Travel Korea: Tips for First-Timers in Seoul

seoul travel tips

Don’t have a Korean visa yet? Check out our guide to applying for a Korean visa + tips on increasing your chances of getting approved

When I was in high school and early college, I was so obsessed with K-Pop, Korean TV series and movies (and J-Pop, J-dramas and movies too!) that my mom once told me that I’d probably get married to a Korean. Fast forward to 2014, I’m not dating a Korean but I’m dating a guy who knows Girls Generation song lyrics by heart and dances Crayon Pop’s Bar Bar Bar (can you imagine my embarrassment every time we go to karaokes with our friends?). Beep’s not Korean, he looks more like a Japanese samurai who likes K-Pop, so yeah, close enough to my mom’s prediction. 

Last Feb 2013, my dream to go to K-Pop country finally came true! Unfortunately, Beep couldn’t come with me. He spent valentine’s day alone back in the Philippines while I was at the Korean DMZ stepping foot on North Korean soil. I’m such a great girlfriend. Haha. I did bring him home a desk calendar of Girls Generation. LOL. :)

With more people getting bitten by the Hallyu bug (like my college friend Bea who has been demanding me to make more Korea posts), and interest in going to K-Pop country is at an all-time high especially for Filipinos, I’ve rounded up some travel tips for first-time tourists in Seoul for a successful budget trip to K-Pop country:

1. Don’t be ambitious with your itinerary

Trust me on this. After 5 days in Korea with each day having an average of 3 destinations/activities squeezed in, I never felt so exhausted in my entire life (which explains the yet to be edited Korea travel video and a slow progress on Korea blog posts).

I know you want to make the most out of your Seoul trip, but I’m telling you, you’ll want to be a smart traveler by NOT following every schedule of activities in our ambitious itinerary.

What you can learn from our itinerary:

-If you want to go to the DMZ tour, don’t schedule a late night activity like going to a night market. You need all the sleep you can get for the DMZ tour since it has a really early call time.

- Don’t schedule a trip to the theme park after a tour like DMZ. You’ll want to instead dedicate an entire day for a theme park like Lotte World and especially for Everland.

- Don’t spend the night at the jjimjilbang (korean public bath) if you have an early start the next day.

- Bottom line: Give yourself enough time for a full 8-hour sleep.

lotte world korea

Lotte World

2. The subway will be your BFF

Every place is conveniently reachable by their subway. I recommend that you print out the subway mapor download the Seoul Metro app. The map may seem like it’s hard to understand, but it’s not. I promise. You’ll realize how much of a genius its planner is when you experience it. :) Another thing, most subway stations are just a few blocks away from each other, just walk if you don’t mind stretching your legs and doing more sightseeing.

seoul-subway-map

seoul metro

3. Research your destinations

If you can see in our itinerary, we included the directions for every destination: which subway lines to take and which exit number to get out of. Take the wrong exit and you’re gonna waste a lot of time trying to find the place you want to go to. Korea has a very detailed website for how to get to tourist destinations by bus or subway. But I highly suggest you take the subway when going around the city. Signages in Korea have english translations so don’t worry if you don’t know how to read Korean.

READ: Make sure the place you want to go to still exists or is open. We went to the Coffee Prince shop but it was closed for renovations.

coffee prince shop korea

 We got lost looking for the Coffee Prince shop. Then we found out it was closed for renovations. :(

4. Get a hostel/hotel/apartment near Line 1 and Line 4

See that Line 1 in blue in the subway map? That’s the main subway line that is connected to almost every other subway line. The hostel we stayed in the first time we went there, Korea Hostel 10th, was conveniently located at Dongmyo station of Line 1. For our second trip, we rented a whole apartment for ourselves, which was also conveniently located near a Line 1 station.

One of our readers also suggested to stay near Line 4 because the interval between the trains in Line 1 is longer than Line 4. Moreover, you can easily get to the main tourists spots such as Myeongdong, Seoul station, Gyeongbokgung Palace(Gwanghwamun), Insadong, etc.

5. You’ll be pushed a lot

If you don’t like riding a jam-packed subway, better avoid riding it during rush hour or you might miss your stop. Koreans are always on the go so don’t be offended when someone pushes you out of the way without an apology. At pedestrian crossings, when you see the green/cross signal, don’t wait for the cars to stop, just cross immediately or else you’ll be pushed out of the way by the Koreans who are always on a hurry.

trazy.com

pedestrian in korea

6. Don’t exchange all your money at the airport

Foreign exchange centers are available in every busy corner especially in shopping areas, so don’t exchange all your money at the airport (you’ll get better rates in the city). Exchange money just enough for your train or bus ride to your hostel.

 7. Get T-Money

The Korean T-Money is similar to Hongkong’s Octopus Card. You can get a T-Money card at the airport and load more credit at convenience stores. This is the card that you will be flashing when riding the subway or buses around Seoul. During our trip, we got the M-Pass, a card exclusively for foreigners and it comes with discount coupons to tourist destinations like the theme parks. You can read more about T-Money and M-Pass here.

