South Korea is a public-transport dream come true with everything reasonably priced. Planes, trains and express buses link major cities, intercity buses link cities and towns large and small, while local buses provide a surprisingly good service to national and provincial parks and villages in outlying rural areas. Car ferries ply numerous routes to offshore islands. Local urban buses, subways and taxis make getting around cities and towns easy. All transport works on the Korean ppallippalli (hurry hurry) system, so buses and trains leave on time, and buses and taxis tend to be driven fast with little regard to road rules.
Korea has a very extensive network of ferries that connects hundreds of offshore islands to each other and to the mainland. The large southern island of Jejudo can be reached by ferry from Mokpo or Wando in Jeollanam-do or on longer boat trips from Busan and Incheon, although most people fly these days. On the west coast, ferries from Incheon’s Yeonan Pier service a dozen nearby and more distant islands, while other west-coast islands further south can be reached from Daecheon harbour and Gunsan. Mokpo, Wando, Yeosu and Busan provide access to countless islands strung along the south coast. Remote Ulleungdo off the east coast can be reached by ferry from Pohang or Donghae. Inland ferries run along a couple of large scenic lakes – Soyang Lake in Gang·won-do and Chungju Lake in Chungcheongbuk-do.
Accepting a lift anywhere always has an element of risk so we don’t recommend it. Also, hitching is not a local custom and there is no particular signal for it. However, Korea is relatively crime-free, so if you get stuck in a rural area, stick out your thumb and the chances are that some kind person will give you a lift. Drivers often go out of their way to help foreigners. Normally bus services are frequent and cheap enough, even in the countryside, to make hitching unnecessary.
Driving in Korea is not recommended for first-time visitors, but travellers who wish to hire a car must be 21 years or over and must by law have an international driving licence (a driving licence from your own country is not acceptable). Rates start at around W63,000 per day for a compact car but can be discounted by up to 50%. Insurance costs around W10,000 a day, but depends on the level of the excess you choose. Chauffeur service is also an option.
Bring Your Own Vehicle Contact customs (english.customs.go.kr/) for information on regulations concerning importing your own car. The vast majority of cars running in the country are Korean-made, although a few luxury cars are imported. Repairs and spare parts are not generally available for most imported cars, but finding petrol is no problem.
Driving Licence Drivers must have an international driving licence, which should be obtained before arrival as they’re not available in Korea. After one year, a Korean driving licence must be obtained. For more info see the website of the Driver’s License Agency (www.dla.go.kr/english/index.jsp).
Road Conditions Korea has an appalling road-accident record, and foreign drivers in large cities are likely to spend most of their time lost, stuck in traffic jams, looking for a parking space or taking evasive action. Impatient and careless drivers are a major hazard and traffic rules are frequently ignored. Driving in rural areas or on Jeju-do is more feasible, but public transport is so good that few visitors feel the urge to sit down behind a steering wheel.
Speed cameras are ubiquitous, and your credit card may be debited for a speeding fine even after you’ve handed your hire-car back.
Road Rules Vehicles drive on the right side of the road. The driver and front-seat passengers must wear seatbelts, drunk drivers receive heavy fines, and victims of road accidents are often paid a big sum by drivers wanting to avoid a court case.
Insurance is compulsory for all drivers. Since the chance of having an accident is higher than in nearly all other developed countries obtain as much cover as you can, with a low excess.
Thousands of long-distance buses whiz to every nook and cranny of the country, every 15 minutes between major cities and towns, and at least hourly to small towns, villages, temples and national and provincial parks. Buses don’t usually run on a regular timetable and times vary throughout the day. Bus terminals have staff on hand to ensure that everyone boards the right bus, so help is always available. Buses don’t have toilets on board, but on long journeys drivers take a 10-minute rest at a refreshment stop every few hours.
Express buses link major cities, while intercity buses stop more often and serve smaller cities and towns. The buses are similar, but they use separate (often neighbouring) terminals. Expressways have a special bus lane that operates at weekends and reduces delays due to heavy traffic. Buses always leave on time (or even early!) and go to far more places than trains, but are not as comfortable or smooth, so for travelling long distances trains can be the better option.
Udeung (superior-class express buses) have three seats per row instead of four, but cost 50% more than ilban (standard buses). Buses that travel after 10pm have a 10% surcharge and are generally superior class.
Expect to pay around W4000 for an hour-long journey on a standard bus.
Buses are so frequent that it’s not necessary to buy a ticket in advance except perhaps on holidays and weekends. Buy tickets at the bus terminals.
Local city buses provide a frequent and inexpensive service (around W850 a trip, irrespective of how far you travel), and although rural buses provide a less-frequent service, many run on an hourly or half-hourly basis, so you don’t usually have to wait long. Put the fare in the glass box next to the driver – make sure you have plenty of W1000 notes because the machines only give coins in change.
