To be honest, I didn’t know a lot about Korea before I met Jeongsu. Even after that, I couldn’t find a lot of information on what to see and do in Korea. However, now I am sure it’s one of the coolest countries in the world. Are you thinking about traveling South Korea but aren’t quite sure what to expect? If so, continue reading this post where I am answering all those questions you might have before your first trip to South Korea.
Here are 10 things you should know before traveling South Korea.
1. What can I see in South Korea?
Most travelers start their journey in the capital of Seoul. You can easily spend an entire week in this booming metropolis! The city is simply awesome! During the day, you best check out the numerous museums, historical temples and palaces or take a walk around the old Hanok area. Check out my best Seoul itinerary!
A great way to explore the capital is to choose the convenient Hop on/Hop off bus which is bookable online in advance for a discounted price.
At night, you should enjoy a live concert or get into the spectacular nightlife scene. If you are looking for something special, visit one of the many themed cafes. For example, I visited a café where you can dress up as a princess. Or, if you love animals, you should check out one of the many pet cafes. If dogs and cats are too mainstream, why not cuddle with sheep or sip a tea while playing with raccoons?
Since South Korea is a peninsula, the country offers a great selection of breath-taking beaches. The most famous ones are located on the vacation island of Jeju. The best way to explore all that the island has to offer is to rent a bike and cruise around untouched nature. If you don’t have enough time to fly to Jeju Island, the southwest you can also find lots of beautiful beaches you can simply take a train or bus to. Even the harbor town of Busan, the second largest city in the country, attracts with some decent beaches, which can be crowded in summer. A special way to explore Busan is to take the Diamond Cruise in the Bay.
The interior of the country lures visitors with its many valleys and national parks. Many of these regions offer so-called “templestays” at renowned temples. This is definitely still on my bucket list of things to do here in Korea. Additionally, you can find different hanok villages where traditional houses still exist.
The DMZ is another extraordinary destination, since it marks the border between North and South Korea. Even though (or maybe because) this is the place where cold war is brutal reality, this area has become one of the most visited tourist attractions in the country. Today, you can book a tour and explore one of the world’s most guarded areas for yourself. I wrote all about my visit to the DMZ in a separate post.
2. How safe is South Korea?
South Korea is among the safest countries in the world. You do not have to be worried of getting pickpocketed or let alone robbed. You can observe this when locals leave their handbags unattended to occupy a seat while they are buying food or even leaving their cellphones to charge on the opposite side of the restaurant. When traveling South Korea for a bit, you will come to notice how friendly and ready to help the Koreans are. It’s hard to believe that any problems could arise.
The biggest fear always seems to be an attack from North Korea, since the two countries have officially been still at war for 50 years. However, the situation is relatively relaxed and incidents at the border are rather rare.
3. How much is a trip to Korea?
Even though South Korea is among the more expensive countries compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors, it’s still a lot cheaper than Europe or North America. If you are backpacking on a budget, you probably want to calculate around $45 or 40 EUR per day. This budget enables you to sleep in a hostel, eat cheap meals and change location every few days. If you want more comfort, you probably need to bring twice the amount.
Why is Korea so expensive? The highest expense is probably accommodation. A decent hotel in a good location is often around $110 (100 EUR) per night. The hotel chain Benika offer cheaper last minute deals. If you’re lucky you can find a room starting at $35.
Alternatively, you can stay with a Korean family using the homestay program starting at around $35 (30 EUR). The families usually speak a little English, which helps you to find your way around and get first-hand experience with the locals. You can book a homestay here. If you are traveling alone, a bed in a dorm room is the cheapest option. You can find many offers at Hostelworld starting at around $20.
Transportation is another big expense. A high-speed train ride from Seoul to Busan is around $53 (48 EUR). If you want to see a lot of different places in a short time, you should consider getting the KR pass for 1, 3, 5, 7, or 10 days. This pass costs between $58 and $170. More information about the KR pass is right here. Beware that the passes with 1 or 3 days are often times not worthwhile since the regular trains or express buses usually cost half of that price and are just as comfortable to travel in.
One of the reasons I love living and traveling in South Korea is the delicious food. The good thing is: you don’t need to bring a big money bag to be able to eat out! The all-time favorite dish bibimbap (rice mixed with veggies) costs around $5 and lip-smacking Korean BBQ is around $10.
