For travelers, walking through a foreign shopping market is one of those things that you either love…or loathe. Some travelers thrive on the excitement of a foreign shopping market, with its exotic sights and smells, while others find the bustling atmosphere and concept of “haggling” for a price to be incredibly stressful. Regardless of how you feel about foreign shopping markets, there’s no doubt that you will find yourself walking through one at some point during your travels abroad. From our experiences, here are some tips to help you dominate during your next foreign shopping market experience.
Adjust Your Expectations, It’s DIFFERENT From Your Home
If you are from the States, then you are likely used to giant supermarkets — carrying just about anything you could want, along with clean, nicely organized aisles and helpful employees. In contrast, foreign shopping markets can be overwhelming to the senses. They are full of life, color, smells, noises…and people!
Embrace the Electric Atmosphere of a Foreign Shopping Market
Right away, you will notice the difference in the atmosphere. Foreign shopping markets are bustling hubs of activity, and in some destinations of the world, the heart of the local economy. Deliveries are made, deals are negotiated, and transactions are made…sometimes many transactions at a time. It’s busy, crowded, exciting, and at times loud.
Local markets overseas vary widely, but typically, they will consists of many different merchants crowded together selling their goods. Each merchant may have something completely different, while others may carry the exact same items. These markets may be indoors, outside, under a bunch of ramshackle tents, or even on boats! And in some of the larger markets, you may need to be careful to keep from getting completely lost!
Every part of the world has their own style of local markets. Each market has its own specialty, such as a food or clothing market. Others have a certain time of day or day of the week when they are thriving, such as morning or night. We enjoy visiting different markets because each has their own vibe and atmosphere about them. And sometimes…you never know what you may find at these places!
No matter the type of market, or the places…visiting the local market is ALWAYS a great place to get a glimpse of the local culture. And it’s a feast for the senses.
Preparation is Key – What to Bring to a Foreign Shopping Market
To make the most of your experience, it’s important that you be prepared when you go to a foreign shopping market. First, we recommend having a foreign currency converter so that you know how much money you are spending in your native currency. The good things is that this is super easy nowadays with smartphones.
Our favorite app for this is XE Currency Converter. It updates when it is online, but you can use it when you are offline without data. It’s simple, and you can enter numerous currencies and quickly switch back and forth. Using a currency calculator is a great way to judge how much you are spending, and to help keep you within your travel budget.
See more of our Favorite Travel Apps
We also recommend having a calculator with you to confirm prices, and for negotiations. With language barriers, it’s so much easier just to type in a number on a calculator — from both the seller’s and the buyer’s perspective. Most vendors in a foreign shopping market will have their own small calculator specifically for this purpose. But we like to have one of our own.
It may sound silly, but we have found that we get the upper hand negotiating when we have our own calculator. It shows we are not just your typical tourist. It works. You can also just use the calculator on your smartphone for this.
**However, if you don’t feel comfortable flashing your smartphone or risk having someone grab it to input their own price, then just buy a small, cheap handheld calculator at the dollar store before you leave. It’s a great tool to have with you for shopping markets!
Bring a Bag to Carry Purchases – DON’T Mix With Your Important Belongings!
Also make sure to bring a small, bag with you to place your goods in. Some shop owners will have bags for you, but others will not. Still, if you are buying many things will need a larger bag to carry all of your purchases. For us, we like to use collapsible bags — so we can always carry them with us and pull them out when needed. One bag that we take with us to foreign shopping markets in our Mountainsmith Scream bag and we love how it can easily unpack into a big backpack for if we make bigger purchases in the shopping market. Regardless of what bag you choose, be sure that you feel comfortable carrying it and that your items are secure.
PoP Travel Tip: We don’t like to put our purchases in our main daytime travel bags because we don’t want to flash our personal items, or accidentally drop something important…like a passport or wallet!
Carry Cash in Small Bills
It goes without saying, that nearly all foreign shopping markets deal in cash only. Very few (in highly touristy areas) will accept cards. You should also bring plenty of small bills, just in case vendors don’t have change (or claim not to have change). It can also help you in the negotiation process if you are trying to buy something for a 20 and you hold up a 20 — not a 100.
