Traveler Rant: Trying to get Something for Nothing

by Melissa on April 8, 2012 · 16 comments

Lookout interwebs, Mellyboo has some things she wants to get off her chest!

As a backpacker, I’m all for trying to find a good deal and in fact, most budget travellers are always on the hunt for a good deal – trying to get the most bang for their buck.  In doing so, sometimes we consider our own pocketbook before we consider the effects that a mere $2 or $3 may have on those on the receiving end.  At what point does this mentality become an issue?  Why must some feel they are entitled to get something for nothing?


Case in point:
I was at dinner the other night at a friend’s house and they were hosting a traveler from Europe.  Being that we were both on the road, we got chatting about our respective travels.  He started telling us about how he had hiked the Annapurna trail in Nepal sans porters or guides. He was quick to tell us that there was a group of 10 travellers who had come together from various countries around the world, and were doing the hike together.  We asked all the logistical questions such as where they stayed, what they ate, what it was like, etc.  He responded by telling us that at night they would stay in villages with locals – the same people that they would buy their dinner meals off of.  He was very quick to tell us that they would barter with the locals and for twelve of the fourteen nights, managed to only have to pay for their food, and each person got off of paying the $2 per night fee for accommodation.

This didn’t quite sit well with me.  For those Nepalese people living on the side of the Annapurna Mountains, those $2 a night that they receive from trekkers is a huge source of their income.  At what point does trying to find a good deal negate thinking of others and what may be best for people who often go without so much?  It seems very selfish.

It also makes me wonder if they were to have spent the money on porters and guides, would they have be more inclined to pay the locals for the roof over their heads at night?  He had made it quite clear that as they went further up the mountains, the food became more expensive – which makes sense, as they would have to somehow find a way to get the food up the mountain.   However, if these locals are paying an inflated price to have their food shipped thousands of meters up the mountain, surely they can’t be making THAT much off of selling it to tourists.  Why then do backpackers such as this young man, feel it is okay to ask to stay for free?  I’ve always been of the mind to support the local economy wherever I may be – hence, since living in New Zealand’s Far North, I frequent the farmer’s market every Saturday to buy local produce before heading to the chain grocery store.

My dear friend and flatmate, Kate, and I got talking about this and she brought up how this made her think of Couchsurfers who simply use a host for a free bed.  The majority of Couchsurfers get the point of the project and know that it is a way to meet local people and hopefully get a more authentic experience of being in a new place.  However, on rare occasion you get those Couchsurfers who use it simply as a means for a free bed and have no qualms about not getting to know their host, or doing or seeing local things.

On the one hand, Couchsurfing hosts, offer up a sleeping space as a way to meet foreigners and share their knowledge of the area – and they do this with the understanding that they are not asking for money.  Essentially they are doing it out of the goodness of their hearts.  But like the Nepalese locals who provide a bed for those making the trek through the mountains, they don’t want to be taken advantage of or used by their guests.

At what point does trying to save a buck start to become morally questionable?   What are your opinions on this?  Do you think as backpackers we are entitled to try to bargain for a better price no matter what the economic state of the local people – or should we suck it up and pay the extra few dollars?


{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Erica April 9, 2012 at 3:05 am

I definitely agree with you. There’s a difference between bartering with someone who is trying to give you the foreigner price and people who could legitimately use the extra dollar or two. Unfortunately, this is a matter of personal values so there’s not much you can do without creating bad blood besides never being that person 🙂


Melissa April 10, 2012 at 10:27 am

I guess not everyone has good personal values and sense of morals like us 🙂

Good point about the ‘foreigner price’… There’s a time and a place to barter… in the MARKETS in Hong Kong or Thailand? yes. For accommodation on the side of a mountain in Nepal? not so much.


Tracey - Life Changing Year April 10, 2012 at 3:57 am

So, so true!! We have just spent 3 months in SE Asia and have seen some people expect to get everything for next to nothing! When you are already getting fed for US$1 I don’t really think its necessary to get it down to 70 cents. My 15 year old refuses point blank to barter. She has saved her own money for our trip and informs us that if she wants to pay the people 50 cents more for shorts she will!! Interesting to see she has already worked out the difference this can make in someone else’s life. Great post!
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Melissa April 10, 2012 at 10:36 am

That’s very impressive that your 15 year old has that attitude! You’ve done something right in raising her! 🙂

It’s really sad that some travelers feel it’s their right…. Traveling is NOT a right, it’s a privilege!

Great site, by the way. I really admire all the families who are out on the road, giving their children the best type of education! 🙂


Becki | BackpackerBecki April 10, 2012 at 9:24 am

Great post and something people should really think about. Travelling is a priviledge, not a right, and this kind of behaviour is upsetting. We all try and save money here and there, which is normally determined by the accomodation we stay in and what we choose to eat, where set rates normally apply – our choice. Bartering is a given in most places and encouraged, and the majority of people know when fair is fair – a collective choice. But when you cross the boundary of affecting a local’s day-to-day living and expecting people to work hard for you for free then you should be calling yourself a disgrace, not a traveller.

He got a priceless experience I would have been throwing my money at for!


Melissa April 10, 2012 at 10:39 am

He certainly did! It was really hard to sit at that dinner table and not call him out as a disgrace. It’s people like him that give us backpackers/travelers a bad name. And great point. Traveling IS a privilege NOT a right – if you don’t have the money to do it properly and ethically, you don’t have the money to travel.


