Korea Travel Guide: 11 Essential Tips for First Time Visitors

Korea may not immediately spring to mind when planning a trip to Asia. Yet its mix of culture, tradition and natural beauty make it an ideal travel destination. From hiking stunning mountains to sampling the delicious cuisine, there is something for everyone here.  I’ve put together some essential tips for first time visitors to Korea in a handy travel guide following my recent trip to the country.

Buy a T-money card

The T-Money card is a rechargeable smart card that allows you to use public transport in Korea. It can be loaded with value and used in different parts of the country. You can grab it in the convenience stores bearing the T-money or Cashbee logo or subway stations.

The fact that you can use the card on subway systems and bus routes around Korea does make a really good investment and saves you from fishing for change all the time. Especially as it’s not always clear how much a single fare is – good luck figuring that out if a bus driver doesn’t speak English!

It’s really easy to use and very convenient as it gives you discounts on travel. If you are flying into Incheon airport, you can grab a card at a convenience store just after arrivals.

Price: From 2500 won

For more info and to see where you can buy and use the card, visit this website.

T-money card, Korea Travel Guide
T-money card

Stay Connected

WiFi is pretty widespread in Korea with plenty of cafes and restaurants offering free internet for customers. You can even connect at subway stations and at various places around cities. The sheer amount of coffee shops in Korea also means that you are never too far away from Internet. However, connections can be patchy and require confusing sign up procedures.

I definitely recommend having internet in Korea – it comes in useful looking up directions or essential information. Subway systems in cities also have signal underground so it’s a great way to pass time during travel too!

There are a number of options for those that want to stay connected in Korea:

WiFi Router – You can rent a small pocket-sized router which will give you your own portable hotspot for a daily fee. Reserving the device online seems cheaper as otherwise you get charged an additional fee (that’s how I understood it anyway – do let me know if that’s not the case!). You may need to pay a deposit for a device that will need to be returned before you leave Korea. Also remember you will need to charge it regularly.

Phone rental – If you don’t want to use your phone abroad or it’s not unlocked, you can rent one! The phone will come ready to make calls, send texts and use the Internet. You will be charged at the end of your rental based on your usage.

Prepaid sim – My favourite option is the tourist sim offered by KT. You can choose between a normal sim which includes minutes, texts and data or a data only option. They come in 5, 10 and 30 day varieties and just slot into your own (unlocked) phone. Instructions are easy to follow and you can be online in minutes.

Use your existing plan/data for a daily fee – Some providers give their customers an option to use their plan abroad for a set daily fee. While I usually prefer this option, Korea wasn’t on the list of countries supported by my provider. Check with your network before travelling!

There are various companies offering these services but I found KT to have a wide range of services at competitive prices. Visit their website for more info – https://roaming.kt.com/rental/eng/main.asp.

Use the public transport network

Korea has a comprehensive public transport network with buses, trains, ferries and planes linking most parts of the country . It’s an easy and affordable way to get around – Korea is also pretty small so distances are not great! This means that you spend less time travelling around and more time seeing the country! So grab your T-money card and explore!

Train – fastest and easiest way to get around. KTX trains link major cities and it’s possible to get from Seoul in the North to Busan in the South in under 2.5 hours! Tickets are usually available at stations however if you are on a schedule, it may be an idea to book in advance. Use this site for bookings and checking train times. If you are going to be taking multiple trips, it’s possible to get a rail pass. Unlike the rail pass in Japan, however, this isn’t as essential a purchase as the train network isn’t as comprehensive and individual tickets as expensive.

Bus – I’ve spent quite a lot of time on buses in Korea. It’s a surprisingly comprehensive network with comfortable, air-conditioned buses that are punctual and regular. While bus stations tend to be located further out from city centres, they are usually quite easy to get to and tickets are CHEAP. Stations usually have plenty of shops to buy snacks for the journey and staff at ticket offices do a good job explaining your ticket to you even if their English is basic.

Ferry – ferries link mainland Korea with various islands including stunning Jeju Island. It’s even possible to catch a ferry to Fukuoka in Japan in just 3 hours. While I didn’t take one on my recent trip, ferries remain a cheap albeit generally slower way to reach some parts of the country.

