Travel in Korea: The 4 Essentials of Every Trip
It’s easy to travel in Korea – once you know how. Here we give you the essential resources (and some insider tips) to plan and execute your weekend adventures.
After years of weekend trips to distant temples, hot springs, and cultural festivals, Anthony still hasn’t seen most of what Korea has to offer. He loves going to festivals just for the hoddeok and makkeolli, and would rather take the express bus for five hours than the KTX for two- it’s just better.
Korea is filled with years-worth of opportunities for weekend, overnight, and day trips – from food festivals to cherry blossoms to ancient temples. So we’ve gathered all the information you need to plan your next trip to Andong Folk Village, the Busan International Film Festival, or Bulguksa Temple.
Once you decide where you want to go, all that’s left is planning it! Unfortunately, though Korea’s tourist industry is well-established and far-reaching, it’s also aimed primarily at Korean tourists. This can make traveling frustratingly confusing unless you speak a decent amount of Korean… or have this guide to give you all the information you need to travel in Korea.
[note title=”This guide will be updated”]This guide is intended as a general overview and introduction to travel in Korea. In the coming weeks, look for more specific guides on transport, accommodation, travel resources, and destinations. We will update this page with links to that content as it is published.[/note]
Step 1: Trip planning
Most of the weekend trips I do in Korea involve choosing one thing to go and see, and then researching the surrounding area to make up a full weekend. Even if you know where you want to go, it’s definitely worth making sure you’re not missing out on something amazing just down the road.
It’s also important to check you’re going at the right time – Gyeongju during the spring, when the cherry blossoms are blooming, and autumn, when the leaves are changing color, is an absolutely beautiful place. But Gyeongju during the summer and winter is dead and dry.
Any given Google search on travel in Korea will turn up a plethora of websites, blogs, and travel guides of varying usefulness. If you know where you’re going then reading another foreigner’s blog post about the place could be useful, but it’ll involve skimming over a lot of extraneous information. Here are some other websites with good information:
- Korea Tourism Org.: As with most Korean websites, this one is hard to navigate and buggy. It has a lot of information, though it is often well out-of-date. Nonetheless, a good jumping-off point for links to other websites.
- Lonely Planet Travel Guide: Funky and fun, but geared more toward backpackers than locals. Overall a good guide to make sure you hit the must-sees.
- Wikitravel: My first port-of-call for information on a specific area. Well laid out, written by the community, and as objectively informative as you get.
Most people also invest in travel books for Korea. I have the three main ones, but have been disappointed by all of them. Their research is, in general, sloppy, and their descriptions often read as though they have been recycled from official sources, rather than actually visited by a researcher. Nonetheless, here they are, along with what they’re good for:
- Lonely Planet Korea: The most common and most popular travel guide. Informative and well laid out, with great maps and extra information. My only quibble is the one above, that on trying to follow its advice, it seems like the writers didn’t actually visit any of these places.
- Frommers South Korea: Lonely Planet’s staid, respectable, older brother. Frommers focuses more on cultural and historical sites than on activities and adventures.
- Rough Guides Korea: For the more budget-conscious, action-oriented traveler. This series always has a great mix of off-the-beaten-path destinations and outdoor activities.
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Step 2: Transport
Transport in Korea falls into several categories: buses, trains, planes, and ferries. Click on each tab below to find out more about each kind of transport.
[tabs] [tab title=”Buses”]
There are two kinds of buses that travel between cities in Korea:
- Express (고속) buses
- Intercity (시외) buses.
Express buses tend to go farther, faster, and with fewer stops, whereas the Intercity buses serve more destinations but tend to take a winding route, often stopping to pick up passengers at several locations on the way to their final destination.
In any town or city there’s always at least an intercity bus terminal. Many smaller cities will combine their express and intercity terminals under one roof, but larger cities could have any combination of separate or combined express and intercity terminals, so make sure you know which one your bus leaves from.
Express bus timetables can all be checked in English on one of two sites:
- Kobus – for nearly all buses: try here first
- Central City – buses running down the west coast (the Honam line). (This website has been undergoing “renewal” for the better part of a year now, with no indication when it will be back up)
Intercity bus timetables are much harder to lock down. They’re posted on the wall of the terminal, and most terminals have websites with the correct times – in Korean. The websites also don’t link to each other… Use the secret weapon in Step 4 to get these.