T-Money M-Pass

8. Get connected anywhere with Wi-Fi

From coffee shops, fast food restaurants, to the subway, your device will detect Wi-Fi hotspots. Some of it are free but some have passwords. Some hostels, like ours, also offer a wi-fi device (Internet/Wi-Fi Egg) that you can rent for a day. We got a tip from a reader who said that the Wi-Fi password in coffee shops are in the receipt.

Is Internet in Korea really THAT fast? Haha, yes. :)

9. No Engrish!

I have A LOT of funny No Engrish moments in Korea that it needs a separate post. Asking locals for directions or what food they’re eating so you can order it too, is unavoidable especially when you’re in Korea. Majority don’t speak English so asking around can take a lot of time because of finding someone who can understand you and can talk to you. Don’t be surprised if they run away, it happens. HAHA! Download korean translator apps or prepare a list of phrases in Korean that you can use when asking around. You can also ask your hostel/hotel front desk (who understands english) to write down in Hangul the place you’re going to or the food you want to eat. You can also put photos of tourist destinations in your phone that you can show to people that you ask for directions from.

10. Set a budget for shopping

Night markets, malls, and shopping areas are included in our itinerary. Though we just wanted to check them out, it was hard to fight the temptation! If you’re a big fan of Korean cosmetics, better get ready for A LOT of shopping. Cosmetic shops are all over Seoul, you can even find them in subway stations! You won’t be able resist it. I know I couldn’t. LOL.

Here’s a tip from Joni who has been to Seoul before too: To stay within your budget, don’t shop during your trip, or at least not a lot. Spend only on transportation, food, and accommodation – the basics. Unless you’re in a country where most things are affordable (like Thailand or Indonesia!), loosening your purse strings a little is totally understandable. :)

COEX Mall Korea

COEX Mall

11. Pay at the counter at restaurants 

Don’t ask for a bill when you’re done eating at restaurants. After you finish your meal, go to a counter (usually located right behind the door ) where you will see other customers paying before they leave. For street food stalls, just pay directly to the vendor or one of their staff.

street food korea

12. Sorry but you won’t bump into your favorite K-Pop singers or K-drama actors

But you will see a lot of them in the city if they’re really famous at the moment, well not the real them, but in billboards or cardboard standups.

GD in Myeongdong

GD at Myeongdong!! LOL.

 

P.S For my friends who have already been to Seoul, feel free to add any other essential tips in the comment box so I can update this list. I may have missed some other tips since it’s been a year. Will link your tip to your blog. :)

Gem is the co-founder and author of Travels with a Hobo, a budget travel blog inspired by her travels with her cheapskate travel buddy and boyfriend, Beep who likes to call himself a “hobo”. Their first date was a solo backpacking trip together in early 2012. Instead of splurging on romantic dates, they go on budget trips in the Philippines and Asia. She works full-time and makes the most of her vacation leaves and holidays to travel the cheapest way possible.
  • J. Ang

    Agree with all the tips mentioned! I especially wanna reiterate the importance of having enough rest a night before a big day of traveling, it’s what fuels you to do more and see more.

    To stay within your budget, don’t shop during your trip, or at least not a lot. Spend only on transportation, food, and accommodation – the basics. Unless you’re in a country where most things are affordable (like Thailand or Indonesia!), loosening your purse strings a little is totally understandable. :)

    • http://www.travelswithahobo.com/ travelswithahobo.com

      Ah, best in winter outfit contribution!! Haha Thanks again for lending us your winter outfits, andun sa post yung coat mo! :)

      Thanks for the tip Mama (lol people who read this will be like ‘whutt’). Shall add your tip to the list. :)

  • inwardfangirl

    This post is wonderful! Headed to Seoul for the first time real soon, and these tips are super practical!^^

  • Mian Bernardine Hipol

    Hi! I actually went to Korea before, but I was with my parents so I wasn’t really that conscious of how much we were spending. i would like to ask if you could give me an estimate of your expenses per day. It would be a big help. Thanks!

    • http://www.travelswithahobo.com/ travelswithahobo.com

      Hi Mian! It really depends on your activities and where you’re eating, but last time our pocket money for Korea (7 days) was 15k pesos (about 2,200 php a day), including our shopping expenses. We set a really low budget for our trips than the usual budget so maybe set 20-25k php (if 7 days just like us) for yours if you think you’ll be going to a lot of tours and shop a lot. So if it’s for daily expenses, about maybe 3000-4000php. This is just for pocket money ha. :)

  • Pingback: Like Locals in Korea: Our Cozy Rooftop Apartment in Seoul

  • Cherise Tan

    hey, what airline did you take?