Plane – internal flights in Korea are cheap and are a great way to get to places quickly. You can reach Jeju Island from Seoul in just 1 hour and from Busan in just 30 mins – this is one of the more popular routes. However, I wouldn’t recommend flying between mainland destinations – train and bus alternatives are very competitively priced and you would be reducing your carbon footprint. Having said that, it’s an easy way to get around. Popular airlines include Eastar Jet, Air Busan and T’Way.

Bus station, Korea Tracel Guide
Buses are a cheap and easy way to get around Korea

Learn some Korean

As anywhere you travel, knowing a few key words and phrases will go a long way in endearing yourself to the locals and making transactions and interactions easier.

In Korea, people seem genuinely pleased to hear foreigners speak their language so it’s an easy way to score a few brownie points.

“annyeong haseyo” – Hello. You can really use this greeting at any time of day and night. And it even works as a “goodbye”. Great word to remember! Annyong on its own is a more informal “hi”.

“annyeonghi kaseyo” – Goodbye (if the other person is leaving) and “annyeonghi kyeseyo” (if you are leaving). Or just say “annyeong” for an informal “bye”

“gamsahamnida” – Thank you.

“shilehamnida” – Excuse me

“juseyo”- I would like.  This literally translates as “give me please”. So you can say “hana maekju juseyo” which would translate as “give me one beer please”

If you wanted to go the extra mile, learning the Korean alphabet, hangul, is easier than people think! Created in the 15th century by King Sejong, it’s possible to learn the alphabet in less than an hour! Check out this site for a handy comic that tells you how!

Korean language - Korea Travel Guide
I should have practiced my hangul…

Enjoy coffee 24 hours a day

Coffee. Anywhere, anytime.  Koreans are obsessed with coffee and you are never too far away from grabbing a refreshing brew. Many places are open late and some stores are 24 hours! These can be busy around the clock with locals meeting friends, studying or working late into the night.  If you are a night owl like me, this is a dream come true. If there isn’t a 24 hour option nearby, you can always…

Korean Starbucks, Korea Travel Guide
Selfie in front of a Korean Starbucks

Shop at convenience stores

Most convenience stores in Korea are 24 hours and they are everywhere. 7/11, GS25, CU, Ministop are just some of the options you have. Even in smaller towns around the country, you are never too far away from a reassuring and welcoming glow of a convenience store. You can grab snacks, drinks and even prepare a hot meal. Grab one of the many instant options from the shelf and then use a microwave or hot water machines on site – voila, dinner is served. Many branches even have seating so you can eat without leaving the store!

Convenience store, Korea Travel Guide
Coffee drinks on sale at a convenience store

Take your rubbish with you

Rubbish bins (trash cans) are scarce. Like, seriously, there aren’t many around. Just like in Japan, finding a bin is like stumbling upon a goldmine. Even in cities, you will often walk around for ages without finding one. I once carried 4 empty water bottles around with me because I couldn’t find any bins even in a built up area. Yet, just like in Japan, the streets are really clean. Regardless, make sure you take all your rubbish with you – don’t litter and just do a little celebratory dance when you do find a bin!

Experience a national pastime

Korea is great for outdoor pursuits – hiking is almost like a national sport here and trying it out will get you among the locals and demonstrate their hospitality. You will get friendly hellos on the trails and don’t be surprised when people offer you snacks to share! If it sounds like too much effort, there is a national park practically in Seoul with trails of varying difficulty. Many other cities also have easily accessible hikes and trails. So you’ve got no excuse not to give it a go!

Hiking, Korea Travel Guide
Hikers at a mountain summit

Sample delicious Korean food

Trying all the amazing food while travelling is a huge part of the experience. Korea doesn’t disappoint in this regard. The food is amazing – it’s varied, delicious and there are loads of things to suit all tastes and budgets. From street food to BBQ restaurants to fried chicken and beer joints, there is just so much to try here.  Different regions are also known for their specialities – Sokcho is famous for its seafood, Jeonju for its bibimbap while trying Duechi Guksu pork soup in Busan is a must. It’s generally pretty affordable too which is a bonus as you’ll want to try it all!

Even if there are no English menus, you should generally be able to work out what you are having through pictures or asking the owners. You may have to point at times and not always know exactly what you are eating but you won’t be disappointed.

Tip: The tourist information desk at Incheon Airport has a really handy picture dictionary/phrase book which allows you to point at stuff when interacting with the locals. I recommend grabbing one as it will definitely help when ordering food or pointing out any allergies!

