Korea Travel Tips & Information

Saturday, 5 March 2016

During the 2 weeks I was in Korea (mainly Seoul), I've compiled a list of travel tips and information I would like to share with those who have never been to Korea before or are about to go to Korea for their first time.

1. Learn how to read Korean and learn how to speak basic Korean phrases.
Even though you might not understand Korean, at least learn how to read because Korea uses a lot of English term for certain phrases. For example, cider is simply 사이더 (sa-ee-dor). Also, know what the basic manners are and learn how to say hello (안녕하세요), thank you (감사합니다), yes (네), no (아니요), please (주세요), etc.

2. If you don't speak Korean at all...
Places that most tourists visit (eg, Myeongdong, Namdaemun Market, Hongdae, Insadong) will make you feel right at home. Funnily enough, people working in big department stores in Myeongdong like Lotte Department and Shinsegae only know how to speak Korean—you'd need to grab a translator if you speak Chinese and/or English. What I've noticed is that if a Korean person knows another language, it's Chinese, and when that person is fluent in both Korean and Chinese, they're actually Chinese people (primarily people who are originally from the Shandong province). Knowing Chinese is more advantageous than those who speak English only—like we'll be speaking in English amongst ourselves, but sales people will come up right up to us and start speaking Chinese. (It's like they assume that if you're not speaking Korean and you look Asian, you must be Chinese—something I've just noticed.)

3. Buy yourself a T-money Card.
A T-money card is a transportation card, but it's not limited to public transportation (like the buses and subway) only, you can even use it in taxis, convenience stores and some beauty stores.

4. Use the subway.
The subway is a very convenient mode of transportation, but it's not as user-friendly as Hong Kong's MTR system. In Hong Kong, you'll know which way you are going by looking at the final stop (ie, [destination] bound)—you just look to the end of the line and you know if you're heading in the right direction. But in Seoul, the signs give you certain landmarks and main stations in the direction you are heading in. That may be convenient for people who know what's on that side of the line, but not for tourists. I had to look up whats on the left and right side of Chungmuro Station to determine which way I should be going. Also, the signs in Hong Kong telling you which way to go are more obvious than the signs in Seoul.

5. Start doing squats.
Squats help build your leg muscle and therefore, help with walking. Unless you intend to take the taxi or have someone drive you around, you'll be walking up multiple flights of stairs in a day. Korea is a very hilly country and with the subway being underground, you bet there will be a lot of stairs—and I mean A LOT even for someone who doesn't mind walking up stairs. I don't think I've walked that many stairs in my life in such a short period of time! There are escalators here and there, but stairs are better if you're in a rush.

6. Use Daum Maps & Jihachul
In Australia, Google Maps is my go-to mapping application, but in Korea, Google Maps is useless. Korea is constantly changing its roads and buildings so even if you do "street view" in Google, a lot of the buildings you see no longer exist. (Some of the street views are over 3 years old!) The two main search engines in Korea is Naver Maps or Daum Maps, but I prefer using the Daum Maps because it's much easier for me. Jihachul (지하철) is one of the most popular apps for navigating Korea's subway lines and even tells you which car door to take if you're transferring lines. You know its good when even Korean people use this app.

7. Get yourself a wifi egg (or sim with data).
In Korea, free wifi is available in almost every restaurant and café, but that's only if you're inside the restaurant or café—you're not going have access to the internet once you're outside. Therefore, I highly HIGHLY recommend that you get a wifi egg, either by renting one or buying one. Our Airbnb host kindly provided us with an Olleh wifi egg and it made our lives so much easier when we got lost and needed to locate ourselves on the map again.

8. Free samples are not everywhere.
I used to think that people would be handing out free samples of makeup and skincare products all over the streets of Myeongdong, but that's not the case when we went. Maybe people were more friendlier back in the days when there were less tourists around, but now, you actually have to buy something (can be big or small) to get samples. You can try asking for samples straight up (like I shamelessly did), but they'll just say no.

9. Do bargain for a better price.
Even with a limited Korean, I still tried to insist on a cheaper price when buying clothes in wholesale markets or underground shopping centres. Maybe I could've gotten an even better price if I spoke fluent Korean as a foreigner, but a discount is better than no discount.

10. Don't get ambitious with your itinerary.
Finally, don't try to cram over 4 attractions in one day. If you see from my itinerary, we only did about 3 attractions/locations on average in a day. That's why I hate going on guided tours because you only spend about an hour at a landmark that deserves more time than that. Sure, it's easier getting to places in a big comfortable coach (so lazy), the experience is more real—and that feeling of being able to find [insert name of attraction or restaurant] is amazing!)

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