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Having lived in Indonesia for nearly four years, Paul Edwards has really sharpened his bargaining skills. Two weeks ago, he bought a digital camera in Jakarta for 1,150,000 rupiah less than the original selling price. That is about a $130 discount.

"It's like a game of chess. It's the first one who blinks [who loses]."

Originally from Yorkshire, England, Edwards claims that he is now even better at haggling than his wife who grew up in Central Java. "The other week, I managed to get shoes for our baby for 5,000 rupiah cheaper than she bargained!" he said, laughing. "So I was quite pleased."

Part art and part science, haggling is more than a means to save money. In many countries, it is a strong cultural tradition that even children learn from a young age. Participating in that tradition can make travellers feel accepted - like they are in on the secret.

Laura Morelli, author of Made in Italy and former columnist for National Geographic Traveler, is an expert when it comes to shopping abroad. She says English-speakers who feel uncomfortable at the notion of bargaining should open their minds and have fun with it.

In Indonesia, locals haggle for goods and services everywhere from street markets to hotels. "There is a real love and appreciation for the skill of bargaining there," Morelli explains. "It is like an artful dance or game."

Morelli shared with Travelwise a few bargaining techniques that have landed her exceptional deals on unique items around the world - from 19th-century apothecary jars in Sicily to a hand-carved walnut armoire in provincial France. These tips can help travellers in haggling-friendly countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Europe negotiate fair prices.

Keep it fun
"The first thing you want to do is smile," says Morelli. "It is always best to keep it light and fun." In Indonesia, keeping a smile on your face is the key to keeping the transaction going, locals say. Be friendly and polite, and use your sense of humor. When done well, haggling can be a lot like flirting.

Know what the item should cost
Do your research and shop around before buying. Find out what the maximum cost should be by visiting fixed-price stores in hotels or museums, or by searching online. In Indonesian cities, you can get an idea of general price points by visiting mini-markets like Alfamart or Indomaret. This will give you leverage when you begin to bargain. "Do not buy something that you fall in love with the first time you see it," Morelli advises. "Chances are, it will be there tomorrow or you will find something like it further down the line."

Only approach the vendor when you are prepared to buy
Put on your best poker face while browsing. Act disinterested and ask the price of several items, not just the one you are eyeing.

Give yourself a limit
Decide how much you are truly willing to pay for something. "What I like to do," Morelli says, "is count that money out in small bills and put it in my pocket. So, when you reach that magic price, you can pull the bills out and say, 'This is really all the money I have'."

Create a reason for a discount
One of the most effective bargaining methods is to ask if buying multiple items together merits a discount. This is especially helpful when shopping for gifts. Shoppers more confident in their haggling skills can also try pointing out flaws or defects. Just be careful not to insult the shop owner.

Know when to walk away
"Whether you are in an American car dealership or in the Middle East somewhere, the only real way to know what the rock-bottom price is is to walk away. Act disinterested and slowly walk toward the door," instructs Morelli.

Know when not to bargain
"I might be tempted to pay more if I am buying directly from the artist, out of respect for that person. Ironically, though, sometimes that is when you get really great deals, because there are no overhead costs." Craft shows and artisan shops are great places to buy directly from artists. If you get to know the artist who made the piece of jewellery or clothing or musical instrument you are buying, you can return home with a beautiful story to go along with your treasure.

Know what to buy
Morelli's last bit of advice for shopping abroad is to look for souvenirs that seem less obvious.  For instance, Morelli directs tourists toward tin or silver Christmas ornaments in Mexico City or handmade paper products in Venice. "Any time you can buy a craft that is less famous and less tainted by tourism, you are likely to find a good deal on an authentic piece."

Suggestions for bargaining in Indonesia in particular, including helpful phrases to know, can be found in a thread from Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum.

Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.

 

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