How to barter at markets
Some of the best and worst moments I have had traveling occurred at markets. I’m not talking about the safe old markets you will find in the western world. Oh no, I’m talking about those scary ones you hear about in Kuala Lumpur, Bali or Egypt’s Luxor market. They are the real markets, the ones where it seems anything goes.
I remember vividly my experiences in Egypt’s markets and freaking out a little bit inside about how I would handle it. It may be silly to worry about a market you say, but I did. I had heard about how much people hassle you to buy stuff and frankly didn’t think I could cope with being firm and saying no. I’m sure I am not alone with this aspect of travel and if I am you have permission to call me a sissy below.
But for any of you out there who are a little nervous about it, let me share my tips on how I handled it.
I am going to be specific and talk about my experiences in Egypt but I’m sure you can apply them elsewhere. The first thing was to work out what something was worth compared to the currency in your own country. In my case Australia, our dollar was worth about 6 Egyptian Pound. Basically the trick was to forget about what something cost in your own currency E.g. converting it to Aussie Dollars. Just think of the item in their currency. So if you would pay $15 AUD for a scarf back home you should be thinking 15 Egyptian Pound. $3 AUD for a train 3 Egyptian Pound. You get the idea. So wherever you are from this should work the same and use this as your target price.
Now I was traveling with my wife Jen on a tour but we were left to our own devices at the markets. I was fortunate to be with Jen and two other girls. All I can say is we received a LOT of attention and the shop owners offered me many (read millions) camels for just one girl. I was called ‘lucky man’ and Casanova’ and it was a pretty funny experience. So you know ladies, none of the girls were sold, what am I going to do with a million camels? 😉 The point is, the store owners want you to buy their stuff and they WILL be relentless.
Now you know your target price and you know the stall owners are going to do anything to get you into their store with lines like ‘I don’t know what you need but I have it in here’ and ‘everything in my store is free’. The next thing to know is you are going to need a whole lot of patience. You can’t just casually browse around the stores and walk out. Once you are in there you are shown EVERYTHING and may feel pressured to buy something. The owners will do anything to keep you in the store. This can be intimidating but you must learn to be firm and if someone grabs you tell them to let you go. You will be totally safe, you just have to know this is the way it is.
Next, you are going to need more patience. You found that hat you like or the pyramid statues and you know what you are willing to pay. So you make an offer and walk out right? Wrong! This ain’t the western world of fixed prices cupcake. You are in the real world now and this selling thing is a real game and a favourite pastime of these shop owners. If they can get $20 AUD out of you for that hat (or more) rather than 20 Egyptian Pound they bloody well will. So now ensues the painstaking and sometimes hilarious business of barter.
You say 20 they say 300, you say 40 that say 2000 and so it goes… and goes… and goes…
What you really need is time and a total lack of feeling and conscience. Just like an animal smells fear, store owners smell a softy and they’ll eat you alive! I learnt a good trick was to walk away after offering a bit lower than your desired price and then let them chase you down. If they can afford it they will come after you. This can speed up the process but it isn’t fool proof and often the price will go up again once you are in the store, but it is worth a try. Another thing they will do is agree to the price but then ‘conveniently’ leave out some items or swap them out for poorer quality so check what you are getting.
These are the basics which will get you by and stop you from getting totally robbed. One other tip in regard to Egypt is this: Sellers outside temples will not leave you alone if you acknowledge them. This means smiling, saying ‘no thank you’ or sometimes even looking at them. It was one of the hardest things for me to get used to, ignoring people and not being polite but it really is an attitude you must adopt if you actually want to explore those ancient wonders. I have no doubt this is the same in many other poor countries.
So there are my tips for bartering at ‘real markets’. At first I found the process daunting and wore my heart on my sleeve, but once I did it a few times I came to really enjoy it. Bartering is a very social way of life here and I’m sure the same is true for places like Marakesh, Bali and the Bazaars of Istanbul. Like most things in life, your experience good or bad depends on your outlook. If you go in looking to interact with locals and have some fun, while not getting ripped off, the markets can leave you with some of your best travel memories.
Feel free to let me know your barter tricks!