adventure in Asia.
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