POP Travel TIP: If you plan to shop in a market, we advise putting aside some money for shopping in a special pouch / wallet that is easily accessible. You do not want to be rummaging around in your main travel bag, moving around important documents, passports, etc. Plus, you don’t want to pull out a wallet full of cash, and all of your credit cards in a busy market…making you a target for thieves.
Know What to Buy (or Not Buy) at a Foreign Shopping Market
In some parts of the world, there may be only loose laws about what can be sold in these markets. So you will, no doubt, see some strange things! Some goods are shocking, and may leave you wondering “is that food or a pet?” Other things may actually be illegal! But often times, you will also find some pretty cool stuff.
Be aware of any restrictions on items that you can / can’t bring back to your country!
For us, our favorite travel souvenirs are things that we actually want to display, or can use around the house! Things such as kitchenware, spoons, candy dishes, etc. We think these are the best souvenirs because they don’t just sit and collect dust, we can actually use them (same goes for the spices and foods too).
When we travel, we usually wait until closer to the end of the visit before buying souvenirs. That way, we’ve had a chance to scope out all the items around town. It also gives us time to try and find local artisans making items right in front of us! If we see that, then we may jump right on it.
Lastly, we try to avoid buying things from young children (unless we see that it is a family business & they are with their parents). It’s sad, and can be hard…especially if they are persistent sellers. But in some parts of the world, these unfortunate kids are being exploited by organized crime bosses. They prey on the good-hearted nature of travelers, but the kids don’t get the money. So supporting them only supports this criminal, and tragic business scheme.
Dealing With Persistent Shopkeepers in a Foreign Shopping Market
One of the other aspects about shopping in a foreign market is that you may stick out as a tourist. We recommend trying your best to blend in whenever you travel, but sometimes there is simply nothing you can do about it. For example, Liz and I here in Asia. Because of this, shopkeepers are going to try and get your attention. This may include even yelling at you from their shop or stalls to come over and browse their merchandise.
In some countries, you may even have shopkeepers who are bold enough to start walking with you! Don’t be alarmed, while annoying, it is a common occurrence in many parts of the world. Take a glance and if there is something that interests you, then walk over and take a look. If not, then politely wave your hands and shake your head. It is best if you can learn how to say “no thank you” in the local language too. Then, just keep walking & pay them no more attention.
Keep in mind, that the shopkeepers are not (always) trying to be rude…they are just trying to earn a living. As a traveler, I recommend being as polite as you can, but some merchants will be persistent…so you may have to be a bit more forceful with your “no.”
POP Travel Tip: If you are a pushover, they will be able to see it. So be firm if you are not interested. Remember you are the BOSS and you are in control!
Haggling for a Good Price in a Foreign Street Market
Coming from the States, it can be difficult for some people to grasp the idea of haggling…let alone feel comfortable with it. In many parts of the world, haggling is very much a part of the culture and a part of the shopping experience. But it’s also important to know how to haggle in a way that is effective, and respectful.
How Do I Know When I Can Haggle?
While haggling is not common in typical stores, it is quite common in a foreign street market. However, there may be some markets / vendors where haggling is not an option. To find out if you can haggle, we advise on doing a small walk through of the shopping market, and observing some transactions first. Not only will you be able to see if people haggle over price, but you can also see the attitudes and how people go about the haggling process.
This walkthrough is also helpful to so you will know what you want, and what you are willing to pay before you go into a negotiation with the merchant. We advise to not haggle unless you are really wanting to buy the item. It saddens us to see travelers who haggle just to play a game, and give the shop owners a hard time — trying to see just how low they’ll go.
And while we all want to get a fair price, we believe that being fair to the merchant is important too.
For instance, if there is a particular bag you want and the shop owner is asking 500 Baht (Thailand money) for it and you know for certain that another shop owner is selling the same bag for 250 Baht, then of course haggle down to that (or slightly lower). But if you know that everyone else is asking 500 Baht then don’t offer 20 Baht. That’s just insulting, and you will piss off the shop owner. Treat others how you would want to be treated, and realize that this is the livelihood of some people.
