General haggling advice
Have an approximate price in your mind
Have a rough idea of what you’re willing to pay for a product or service. It also helps to know the usual average prices to prevent overpaying or having unrealistic expectations. You can ask at your accommodation how much things like transportation, souvenirs, trips, massages, etc. generally cost if you have no idea yourself.
Compare a few basic prices before handing over any cash to make sure you really have got the best deal. Negotiate with people who start with the lowest prices; you may not have much negotiating to do to reach a great price.
Don’t bargain for things you don’t want
While it’s okay to ask out of curiosity how much something costs and then move on, it’s really bad form to go through the motions of haggling if you really don’t intend sealing the deal at any price. Likewise, if the seller agrees to your price it’s really not cool to then say you don’t want the item or service. Remember, people are just trying to make a living. The time that they’ve spent with you is not only frustrating but could have caused them to lose a sale elsewhere. If you don’t reach an agreement that’s acceptable to both sides, however, it’s okay to walk away.
Maintain an air of disinterest
While you should definitely be interested in the item or service, don’t show the seller that you’re overly keen. If they think you’re too interested it will be difficult to get them to offer their lowest price.
Don’t suggest the first price
Whenever possible, let the seller open the negotiations with a price. It’s common to be asked what you will pay but try to stand firm and make the seller state the first amount. If you open too high, the vendor will accept with a gleeful smile, yet open too low and the seller may give you a look of disdain and not even bother entering into any discussion.
Start lower than you’re willing to pay
Part of the haggling dance involves both parties making offers and counter offers, eventually meeting (hopefully) somewhere in the middle with a price that everyone is happy with. Stating a price lower than you’re ultimately willing to pay lets you increase the amount incrementally until you reach an agreement.
Keep your cool
There’s little point in getting angry or frustrated while bargaining; either you find an agreeable price or you don’t. Losing your cool will only result in you looking ridiculous and the seller refusing to negotiate further. Keep things lighthearted and friendly. Remember, Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles!
So, with those general tips covered, here are some Thailand-related specifics.
Negotiating for accommodation in Thailand
If you’ve pre-booked your accommodation, there’s no room for negotiation unless you want to add extra nights. You can’t turn up and expect places to lower their rates that you’ve already agreed to! If you’re walking around and trying to find somewhere to stay, however, it’s okay to ask for discounts on walk-in room rates. Although many accommodations have a published price list, a lot of smaller guest houses and hotels might be willing to compromise on the price, especially during the low season or in the middle of the week. Discounts are also common if a person plans to stay for a longer period of time and pays upfront. Do keep in mind that accommodation managers are under no obligation to give you a reduced rate, but there’s certainly no harm in asking politely.
Bargaining for transport in Thailand
Trains and public buses have fixed prices for all; there’s no room to negotiate. Many private transport operators, whether its buses or boats may offer group-booking discounts. While this is by no means guaranteed, it’s worth asking when enquiring about prices if there will be a small group of people travelling together.
Taxis should always use the meter, again leaving no reason to bargain for the best price. If a driver refuses to use the meter simply find one that will; an agreed price for a taxi ride, even if it’s lower than originally stated, will almost always be higher than the metered fare. The exceptions are if you want to charter a taxi for the day or take a long inter-city journey. While many operators have fixed prices for long distance travel, or an hourly rate for touring, many will also knock a small amount off the price, especially if business is quiet. Obtain a quote and ask if they will do it for a lower amount. It can sometimes help to say that you want a moment to think and step away—if they are willing to offer a lower price they will often shout after you to agree. This is the same if you wish to charter a songtaew (converted pickup truck) or boat for a private journey.
Tuk tuks are the one form of transport in Thailand that often needs an element of bargaining to get the best price. With no meter, tuk tuk drivers often see tourists as fair game and try to charge the highest price that they can. It really does help to have an idea of how much the journey should cost to let you suggest a lower and more realistic price. If a tuk tuk driver refuses to lower the price, find another. (Unless, of course, you are happy with the price—you don’t need to haggle over everything all the time!)
If you’re renting a scooter for a week or longer, ask the owner if they can give you a better price than their daily rate. Some will give discounts for long-term rentals.
Agreeing the price for tours in Thailand
Tour operators may be willing to arrange lower prices for group or multiple bookings. Always make sure to tell the representative if you plan on booking several tours and specifically ask for a discount on the combined total. You can try offering a lower (but realistic) price and they may accept or make a counter offer. This is more likely to be successful in the lower season, but it’s always worth asking. Just keep in mind that many will say no!
Bargaining in markets in Thailand
Thai markets can be split into two broad categories: local markets and markets mainly aimed at tourists. There’s generally little need to bargain at local markets; sellers typically sell items to everyone for the same price. Trying to haggle for a couple of baht off the price of a mango or a coconut really doesn’t look great!
At a tourist market, prices are often inflated, partly because of the knowledge that tourists will want to try and reduce the price. Haggling is, therefore, generally expected in the absence of marked prices. Apply the general tips above and you’ll hopefully walk away with the item(s) for a lower amount. You are more likely to obtain discounts if you’re making several purchases from the same vendor. Another handy tip when exploring markets is to put any bags inside your own backpack or a reusable shopping bag. Rumour has it that some tricky sellers use a colour-coding system with carrier bags to signal to other vendors if you’re a high spender or a tough cookie at bargaining. While this may or may not be true, it doesn’t hurt to hide those bags!
Other things to note about bargaining in Thailand
Haggling is neither expected, nor welcome, in small mom-and-pop-type stores. Fixed pricing systems operate in shopping centres, though some may agree to a discount for multiple purchases. Attempting to bargain in restaurants isn’t acceptable. You should always ask to see the prices before ordering to avoid unpleasant surprises when the bill comes but if you don’t like the prices you should leave and eat elsewhere. Attractions have fixed prices.
Some travellers see Thailand as a place where haggling is a big part of everyday life. It’s not. It’s quite rare to see Thais bargaining among each other. Some visitors also believe that it’s essential to try and bargain for everything in Thailand. Again, it’s not. There are significantly more places where fixed prices apply for goods and services and attempting to haggle unnecessarily only causes embarrassment and discomfort.
It’s common to see advice recommending that you ask for prices in the Thai language. There’s an idea that speaking the local lingo will encourage sellers to offer lower prices in the belief that you have more of an idea of what the correct price should be. There might be some truth in this but unless you can actually speak some Thai, this is really often quite fruitless. Vendors aren’t daft and they can easily spot a tourist who has picked up a couple of phrases. If you can’t understand the price if given in Thai, don’t ask the question in Thai and expect it to make much difference.
And finally, always remember the actual amount that you’re haggling over. Don’t be that person who digs their heels in over what amounts to, for example, less than a dollar. If it’s something that you want, whether it be a trip, a souvenir, or a convenient ride, and it’s a price that you can happily pay, there’s really no need to lose out to stubborn pride.