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South Korea is a place you’ll benefit from
Saying this, I went in fairly blind and didn’t do much research before I arrived. Nothing went majorly wrong but there were a few things that floored me, such as why Google Maps wasn’t working and why no one would sell me
Accommodation: Booking.com / Hostelworld
Activities: Viator / GetYourGuide
Getting there: air (Skyscanner)
Getting around: Train (Trip.com) / bus
Pre-book private airport to hotel transfer
Travel insurance: True Traveller (European travellers) / Hey Mundo (other nationalities) / Safety Wing (digital nomads)
South Korea tips
After spending three weeks in South Korea, I feel confident to share my Korea tips and advice. I can’t promise I know absolutely everything about the culture and history (although I did my best) but I’m certainly clued up when it comes to Korea travel tips.
The following 30 tips for visiting South Korea are designed to share practical advice and cultural know-how, making your trip easier and more meaningful.
Here are some things to know before going to South Korea:
Psst – looking for Seoul travel tips? Check out my Seoul itinerary and guide!
1. Data is expensive
My first Korea travel tip relates to the internet. I assumed I’d buy a local SIM like I do everywhere but this turned out to be more complicated than I’d
2. But Wi-Fi is everywhere
When visiting South Korea, ask yourself if you actually need a SIM card. I’ve never been anywhere with quite so many Wi-Fi hotspots. Every subway station has Wi-Fi access as well as many trains and local buses.
Whenever I was out sightseeing, I’d nip into a station to download directions to my next location even if I wasn’t catching a train. I got by fine without data so you might want to disregard my South Korea travel tip #1 and use Wi-Fi instead.
3. Rent your SIM/hotspot at the airport
If you do decide you’d rather get a SIM card than rely on Wi-Fi, a good option is to pre-order one and collect it at the airport.
I started my SIM card hunt by asking my hostel owner where to get one. She answered ‘the airport’ which wasn’t ideal since I’d just spent an hour coming from there.
Yep, it’s hard to find tourist SIM cards anywhere but the airport so this is definitely a helpful thing to know before visiting South Korea. Book your 4g SIM to collect at Seoul airport.
The other option is renting a portable Wi-Fi device. This often works out a bit cheaper than a SIM card and they also can be collected at the airport. Reserve your pocket Wi-fi device here.
4. Tipping isn’t necessary
Worried about the cost of
Giving a tip might suggest you think a waiter is below you hierarchically which is obviously to be avoided. Save those pennies for dessert!
5. Google Maps doesn’t really work
I’d never been somewhere without Google Maps so I was very surprised when I arrived in South Korea. It’s not that Maps doesn’t work at all but it’s not regularly updated and the maps won’t load to a close level. Public transport directions work but walking and driving ones do not.
South Korea prefers to rely on its own system rather than global companies which
6. South Korea gets COLD
A tip for visiting South Korea in the winter is to prepare for
As a lover of the sun (and a backpacker with too many sarongs and summer dresses), I waited for spring to visit. But if you have a woolly wardrobe ready to be packed, winter might be a beautiful time to visit South Korea.
Of all the things to know before going to Korea, the weather may be the most impactful. Here’s a rundown of the seasons.
- Spring (March to May) – the best time for cool temperatures and seeing cherry blossoms
- Summer (June to August) – hot and humid in the cities but generally manageable
- Autumn (September to November) – this season is short with cool temperatures of 10-20 degrees. Note this is typhoon season.
- Winter (December to March) – temperatures go down to -3 degrees.
7. It’s amazing for hiking
One thing that South Korea isn’t overly famous for is hiking. I hope this changes because this green and glorious island is the perfect place for long and short hikes for all abilities. I took some excellent day trips from Busan that nature lovers will enjoy.
Most are super easy to reach from the city thanks to efficient public transport.
