This might seem like an obvious thing to do, but when you are overseas especially in a busy, and full on place like Thailand you can easily forget the smart tactics you might ordinarily use back home.
To illustrate my point I want to share an experience I had when trying to find a tour agency to book a trip to the famous James Bond Island in Phuket for myself and a few friends.
There are a plethora of options to chose from when trying to book a tour to one of Thailands many islands. For those who have been there, you know what I am talking about. For those who haven’t been yet, just imagine walking down the busiest street in your city. Now, multiple the shops by x5: and the people x10; and now add a small one-person stall, walls covered colourful pamphlets every second shop. This gives you an idea about how abundant these tourism kiosks are.
There are also tuk tuk drivers pushing tours in everyone’s face as they lean against their vehicle or are perched upon a small stool eating some unknown fruit just a short distance away. These are always over priced and the guys seem very unwilling to negotiate down to a reasonable price. I have also read about people having bad experiences with these drivers and even some of the kiosks, so I wanted to be sure I was getting an honest tour package, especially because I was also booking for my two friends.
I had also done a lot of research online. What I found was this. You can get an almost 40-50% discount by simply asking “Is there any discounts?”. Then, you might be able to get a further 100 TBH or so off by doing some light haggling. If you haggle beyond this point, the tour company will begin to offer you a lower standard of tour. For example, instead of boarding your boat at a private pier located at the luxury Royal Phuket Marina, you’ll be taken to Ao Po Pier which is a lot less nice and further away from the city. Instead of a large speed boat with 20 people, you’ll be downgraded to a slower but bigger boat with much more people, or worse, you’ll have to take a long tail boat which is very slow, and hot and also slightly dangerous if the waves are large. From there, you may also be given a shorter tour, buffet lunch might be taken out (when it’s ordinarily included) and so on. So basically, you will pay for what you get. Their commmision (typically starting at 30% for full price and about 10-15% for a discounted fare) will also become smaller, thus making it very uncommercial for them. If you are after a bare minimum tour, with no frills at all, then go for it! However, I wouldn’t recommend this to first or second time visitors to Thailand.
So, after walking up and down a few streets, passing countless kiosks and salesmen, I had to make a decision. I decided I would visit three different tour kiosks and take the cheapest price I found, assuming they seemed fairly honest.
The first tour company I selected was more of a large shop than a kiosk. It seemed very commercial and had people inside, a good sign. I went in, and the cool breeze from the aircon hit me straight away. It was a welcome relief from the 32c hot sun outside. Another good sign. There was a Russian couple sitting at the desk and behind them I saw a beautiful Thai girl with big green eyes and a large smile. A really good sign.
When the Russian couple were finished I approached the girl and said I was just looking for prices and so, the Thai beauty began to show me various packages, with all of them being priced suspiciously similar at about 3200 TBH. Now, whenever I meet someone new, I always try and get them to laugh (or smile) at least once during our interaction. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does it not only feels good for both of you but it also makes the situation much lighter. So, we shared a few laughs and after some initial very quick haggling I soon had the price down to 1800 TBH! (I literally just asked what discounts and then told her I had two people who may also be interested). I was so pleased with myself that I really didn’t want to try anywhere else! But I made a commitment to checkout three places and I was determined to stick to the plan.
So I told her I would like to think about it but I would be back in 15 minutes. Immediately she seemed disappointed. She didn’t think I would come back. Strangely this made me want to go back. I said I would be back, and then I left.
I went a little bit down the road and found a much smaller kiosk on the steer. I approached the girl and asked for a price to James Bond Island. Immediately, and without any haggling she said “1600 TBH”. I was very surprised. I tried haggling but it seemed she quoted me her best price straight away, which I must admit, I liked. However, I don’t know. Something about it just didn’t seem right. It was probably the fact I got along very well with the other girl, and also because I really really wanted to find a good quality tour. As I mentioned, I had read a lot about tourists being trapped by hagglgling too much with these tour operators that they just cut everything out of the tour and provide very basic, and substandard services. I was going to try a third kiosk but the fact both of the tour companies settled on a price that was roughly the same (about 200 TBH difference), it had confirmed in my mind that the first girl was well priced, so I made my way back to her office.
Upon returning, she had that big smile on her face again when she saw me. She said “oh you come back!”, obviously surprised. “Don’t you trust me?” I said, with a smile. I then booked three tickets immediately. These places mostly take international credit card but as another layer of cost they always try and add 3% surcharge for Visa or MasterCard (like most places in Thailand they don’t accept Amex). Don’t be fooled though – this surcharge can also be bargained down and with this beautiful girl, I did just that.
Tip: Thai people love exchanging phone numbers and also WhatsApp details, so if you can, get the WhatsApp of your salesperson and you can message them anytime for prices on things.
So I went on the tour and it was absolutely amazing. I then went back a few days later and purchased a tour to the beautiful Phi Phi Island. This time? No haggling at all. She offered me the exact same price as last time, even though Phi Phi is a much more popular tour and according to other kiosk people I spoke to is supposed to be more expensive.
Again, this tour was also a success. Next we wanted to travel from Patong Beach to Koh Samui. Because I wanted to be sure I was getting the absolute best price, and this one I wasn’t taking a tour, I visited another kiosk before returning to my usual girl just to be sure. I was quoted 800 TBH. So I went back to my girl and she initially quoted a price of 1000 TBH. When I told her I could get it for 800 TBH she agreed to match it straight away without a fuss but said her service included large buses whereas the other ladies service would have been on smaller minivans which are a lot more uncomfortable. It’s easy to find cheaper prices as mentioned, but it’s difficult to find people offering you goods and services that you can trust. I had already used her before, so the trust was there. I was confident I wasn’t going to pay for a ticket only to be stranded in the middle of the jungle with only a pair of thongs and my wits (fingers crossed !).
Tip: Always shop around first, but return to one sales person to actually make the purchase each time. This builds rapport and overtime will guarantee you the best price straight away, and most importantly: service you can trust.
The final part of this story is my favourite. When it was time to book a taxi to the airport from Patong Beach, at first we asked several taxis drivers on the street. We were quoted 1,000 TBH, we also asked a tourist kiosk and they had them running regularly on the hour for 250 TBH per person for a minivan (there was three of us so that would be 750 TBH). However it was 3.10pm and we had just missed it and didn’t want to wait around for another hour. So I texted my awesome Tour Operator girl on WhatsApp and she responded straight away saying that she could do it for 800 TBH, and that it would be via a private taxi and not a minivan. We told her we would meet her at her office and to book it immediately.
When we got there she said she was sad to see us leave and said that she would make the price 700 TBH even though we had already agreed on 800 TBH! To me, this was a big deal. To have a Thai person actually give a discount you hadn’t fought for was surprising. I was wrapped – not because I saved what is equivalent to about $4 AUD – but because I had built a good, genuine friendship with a local, the benefits of which were mutual for both of us. Plus, the taxi was a sleek black sedan with plush leather seats, and importantly – good aircon. I gave her a hug and said good bye and was on my way with a great sense of satisfaction about the whole trip.
So in summary,
- Find a trustworthy looking person to buy whatever you are after. I find females are much better to deal with in this regard.
- Haggle initially and let them know you do care about the price.
- Try them out, and if they turn out to be good, always use them again.
- Remember: look around first for each tour or package you want so you know the going rate.
- Make them smile or laugh. 95% of people just storm in, demand a price then walk out. Stand out!
- Get them on WhatsApp! Prices anytime!
Have you got other tips or tricks for getting the best deal? Do you have an interesting story to tell? Share it in the comments section below!