|Jeju island is a special place with impossibly blue ocean and black beaches|
In spite of the rising popularity of Korea as a destination for Asian tourists (the food! the shopping!) and plenty of English teachers and K-Pop nerds from the western world, South Korea is still one of the less visited countries in Asia.
As with Taiwan, I’ll never quite understand why. If I had to choose the one country in Asia, or even the world, in which I’ve had the most fun travelling, it would definitely be Korea! It’s quirky beyond the pure “cuteness” factor often attributed to Japan. Every single Korean person I’ve ever met is a real personality – even if that sometimes means a bit crass and rude. Outside Seoul, language issues can be a problem, although it’s no harder than elsewhere in Asia and for me, makes up a big chunk of the fun (except that time we were put on the bus to the WRONG airport because the driver couldn’t even be arsed to look at our ticket, because foreigners must want to go to Seoul, right… in the end, it wasn’t a big deal thanks to the very flexible airline policies in Korea).
Korea is sometimes described as something in between China and Japan, and I agree – you will notice many similarities with both – but ultimately, it’s its very own distinctive place once you get to know the people and culture and don’t stay in a bubble of the hipster areas of Seoul.
|Korea is full of friendly dogs!|
We flew into Seoul and spent almost 2 weeks there, including a day trip to Suwon. We then took a train to Daegu to meet a friend and spent 3 nights there, before we took a flight to Jeju island. We spent a week split between Seogwipo and Jeju City, the two only cities on the island. From Jeju, we flew into Busan and spent another 3 nights there.
Korea offers many different accommodation options. I have to admit that I’ve had less than stellar experiences with hostels in Korea as a solo traveller. This is not a very individualistic society and Koreans will pity you if you go anywhere alone, even for a coffee. Thus I had hostel staff following me everywhere and being creepy. That said, hostels in Korea are usually cheap, new and offer a lot of amenities, so they are definitely worth it, especially IF you are looking to be social.
For this trip, we stayed in a studio apartment via Airbnb in Seoul, Daegu and Jeju City. Korean studios are all pretty cookie-cutter, but mostly very new and well equipped and have big windows (apartments in many big Asian cities can be so gloomy!). In Busan, we stayed in a hostel/hotel hybrid which was just fantastic value for money - we got our own small double room and bathroom as well as daily changing cooked breakfast. Our most expensive night was the 4-star hotel in Seogwipo, which was £50/$71 per night. Our cheapest stay was the studio apartment in Seoul at £21/$30 a night – however, this place was a bit older and more neglected than the others. I recommend spending at least $40 a night in Seoul if you’d like a spotless, modern place.
Over average, we spent £22/$33 on accommodation per night and person (not the prices above are for room/apartment in total).
Apart from a train trip and a flight to and from Jeju, we also used local subways and buses as well as a few taxis, which are very affordable in Korea and also offer a translation hotline for foreigners, which we luckily never had to use. However, you definitely want to have the name and address of your destination written in Korean – carry a card or let someone write it down for you. In Jeju, we used taxis to take us one way to the beginning of the day hikes we too. For this purpose, we circled our destination on the map and never had a problem getting to the right place.
The most expensive transport item was the flight to Jeju and back for £130. Note that you can get much cheaper flights to Jeju island, however, it can be quite tricky to book as Korean budget airlines only accept Korean cards. There are loopholes, but in the end we were happy to have gone with Asiana/Korean Air, who have a very flexible policy regarding changes. So when we were put on the bus to Seoul airport when we meant to go to Busan airport from Daegu, it wasn’t a big problem and we received a full refund even though we cancelled the flight just 3 hrs before departure!
Taxis are very cheap – even going to the airport in Busan was just £4, and most trips in Jeju were in the £2-3 range for 5-15 k trips. Public transport is also affordable, with the high speed train from Seoul to Daegu costing £25, although the slower local train is half the price. In Seoul, the subway is fantastic and most rides cost between £0.06 – 1.00.
Overall, we spent £200/$285 on transport in 4 weeks in Korea, but please note that 60 % of that was for the Jeju flights.
|not for the seafood averse!|
Oh food, glorious food! Korean food is one of my favourites, and luckily it’s very affordable. Travelling alone can be a bit more difficult, as most places serve a gazillion of side dishes and won’t accept single diners. However, most of our meals came in around £7-10 for two people. My fantastic Korean friend introduced us to Korean
sashimi or hweh, which is a true experience for real seafood lovers. Don’t expect any fancy pants sushi bar, but many half-alive creatures on your table – it also comes with a higher price tag. Our most expensive meal was a 12 course vegetarian “temple cuisine” experience in Seoul, which cost £25 per person. I have to be honest, it was not worth it at all. Chinese temple/veg restaurants as well as Japanese temple cuisine are much nicer and not as overpriced. On the cheaper end, we ate a lot of street food and market food, where a dish like spicy rice cakes, gimbap (Korean “maki” rolls) or a simple soup with dumplings and veg is usually around £1-2 each, and two of them will fill you up. You can also get cheaper items such as all the animals on a stick, sweets and other snacks.
Korea has the highest concentrations of convenience stores in the world, I believe, and they are almost as good as their Japanese cousins, selling rice balls and light meals (not as much choice as in Japan) as well as snacks and booze. We used them to buy snacks for day trips and late night drinks (seriously, every building we stayed in had its own convenience store). On the other hand, supermarkets are insanely expensive in Korea. As in: Scandinavian expensive, and that’s just for local food. Anything exported has astronomic prices. No wonder Koreans mostly eat out and cook only very simple dishes at home. We did splurge on some wine and pasta, as well as frozen dumplings and veg for salads, as well as muesli and fruit for breakfast, and ended up spending £200 in total during the month for the two of us in spite of eating out at least once a day. So if you want to save money in Korea: Cooking your own food is the wrong place to start.
Overall, we feasted on Korean food and indulged in convenience store snacks and European lady comforts for £6.50/$10 per day and person – that’s also exactly the same amount of money we spent in Japan. You can definitely do it at half the price if you stick to street food, convenience stores and the occasional nice meal (and manage to drink Korean booze, which I can’t stomach except for makgeolli).
|this was ONE round of side dishes...|
Activities and other costs
|spooky Jeju forest|
Just like in Japan, most of the best activities in Korea are free! We did visit some temples and museums (all of them free) and hiked around Jeju and Daegu. We did pay £20 each for a kimchi making + dressing up in traditional clothes experience in Seoul, which was cheesy but fun, and another £20 each for a day tour in Jeju, which was infernally bad because the company insisted to run the tour although the entire day was so stormy we couldn’t really leave the tour bus. The third activity we spent money on was a guided tour of the secret garden of the Changdeokgung palace in Seoul, which was absolutely worth it. In Seoul, we had to stop at a dog café/doggy care centre in Hongdae to see what all the fuss is about – it was a fun visit with very happy dogs for the cost of only two overpriced soft drinks. We also visited two Korean jjimjilbangs, which are somewhat giant spas and leisure centres. In Seoul we went to an older one for a $5 entry fee, but I highly recommend the swanky Spa Land in Busan for around $15 (depending on time of visit).
Overall, this added up to £60 for activities in a whole month exploring the country.
Total: Our daily total travel cost for this Korea trip (26 nights) was £38 per person and day. That's currently $55 or €50.