Korea

South Korea Itinerary Part 1: Budget, Travel Info, Tax Refunds, Culture, Getting Around

Also see:
For Seoul Itinerary Days 1-3, and Days 12-14, see Parts 2 & 8 respectively.
For Andong Itinerary Day 4, see Part 3.
For Gyeongju Itinerary Day 5, see Part 4.
For Busan itinerary Days 6-8, see Part 5.
For Jeju Island Days 9-10, see Part 6.
For Haeinsa at Gayasan National Park Day 11, see Part 7.

south korea Itinerary map

How I Plan the Itinerary

Although this is a 14-day suggested itinerary, you can customize it by cutting away places you don’t want to see and the itinerary still works.

I planned it by going in a circle around the country. I started with Seoul for the two first days and ended with Seoul for the last 3 days as my return ticket was in Seoul. So, if you want to visit solely Seoul, you should take a look at the next entry and the last part of the itinerary.

This is my route: Seoul => Suwon => Seoul => Andong => Gyeongju => Busan => Jeju Island => Busan => Gayasan National Park => Seoul => DMZ => Seoul

South Korea’s UNESCO’s Sites

Daereung-won Tumuli Park
Depending on your sexuality, you’ll see different things in these two Royal tombs at Gyeongju, one of the UNESCO sites.

There are 10 UNESCO sites in South Korea and my itinerary visits 8 of them. The one that I left out are the Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa Dolmen Sites (stone tomb markers); and Royal Tombs of Joseon Dynasty because they aren’t very interesting to look at.

Budget for South Korea Trip

Scoot Air Ticket: S$450
Return Air Ticket Busan/Jeju: ₩122K (S$135)
2D Guided tour in Jeju: ₩128K (S$142)
14D Accommodation (mixture of homestay, hostel, hotels & temple stay) : ₩880K (S$980)

Food is actually quite cheap if you don’t want to eat anything fancy. ₩8k can get you a decent and very full meal. Travel between cities is cheap too. So if you’re on a tight budget, you can get by with ₩50k a day (S$50). But My budget was S$120 a day and I spent thoughtlessly. In total, I spent about S$3.7K.

Tax Refund South Korea

tax refund korea
Many departmental shops and chain shops will give tax refunds with minimum spending of ₩30K. Tip: Keep your passport with you when shopping. If you spot the signs above, ask for a Tax Refund receipt from the shop, and they need to see your passport.

The shop will give you the receipt in an envelope. Fill in your particulars on one envelope (you can put all receipts in one envelope). At Seoul Incheon Airport, go to the Tax Free Inspection Counter at Passenger Terminal, 3rd fl, behind Counter J. Tip: Don’t check in yet! The inspector may inspect the items you’ve bought. After inspection, you’ll receive a stamp on the receipts. Then you can check-in your luggage.

After clearing immigration, go to the Tax Refund Shop (near Immigration Gate 3). If you want cash refund, there are two separate queues for Global Blue Tax Refund an Global Tax Refund, so you’ll have to queue twice if you have receipts from the two companies. Factor in the long queuing time. Tip: Don’t queue for cash! Opt for credit/debit card refund.  Drop the envelope (with the stamped receipts inside!) into the box at the Tax Refund Shop. I opted for a debit card refund, and the refund went right to my bank account in local currency. Sweet! (Best to use two separate envelopes for receipts of Global Blue and Global if you’re dropping the receipts.)

Wi-Fi in South Korea

At the time of writing, Singapore telcos haven’t any agreement with South Korea to provide wifi service. But there is free wifi everywhere in Korea, including on some taxis, buses and trains. If not, go to a cafe and ask for the password and then buy a drink. Seoulistic provides a list of free wifi passwords in Seoul.

However, if you’re like me and want constant wifi, you can buy Olleh Wifi at any convenience shops [₩1100 (S$1.20) for an hour, ₩3300 ($3.60) for 24 hours]. That’s much cheaper than any Singapore telco can offer.

