“So, how much did you pay for this?” drawled my neighbour.

Clambering inside the shuttle bus heading over to the Gili Islands from Bali, I smiled and greeted my fellow bus-mates. I had been sitting down for all of four seconds before the forty-something American guy next to me asked the question.

I have to admit, I was a bit taken aback.

We hadn’t been chatting merrily, getting to know each other to while away the bus journey. Nope: this was how the conversation opened.

I didn’t know how to feel about it.

Admittedly, I had just spent a year in Australia, so I was being eased gently back into the world of highly negotiable prices in Indonesia. I wasn’t used to it yet. But I had forgotten how hung up people get on this phenomenon of negotiation, on this one question. Hung up to the point that they are crestfallen if they paid more than you did for the same shirt, the same carved figurine… the same bus journey.

“How much did you buy this for?” The budget backpacker’s mantra.

Street food

The question of negotiation

But maybe it shouldn’t be this way. Maybe we should be changing our priorities.

It is well documented that a lot of things in places like South East Asia and South America do not have a fixed price. It’s not only the price of your elephant-patterned trousers that is up for negotiation, it’s often the price of a bus or a trip or a tour too.

And I’ve always loved the thrill of haggling for my wares. I always thought of it as a fun game – a test of my rudimentary language skills, a bit of banter with a stall holder, and hopefully an outcome we are both happy with. A good way to save money, too, on presents for people back home, or tat with which to decorate my room.

Ultimately though, if I want the item in question, I’m more than happy to pay a fair price for it. After all, in the UK it would probably still cost more than twice as much as even a relatively high final price in Indonesia.

But some people just seem to obsess over it. And this is where I think people need to reassess their whole concept of budget backpacking.

Local market stall in Timor

What exactly is a fair price?

I’m not totally naïve. I realise that it is only human to feel a sense of pride in getting what you consider a ‘fair’ price for something. We want equality, in general. We like fairness.

But instead, think of it this way: are you happy enough – regardless of the ‘right’ price – to pay this amount of money for what you are receiving?

Do you think it’s reasonable to pay just £15 for a half-hour shuttle bus followed by a two-hour fast boat? If yes, then why should it matter than somebody else paid £14?

Do you think that £5 is a bargain for a beautiful block-printed sarong? If yes, then why should you care that somebody else got one for £3.50?

You see where I’m going with this, right? Just because you might have paid a bit more than someone else, doesn’t mean you paid ‘too much’. Stop feeling like someone’s out to get you because you haven’t paid cost price for your shopping. Quit wasting energy bargaining over that last 50p.

I get it, you’re on a tight budget. You’ve scrimped and saved to pay for this trip, and you’ll be damned if you’re going to let someone swindle you out of your hard-earned cash just because they can see you are a foreigner.

Well, maybe you can do without that novelty Vietnamese straw hat, then. Save your money for food and accommodation and experiences: don’t shout at the stall holder because they won’t knock off the last few Dong. Or accept that you can pay a bit more, because actually you do want that souvenir.

Crafts from the market

Remember why you’re travelling

Here’s my point.

We all love travelling to and around cheap countries. Our money goes further. The culture is usually different. There are delicious new foods to try and markets to browse in fascination and delight.

But travelling to cheap countries is a privilege and not a right. And the people who live in these countries – who, remember, have to deal with the other side of a cheap economy, like low minimum wages and probably not a brilliant standard of living – should not have to deal with arsehole tourists trying to scrape every last penny off the price they pay for souvenirs.

They should be benefiting and not suffering for the presence of tourism in their country. From the money that tourists bring, and from their attitude, too.

Remember all that stuff about cultural exchange, meeting the locals, talking to people from other countries? That should include when you’re doing your souvenir shopping.

While I am all for budget backpacking – I mean, I have a whole section of my blog centred on that theme – I do believe that you should think about how you are saving money.

Are you skimping on things that you can do without, or are you giving somebody a raw deal? If tipping is expected, don’t be an arsehole about it. Go without your fourth Bintang of the evening if it means that somebody else goes home with a more reasonable pay check. Tip generously (if culturally appropriate); let that extra 10,000 rupiah go.

Rural views of Timor's Mount Ramelau

Reframe how you think about negotiable prices

Don’t call it being ripped off. Call it paying for your privilege. Call it an acknowledgement of the fact that you are rich – yes you are ­– by all reasonable standards.

Don’t be offended that people will see your white skin and assume that you have money, because compared to many people, you do.

I know you feel like you’re broke, because you’re eating noodles for dinner every night, but you’re also probably drinking your way through an Indonesian weekly wage in your hostel every evening.

All those people who say you don’t have to be rich to travel? Well maybe you don’t, by Western standards. There are tricks and there are hacks and there are ways to save money and ways to earn while you travel. I’m not saying that you need to have a six figure salary in order to explore the world – I certainly don’t have that.

But that doesn’t change the fact that if you earn over £10,500 a year, you are in the top 10% per cent of earners, globally. So don’t tell me you’re not rich.

Rethink budget backpacking. Reassess your priorities. You’ll be better for it.


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Why I'm Rethinking Budget Backpacking (and Maybe You Should Too)