Worthwhile hikes include:
- Bukhansan National Park from Seoul
- Seoraksan National Park (2.5 hours from Seoul, stay over in Sokcho city)
- Apsan Park and observation deck from Daegu
- Palgongsan Mountain from Daegu
- Igidae Coastal Walk from Busan
- Taejongdae Resort island hike from Busan.
8. The Korean alphabet is easy
Apparently! I can’t say I
If you’re good with languages, this could be a worthwhile tip for visiting South Korea.
9. Get a
My top South Korea tip for getting from a to b? Purchase a travel card.
Tmoney cards only cost 500 won when you consider that you get back 3,500 of the 4,000 deposit you pay. They make travelling South Korea so much easier because you don’t need to queue for ticket machines and you can quickly tap onto any bus or subway train.
You can buy them at subway stations and convenience stores.
10. The subway is efficient but don’t overlook the buses
Jumping on buses in foreign countries can be nerve-wracking but don’t worry
Personally, I much prefer to get my bearings and watch the world go by from the window of a bus than sit underground so I always take the bus when I can.
In smaller cities like Daegu, Gyeongju
11. Use Trip.com to book trains
You can book trains on Trip.com, the official partner of Korail (the railway network of Korea). This is the only train website that will take foreign payment card.
12. For buses, just show up
Unfortunately, for buses, you can’t use Trip.com and other booking websites only take Korean payment cards. Don’t worry because buses rarely book up so you can just turn up on the day. This is what I did and never had any problems.
As a general rule, before moving to a new place I checked out bus and train prices then took whichever was cheapest or quickest, depending on how much time I had.
13. You can only visit the DMZ with a tour
Visiting the DMZ is a fascinating addition to your South Korea trip. However, the only way to visit is with an official guide and organised tour group. Check out my tips for taking a DMZ tour from Seoul.
The second thing to know about visiting the DMZ is that tours can book up during busy months. Book a couple of days in advance if possible.
An additional South Korea tip: bring your passport to the DMZ with you otherwise you’ll be refused entry to the area. Imagine coming all that way and not being allowed in!
14. There are lots of affordable tours
Despite the fact that general costs are higher in South Korea than
15. Bank cards are widely accepted
Before arriving in South Korea I’d been in Southeast Asia, somewhere you can rarely pay on card. While I’d recommend having some cash on you in South Korea, most restaurants and shops do allow card transactions. However if you’re having street food for dinner, it’s cash payment or going hungry.
16. The currency is the South Korean won
The South Korean currency might make you feel wealthy but soz, it’s an illusion! The rate at the time of writing (Jan ‘22) is 1,600 to the pound or 1,200 to the dollar. You’ll be dropping at least 5,000 for dinner and 20,000 for hostel beds.
17. Prices are fairly high
I’d put South Korea between Southeast Asia and the West in terms of costs. You’ll certainly find it expensive if you’re used to Vietnam or Thailand but it won’t seem so bad if you’re arriving from the UK or US.
Read next: Korea on a budget
Hostel dorms cost around 20,000 won (£15 / $18) per night; street food meals cost between 2-5,000 won; cheap restaurant meals cost between 5,000-10,000 won; and train journeys are between 5-000-25,000 won. If you’re looking for South Korea tips for travelling on a budget, you need to get familiar with market food and dorms!
Read next: guide to Seoul street food
18. The beauty culture is something else
Get ready to be bombarded with beauty products left right and
Areas of Seoul like Myeondong are packed with beauty stores selling everything you never knew you needed. They’re a
19. Get ready to feel scruffy!
On that note, I’ve never felt scruffier than in South Korea. My backpack wardrobe was passable in other Asian countries but felt oh-so-crumpled and faded compared to what the locals wore. Particularly in Seoul!
If you’re looking for Seoul travel tips, I would suggest you pack a few smart outfits if you want to visit nice restaurants and bars. They aren’t mandatory but might make you blend in better!
20. Go hard or go home
I was surprised to learn that South Koreans are big social drinkers and love to party. Previously I’d been in Taiwan where the drinking culture was virtually nonexistent so I’d expected more of the same.