After you buy the wifi, select the unlocked “OllehWiFi”

olleh wifi 1

Then go to your phone’s browser, and type in any random url (I typed in google.com), which will redirect to this page:

olleh wifi 2

Click on “Register Prepaid Wifi” to bring you to this page:

olleh wifi 3

Type in the Pin Code found on the receipt that you bought. Warning: OllehWifi isn’t the most reliable network, nor the most extensive. So there may be problems with connection.

What to Pack to South Korea

TIP: Do NOT wear skirts or heels during sightseeing. Wear them only during shopping. You’d think that it’s commonsense but I’ve seen so many women’s underwear on my trip. These Marilyn Monroe wannabes wore skirts to climb mountains, and mountains are windy. Not a pretty sight.

Seoul Steps
Dear Gym God,
I promise I’ll never cheat on my squats again if you take away the infinite steps in Seoul.

1. Good sports shoes or hiking shoes. Korea is mountainous and even in Seoul itself, the steps can kill you. Tip: Go to gym and do your squats.

2. Toothbrush and maybe a small towel. Many hostels and 3-star hotels don’t provide toothbrush.

3. In addition to your medical supplies, bring plaster. Steps, mountains, falls, blah blah.

4. Umbrella. Rained like crazy when I was there.

5. Cap and sunblock.

6. Hand sanitizer. Some Korean food require hands to eat.

7. Toilet roll. You know spicy food=>loose bowels.

hello kitty mosquito patch
Me [last minute packing]: Hey, do you have mosquito patch? I forgot to buy.
Chiobu: Here.
Me: I’m going to the temples! What will the monks say about me with Hello Kitty mosquito patch!?

8. Mosquito Patch. Many attractions in Korea are in the mountains. Even if you stay in Seoul, the biggest attraction is DMZ, which is forested.

5 Things You Need to Know about Korean Culture Before Traveling

1. Language: They won’t understand English or if they do, they decline to understand you. For the 2 weeks I was there, I could communicate with maybe 5 Koreans in English and those people were the ones who wanted to get into my pants.

2. Asking for Directions: Koreans give very bad directions. Even if the restaurant is in the same block as their shop, they wouldn’t have heard of the restaurant. Even if they direct you, their directions are often wrong. When they say “go straight,” you should walk straight but look out for alleys on your left and right. After 5 minutes, ask someone else. By the way, Google Map is extremely inaccurate in South Korea.

3. Traffic: Vehicles (mostly scooters but there were some cars) drive on pedestrian pavements. Be careful.

4. Wear Clean Socks Without Holes!: Whenever you enter a Korean house, apartment or traditional restaurant, if you see a step, it means you have to take off your shoes before going into the main area. Take off your shoes BEFORE the step but do not let your feet touch the floor. Your feet should be clean when you enter the main area.

5. Kampong: The kampong mindset is strong within many Koreans. They will push you, shove you, rush for seats on trains. They will tsk at you. Among the people spitting on pavements in Korea, I witnessed a beautiful young woman, dressed to the nines, spitting. Very ugly. That being said, many Koreans are warm-hearted, helpful and polite too. I met several Koreans who walked me to my destination when I asked them for directions.

Temple Stay in South Korea

Haeinsa Korea
There are 16 selected temples for foreigners to stay. I stayed in Haeinsa (pictured above), an UNESCO site, for a night and it was one of the best experiences I had in Korea. Another temple that I recommend is Beomeosa in Busan.

Getting Around South Korea

1. Plane: If you want to fly domestically, check out Korean Airlines, Asiana Airlines, Jeju Air and Jin Air. But my advice is take the bus or train wherever you can.

2. Train: Trains are the fastest and most comfortable way to travel within Korea but the stations are sometimes not near the city centers and cost substantially more than buses. If you plan to travel extensively by train, buy a KR Pass before going to Korea. Once you arrive, you’ll have to collect the pass in Seoul or Busan. The pass is good for unlimited rides within a day. So if you’re only taking a journey a day, you may want to skip the pass.

