MONGUI, Colombia- The rounds of the traveler communities in Colombia says that you can barter for the price of your bus tickets, and this is true. Each time you go to step foot on a full sized bus you can often come out with a 25 to 40% discount on your fare. If you can’t get the price down at least 1,000 pesos per seat hour of your projected journey, you are being hosed. Generally, the conductor will knock five to ten grand off the fare without you even trying too hard.
So when I go to board a bus in this country, I go from bus office to bus office, conductor to conductor, gaming the fares. I take my time, there is often no reason to hurry — bus routes that follow major highways usually have dozens of buses running them each day. When I find the lowest price, I then state my price. “I’ll give you 20 for two tickets . . .”
The trick is to find the bottom of what the bus companies will accept. The only way to do this is shoot below it. Often, I can settle somewhere in the middle between my price and the stated price, which is often 25 to 30% lower than I would have paid if I just coughed up the cash requested at the onset.
There are MANY bus companies in Colombia, and there seems to be some pretty good competition on some runs. In point, you do not need to have the mad bargaining skills of an Israeli to get a lower bus fare, as the companies are often more than willing go tick down their prices in order to fill their buses.
But this tip generally only works for the larger, full size buses — not the minibuses. If you try bartering on a minibus, you’re going to look like an idiot. My experiences so far is that the prices are, pretty much, set.
The first time I tried to barter for a lower price from a minibus driver in Colombia, the guy laughed in my face: no way. I then got into his over glorified van, rode out to the outskirts of town — picking up passengers along the way — and then a guy with a wad of bills in his hand jumped aboard and collected money from all the passengers. Everyone paid the same prices for the same rides, there were no tricky moves, nothing clever. There was no leeway on the price for anyone: foreigner or local. Sometimes the prices are even posted on a board near the front of the bus, and, surprisingly, this is the price that most of the people pay.
These two patterns have continued to play themselves again and again each time I’ve hopped on a Colombian bus or minibus.