South Korea Seoul: Tips and Experiences
Before our trip to South Korea, the land of K-Pop and K-Drama, we have been reading a lot of blog posts and articles about the place — airport transfer, commuting in Seoul, nice food places etc. Although the information we have gathered helped smoothed our journeys in the country, it had not prepared us adequately for situations that we encountered during our trip.
Therefore, we decided to pen down our experiences in Seoul and the tips that we would like to offer to first-time travelers to The Land of the Morning Calm. Hopefully with this ‘cheat sheet’, we can help lessen your inconvenience during your trip there so that you will be able to spend more time exploring the place, dining and shopping:
1. AIRPORT TRANSFER
Our flight from Singapore touched down at Incheon International Airport and we had several transportation options to take ourselves to our accommodation in central Seoul — Taxi/Private Car, AREX (Airport Railway Express) and Airport Bus.
Taxi fares are fixed from the airport (prices can be found here), depending on the area of your destination and the size of the taxi. Prices are between 55,000 Won and 110,000 Won.
This is the most expensive but also the most convenient transportation option, especially useful for families with young children and elderly with significant luggage. The taxi will bring you right to your accommodation’s doorstep so there will be minimal walking.
For our case, we contacted our accommodation’s owner to arrange for airport transfer by a private 6-seater car, which cost the same as a Jumbo Taxi at 80,000 Won. This helped saved us time as the driver was waiting for us at the Arrival Hall and drove us straight to our destination.
The Airport Bus is an economical way to get to your destination from the airport too. There are quite a number of bus numbers and routes so it may get overwhelming to search for the correct bus(es) to take. However, it will be convenient if your accommodation is in close proximity with one of the bus stops.
For us, after we arrived in Seoul from our Jeju Flight, we took an Airport Bus from Gimpo International Airport to Incheon International Airport which cost us only 5,000 Won each. We exited Gate 5 and headed to the berth where the bus stops were located. We then approached the Airport Bus staff who were there to help and boarded the next arriving bus while they helped us load our luggage onto the bus’ luggage compartment. The journey took us 30 minutes.
There are two types of AREX trains — All Stops and Non-Stop trains. The former arrives more frequently but requires a longer travel time since it stops at all the stations. The latter is more expensive, is less frequent but provides more comfort and lesser travel time. We did not take this option in the end as we had too many luggages.
You may find more information here.
T-money (also called Transport Money) is a form of transportation card or device that can be used on public buses and subways in Seoul (and several different metropolitan cities) in South Korea. If you are from Singapore, this is similar to our EZ-Link cards.
With this, travelers can save the hassle of purchasing single journey subway tickets for every ride and enjoy discounts on rides during transfers from one bus to another, one subway line to another, or from bus to subway or vice versa (within a transfer time limit). Taxis also accept payment via T-money.
In a nutshell, this is a must-get when you are travelling around in Seoul (unless you are driving or intending to walk throughout). There are also alternative cards for tourists such as the MPASS Card and Korea Tour Card but after calculations, we did not find them suited to our needs so we just stick to the T-money.
How to Buy T-Money?
Upon arrival at the Incheon International Airport, you may head to the CU convenience stores at either Gate 5 or 10 of the Arrival Hall and purchase your T-money cards at the cashier counters there. Note that there are discounted cards for children and teenagers, so indicate if you wish to have a children or adult card.
First, they will collect 2,500 Won for each card to purchase the T-money card without any value. Next, they will ask for the reload value that you wish to top up. I would recommend either doing an estimate of the amount you are expecting to use for your entire trip or just top up a moderate amount first (you can always top up again during your trip). The reason is that at the end of your trip, if you have more than 20,000 Won remaining in the card, it will be more difficult for you to get the refund as you will need to do it at the T-money Headquarters.
With that, you are now armed with the only transportation card you will need in Seoul!
How to Refund T-Money?
Before departing Seoul, just visit these CU stores again to get a refund for the remaining value in your card. Note that there is a 500 Won charge for the refund. Also note that you will continue to keep your T-money card (it’s a nice souvenir) so you should go ahead and perform the refund before you head home.
More details about the pricing and sale locations can be found here.
3. MOBILE INTERNET CONNECTION
There are several options on how to get mobile internet connection in South Korea, such as getting a Wifi Egg, a Korean SIM card or enabling a roaming plan with your local provider.
