Honestly, I did not do much preparing research wise before traveling to Seoul. While I knew the customs and was familiar with the culture and language, there were some aspects I wish I knew before traveling there. So, to help anyone that may need it, I compiled a list of eight travel tips to know and be aware of before going to Seoul.
1. Must-Need Travel and Food Apps
Don’t even try to use Google Maps in South Korea…it won’t get you far. After Day 1, we were convinced we would never make it anywhere or figure out the subway system. Then I did a little research and found we needed a different app. For some reason, Google Maps doesn’t work in South Korea. Locations of places are almost always wrong, it will never give you subway and walking directions, and even the bus routes it suggest aren’t the best.
I highly recommend the app called “NAVER Maps”. This one app saved us. You can choose if you want to take just the subway or bus, a combo of the two, or just walk. It also suggests popular restaurants, cafes, sights, etc. around any area you choose. I found it to be perfectly usable for English speakers and it includes any transportation costs you may encounter.
As for food and restaurant recommendations, South Korea has their own version of Yelp called “MangoPlate”. It has lists such as “Top 50 Restaurants in Itaewon”, “The 100 Best Cafes in South Korea”, and “Top 15 Budae Jjigae Restaurants”. Like Yelp, it includes pictures of the food and menu of restaurants, cafes, bakeries, etc. The only thing is you probably won’t find hole in the wall, small alley way restaurants. But if you’re looking for what’s really popular (especially with young adults), cute cafes to hang out in, or some Instagram worty places, “MangoPlate” is key!
One other app I would download, especially if you’re planning on using the subway, is “Korea Subway”. This app includes a full subway map with all lines and stations, a destination search engine, and multiple language versions (English, Japanese, and Chinese in addition to Korean).
2. Don’t Worry If You Forget Toiletries or Skin Care
You could not pack a single toiletry item…shampoo, razor, face wash, moisturizer, nail clippers…and you will never have to go far to buy them in Seoul. And better yet, they’re cheaper than buying them in America. I bought a disposable razor for $0.80 and toothpaste for maybe $0.90. There is a convenience store on almost every block, subway station, hotel, and apartment building, and they’re typically open 24 hours. They will have anything you could possibly need (even Soju! but that’s a totally different point).
As for skin care, you couldn’t find a better place to land yourself. Myeongdong probably has the most skin care stores where you can buy literally any Korean brand and product you could want. And if you’re not in Myeongdong, possibility is that there is at least one skin care store near wherever you are. You can rest assure that it’ll be a quality product as well-being made and formulated in Korea.
3. No Need To Tip
It isn’t customary to tip at all in Korea. Not for taxi services, restaurant service, cafes, or any of the sort. I could be wrong, but I don’t think there is any service where it’s typical/normal to tip. No one there expects to be tipped either, so if you give them additional money, they will most likely try to give back what you overpaid.
4. Transportation is Cheap and Easy
Besides the food, the public transportation is what I miss the most about Korea. I think I’d move there just for the convenience and low-cost of getting around without ever having to drive. Of course, you have taxis, but the majority of people take the bus and/or subway and walk. Personally, I love walking, so we would take the subway to the general area we wanted to be in and walk from there. I was in shock at how cheap a subway ticket is! Basically, there are two ways to ride the subway:
- Get a re-loadable transportation card: You can go to any convenience store (CU, 7-Eleven, Ministop, etc.) and purchase a Tmoney card for ₩2,500 ($2.31). With this card your transportation fee per ride, will be ₩1,250 ($1.15). The only exception to this is if you travel quite a ways on the subway. This happened to us once when we took about 45 minute subway ride and it came out to be ₩1,450 ($1.34). So, still extremely cheap for long distance rides.
- Buy a single journey ticket each ride you take: This may be a better choice for those who are only staying for about a week or less. So, each time you want to take a subway you use a kiosk to select your destination station. Your ride will cost ₩1,350 ($1.25) plus a deposit fee of ₩500 ($0.46). However, this deposit fee is refunded to you once you reach your destination. You will simply go to the refund machine, insert the single journey ticket, and it will dispense the ₩500 to you. The most I ever spent on one ride was ₩1,550 ($1.43). So really, you save about $0.10 per ride if you get the Tmoney card.
