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My Budget Watcher’s Guide to Planning a Trip to South Korea

Reading Time: 7 minutes

South Korea is the ideal tourist destination for anyone who enjoys ramyeon, k-dramas, k-pop, and street fashion. The country’s rich culture and plethora of adventure opportunities draw millions of travelers that visit each year. The government also provides many incentives for visitors to spend a lot of time in the country. 

South Korea will not disappoint, and I can 100% attest to it. Plus, planning a trip to South Korea on a budget is easier than ever, so you can easily explore this beautiful country. 

Absolutely. Allow my guide to tell you how.

Is It Expensive to Travel to South Korea?

The short answer is no. 

While South Korea’s cost of living is undoubtedly on the rise, traveling to Korea is actually a lot more affordable than you might think! There is an abundance of affordable accommodation, cheap food, and free activities to indulge in.

But, then again, your opinion might differ depending on the value of the currency in your home country. 

As with any other travel destination, there’s a risk of overspending due to FOMO (fear of missing out), especially if you’re immersed in social media. If you have a limited budget, plan your itinerary so you can minimize frivolous stops at fancy restaurants or purchases at souvenir stores. They do more damage to your budget than you’d realize. 

Gyeongbokgung Palace is free when you wear hanbok!
Wandering through tea fields in Hadong doesn’t cost a thing!

Tips to Save on Your Trip and Stay Within Budget

Planning a trip to South Korea on a budget? 

Here’s how I cut costs during my trip. Follow my lead, and you’ll save some $$$ while exploring this culture-rich country.

Save on Accommodation with Early Booking, Hostels, and Free Cancellation

After the flight, accommodation will take the biggest chunk of your travel expense. Booking your accommodation early is a great way to save money. Hotels tend to offer better rates for early birds, so make sure to book well in advance. Another option is to choose hostels over hotels. Hostels are often cheaper and offer more opportunities to meet fellow travelers. Plus, many hostels now offer private rooms for those who prefer a little more privacy.

If you’re worried about committing to a non-refundable booking, use the “free cancellation” option on websites like Booking.com. This option allows you to make changes to your booking or cancel it altogether, without incurring any fees, up to a certain date. This gives you more flexibility in case your travel plans change.

Finally, consider staying with a local through websites like Couchsurfing, Workaway, and Worldpackers. This is a great way to save money on accommodation and get a more authentic travel experience. While these options are free, it’s important to remember that you may be expected to help out with some household chores.

Booking.com

Visit Public Tourist Sites

Good things don’t always come at a cost; visiting the best of South Korea is a prime example. Ideally, you want to avoid splurging on expensive activities and stick to exploring the country’s rich culture, fantastic architecture, and so on. 

Here are some activities you can indulge in during your stay: 

  • Feast your eyes on the gorgeous scenery at Bukhansan National Park
  • Feel on top of the world at N Seoul Tower.
  • Travel back in time and explore the unique layout and architecture of Bukchon Hanok Village.
  • Pay your tributes at the War Memorial of Korea. 
  • Visit the Changdeokgung Palace to see outstanding traditional architecture and the secret garden. 

Additionally, you can go on guided tours to explore hidden gems and make friends with other tourists. Look for tours that are free, but a token of appreciation wouldn’t hurt. 

Obtain a Transportation Card

Purchasing single-journey tickets is cool until you realize you have to queue up to get tickets every time, hurting your pockets and schedule. 

That’s why you need to get a T-money card.

This discounted transportation plan allows you to explore South Korean cities and towns by subway and bus on a budget. It costs 2,500₩; you can purchase it at most major stations and convenience stores, where you can top it up. You can also use it to get a snack from affiliated convenience stores. 

You can also get a Metropolitan pass (MPASS) for 15,000₩. It’s valid for a day and offers 20 rides. 

Get A Tax Refund

Did you know you can get a refund for the sales tax you pay on purchases? All you have to do is buy goods over 30,000₩ from a participating tax-free store, present your receipts and passport at the customs declaration counter, show your goods and tax refund receipt, and you’re all set to receive reimbursement. 

This procedure happens three months from departure, but the country also has a program where you can get an immediate tax refund for goods worth 500,000₩. To avail of your refund, you’ll need to provide your receipts and passport at the store itself or get it at a tax refund booth located inside or outside major airports. 

Eat at Markets

South Korea offers a second-to-none gastronomic experience—and it’s not limited to fancy restaurants, which could cost upwards of 30,000₩. Here, you can enjoy the best food at traditional markets like Namdeamun, Gukje, Jagalchi, and other local pojangmacha (tented dining areas) for much, much less. 