There are three types of train: KTX (Korean Train Express) or bullet train going up to 300km/h; express Saemaeul; and Mugunghwa trains. Naturally, the faster, the more expensive. You can just go to the station and book 20 minutes before the train leaves.

3. Bus: This is the cheapest and most convenient way to get around South Korea. The bus terminals are often in the city centers. But it takes twice as long as trains. Check out these websites for schedules and routes: Seoul Express Bus Terminal; Central City Terminal; Korean Express Bus Lines Association; DongSeoul Bus Terminal; Nambu Bus Terminal; and Sangbong Bus Terminal.

4. Car: My advise is the road signs are confusing and the cars are left-hand drive, different from Singapore’s right-hand drive. So you may want to avoid driving except in Jeju. Apply for International Driving Permit at AA Singapore. Get a Hi-pass, an electronic toll system, something like our ERP. For car rental, check out KT Kumho or Avis.

Review of Scoot to Korea

scootThis was the 2nd I flew with Scoot and it was another bad experience. The first time, they marked up their prices ridiculously for a budget airline and this time, the flight timing was horrendous. The plane lands at 11pm and the last train to the city leaves at 11.45pm. If you miss the train, you can take the bus (which takes more than an hour to reach Seoul, crammed with people) or take the cab, which will cost ₩80, 000-120, 000 (S$90-135). Insane. Why take budget airline if I want to spend that kind of money on cab?

To make things worse, you have to take internal shuttle to reach the immigration check out counter. In other words, if you take Scoot, prepare to scoot like a mad person to catch the last train. And even if you catch the train, you’ll reach Seoul Station but all other subway trains have stopped, so you’ve to take a cab to your hotel. Crap.

And because Scoot flies around dinner time, you’ll have to buy dinner from Scoot or starve. By the way, their beef sandwich was horrible.

The return flight leaves Seoul at 11.45pm, which sounds amazing. But think about it, you reach Singapore at 6 am, tired, grumpy and lack of sleep.

To conclude, the timing is terrible.

Brief History of South Korea

Shilla Sword - Busan Museum
Shilla warriors were thousands of years ahead in fashion: their swords could be used as belts.

RAWR. Dinosaurs. Cavemen. Immigrants from Mongolia, China and Siberia. Three Kingdoms: Goguryeo (37 B.C.-A.D 688), Baekje (18 B.C-A.D 660) and Shilla. (57B.C-A.D. 935) Fight fight fight. Buddhism adopted, legal system set up. By the power of grayskull, Shilla won or ₩ by allying with China. Shilla grew weak (668-935), Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) rose. Mongolians attacked, Goryeo ₩. Japanese pirates attacked, Goryeo sent General Yi Seong-gye to fight. General now had army, overthrew Goryeo and started the longest dynasty, Joseon Dynasty. (1392-1910).

Confucian government established. One of the emperors, King Sejong the Great, in this dynasty created the Korean written language, Hangeul, to differentiate from the Chinese culture. 1592-1597, Japan attacked, Admiral Yi Sun-shin fended off with his iron-clad “turtle” ships, and Korea shut itself from the rest of the world, with only Busan port open to foreign ships, and came to be known as the Hermit Kingdom till 1800s.

Paddy Field Contract - Busan Museum
A hand-outline to seal a paddy field contract in Joseon period. That’s my new signature for telco 2-year contracts!

Japanese Occupation from 1910. When the last Joseon king, King Gojong, died, Japan took over and tried to destroy Korean language, culture and history. Japan surrendered on 15 Aug 1945, ending 35 years of occupation. 10 days later, Cold War started with USA taking South Korea, and Soviet Union taking North Korea. It was meant to be temporary until US, UK, USSR and China could decide the trusteeship.

But in 1950, aided by communist countries, China and Soviet Union, North Korea attacked South, starting the Korean War. The war has not officially ended, suspended by a ceasefire agreement in 1953, creating the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), probably the most visited tourist spot in Korea.

Korean plastic surgery
Go from a 2/10 to 8/10! Plastic surgery ads are everywhere and they have buildings and buildings of plastic surgery clinics. Scary.

