How to Bargain – A Beginner’s Guide

We were on Lavalle Street in Buenos Aires, chatting with a money-changer. I say, “we’ve got $500 in $100 dollar bills, what kind of exchange rate can you give us?” He responds that $1 USD: 14.10 Peso is the best he can do. Sheena counters by saying that we had a better offer further down the street. What was the offer, he asks. And at the same time, Sheena says “14.50” (not true), and I say “14.20” (totally true) – completely torpedoing our leverage.

I’m terrible at bargaining. I’m not sure what it is, but I suspect mostly a lack of practice. It just wasn’t something culturally present when I was growing up, and I fear it will probably never be instinctual. Sheena, on the other hand, is great, but not always willing to play the game. I mean, there’s only so much haggling you can do down here before you feel like you’re taking advantage of your stronger currency more than is warranted. In short, we are far from the perfect team.

The first time we really had to confront bargaining was in the Galapagos. We had arrived a week before high season started and we were positioned to get some deals on day tours and inter-island ferries. Puerto Ayora was short on tourists and high on tour companies. We even lucked out and had a great coach in our hostel – Seamus from Ireland. His most valuable advice was to make a plan, and slowly reveal your cards; don’t give away all of your leverage in the first round. This turned out to be pretty solid, and most likely obvious, advice.

We would go around to the tour offices and I would enter alone, asking for the price of one tour. Then we would surprise them with the fact that we wanted two, and should therefore be entitled to a discount. We were successful in getting $5-10 discounts off the official price using this method. But if one surprise is good, three would be even better, right? With inter-island ferries we actually needed 6 passages. Bargaining down the individual price with the buying power of 6 allowed us to save $30. But it took time. Back and forth for 10 minutes, and agreeing to go on certain days, before they buckled. I wouldn’t say I was giddy, but it was nice to have secured the same price that Seamus was able to get the day before.

Knowing what kinds of things are on the table for bargaining is also super important. When we arrived in Ecuador, we really hadn’t ever considered bargaining down the price of a hostel room. A Frenchman staying at our hostel proudly shared with us the (much lower) price he was paying for equal accommodation. Asking if you can have the room for less than the quoted price seemed impossible to us at the time. But if you see that the hostel is not full, and you have paid no deposit, it certainly does no harm to ask.

Helpfully, the same Frenchmen mentioned that in Colombia you could bargain for just about everything, including buses. Armed with this information, we entered bus terminals confidently, calmly going from one desk to the next, playing the prices quoted off of each other. I suppose it helped that Colombia seemed to have buses with empty seats, going to any desired destination, at just about every hour of the day. They had no leverage.

So, for you novices out there, here are my official tips and tricks: 1) Always make a plan by figuring out where your leverage lies. 2) Ask around, and never assume the price is fixed. 3) Have fun with it – people tend to respond positively when you are joking around, or display a good attitude. And as a last resort, try to lower the price one more time by saying, “not even for your [insert nationality here] friend?”

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