We chose the last option, a Data Roaming Plan with our local service provider, as the first two options were either too expensive or do not suit our needs.
Basically, we only need data plans for three handsets so that we will be able to communicate with one another when we get separated. We do not need any call time since we will call each other using Whatsapp, which uses data for the calls.
The allowed mobile data was sufficient for our usage since our accommodation provides free Wifi, and so do many places in Korea.
4. TAKING KOREAN AIR
We took Korean Air for our two-way flight between Singapore and Seoul and were pleased with their services.
Concerned with Ling’s (less than 2 years old) safely, we opted for an extra seat for her and requested for a car seat to be mounted on her seat. This was set up as promised and the seat was handy after she had fallen asleep so that she could rest comfortably and safely instead of having her resting on our lap/seat.
Special meals could be pre-booked, such as the Infant Baby Food we ordered for Ling, Children Meal for Dar and Gluten-Free Meal for Cat.
We faced no issue when checking in for our flight at Changi Airport but when heading back from Incheon International Airport, we faced a long winding queue when trying to check in for our flight. Fortunately we arrived at the airport early, else we might be missing our boarding time due to the long queue. This is probably due to Korean Air being the local’s favourite so there are many local passengers waiting to check in for their flights to different destinations.
There are self check-in kiosks available too, so perhaps next time we could choose those instead of the manual check-in. That could help cut down the queuing time too. Although there was a special family queue for the manual check-in, we were not eligible due to the age restrictions.
On the plus side, after our check-in, the staff offered us a fast-track processing at the departure gate due to the children and elderly with us. We were thus able to process through the departure gate quicker.
5. TAKING THE SUBWAY
Seoul’s subway map is like a spider web and to avoid getting confused and lost, it is worth taking some time studying the basics of navigating through the different subway lines.
First of all, get a smartphone app which will help you get a better feel of how to navigate between the lines. I used the Subway Korea app by Malang Studio Co. Ltd (Apple Store | Google Play) which has proved to be very useful in determining the best route to take after I input my departing and arriving stations. You may also use the Google Maps app but it’s not always reliable in providing the best routes to take.
Confusing Network of Subway Lines
When you are the station, use the signs to locate the Subway Line and Direction which you will be travelling on. Subway lines in Korea are categorized by its Colour and Number. For example, Subway Line 5 is Purple in colour. Do note that some colours can be identical (e.g. light and dark blue lines) so it is still best to confirm by the Number of the line.
The Direction in which the subway train is travelling on can be confusing, as the signs often just indicate one or two of the stations which the train will pass through. Therefore, always keep your Subway Korea app handy to ensure you are waiting for the train at the same platform. Also take note that for some stations/lines, the ticket gantry that you need to pass through may be different depending on the direction you are heading to.
Once at the platform, you can further confirm the direction by checking that the previous and the next stations shown above the platform doors are correct.
Stay Alert on the Train
After boarding the train, you need to stay alert so that you would not miss the station that you are alighting at. Each line has their own way of announcing/displaying the next station so do not expect that prominent displays and English announcements will be made every time you board the train. It’s bewildering to us when we noticed more often than not, the digital display screens on the trains did not show the next station’s name and instead were dedicated for advertising or just simply switched off.
For transfers, ensure you have allocated sufficient time for this in your itinerary as transferring from a platform from one line to another line often requires significant walking. It’s seldom just the matter of going up or down one level at the same location.
Ticket Gantries – Walk Fast!
Importantly, regarding the ticket gantries, remember to only tap your T-money card ONCE and walk pass through the gantry promptly and immediately. More than once, we encountered trouble passing through the gantry after tapping our card, just because we were a little slow is walking past the gantry. Subsequent taps will only result in errors being displayed and will require going to the Station Control to seek help. Note that the Station Control may not necessarily be near where your ticket gantry is and may require walking a fair distance to reach!
For passengers with strollers, wheelchairs or luggage, there is a special gate (usually located at one end of the row of gantries). You simply tap your card at the designated spot and push the metal gate once it’s unlocked. Similar to the normal gantries, a delay in opening the gate after tapping the card may result in you getting stuck on the same side of the gantry.
Fortunately, for these special gantries, there is a help button available. Just press on the button and the staff at the Station Control will be informed of your situation via CCTV. More often than not, they will just unlock the gate so that you can pass through. There is no need to tap your card again until when you are exiting from another station.
