For the traveler in South Korea, getting around can seem a little daunting at first. The Korail system can appear complicated, buses aren’t quite as traveler friendly as the trains, and you’re certainly hit or miss trying to use a taxi or Uber unless you speak Korean or are with someone who can. But with that being said, we managed to figure it all out pretty quickly, and without the assistance of any apps. So you can figure it out as well, don’t be scared.
The first thing that should be acknowledged is that if you get a Korean SIM card or phone, you should be able to readily access wireless data networks everywhere. With that access, you can download a number of apps for your phone that will assist you tremendously. We would recommend them if you are going to be here for a long time:
NaverMap – This is like GoogleMaps, but it is specifically for South Korea. It will give you a far more detailed and updated map service for navigating the busy and clustered streets.
Subway (Ji Ha Cheol) – This will provide you with subway maps for Seoul, Busan, Daegu, Daejeon, and Gwangju. The app assists in telling you the duration of the ride, closest stations, and schedules.
Visit Korea 3.0 – The app will provide you with a database of all the tourist attractions and things to do within Korea. Address, phone numbers, directions, and summaries are all included to assist you as well. Combine this with NaverMap and you should have no issue finding where you want to go.
OTO/ACE – This is perfect if you expect to be making international calls. You can place an international call from Korea to anyplace in the world, and still maintain domestic rates. The reception won’t be quite as good, but you will be saving a huge amount of money on phone bills.
T-Money Balance – This app allows you to check how much money you have on your T-Money account as well as load it directly from your bank or credit card. Not sure what T-Money is? That is ok, I’ll cover that below.
Seoul Bus / Jihachul – These are two separate apps, but they both function the same. They will provide you with information bus schedules, subway schedules, and the shortest routes between. They come in English versions, but bus stations are only in Korea, which although annoying is still immensely useful.
KakaoTalk – This is not a navigation app, but rather a messenger app. If you’re wanting to text or call you can use this service to do so without racking up any texting costs. It works via internet, so as long as you have data, you can talk.
Google Translate – This is really self-explanatory for why you’ll want it. If you have internet access, you can use it for free. But if you want to be able to use it when you don’t internet, you’ll need to pay for the app and directly download it to your phone.
So now that you have your apps downloaded, the next thing you’re going to want is a T-Money card. T-Money is a rechargeable card or key-bob that you can swipe at all metro stations and on buses. This enables you to simply walk on, swipe, and go without having to bother with cash. You can purchase your T-Money card at 7-11, large retailers, various convenience stores, and Storyways. You can also easily recharge your card at 7-11 or Storyway. There is usually a Storyway outside/inside of every metro station in Seoul. As well, using the card will provide you with a small discount, which can add up to a lot over time. We primarily used the T-Money throughout our stay.
If your stay in Korea is not very long, you may opt to not purchase a card. This is okay, as you can also purchase one-way, round-trip, and other style trips in cash at vending booths located just outside the turnstile to every station. There is a 500 Won deposit for each ticket it prints you, but you will get it back as a refund when you exit the station if you go to the refund booth. At the end of our stay, we no longer had access to our T-Money card, so we had to go this route, and while not as convenient, it is still pretty easy to use since the vending booths can operate in English.
Getting around the Seoul Metro, especially without apps (as was our case) can seem pretty daunting at first. The Metro is considered one of the more complicated systems in the world, with with 12 different lines (Lines 1 – 9, Bundang Line, Jungang Line, and Gyeongui Line). The map can appear as a tangle of colors, and some lines such as Line 1 have multiple offshoots and splits that can make it even more complicated. But don’t worry, despite the craziness, it is still pretty well organized and you can figure it out. Usually when she would plan our outings, Briana would use the Cyber Station site to plan the stations we would need to get to and between for the day. She would take pictures of the site and routes since we did not have the apps.
The trains will arrive at their station, which will have signs printed in Korean, English, Japanese, and Mandarin telling you which station is came from and where it is going next, as well as a full itinerary for you to look at. The interior of the trains differ by line, but each is the same at it’s core: seats along the side, standing room throughout, a display telling you the upcoming station, maps above the doors, and elderly seating. It’s important to never sit in the elderly seats: these are reserved for elderly, pregnant women, and women with young children. If you are not one of these, and you sit in these seats, you will be shot angry looks, and probably told to get up. It doesn’t matter if there are plenty of seats left, or if you are really needing to sit. The seats are reserved, and that’s that.
