How to be a responsible traveller: Kaya Tip 3: How to Haggle Responsibly When Volunteering Abroad or on Your Gap Year

Haggling is a traditional and cultural way of life in many communities around the world and an important skill to have when volunteering abroad or during your gap year.  It is commonplace to bargain persistently with a merchant to bring the price of an item or good down, and most Westerners do not haggle in their daily lives and can feel uncomfortable when being forced to do so. Many locals are keenly aware of their advantage when haggling with Western visitors and some use it to their advantage. Wouldn’t you do the same in that situation? So that raises an ethical question of how to navigate haggling on your internship or volunteer abroad placement.

Most merchants utilize haggling daily with all of their goods; this is done with locals and visitors alike. Like at home, there are also many shops where there are set prices, so it will not be possible to haggle for a better price! If you are uncertain about where it is appropriate to haggle, speak to your in-country coordinator and they will be able to guide you.

There are several tactics that merchants use to haggle, such as walking away if the price offered is too low, or getting upset or making you feel guilty. A good way to start your journey with haggling is to:

  • Gain a rough understanding of the value of the product
  • Learn the local numbers, especially if you are in a country that does not use Western numerals
  • Learn to count in the local language so you can stick to the local language even if the seller uses English. It is often seen as respectful and can win you a better price
  • Be kind and friendly but firm in your negotiations
  • Observe others making the same or a similar transactions to get a feel for the price

The goal is to remain a conscious and responsible traveller, and here are a few great tips that can help:

  • Be honest and do not waste the seller’s time
  • Have a price in mind that you think you are willing to pay and seems reasonable for the product
  • Selectively choose what to bargain for. If you are trying to obtain a beautiful silk Sari then by all means haggle, but if someone wants to charge you a high price for a bottle of water, it might be the best to move on
  • Remember that we are all human beings. Try not to start too low and insult the merchant. For many, this is their livelihood and it keeps food on the table for their families. As a visitor to the country and a Westerner, you will be viewed as having more money. It may seem that everything is negotiable, but some things are not, like humiliating someone or ‘losing face’. It is important to remember that the sellers are just trying to do their jobs. Haggling should never been taken too personally or seriously
  • You do not want to devalue the worth of the good. It is a fact that visitors will be charged more than locals, but this is because, generally, they are seen as having more money and resources. So when you paying 50% more than what a local might pay and it still equals $1, then it is still a great deal for you and will help out that seller

When travelling, and especially when haggling, you want to keep everything in perspective and always keep local cultural and social traditions in mind. Westerners can lose perspective sometimes when haggling, especially when using a different currency. You might feel upset that you are paying a much higher price than what a local would, but in reality the exchange rate still has you paying significantly less than what you would pay back at home. Remember, keep a smile on your face. You will never be able to outsmart a merchant, but there is a balance to be struck, and make sure your bargain never makes the person feel exploited, belittled or disrespected. Haggling can and should be a positive experience for all and a fun aspect to your volunteering abroad experience.

“I always do horribly at haggling – but I always have a good laugh!”

University Relations and Customised Groups Coordinator, Kaya Responsible Travel

Have you had a good experience haggling? What tips can you share with other volunteers and interns who are trying it for the first time?