How wrong I was! In Seoul’s Hongdae, local partygoers stay out until 6am. You’ll also see businessmen pretty tipsy after post-work drinks. It was a side I’d not seen before in Asia and liked – after all, how often do you get to party with the locals?
21. Soju is life
If you’re headed to South Korea and don’t yet know Soju, you’ll want to remember this Korea travel tip. Soju is a fermented spirit and the national drink of South Korea. Apparently, it’s considered offensive to refuse a shot. And we wouldn’t want to cause
If you’re backpacking Korea on a budget, there’s a second reason to know about soju. It’s very cheap. Drinking soju at home is a fraction of
22. There’s nowhere as crazy as Seoul
Seoul is different from anywhere in the country. It reminded me of London in that way.
If you try and compare anywhere else in South Korea to Seoul, you’ll end up surprised or even disappointed. While I’d recommend around 3 days in Busan, I’d suggest at least 5 days in Seoul. Nowhere rivals Seoul in size, quirkiness or diversity of the things to do.
For a real taste of what makes Seoul special, visit Hongdae in the evenings. You’ll find live music, street food, bizarre cafes where you can pet sheep and racoons, street art, and locals dining out and drinking coffee
23. Buddy up for dinner
Something I didn’t anticipate in South Korea was not being to dine solo.
Sure, sometimes newbie solo travellers might feel uncomfortable dining solo anywhere but that’s usually down to fear of being judged rather than actual restaurant restrictions. For Korean barbecues and dak galbi meals (a chicken and cheese hotplate dish), there’s often a minimum of 2 diners required. Super annoying right?
My best South Korea travel tip is to always ask. I found a barbecue restaurant that
24. Veggies & vegans may struggle
South Korean food is meat-heavy, from barbecues to Korean fried chicken and street food. Even bibimbap usually contains beef although you can usually ask for it without.
Use HappyCow to seek out veggie and vegan cafes and restaurants. You can also check out this Seoul vegan guide.
25. Fresh veggies are hard to find
This follows on from the last point. I’m not vegetarian but that doesn’t mean I want to eat fried meat three times a day and never see a vegetable!
Of all the places I’ve been (apart from maybe
Supermarkets aren’t prevalent so unless you know where the local markets are and manage to haggle in Korean (or with a bit of pointing and gesturing) it can be tricky.
My best Korea travel tip for staying healthy is to have a Korean barbeque meal and go easy on the meat and heavy on the salad bar. Otherwise, get your miming skills on and pick up some sweet potatoes and peppers at a local market.
26. South Korea is safe for solo females
Super safe! South Korea has a low crime rate and you’ll feel perfectly safe during your trip. The locals can be shy when talking to foreigners but they’ll certainly help you out if they can. Whenever I asked for directions, they went out of their way to help even if they clearly had no idea!
Check out my solo female travel archives for travel tips around the world.
Finally, some tips around etiquette and society…
27. South Korea only became wealthy recently
South Korea today is thriving, especially in the cities. Locals have money for leisure and socialising which means there are great cafes, restaurants and theme parks. However this hasn’t always been the case.
The Korean War lasted until 1953, destroying the economy and ripping the country in two quite literally. For many years, people struggled and the average family had very little to live on.
Nowadays things have drastically improved. Young people may not remember the dark days but the older generation do. Many traditional professions are dying because young people prefer to work in offices or within the tourist industry. I can’t say I blame them but it’s a sad situation to consider.
28. South Koreans are very romantic
When you arrive in South Korea, you might notice the couples behaving very… coupley. Although not quite how they would in the West. Rather than openly kissing, young couples in South Korea like to play fight in a cutesy way. They’ll tickle each other’s arms, pinch ears, lovingly caress elbows. Well, each to their own right?