Here are my top recommendations to tantalize your taste buds:

  • Banchan — a group of small dishes served with kimchi stew
  • Bibimbap — mixed rice cooked with egg or sliced meat
  • Bulgogi — marinated barbequed beef
  • Hotteok — sweet, filled pancake
  • Japchae — sweet and savory glass noodles
  • Mandu — Korean dumplings
  • Samgyetang — hot soup made with chicken, which is stuffed with rice
  • Tteokbokki — spicy rice cakes (cylindrical)

You can get each dish to start from 1,800₩.

Gwangjang Market
Cho Yonsoon’s Korean handmade noodle stall in Gwangjang Market is featured in Netflix “Street Food”

Avoid Peak Season

Cherry blossom season, which takes place between mid-March to late-April, is the most popular time to visit Korea. Summer (the months between June to September) are not far behind. To get good deals on flights and hotels, you’ll have to avoid these travel periods. As a bonus, you’ll also avoid huge crowds. 

So, when should you travel? 

By far, January is the cheapest month to travel, but you’ll have to pack right as temperatures can drop as low as -6°C. If skiing is not your choice of sport, you can visit in March, October, or November to enjoy milder weather and budget-friendly deals.

Leave the Airport by Bus or Train

South Korea has a very well-connected public transport system. So instead of paying big bucks for a taxi as you leave the airport, choose the bus or train. 

Buses take longer to get around but tend to be more affordable. The ultimate cost will depend on the class ticket: standard, luxury, or premium, and where you want to travel. In my opinion, the only drawback of using buses is that most apps and websites are in Korean, so you’ll need to reserve your tickets at the bus station.

Be sure to use cash, as they don’t accept international debit or credit cards.

In contrast, the subway gets you to just about any location quickly. The AREX train costs 4150₩ to 9500₩, depending on the duration of the trip. You can also opt for the country’s bullet train, Korean Train Express (KTX), if you’re going away from the city. It’s relatively expensive, so consider getting a Korail Pass: it costs 121,000₩ (for adults) and is valid for two days. You can use it for high-speed and slow trains, making transportation seamless.

If you can’t speak Korean, you can book your train tickets via Rail.Ninja.

Search for Tourist Coupons

You should do a lot of sightseeing in South Korea. But this can cause a significant dent in your travel budget. 

Luckily, South Korea is very accommodating in this regard. It offers tourism coupons such as The Discover Seoul Pass (50,0000₩ for one day), which provides more than 200 deals. There is also the Korea Tour Card (4,000₩), which gives you benefits from 182 brands.

Which Payment Method to Use: Cash vs. Cards

You can use cash and credit cards in South Korea. 

However, credit cards won’t work everywhere; the prime example being traditional markets and street stalls. So, always carry a little cash on your person. 

Cards Enabled in South Korea

South Korea is quite modern, so you should have no trouble paying with a debit or credit card. But while debit cards have exchange rates close to the market rate, they’re not accepted by all ATMs. 

Credit cards will be your best choice. Just check with your bank and ensure payment is allowed outside your country. Also ask your bank about any commission fees per transaction.

T-money cards can also be used for payment in some restaurants and retail stores.

Conclusion

This guide is sure to have you planning a trip to South Korea!

And I don’t blame you. This country is every bit beautiful as it is rich in culture, good food, and markets where you can shop until you drop without paying an arm and a leg. 

So, when are you scheduling your trip? Let me know in the comments below, and let’s discuss your options!

Recommended Travel Guides for Korea

If you want to learn more about South Korea and have a handy travel guide in your pocket, check out these three options below:

DK Eyewitness Top 10 Seoul

This Top 10 Seoul guide is a great pocket guide that breaks down the best of Seoul into helpful lists of ten – from selected highlights to the best museums and galleries, and the most authentic restaurants, tearooms, bars, shops, and markets. I personally helped update the most recent version of this guide. Buy this book.

Lonely Planet Korea

You really can’t go wrong with a lonely planet guide in your hand luggage! I’m a huge fan of Lonely Planet and own this guide myself. What I love is the brand-new pull-out, passport-size ‘Just Landed’ card with wi-fi, ATM and transport info – all you need for a smooth journey from airport to hotel! Buy this book.

South Korea: The Solo Girl’s Travel Guide

Calling all my solo female travel ladies out there – this guide is amazing! Part of the #1 Travel Guidebook Series for Women (and couples), this take on South Korea will help you avoid the scams, creeps, and tourist traps and skip ahead to the cities and adventures that are worth your time (and money)! Buy this book.

Linda's Pick
I earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
04/20/2023 05:57 am GMT
Best Guide Covering All Of Korea
I earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
04/20/2023 06:02 am GMT
Best for Solo Female Travelers
I earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
02/17/2024 08:09 pm GMT

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Linda

Linda has been living in Asia since 2012 and loves sharing her travel and life experiences on her website. She currently works remotely in Online Marketing and also teaches various English classes in South Korea.

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