Entrance fees are usually very cheap as well. Most museums are completely free and if you need to pay to enter a palace, it’s usually no more than a couple of dollars.
4. How do I find the cheapest flight to South Korea?
The flight ticket is, of course, the most expensive part of your trip. Depending on where you are flying from and when, a round-trip ticket starts at $500. If you want to get a cheap ticket like that you need to be extremely flexible and book months in advance. Normally, tickets reach their lowest price about 2 months before and then slowly increase again.
It can even save you money if you fly into China first and buy a cheap ticket from Beijing to Seoul, for example. This is even better if you want to explore Beijing with the 72-hour transit visa! Check out my perfect 2-day itinerary for Beijing!
5. When is the best time for traveling South Korea?
Generally speaking, you can visit Korea year round. Korea offers many excellent winter sport resorts such as Pyeonchang, where the 2018 Winter Olympics will be held.
The spring months April and May are very popular since you can get to see cherry blossoms in full bloom. Fall season (September to November) are also very popular due to the comfortable temperatures and little rain. The summer months aren’t ideal because the weather is extremely hot, humid and has a lot of rain.
6. How is the Internet connection in South Korea?
South Korea is a paradise for Internet fanatics and digital nomads. Every hotel or hostel I have stayed at so far offers complimentary and fast Internet. Keep in mind that that’s not the case in many other Asian nations. Another advantage are the many free Wi-Fi hotspots all across cities in South Korea. Usually, every coffee shot or restaurant offers complimentary wireless Internet for their guests and some cities even have their own free Wi-Fi network, which you can easily connect to.
If this isn’t enough for you, you have 2 other options. You can buy a local SIM card, which are available at the airport or train stations for around 50,000 KRW for one month.
Tip: Buy a Korean sim card in advance to save money!
7. Can I rent a car in Korea?
Yes, it’s possible to rent a car in Korea. In order to rent a car, you usually need your passport, a credit card and an international driver’s license. However, a lot of tourists do not choose to travel this way. This might have three main reasons:
First, the public transportation network in Korea is really great so that you can easily get from one place to another. Second, parking is a huge issue in big cities in Korea, even for the locals. Third, renting a car in Korea isn’t as cheap as you might think. A compact car cost you around $50 per day, adding insurance, gas and toll fees doesn’t make it as convenient. However, exploring Korea by car also has a lot of advantages, such as being able to venture far outside the big cities and exploring the countryside!
8. Do I need a tour guide in Korea?
No, you don’t really need a tour guide – neither a book nor a human version. Since the countryside of Korea isn’t as frequently traveled as the big cities, you aren’t able to find as much information on the Internet. I personally love my Lonely Planet Korea guide because it lists really everything you can do and see in the country! Unless you really travel outside of the big cities, you might want to invest in a tour guide in book form.
9. Can I get by with English in South Korea?
Even though South Korea is among the countries with the best English skills in the world, you will probably meet people who don’t understand a word of English, especially in smaller cities. Nevertheless, body language helps you to communicate with the locals as well! Traveling in Seoul, you will probably not have any trouble getting by without English.
You should download a good translation program before coming to Korea just in case you encounter an emergency situation, even though it’s not the quickest way to communicate.
10. Where can I withdraw/exchange money in South Korea?
Korea’s currency is called “Won” and is the only accepted currency. At the moment, you get around 1170 KRW for 1 Dollar or 1300 KRW for 1 Euro. The largest Won bill is worth 50,000 KRW but the ATMs usually give you 10,000 KRW notes.
It can sometimes be tricky to find an ATM that accepts foreign bank cards. Search for “Hana Bank”, “KB” or “Shinhan”. These are the biggest banks in the country and usually accept foreign bank cards. If you cannot find a bank, try a convenience store, such as 7-Eleven, GS 24, or With Me – they also have ATMs in their stores. When you travel in the bigger cities, go to the metro and you will find various ATMs there as well!
Bonus: Where to Stay?
I highly recommend staying in Bird’s Nest Hostel in Hongdae, Seoul! This area is one of the “hottest” spots in town, but the hostel is located in a quiet street off, but still close within 10 minutes of walking, from the main district of Hongdae.
Come to Korea!
Even though South Korea seems to be overshadowed by big neighbors, such as China and Japan, it’s definitely worth a visit and should be far up on your Asia travel bucket list! When are you traveling South Korea?