It’s Saturday morning. You’re headed to the Farmer’s Market. You’ve got your bags, coffee in hand, and are ready to find the freshest produce in town. As you gather your items and head to the checkout, you notice you have more than you came for. Has the thought crossed your mind: maybe because I’m buying a lot they’ll give me a discount?

If you’re in the U.S. this thought might make you cringe. Barter with a farmer!? But in the rest of the world negotiating is a part of daily interactions—common and expected.

Buying Gifts and Authentic Items When Traveling

I’m biased, obviously, but I believe bringing special items home with you from vacation is one of the best parts about traveling. Displaying these things in your home personalizes your space in a way that no Amazon purchase can and provides visual reminders of the adventures you’ve had over the years.

But let’s be clear: this post isn’t going to help you buy that Gucci bag in Italy. I don’t have any advice (or experience) on that.

What we’re talking about here is purchasing items from markets, makers, and local businesses. While I’m hesitant to call these souvenirs (that word feels cheap to me), these are the items that have tradition and history behind them. They’re woven, carved, and hammered using techniques passed down generations. And when you see them, you immediately recognize them from being from a specific locale or region of the world.

Where to Negotiate

In many countries there are markets where artisans showcase and sell their products. In Mexico and Central America these are typically called Mercado de Artesanías. Don’t be surprised if you Google this and multiple markets show up in a single city. In Antigua there were at least three to choose from. But generally there is a main market.

If you’re at one of these markets, stalls, or encounter an independent seller on the street, negotiating is on the table.

However, if you pop into a store and items are marked with a tag, don’t expect to negotiate on the price—it’s possible but not likely. I hate to have to mention this, but based on experience it’s important to put it out there: Range is included in this type of store. We price as fairly as possible and unless our tags are marked with a discount, the price stands as listed.

How to Negotiate Without Offending the Seller

You should always be the one to ask the price of the item(s) that you’re interested in. You want the seller to throw out the starting number. I follow this rule even if there’s a sticky price tag placed on the item. Even if the person selling the item is not the owner of the stall, they still have some negotiating power.

Experience has taught us that sellers will hesitate to name any price until you have gathered everything you’re interested in buying. That means you won’t get a price unless you’re finished browsing. They do this because the more you buy, the more they can negotiate down.

The first rule of fair negotiating: know that the first price stated is going to be very high. If you were selling your own products, wouldn’t you start high if you knew the person on the other end was going to counter?

While I wish I could give an exact estimate of how much to negotiate down, it’s not possible. The final price is driven by so many things, including amount bought, whether an item is vintage or not, and how much a vendor bought it for (most vendors aren’t the actual people making the items).

My best guidance is to counter the first price stated by 30-50%. This allows you room to meet in the middle. If you aren’t willing to pay at least 50% I wouldn’t recommend continuing to negotiate. It’s unlikely—not impossible, but unlikely—that they’re going to go much lower than 50%.

Here’s a tip that has saved me a few times: don’t be ashamed to bring out your phone’s calculator. It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of negotiating, but doing this in a currency you don’t use day to day can be confusing. For instance, in Morocco we could generally divide the price (given in Moroccan dirhams) by 10. But in Guatemala, we had to divide by 7.5. Unless you’re a math whiz this is not the time to estimate.

If language is a barrier it’s totally fine to type in the price you want to pay on your calculator. This can actually ease any confusion in the transaction. Take it from us: hand gestures and Spanglish only get you so far.

We should also mention: be prepared to pay for your transaction in cash. Very few vendors take card and when they do, expect a 5% fee added on top.

How to Know if You Got a “Good Deal”

When we were in Guatemala I witnessed a pretty common misconception play out in front of me. While sifting through piles of textiles I saw a woman approach a vendor in the stall across from me. She picked up a girl’s dress and asked how much it cost. The vendor quoted her at 400 Quetzales—about $53.

She shook her head. “No, no,” she said.

He asked what size she needed and proceeded to look for it. She kept pressing him for how much lower he could go before looking at the item again. He countered back to her, “How much can you pay?”

She responded that she was only willing to pay 30 Quetzales—around $4—for the item. When he shook his head and explained he paid more than that for it, she said, “Forget it,” grabbed her friend and walked off.

Negotiating isn’t about finding the lowest price possible. You can’t possibly compare shopping for handmade items to buying from an online retailer that ships from China. There is no scenario in which it’s fair or responsible to pay $4 for something that took an entire day or month to produce. So, yes negotiate, but don’t lowball someone or get upset when they don’t agree to the deal.

With that said, you will always get the best deals when you’re buying in volume. It’s how wholesale economics is structured. That means if you’re buying one belt you’ll pay more than you would for each if you were buying 25.

And let’s be honest: if you can’t get something at home or if it’s personally meaningful to you, price is just one factor in overall value.

Will Hiring a Guide Help with Negotiations?

A common question we’ve heard travelers ask is: Will hiring a tour guide help me get a better deal? They speak the language, know where to go and are technically working for you during that time.

When we were in Guatemala, we booked a hotel shuttle to take us to the Chichicastenango Market. While we’d done some research, we knew this was one of the largest markets in Central America.

When our shuttle pulled up to the market, a guide was there. I’m assuming he works with the drivers. His English wasn’t great but he was able to explain how large the market was and easy to get lost in. I asked how much he charged and he replied, “I just ask that you buy a few things at my shop.” While he did end up asking for payment at the end, overall it was a good decision.

The pros of hiring a tour guide: When you’re navigating a market or bazaar it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The crowds, sometimes aggressive vendors, and narrow aisles can be confusing. A tour guide can:

  • Point you towards the specific items you’re looking for
  • Act as a translator
  • Share the history of the location and/or market
  • Answer any questions that come up

The cons of hiring a tour guide: You also have to remember this is a way of life for locals. Even if you hire someone, they are going to point you towards their friends and family members who are selling in the area. Things to be aware of when hiring a tour guide include:

  • They may only lead you to vendors who they’re friendly with (and keep you there until you buy)
  • Sometimes they’ll get a kick-back from vendors, which keeps your costs higher
  • There’s not as much time to wander, if you’re into that

Overall, I’d always recommend going with a local if you’re looking to make a big purchase. For smaller items, I’m confident you can do it on your own. It’s all part of the travel experience. And, hey, if you do find that you overpaid you’ll laugh about it later. We sure have…many, many times.