    • http://www.travelswithahobo.com/ travelswithahobo.com

      Hi! For the first trip, it was Cebu Pacific. For the second trip, Air Asia.

      • Cherise Tan

        alright! thanks:)

  • Alyssa

    how much did it cost for the whole trip including the airfare,hotel and pocket money? :) thanks

    • http://www.travelswithahobo.com/ travelswithahobo.com

      We had a budget of 35,000 pesos all-in so that’s including the airfare, shopping, and pasalubong.

      • Jayleen Ong ツ™

        35,000 pesos ??It’s not that expensive than I expect.

  • Jennifer Park

    I love your post! thanks for the info : ) and I think Arex express is also so good. It’s takes just about 40mins from airport to seoul station and I got some discount cuz I took Asiana airline. If you take one of these airline; Asiana,KAL,Jeju airline, you will get discount on express train.

  • Hannah Vicentillo

    Hi! Do you have itinerary for your 7day trip to Seoul? Can I have a copy? We are booked to fly in this April and I would really appreciate all the help I can get in planning this trip. Thank you in advance!

  • Jan

    Hi I was wondering if money exchange counters are open over the weekend? I get in on a Sat morning and was hoping to do some shopping over the weekend. Thanks!

    • http://www.travelswithahobo.com/ travelswithahobo.com

      Yes they’re open. :)

  • earthmomma

    Planning a trip to Korea within a year…Can any give me the pros and cons of renting a cell phone vs getting an unlocked phone and then buying a sims card?

  • Jo C. Soriaga

    Hi, good evening. I read your blog about your korea trip. Your blog is very informative. My family and I are planning to go there. And we will be arriving the airport at around 9pm korea time. I just want to ask is it safe to travel at night? From the airport, should we ride a bus or subway? And can i get the contact details of the apartment you rented on your last visit. Thank you so much and whatever help you can share with us will be much appreciated. Thanks again, God bless.

    • http://www.travelswithahobo.com/ travelswithahobo.com

      Hi! Most hotels provide directions on how to get to their location. Please contact your hotel to ask which bus number to ride or how to get there by subway. But we prefer to ride the bus since we’re traveling with big bags. Yes, there are still buses by that time. Perfectly safe to travel. :) For the apartment, you can book it here https://www.wimdu.com/offers/10QT2E7Z

  • Angela DG

    Hi! I’ve been planning to go to Seoul this December 2015. I was wondering if you guys have already experience Winter in Seoul?

    • Hazelnut

      I am actually curious about that too. Going end of fall, beginning of winter.

      • http://www.travelswithahobo.com Gem Muzones

        Hello! Yes, I’ve been to Korea during winter. :)

    • http://www.travelswithahobo.com Gem Muzones

      Hello! So sorry for the delayed response. Yes, I’ve been to Korea during winter. :)

  • LILI

    Hello, I am so glad to read your blog about your Korea trip.My family and I are plannig to go there in this winter, Thank you for your good sharing and your sharing is very helpful for us.And I was wondering if you have any experience Winter in Seoul? and some recommended restaurants in seoul? :D

  • SGLDa

    Here is a small tip from a Korean. Don’t throw away your receipt in a coffee shop. if you didn’t receive the receipt, you might want to ask the staff for it. Most coffee shops usually offer free wi-fi service for those who have purchased a product in there.

  • SGLDa

    Here is some small tips from a Korean. Don’t throw away your receipt in a coffee shop. Most coffee shops usually offer free wi-fi service for those who have purchased a product in there, the password is normally given in your receipt (See pic). if you didn’t receive the receipt you might want to ask the staff for it.
    For staying, I think staying in a hotel/hostel/motel nearby subway line 4 instead of line 1 is better. the reason is the interval between the trains line 1 is longer than line 4. Moreover, you can easily get to the main places such as Myeongdong, Seoul station, Gyeongbok palace(Gwanghwamun), Insadong, and etc.
    Once you come to Gwangwhamun, you can move on to Myeongdong, Seoul station, Insadong, Bukchon on foot.

    • http://www.travelswithahobo.com Gem Muzones

      Awesome! Thanks for the tips!

  • Hazelnut

    probably best blog on the topic I read in the past weeks. A first-timer in about 1.5 months. Over-enthus and a bit scared at the same time, but your tips made me feel a lot more comfortable. Thank youuuu!

    • http://www.travelswithahobo.com Gem Muzones

      Thanks so much! Have fun in Korea! <3

  • vans

    hi.. just want to ask for advise if what month do you recommend to go on a trip to Korea? we wanted to experience the snow.. and since we are on a tight budget, can you give me a brief estimate of your total expense let’s say a 5-day stay in seoul? and how much is your daily budget for food?

  • http://blog.captivating-soul.com/ Camille Puche

    This is awesome! I’m going to my first trip to Seoul on March and I’m quite excited and nervous at the same time! I will definitely jot down notes for my trip! :) Thank you!