Korean food, Korea Travel Guide
A Korean set meal

Respect your elders

You gotta love the Korean ajummas and ahjussis (older women and men respectively). They are stronger than you think, will push you out of the way, jump ahead in the line you are in and beat you to the top of the mountain. All while blinding you with their colourful clothing. Just let it slide and let them do those things. Because they will anyway.

Sharing is caring

Korean culture is a sharing one. Hike up a mountain and there is every chance the locals will share their food with you, give you a snack or a warm drink. It’s always a good idea to bring stuff with you to share back. The same goes for eating out and drinking. People generally order stuff to share rather than individual meals. Embrace it and enjoy the social nature of the culture.

Splitting bills is not generally a thing in Korea and locals will often go out of their way to cover the cost of a meal! It is seen as polite and there are even arguments between multiple people who want to pay!

Korean BBQ, Korea Travel Guide
A traditional Korean BBQ restaurant

Pin it for later:

Korea may not immediately spring to mind when planning a trip to Asia. Yet its mix of culture, tradition and natural beauty make it an ideal travel destination. From hiking stunning mountains to sampling the delicious cuisine, there is something for everyone here.  I've put together some essential tips for first time visitors to Korea in a handy travel guide following my recent trip to the country.

 

 

 

16 thoughts on “Korea Travel Guide: 11 Essential Tips for First Time Visitors

  1. Angie (FeetDoTravel) says:

    I have a friend who taught English in Korea and she absolutely loves this Country, and, because of her (and now your blog post), it is somewhere I would definitely consider visiting! This is a fantastic guide, so helpful, especially as I know nothing about this Country so wouldn’t know how to get around, what to do about wi-fi etc so this is perfect – pinned for later! Interesting about the bins so I hope people do take their rubbish away with them to keep Korea clean 😀 #feetdotravel

  2. Stephanie (1AdventureTraveler) says:

    Wow, you just took me back to S.Korea where I lived for a few years. I can smell the food from here which I miss. lol. You covered some great tips and my favorite is to take a hike because it is amazing! On your hike make sure to get your photo next to the monument when you reach the peak! Thanks for sharing 🙂 #feetdotravel
    Stephanie (1AdventureTraveler) recently posted…Cheeseburger in Paradise On The Island of Cabbage KeyMy Profile

  3. Paul and Carole says:

    We knew very little about travelling to Korea but now do. This is a really useful post covering the important basics, getting around, wifi and coffee! Thanks for sharing. #feetdotravel

  4. Scarlett Begonias says:

    24- hour coffee sounds awesome, but I wonder what the 24-hour tea scene is like! We only drink tea, did you notice tea at all of those little cafes? Korea seems amazing, I just love Korean BBQ! Awesome post 🙂

  5. Siddharth and Shruti says:

    Great tips! They are stronger than you think, will push you out of the way, jump ahead in the line you are in and beat you to the top of the mountain. Hahaha! Did not expect this! Strange that there aren’t enough rubbish bins. Loved this post. Hope to visit Korea some day! Gamsahamnida!

  6. Sandy N Vyjay says:

    Practical and sensible tips to make the most out of ones’ Korea visit. I particularly fancy the one about using local transport. We try to do this at least partially in most places we travel to as this gets us close to the locals and their way of life.

    • Travel Lexx says:

      I agree and it’s pretty easy to get around even if you don’t speak the language! As you say, it’s a great way to have a local experience!

  7. Joan Torres says:

    Both Korea and Japan have always been on the top my bucket list but especially Korea, as for me, it’s a very unknown country and that is what attracts me the most about it. I had no idea that Koreans liked coffee. I thought it was a ”tea” country, so all its neighboring countries are. Do you know what the reason behind this? Anyways, thanks for sharing such a detailed post. Will take into account a few of your tips before panning my trip to Kore. Cheers
    Joan Torres recently posted…55 Things to know before going on a trip to PakistanMy Profile

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Coffee is a massive part of the culture in Korea and as it’s also a very social one, coffee shops and restaurants become a natural place for people to come together. I have never seen so many coffee shops in one place!

  8. Hank says:

    Thanks for sharing your insight! Right now I’m trying to speed learn as much Korean as I can before summer. Should’ve started earlier.

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