Bargaining at the market. Have you ever done it before? Photo courtesy of

Standing on the side of a dusty road, with lusty, malarial mosquitos nipping at my toes, I was entering my 25th minute of negotiations with a local Malawian wood carver. At stake was a set of handsome, hand carved chief’s chairs. The bartering took on an intellectual tone, with the quality and intricacies of the wood being debated by myself, the vendor, my driver, and the curious crowd of locals who were keen to see the outcome of this sparing match. My price was too low for the top quality chairs – I was only candidate for the medium quality set. Well, if they wanted me to get those chairs for that price, they’d have to sweeten the deal, so various other small carvings were added in. Minute 30 saw me walking out wearing a cheap flowered sarong, with the two chairs, a carved elephant, several figurines, a mortar and pestle in tow. The sarong was necessary, as I had literally bartered away my trousers as part of the deal, requiring a public draping and shimmy-ing to complete my end of deal.

Bargaining is a way of life in many parts of the world and is an essential part of savvy, value based travel. At its core is the simple principal of capitalism: supply and demand. It doesn’t matter if it’s chief chairs in Malawi, hotel rooms in Montreal, or mangos in Mumbai – it all comes down to how much you want or need an item and how readily available that item is. If you are the only visitor in a large market, you will likely realize some good shopping deals. Being in desperate need of a key piece of equipment in a small town may cost you dearly.

Bargaining can be an odd, novel, uncertain experience for many women travelers. Here are some tips to bargain with confidence, comfort, and respect.

1.)    Do you really want or need the item?

Forget the price and the bargaining process – nothing is a good deal if you don’t love it or will never use it. Know your bottom line and be familiar with the currency exchange rate so you can speak knowledgeably.

2.)    Keep your money organized.

Rifling through a fistful of crumpled bills won’t do much for your tall tale of being down to your last dollar.

3.)    Know your seller.

In my experience, the closer you get to the producer (the wood carver, the guest house owner, the pineapple grower), the more honest and accurate a price you will receive. Market middlemen indicate more inflated prices.

4.)    Don’t waste anyone’s time.

If you are only half serious about purchasing, if you don’t have cash in hand, and if you aren’t willing to negotiate to a reasonable price point, no one will be happy at the end of your half-hearted negotiations.

5.)    There’s no magic formula for calculating your first counter-offer.

Different products, commodities, and services have different levels of flexibility. I usually start with a price that’s about 30% below my top bill and go from there.

6.)    Enjoy the process, but with caution.

Bargaining can be a fun, spirited way to shop like a local. Accept offers of hospitality with care. You don’t want a $50 bill for your cup of tea. And never go to second locations, back rooms, or offices for further negotiations.

7.)    Play it cool.

Now’s the time to put on your best poker face! Merchants are masters of seduction and enticement  keep your wits about you and your nerves steely.

8.)    Walk the walk.

If you’ve given your best offer and it’s turned down, be prepared to walk away. Strut with confidence. If you’re called back, the ball is in your court. If they let you go, chances are your price was too low (or your attitude too stern!)

9.)    Close on a cheerful note.

No one is forcing you to make purchase. If you can’t close cheerfully, with everyone feeling like they’ve won, then chances are you shouldn’t be closing the deal at all. Bargaining might be an unusual or awkward experience for you, but it should never feel uncomfortable or intimidating on either side.

10.) Solidarity!

There are many places in the world where a woman isn’t respected as her own economic entity. It’s the vendors’ loss! If you hate bargaining or feel you are not treated with respect by local vendors, you can still enjoy a great shopping experience as you support local women’s cooperatives, small business initiatives, and branches of international charity shops.

Remember, there is really no such thing as “overpaying” – you simply pay the price you were comfortable with at the time, based on your own particular circumstances. Pay no mind to anyone who suggests you could have shaved a few kwatcha or rupees off the final price. Worry instead about underpaying – you never want your savvy bargaining skills to cheat a local in need out of the equivalent of a few pennies or dollars all in the name of “winning”.

Several of my Malawian figurines have since been donated to charity auctions and the flowered sarong made it to the second hand shop, but I still have my elephant, the mortar and pestle, and of course the chairs. And my pants? Never would have fit into them now anyway!!!