In most of your excursions about the city, you will need to make a transfer between stations. These are usually pretty easy to manage, although the distance between lines may vary greatly depending upon which station you are at. Some of the larger stations may have 3 or 4 different lines all coming together, or they may occur at large pedestrian hubs. In these cases, the station may have many shops, stalls, and food venders located throughout them. Some stations almost seem like an attraction unto themselves. Regardless though, signs will point you in the direction of your transfer, just look towards the ceiling and find the color and number of your line and follow the directions. It’s pretty straight forward.
The metro operates from 5:30 – 24:00, with roughly 2 – 3 minutes between stations. The initial cost is 1250 Won for the first 10km, and will add 100 Won for every 5km beyond that. The cost will be applied when you swipe your card in and out at the turnstiles. Transfers may occasionally have you go through a turnstile, but will read 0 Won charge. Keep in mind that you will probably be standing unless you manage to make your way onto the train during a non busy time.
There are other options as well for the metro, you can take an express train which will get you to some of the further stations faster by skipping more minor stations. Generally, the express train will cost you more, though you can occasionally hop on one if it happens into the station you are at. At a higher price, you can also take a Korail train to Busan or other larger cities outside of Seoul. These will be high speed trains and will cost far more. For a more leisurely experience, you can also take Train Cruises with Korail. These cruises will go along a scenic path, with seats facing out towards the windows. They will pass through mountains and along oceansides. Some of the cars will also have cafes for you to enjoy during your 3 – 8 hour ride.
Using the metro will suffice most ordinary travel within Seoul. But for certain attractions such as N Seoul Tower, or the Seoul City Wall, amongst many others, you will need to use the bus. The bus is far more intimidating due to the fact that nothing is printed in English. If you want to use the bus, without an app, we highly suggest you do your research first and figure out the number of the bus you want to take, where the stop is, and what stop you want to get off at. The buses will accept T-Money, so it’s still simple to use in that sense, and the loud speakers will tell you the stop in English, but you need to listen closely.
Some of the Metro stations are pretty neat and will have various decorations and displays.
The bus routes are extensive, with over 400 routes and 8500 buses operating with Seoul. They operate via a color system:
Blue buses travel on major roads and run for long distances. Green buses travel short distances and carry travelers between transfer points such as subway and bus stations. Red buses are express buses between Seoul and suburban areas. Yellow buses operate on a closed circuit within Seoul district.
Most likely, you will be traveling via Green or Yellow buses within the city. If you are taking a bus to far out excursions such as a national park or to the DMZ, you will most likely be taking a Blue bus. We did not use buses much during our stay, and only ended up using Green line buses.
While in South Korea, you are of course not limited to only the metro or bus. You can also take taxis, Uber, fly, or ferry. Unless money is of no object, you do not want to use taxis nor Uber as both can be quite expensive to use and you’re likely to find a driver who does not speak English. We’d recommend these only as a last resort if you cannot manage to find a bus or metro station that is open. But if you insist on using them, they will certainly be faster and more comfortable during your trip.
Flying is another option, and one that is really only something to consider if you are traveling far such as to Busan in the south. While it’s certainly cheaper to fly within Korea than it is within the states, it still can run up your bill. If you wanting to visit a place such as Jeju Island though, you will most likely need to take a plane, as there is no rail or bridge to the island.
Taking a ferry is another option you can take. While not very applicable for a place such as Seoul – you can take a ferry from Busan to Jeju Island if you’d prefer not to fly. As well, you can also take the ferry to various locations in Japan or China, generally for under or around 100 Won per ticket. Taking a ferry to Japan from Busan can take around 3 hours, so if you need to leave the country to renew your visa, you can take a nice day trip to Japan and return the next day for renewed 3-month visa.
So while travel within South Korea and Seoul can seem daunting, it’s actually quite doable if you are willing to do a little prep. And if you have apps on your phone, you really have no excuses.