South Korea: authoritarian government, military rule for decades until 1987 when its first democratic and fair presidential election was held. Then k-pop, k-drama, Korean plastic surgeons and k-food took over the world.

To be continued…

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54 replies »

    • Are your forebears not from china?
      I thought our great grandparents and grandfathers were all from china or perhaps yours were migrants from
      the west
      This generation of Nanyang Chinese seems to have amnesia or selective memory loss forgetting it was poverty and life in destitution that drove the 1st generation here.whats the difference between the then uncouth ragtag coolie and the current economic migrants from china?

      Like

  1. Hello! This South Korea post is the best!! My husband and I are planning to visit South Korea in May 2014.
    This post is a big help, you featured most of the details and there’s a lot of tips! Awesome!!
    Is the author A. NATHANAEL HO ? <——- Thank you very much!!
    May I request that you add more photos on your upcoming travels ? ( I mean, the other authors.)
    Again, thank you! Take care!
    besYS

    Like

  2. Hi, giving quite a good information on trip to korea. Im planning to have free and easy to korea this coming May. Just wondering since they only speak in korean and i know nothing on listen and speak in korean, if i travelling around alone, will i get myself into communication breakdown with them and lost myself there? Will you suggest me to get a tour guide or i still can ‘survive’ to travel alone?

    Like

  3. I like your blog. It helps a lot. I’m planning to go there next year. I’m going to copy most of your itinerary. I have a question. Did you book the place you stayed in Busan and Jeju before you went to Korea or when you are in Korea already?

    Like

  4. with regard to Scoot arriving time, how to go to the hotel if we miss the train. By cab is not worth it.Is there a work about solution to this. Thanks.

    Like

  5. By the far the best Korean blog ever! thank you for the useful information and great tips.
    Looking forward to read your other entries.

    Like

  6. Hi, on the tax refund portion, I understand that you mentioned you had opted for the debit card option. May I know if it is a Singapore bank debit card? Can debit cards like UOB, OCBC or other banks be used for tax refund? Otherwise is it a debit card from any bank will do?

    Like

  7. Hello! Thanks for sharing your experiences. Makes it easier for first time visitors like us to make the most out of the trip. My daughter and I are planning to go next year around first week of November for her 18th birthday. Would you mind giving me a rough estimate of how much I should have for say around 7 days stay in Korea? Would highly appreciate your response. :)

    Like

  8. Arex Express train is the best way to access from the airport to Seoul station. It is fast(it takes only 43 mins to Seoul station) and clean. Plus, the price is also reasonable. It cost 8,000won and if you take one of these airline;Asiana,KAL,Jeju airline, you get some discount(6,900won). Arex Express train info desk is located between gate no.9 and no.8, desk no.45 on 1st floor in the airport.

    Like

  9. Excellent blog. Thanks as we are going to South Korea next month (May 2015) . Aussies living in Indonesia. Will definitely have fun.

    Like

  10. Hi, We have to spend a night in Incheon on 9th August and take our flight back home the next day. Can you please recommend some cheap guest houses?

    I had been enquiring at Lazy Bird. But it is closed for renovation.

    Thanks a lot.

    Like

  11. Hi, I would like to know more about temple stay. Do we have to pay anything to the temple ? wat is the minimum stay there? all ladies is it ok?

    Like

  12. hi. nice to meet you
    i’m korean. i visited your blog by chance and read your posting.
    you wrote, most korean cannot understand english. but it isn’t.
    we can not understand and speak english “perfectly” but can “roughly”.
    and we shall be content to help you out.
    we never decline to understand you.
    anyway, i appreciate your visiting. :)

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Budget Accommodation For Elderly Couple On Shopping Trip in Seoul
    Planning a 1 week shopping trip (Dongdaemun market, Namdaemun market, Itaewon, Myeondong) in march 2017 for an elderly couple. Prefer budget accommodations (double bed with private bathroom, tv, air-con with lift/elevator to upper floors, free wifi). Where should we stay within walking distance to nearest subway/metro station and shuttle bus to Incheon?

    Like

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