The other thing I was worried about upon arrival and departing was getting from the airport to the Airbnb. Like the airport in Tokyo, the International airport is located about an hour from Seoul. In Tokyo, I had to take a train and subway with 3 stop changes by myself (you can imagine I was slightly panicking) for around $30. However, in Seoul it was much easier and cheaper. There was an airport shuttle bus that picked you up at the terminal (which bus you get on depends on your destination), and stops and multiple bus stops throughout the city. To return to the airport, you simply go back to the bus station you were originally dropped off at and wait for the airport bus. Their schedule is posted on their website but most run every 15-30 minutes. And, it was only ₩15,000 ($13.85)! So easy and efficient.
5. Be Prepared to Carry Your Trash With You
I should’ve expected this after going to Tokyo last year, but it completely slipped my mind until I ended up carrying my coffee cup for far too long. Walking along the streets of any area, you won’t see trash cans at all. I don’t remember seeing a single one. The only place that you might come across one is at a subway station that has a coffee shops or restaurants in them. Even at the street market in Myeongdong where there are food vendors down multiple streets, there aren’t any trash bins. You have to finish your food and then ask the person at the location you bought the food to throw it away in their personal trash bag. So, prepare to carry it along with you or throw it away before exiting a subway station.
6. Don’t Expect to Have Personal Space
This one was the most difficult for me to accept even though I was well aware of this fact before ever going to Korea. My friend even warned me as soon as we got off the plane, and I still just couldn’t get accustomed to it. There isn’t such a thing as “Excuse me” in Korea, so when you’re in a crowd (which is quite often), you will get pushed and shoved out of people’s way. However, this isn’t considered rude there and that’s by no mean what they’re trying to convey. This is the norm in Korea. If you want off the subway, you push people until you get out the door. Walking down the street in a crowd with someone coming the opposite direction? Yup, you’ll be pushed aside like it’s nothing.
As someone who grew up being taught saying “Excuse me” for everything, and you never dare push or shove someone, this was so hard for me to get over. And honestly, the worse people when it came to this were the elderly. I was utterly shocked by how abrasive they were. My friend thought it was hilarious and constantly chanted “Be Aggressive” whenever we were in a crowd. Honestly, that’s what you gotta do. Just remember that it isn’t rude in Korea, and just push your way to wherever you need to be.
7. A Safe Place for Solo Travelers
There were a couple of days I traveled by myself around the city, and never once did I feel unsafe even at night. I can’t even say the same for any place I’ve lived in the US. The only place I heard about that may be a little “sketch” during late night hours (think after midnight) is Itaewon, which is known as the place most foreigners live and frequent. While it is still considered extremely safe, especially considering what we’re used to here in the US, I’d vote going to a different area such as Hongdae if you’re wanting a late night out.
It’s odd feeling as safe as I did when I’m not even close to being fluent in the language or too familiar with the places I was in. But, that goes to prove just how safe and considerate the people and city are. I wouldn’t hesitate at all to return by myself to travel. Just be smart and look at your surroundings.
8. Know the Basics of Korean/Hangul
Hangul is actually a pretty easy alphabet to learn, much to the surprise of many. There are only 24 characters and you can learn them easily in a day, if not a few hours. While most major signs have English translations, knowing Hangul (at least the pronunciation) will be extremely helpful. Many restaurants don’t have English signs or translations, and some products/food at convenience stores don’t have English on the packaging.
Personally, I believe you should, at the very least, know “Hello”, “Thank you”, and “I’m Sorry” in the language of whatever country you’re traveling to. In Korea, you’re going to encounter more people who can’t speak English than can. Some of the younger generation (think teens and 20s) know some English, but for the most part, people’s English is very broken and difficult to understand. So knowing some other phrases like “How much is this?”, “Can I have ___ please?” (for ordering at restaurants), and “Where is the bathroom?” could really be beneficial to learn before traveling to Korea. Also, the people are much more excited and willing to help if you at least try to speak the language, no matter how bad you may be.