Apparently, showing public affection wasn’t considered acceptable until a couple of decades ago. In fact, it was frowned upon to even hold hands. Nowadays, young people are enjoying their newfound freedom – elbows and all!
The other thing to know? There’s a huge pressure to couple up. Single shaming is way worse than the West and I’m sure some of us can vouch for how bad it is there!
29. Respect the elders
Most Asian societies have strong respect for their elders but Korea has a whole language to honour theirs!
The Korean language takes into consideration the relationship between the speaker and their subject. So if you’re addressing someone of hierarchal superiority (like a boss, customer or teacher) or an elder, you’ll use different nouns and word endings.
You’ll only use informal versions if someone is younger than you or an employee/student. And getting it wrong is considered very rude. Eek. It’s unlikely to affect you as a tourist but you should always try to be extra polite and respectful to older Koreans.
30. South Korean society is stressful for young people
This point is more of a cultural one than a tip for visiting South Korea. However I think it’s an interesting point to consider while travelling around.
South Korea is a wealthy nation with good education and career opportunities for young people. Perhaps because of recent improvement in these areas, the older generation are keen to ensure their children and grandchildren do as well as possible and therefore sometimes put tremendous pressure on them, in terms of getting good grades and then high-flying jobs.
Despite being modernised, South Korea is still a conservative country. Gay rights are poor and sex before marriage is still frowned upon. People are expected to get married young and feel they are ‘left on the shelf’ otherwise. Combine that with unrealistic beauty standards (remember all those products I mentioned) and I’m sure you can imagine the stress on young South Koreans.
With all the above considered, it’s little wonder mental illness and suicide rates are at an all-time high for South Koreans. With a long life expectancy and ageing population, the problem even extends to older people who don’t want to be a burden on their families.
You’ll unlikely see any evidence of this travelling around but it’s something to think about, plus we should all practise kindness wherever we go!
Thanks for reading my South Korea travel tips!
Check out my other South Korea blogs:
- South Korea 2 week itinerary
- The perfect 5 days in Seoul
- Korea travel budget guide
- A guide to visiting Jeju Island without a car
- Best things to do in Busan + 3 day itinerary
- Tips for visiting the DMZ from Seoul
- Jeonju travel guide & 1 day itinerary
- The ultimate South Korea bucket list
- 20 best South Korean foods to try
- The best day trips from Busan
See you next time for more adventures,
Ps. Liked these Korea travel tips? Pin this for later!
VISITING SOUTH KOREA?
These are my trusted resources:
Getting around by air – I use Skyscanner to find the best-value flights, using the ‘search by month’ tool to find the cheapest dates. You can also use the ‘to anywhere’ feature if you’re flexible on where you’re going.
Buses – buses are comfy and efficient. It’s tricky for foreigners to book online so it’s best to turn up on the day.
Trains – use Trip.com, partner of Korail (the official railway network of Korea) to book your tickets in advance. The website accepts international payment options, unlike Korean rail websites. Click the three stripes in the top right corner then the flag to change it to English.
Driving in Korea – use Rentalcars.com to compare car rentals. Hiring a car will be especially useful on Jeju Island.
For hotels in Korea, I use Booking.com – they also have self-catering apartments. You can filter by review score and price to find the best-rated budget places. For hostels, I use Hostelworld.
To save money on accommodation, I use Trusted Housesitters, a website that connects homeowners going away and travellers who can sit their homes & pets.
Browse South Korea tours and activities on GetYourGuide. I also check Viator and Klook in case they have a better price.
For food tours with passionate local chefs and foodies, check out EatWith.
Need travel insurance? I use True Traveller (for UK & Europe residents) since it’s affordable but covers everything you’d need including various activities, valuables and pre-existing conditions. Unlike some companies, they insure you if you’re already travelling / don’t yet have your flight home booked. Get a quote.
For travel insurance for other nationalities, I recommend Hey Mundo and for long-term digital nomad travellers, I suggest Safety Wing.
Check out my resources page for more travel discounts and tips!