Know When to Stop Looking and Move On
As we mentioned, some shop owners are extremely aggressive and will do anything to make a sale. I can not tell you how many times I have been interested in something, like a bracelet, and before I know it the shop owner has 30 different bracelets in front of me! They ask me to “come up with a price” for him or her.
Well, this turns me off. Personally, I don’t like to be pushed to buy something. You are the one they are selling to, and it’s up to you who you give your money to.
If you don’t have a good feeling, or you don’t love it enough…just move on. Be polite, say “thank you” (in their native language) and walk away. Don’t feel bad about walking away, it’s just business. Perhaps the shop owner will follow you, or appear mad…don’t worry, it’s not your problem. They will forget you in about 5 seconds when the next person comes by.
The same holds true if you enter into a negotiation for a price. Ideally, you should know what you are willing to pay before you start haggling. But if the owner is not willing to budge to a price that you feel is fair, just move on. In many markets, there will be another person a few stalls down selling the same thing. And perhaps, walking away will actually get them to agree to your price!
Did I Get a Good Price at the Foreign Shopping Market?
Honestly, we believe there isn’t a solid answer to this question because it is up to the individual. Our philosophy is that it should be fair for all parties involved. To us, it’s not about “winning” (like some people see it). Sometimes I really feel like I got a steal, other times I know I may have been able to haggle further.
But for me, if I really wanted the item and feel like I paid a fair price, then I’m happy. But I’m even happier if I can see that the shop owner is pleased too. I would never want to feel like I’m taking advantage of people.
Walking away feeling like I got a great souvenir and that I’m helping out the local community, whether it is an artist or a shop keeper, makes me satisfied in my purchase.
So Much Food Everywhere at Foreign Shopping Markets. Is it Safe to Eat?
Many foreign shopping markets will have food available, while others are nothing but food! But unfortunately, I can’t count how many times I’ve read travel guides and books that say “don’t eat street food.”
WHAT?!?! Street food is the best kind to eat while traveling!
Personally, Liz and I love to sample food when we are at foreign markets. But of course, not all street food is created equal…and there are definitely some precautions you should take before diving right in and eating everything you find. Overall, street market food is cheap, tasty, and a fun way to interact with the culture.
As a general rule, hot foods are best — especially when you can see the foods are steaming hot, fried in oil, or cooked to order in front of you. Food that is premade and sitting out for a long time, or if you can’t see it well…then you may want to steer clear of it. That’s a stomach accident waiting to happen!
Also, we recommend going where the crowds of locals are. If there are 5 food vendors set up, but only one of them has a long line, that’s the one you go to. And if there is one vendor that NO ONE is at, then that’s the one to avoid. There’s a reason.
Food markets abroad are also places where you can indulge your curiosities about food. You will likely see strange things that you’ve never seen before…and you may see some downright weird or disgusting stuff! After traveling so much, Liz and I have become a bit desensitized at the markets when it comes to food, but even now and then we are surprised!
So for a first time traveler abroad, it maybe a little tough to stomach the sights and smells of some of the foods that locals eat. From live chickens to deep fried scorpions or snakes. The range is never ending. If you are up to it, jump on in and sample some for yourself!
Sanitation can also be an issue. Food preparation standards are definitely not what they are here in the States. We advise travelers not to think about it too much. However, you should take a rough glance around to be sure that the vendor seems somewhat responsible.
Also, we highly advise that you get your basic vaccinations before traveling to help avoid foodborne illness, such as hepatitis A and typhoid. And as a fail safe, bring some Pepto and anti-diaharea pills. In case you do stumble across something that doesn’t agree with you, it’s good to be prepared!
Have a Good Experience & ROCK the Foreign Shopping Market
One thing is for sure, if you have never experienced a foreign shopping market before and are planning to travel abroad…you absolutely must check it out! Regardless how you feel about them (good or bad), you can’t deny that it is one of the best ways to experience the local culture.
But you can make your experience better if you are prepared, and take these tips to heart. Not only will you walk away with some great souvenirs, but some pretty memorable experiences too.
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