Susan @ Afford Your Passions April 10, 2012 at 2:19 pm

I guess it depends on your definition of “properly”.

When I was in my early 20’s, I travelled around the US for six weeks by myself. (I lived in Australia at the time). Over the previous two years, I’d built penpal relationships (this was pre-internet) with a number of people living in various cities around the USA, and when I was ready for my trip, I reached out to those penpals to see if they had a couch for me to sleep on for up to three nights.

One of the penpals had formerly lived in NYC. I wanted to visit NYC, but knew nobody there, so I asked my penpal if she had any friends that would put me up for 3 nights.

I travelled for 6 weeks around the US and Canada, and paid for less than a week’s worth of hotel accommodation. There is no way that I could have afforded to do it “properly” – that is, to pay for hotels for six weeks. Are you saying that I should have stayed home, or gone on a cheaper trip?

My penpals enjoyed meeting me, and spent time playing travel guide. I had an awesome experience, and met my future husband on the trip.

I guess it all depends on one’s definition of “proper”.
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Melissa April 10, 2012 at 2:35 pm

I am not saying that you shouldn’t have gone and stayed with your penpals or their friends- you had built relationships with those people (or at least their friends) so asking for a favor is one thing. Those people do not rely on having you as a guest to earn their income. I am by no means saying that travelers should have to PAY for accommodations in every situation. If you’re staying with friends, you’re surely not going to pay them for each night you stay. If you’re couchsurfing, you should have the understanding that the site was not created for travelers to USE their hosts for a bed – the whole purpose is to unite travelers and like-minded individuals to create a unique experience that no hotel or hostel could give you. However, if you’re traveling and going to a place that normally charges a fee for the roof over your head and then you barter with those people to get your stay for free… i find something very morally wrong with that. Especially in the case of the Nepalese people, where often these folks do not have much and tourism to their small villages are a HUGE source of income and the local economy relies on it.


Susan @ Afford Your Passions April 11, 2012 at 8:13 am

Thanks, Melissa – I had begun to wonder if I was a freeloader 🙂

Ryan April 9, 2012 at 10:45 pm

Well, in the blogger parts, I’m known as a bit of a penny pincher myself. But NOT by bartering locals down to nothingness. Usually I just sleep in some woods in my hammock…

I think it is perfectly fine to barter and try to save some money – case in point inflated prices in some countries as a “foreigner” price, places who expect bartering and start 3X as high.

But when it comes to dwindling down prices to near nothing and forcing the locals to just take what they can get (food costs) then I think there is something very wrong. Some cultures and areas, and I’m sure it is very true here, solely depend on that little $2 to live. You are there to travel, they are providing hospitality, don’t be greedy with it.

And great point about couchsurfing. I have always ALWAYS stressed that Couchsurfing is not about a free place to crash. It is a community of travelers or friendly people wanting to meet others, maybe show them around, or have a good chat. I think it is terribly rude and disrespectful to jump from couch to couch for the freebie. I’ve met some “pro” couchsurfers that do that, and I think it is a shame.

Great points Melly!
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Melissa April 10, 2012 at 10:33 am

Now a question I have, just to play devil’s advocate, Ryan, is… do you ever feel guilty for putting up your hammock in the woods when you could be contributing to the local economy by paying for your accommodation?


Erik April 14, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Trying to save a couple dollars should never mean sacrificing your dignity. People should remember that, even if they didn’t sign up to be so, they are an ambassador of the country they come from. Don’t hurt travelers coming after you by not considering the plight of locals. It seems obvious, but to people consumed with saving a couple dollars here and there, it ‘s pretty easy to forget.
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cailin April 22, 2012 at 7:57 pm

I think its different depending on where you are. In this example where prices are so cheap and you know that the people depend on your money, I don’t think it is appropriate to be cheap however if you are traveling in a big city I totally think its a whole different story.
Funny what you say about couch surfing too. People often ask me if I couch surf and I don’t for that very reason that I feel like if I were going to, I have to spend time with my host and not just go and do your own thing and I very much like to do my own thing so I’ve never actually done it for that reason. 🙂
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Genevieve July 12, 2012 at 8:27 pm

I love this article. For the first month or so we were traveling I started to get really hung up in the bartering, and I was a little indignant if I had to pay 50c for something I knew I could get for 25c, when in the economy I come from even on a base wage 25c is less than one minutes work. Once I started to think about it I realised how much of a dick I was being trying to get ‘local price’ all the time.
When I was a kid I traveled through SEA a bit with my folks, and my Dad has the best style with these things – in the markets he would barter, barter, barter and once he had a figure about 1/3 of the original price he would say ‘ok’ and pay the original price anyway, he just did it for all of the fun that can be involved in haggling.
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Daniel McBane December 15, 2012 at 12:15 pm

The locals in these villages charge very little for accommodation because they make most of their money from food and drinks, so getting a free room is not really that big of an accomplishment. That said, in all but one case, I would have felt very bad bargaining these poor families down to nothing and we genreally just paid what they asked (which was always a reasonable $1 or $1) .The one case where I wouldn’t have felt bad, they guy was charging three times what anyone else was for room and board and refused to bargain. I’m guessing the group you mentioned paid him full price too, meaning they took money from the kind and honest people, but paid a lot to the one guy charging extortionist prices.

I also saw a few people who would bring their own food and would get it out after bargaining the room down to nothing, meaning the owner made no money off them. Seeing that annoyed me to no end.
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