The main problem with local buses is finding and getting on the right bus – bus timetables, bus-stop names and destination signs on buses are rarely in English, and bus drivers don’t speak English. Writing your destination in big Han·geul (Korean phonetic alphabet) letters on a piece of card can be helpful. Local tourist information centres usually have English-speaking staff, and are the best places to find out which local bus number goes where, and where to pick it up.
South Korea has an excellent but not comprehensive train network operated by Korea National Railroad (1544 7788; www.korail.go.kr), connecting most major cities and the towns along the way. Trains are clean, comfortable and punctual, and just about every station has a sign in Korean and English. Trains are the best option for long-distance travel, although buying a ticket in advance is a good idea, especially at the weekends. Go to the website, click on ‘online reservation’ and then ‘inquiry/reservation’ to access all the train schedules and fares.
Talks about reopening rail links between North and South Korea are continuing, but this depends on the agreement of the North Korean government. If the rail link ever started running, it would open the way to the development of a Seoul–London and even a Seoul–Singapore rail link, but this is probably a very distant dream.
There are four classes of trains. Developed in Korea, the new high-speed KTX trains, introduced in 2004, can travel at over 300km/h. At present the high-speed track extends from Seoul to Daejeon, which KTX trains reach in an hour or less, and is being extended to Busan on the east coast. The next fastest and most luxurious are Saemaul trains, which also stop only in major cities. Mugunghwa trains stop more often and are almost as comfortable and fast as Saemaul trains. Tonggeun (commuter) trains are the cheapest and stop at every station, but only run infrequently on certain routes and are a dying breed. Many trains have a train cafe where you not only buy drinks and snack foods but also surf the internet, play computer games, even sing karaoke. If a train is standing-room only, hanging out in the train cafe for the journey is the best way to go.
The full range of discounts is complicated and confusing. For fares and schedules see the Korail website. KTX trains are 40% more expensive than Saemaul trains (and KTX 1st class is another 40%). Saemaul 1st class is 22% more than the standard Saemaul fare. Saemaul standard fares are 50% more than Mugunghwa class, which is 80% more expensive than tonggeun (commuter) class. KTX tickets are discounted 7% to 20% if you buy seven to 60 days before departure. Tickets are discounted 15% from Tuesday to Thursday, and ipseokpyo (standing tickets) are discounted 15% to 30% depending on the length of the journey; with a standing ticket, you are allowed to sit on any unoccupied seats. Children travel for half price and seniors receive a 25% discount.
The railway ticketing system is computerised and you can buy tickets up to two months in advance at railway stations and some travel agents. There are far fewer trains than buses, so seat reservations are sensible and necessary on weekends, holidays and other busy times.
Six cities now have a subway system: Seoul, Busan, Daejeon, Daegu, Gwangju and Incheon. The subway is a cheap and convenient way of getting around these major cities, and since signs and station names are in English as well as Korean, the systems are foreigner-friendly and easy to use.
Korean Air and Asiana, the two major domestic airlines, provide flights to and from a dozen local airports, and charge virtually identical but very reasonable fares – competition is being supplied by budget newcomers such as Eastar Jet, which has services between Seoul, Gunsan and Cheongju to Jeju-do. Gimpo International Airport handles nearly all of Seoul’s domestic flights, but Incheon International Airport handles a handful of domestic flights to Busan, Daegu and Jeju-do. The longest flight time is just over an hour between Seoul Gimpo and Jeju-do.
Fares are 15% cheaper from Monday to Thursday when seats are easier to obtain. Flights on public holidays have a surcharge and are often booked out. Students and children receive discounts, and foreigners should always carry their passports on domestic flights for ID purposes.
As part of his plan for tackling Korea’s rising carbon emissions, President Lee Myung-bak plans to boost Korea’s bicycle industry so it becomes the third largest in the world. Seoul’s metropolitan government is supporting the plan by expanding cycling infrastructure in the city, creating 207km of dedicated cycle lanes, centres at four major subway stations where bikes can be stored and hired, and showers and lockers for cycle commuters at 16 subway stations.
Something will have to be done about poor local driving habits though, because currently these make cycling in Korea a less than pleasurable experience, especially in urban areas. This said, hiring a bike for short trips in areas with bike paths or little traffic is a good idea. Bicycle hire is usually W3000 an hour, but try for a discount for a day’s hire. You’ll have to leave your passport or negotiate some other ID or deposit. Helmets are typically not available and you may need your own padlock.
Jan Boonstra’s website Bicycling in Korea (user.chollian.net/~boonstra/korea/cycle.htm) has some useful information.