Elevators and Lifts Are Scarce
Elevators/lifts are scarce in Korea’s subway stations and often require significant walking to reach them. Many times during our trip, we had to save time and ended up just carrying the entire stroller with Ling down the stairs (three people do it together). We joked that she was like a “princess”, carried on a sedan chair.
Koreans are very particular that only the elderly and needy (including users of strollers) take the lifts so do not abuse them! Also, after pressing the floor button in the lift, you will have to wait around 10 seconds before the door will close (and no, pressing the Close button repeatedly does not help). We were puzzled over this behaviour but assumed it was to give ample time for other passengers to make their way to the lift.
Note that almost all escalators have a metal pole fixed at the entrances to prevent passengers from pushing their strollers onto them, so you can either close your stroller before taking the escalator or to take the lift. Remember to keep to the right side of the escalators as the left side is Korean’s ‘fast lane’. (many times, we forgot and stood on the left side due to Singapore’s rules and obstructed others)
Most of the subway stations’ exits do not have escalator or lift access, so you are expected to use the stairs. We faced a lot of inconvenience with our stroller and toddler due to this infrastructure. That is also why we hardly see any other subway users with a stroller. There are so much room for improvement in this area.
6. COMMUNICATING WITH THE LOCALS
The only Korean phrase I know is 안녕하세요 (annyeong haseyo), which means ‘hello’. So how did we survive in Korea?
Fortunately, many of the people we come across were able to converse in English and/or Mandarin, so frankly there was no need to pick up Korean as a new language just to survive your trip there.
Those who were able to converse in English were young Korean adults or teenagers, while those conversing in Mandarin were in all ages and appeared to be from neighboring countries for studies or for a living.
As a result, my starting line eventually became ‘Annyeong haseyo, do you speak English or 你会说中文吗?’ whenever I approached someone on the street and amazingly, it worked pretty well! ^^|
7. FOOD IN SOUTH KOREA
We love Korean food in Singapore and eat it often. However, we were unprepared for the level of spiciness we encountered in authentic South Korea’s cuisine. It was so much more spicy than what we usually eat. For example, I placed tasting bibimbap as our first food tasting in South Korea and it was so spicy that we had to drink several cups of water (fortunately, provided free).
Food For Children
Almost all the food in Seoul were spicy food and Dar couldn’t even take moderate spicy food. Hence, we had to order Grilled Mackerel Fish for him mostly when we were in restaurants. They are quite expensive, costing around 15k to 16k won, but quite large that we could share. He also ate Korean seafood pancake a few times (around 6-8k won), that was also of a huge portion and could be shared among 2-3 people.
As for soup and rice meals such as ginseng chicken soup and beef rice soup, they were quite large a portion and he wouldn’t be able to finish by himself. Hence, we ordered two adult portions and shared with him some, adding on seafood pancake for a more filling meal. I couldn’t eat ramen so we didn’t venture into places with that on the menu. Otherwise, I noticed that children often order ramen as only those are non-spicy. Each restaurant usually offer only one or a few specialised items on the menu, so there are limited items to choose that suits everyone.
Street Food Isn’t Cheap
We tried several street food on the go while touring and though they were delicious and unique, they were quite expensive at around 3k -5k won. (SGD$3.6 ~ $6) per item. For this amount, I could have gotten a plate of mixed rice vegetables or full bento meal in Singapore, instead of just one slab of fish cake on a stick.
8. CHILD-FRIENDLY / BABY NEEDS
Cat: There are baby changing facilities located at almost every attraction/places we go to, so Korea is rather child-friendly. However, as baby-changing tables are found only inside the female toilets, a daddy bringing baby out by himself would have a problem.
Sometimes, the tables could be found in the handicapped toilets. When there was no table to be found in either toilets, we used the handicapped toilet as Ling could change standing up on our stroller. The toilets in Seoul were always so clean! There are no wet, dirty or smelly floors.
In children-friendly places of attractions, the baby rooms had nursing areas and even hot/cold water dispenser for us to make baby’s milk or refill our water bottles.
We were also surprised by a baby room located in the subway station, along a long walkway towards Dongdaemum Market. It was fully equipped with nursing sofa, baby changing table, magazines, a baby cot, even a microwave! (alas, there’s no hot/cold water dispenser machine which was strange)I would share more about the baby rooms in individual posts about the attractions later on…