You can only make online reservations for express buses on the Korean version of the Kobus site. Otherwise, you’ll have to go to the express bus terminal in person to purchase your tickets in advance. Except for busy times/routes, however, this is not necessary, and you can usually buy them on the day.
Intercity buses can’t be reserved in advance: you can only buy tickets on the day. So, as long as you get to the terminal early (for busy routes) you’re not going to lose out to the locals.
Korea’s network of trains is wide-ranging and easy to use. They have two classes of train: the KTX (Korea Train eXpress) bullet train, and regular passenger trains.
Fortunately you can check and reserve train tickets online (and in English!) at the Korail website (click on the “English” tab in the top corner). Reservations are necessary, even just for weekends, since tickets sell out weeks in advance.
[note title=”Korail protips” align=”center”]Protip 1: It can be worthwhile to buy a Happy Rail Pass from Korail. I found that a 2-day Happy Rail Pass is cheaper than buying a return ticket from Seoul to Busan.
To do this you will need to use your foreign credit card and your passport to buy the pass, and then redeem your pass for the tickets you want at a train station.
Protip 2: You can also purchase a Japanese JR Pass through Korail, as well as ferry tickets over to Japan.[/note]
Korea has a well-established airline industry, with a bushel of budget airlines operating in addition to the major airlines – Korean Air and Asiana. Within Korea you’ll probably only need to take a plane if you’re going to Jeju. Make sure you search for the best price on all of these budget airlines first, because they’re not going to turn up in an airfare aggregator like Expedia or Orbitz.
- Busan Air
- T’Way (Korean only)
- Jeju Air
- Eastar Jet
- Jin Air
- AirAsia Korea (Due to begin operation in April 2014)
Ferries are unfortunately much like intercity buses, in that their websites are generally all in Korea, they run locally, and they’re difficult to book in advance. It can be done, but you’re probably going to need a Korean speaker to call up the ferry terminal and make the reservation for you. Again, try the secret weapon in Step 4.
The only exception is the Kobee ferry, which runs between Busan and various destinations in Japan. You can buy tickets for the Kobee from any of several online agents, such as this one.
Ferries are kind of the one, great unexploited travel resource in Korea. Besides the thousands of tiny Korean islands they can take you to, ferries also regularly run to China, Japan, and even Russia (docking in Vladivostok).
Step 3: Accommodation
Accommodation in Korea is super-easy to come by. Most times of the year you can just rock up in town without a plan and find a motel to stay at within 20 minutes.
Your accommodation options range through:
- Yeogwans (여관) – basically just a room with a heated floor and blankets to sleep on
- Motels (모텔) – which run the gamut from seedy, cockroach-infested holes to shiny, super-luxurious mini-palaces
- Traveller’s hotels (관광호텔)
- Western, 3-5 star hotels
If you need to book ahead – whether because it’s a festival weekend and you’re unsure of availability, or you just don’t like arriving without a plan, you’ll be able to reserve hotels and some of the nicer motels online at sites like Agoda.com. For smaller places you’ll probably have to call them up and make a reservation which, again, will likely require a Korean-speaking friend or a secret weapon.
[note title=”Pensions” align=”center”]The other option in Korea is to stay in a Pension. This is basically a Korean B&B (with fewer facilities), often decorated in ridiculously over-romantic styles. They’re best found by word of mouth, but a Google search for “Pension + (your destination)” will usually turn something up. They can get pricey, but they’re great for groups.[/note]
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Step 4: The Secret Weapon
The secret weapon has been mentioned before on this blog, but it bears repeating. It is this phone number:
Every province maintains a call center purely to assist foreigners and tourists. They speak English, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and often a handful of other languages. Dialing “1330” will automatically connect you to the local call center for the region you’re in, or redirect you to the central one in Seoul if your local one is closed. The Seoul center operates until midnight every day, while regional centers will close around 5 or 6.
The people there are amazing, and will look up transport routes and availability, call movie theaters, restaurants, or any other Korean business on your behalf, and often even make reservations for you. They’ll speak to taxi drivers on your behalf and basically do anything research and organization-wise you ask them to. Remember to give them a big “thank you” when you’re done, because (so far as I know) they’re volunteers, just there to help you out.
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Are there any resources you wouldn’t be caught without when you travel in Korea? Do you have any questions about traveling in Korea? Leave a message below.