In general you don’t need to worry about where to stay – hotels and motels are so numerous there's usually little need to book ahead.
- Motels The most common form of accommodation. Most offer plain, if well-equipped rooms. Some can be fancy, particularly rent-by-the-hour love motels.
- Hanok guesthouses Often only have a few rooms, so advance booking is advised.
- Hostels and guesthouses Common in cities, and the best place to meet fellow travellers and English-speaking Koreans.
What to Expect
Outside the big cities and towns – where you’ll find regular hotels, motels and hostels – the most common type of accommodation will be minbak – private homes with rooms for rent.
Accommodation is normally charged per room, so solo travellers receive little or no discount. Still, it’s always worth asking. If you’re staying a few days or if it’s low season (outside July and August on the coast or outside July, August, October and November in national parks), you can always try for discounts. Some hostels and hanok (traditional wooden home) guesthouses include a simple breakfast in their rates; most hotels don’t.
Budget and midrange places usually include VAT of 10% in their rates. Top-end hotels include this VAT as well as another service charge of 10% in their rates. The Korean government runs a Hotel Tax Refund promotion, refunding the VAT from a select list of hotels – mostly high-end in the major cities. See the list and refund procedure at http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/ACM/AC_ENG_4_2.jsp.
Only staff in Seoul guesthouses and upper-midrange and top-end hotels are likely to speak any English. An extra bed or yo (mattress or futon on the floor) is usually available. Check-out time is generally noon. Prices can rise on Friday and Saturday and at peak times (July and August near beaches or national parks, plus October and November near national parks). Many guesthouses are technically private residences and do not have open doors for enquiries, so you need to call ahead if you want to take a peek.
Although some places offer use of a washing machine (and sometimes a dryer), laundry can be a problem – outside Seoul you may find yourself having to wash your clothes in the bathroom and hanging them up in your room to dry, or laying them on the ondol-heated floor.
Backpacker Guesthouses & Hostels
The backpacker scene is well established in Seoul, and is starting to become popular elsewhere in Korea. When you find them, these internationally minded hostels are ideal for budget-oriented tourists, and have staff who are friendly and speak English. In Korea the line between a guesthouse and a hostel is often blurred. Both usually offer dormitories (from ₩17,000 per night) and double rooms (from ₩40,000), some of which have private bathrooms, though motels offer better value for private rooms. Communal facilities include toilets, showers, satellite TV, a kitchen and washing machine. Free internet and a simple breakfast is typically provided.
Camping & Mountain & Forest Huts
Camping at beaches and in or near some national and provincial parks is possible. The cost is ₩2000 to ₩3000 per person per night but facilities are very basic and they are usually only open in July and August.
Only a few major hikes in Seoraksan and Jirisan National Parks require an overnight stay in a mountain hut or shelter. Huts and camping grounds can be fully booked at weekends and during high season, when there is often also a small price increase.
For more information see http://english.knps.or.kr.
Traditional hanok are increasingly being turned into guesthouses. Staying in one of these is a unique and memorable experience. Rooms are small and you’ll sleep on yo (padded quilts and mattresses) on the floor, but underfloor heating systems (ondol) keep them snug in winter. At the cheaper hanok you’ll be sharing the bathroom, but many guesthouses do offer en-suite rooms. Rates often include breakfast, and traditional cultural experiences may be offered too.
For more about hanok guesthouses across Korea see the KTO site Hanokstay (www.hanokstay.or.kr).
These are the best way to experience Korean food, customs and family life at close quarters. Most Korean families sign up to such schemes to meet and make friends with foreigners and to practise their English. Some families offer pick-ups and dinner, and rates are greatly reduced if you stay long-term. The charge for bed and breakfast per night can be as low as ₩30,000 per person. Homestays can be booked online.
Luxury hotels are relatively scarce outside major cities and Jeju-do, except for some resorts such as those in Pyeongchang. The lobbies, fitness centres, restaurants and other services are often their strong points – when it comes to room design and facilities, motels tend to offer a better deal. We list rack rates (including service and taxes), but discounts or packages are nearly always available.
Minbak & Pension
Most minbak provide simple accommodation (and usually meals) on islands, near ski resorts, in rural areas and near beaches and national parks. Expect to pay ₩40,000 for a room but double that in peak seasons. You sleep on a yo on an ondol-heated floor, usually with a TV and a heater or fan in the room. Facilities may not include private bathrooms. Lots of people can squeeze into one room – an extra person usually costs ₩10,000. More upmarket minbak cost ₩50,000 or more and provide smart, stylish rooms with beds and kitchenettes.
Pension cost from ₩50,000 upwards and can be more luxurious than most minbak. They are often simple properties with an equipped kitchen and lots of space, inside and out, for groups of self-catering travellers.
Motels & Love Motels
Motels and love motels are by far the most common form of accommodation across Korea. The rooms are always on the small size but they are packed with facilities – private bathroom, smart TV, phone, fridge, drinking water, air-con and heating, toiletries and even computers. However, staff rarely speak English and motels lack communal areas beyond the lobby, which is not designed for lingering.
Love motels cater for couples seeking some by-the-hour privacy, but they also accept conventional overnight guests. The modern kind are clean, aimed at young guests and are easy to spot by the neon and glitzy casino-like exteriors. If you can cope with the clandestine locations (and possibly intrusive noise from neighbouring rooms), they can be an excellent option; some of the extravagantly decorated rooms are a bargain compared what you’d pay for similar facilities at a top-end hotel. Some love motels, however, require a late check-in, around 9pm; earlier check-ins cost more.
If you want to rent an apartment it's recommended that you see a licensed real estate agent, who can make navigating the traditional payment system easy. Otherwise it can be necessary to pay a huge deposit and the whole rental period up front to the landlord. Browse Seoul websites Nicerent (www.nicerent.com) or Seoul Homes (www.seoulhomes.kr) for what’s on offer. Real estate is measured in pyeong (one pyeong is 3.3 sq metres). Backpacker guesthouses and motels sometimes offer reduced rates for long-term tenants.
Go to www.korea4expats.com for useful information on this topic under the 'Moving To Korea' section.
Saunas and jjimjil-bang (luxury saunas) usually have a dormitory or napping room. They are not really meant for overnight sleepovers, but they can be used for that purpose. Pay the entry fee (usually under ₩10,000), use the facilities and then head for the dormitory. Don’t expect much in the way of bedding, and the pillow may be a block of wood. Be sure that your belongings and locker key are secure while you sleep, as thefts can occur.
Seoul has several serviced-apartment complexes, which can be a good alternative to hotel rooms and the hassle of finding and renting an apartment. They’re known locally as residences or suites; prices start at ₩90,000 a day for a studio apartment, with big discounts for month-long stays.
Around 100 temples across the country provide overnight accommodation in the form of a Templestay program (www.templestay.com), most charging ₩50,000 to ₩70,000 per night including all meals. No attempt will be made to try to convert you to Buddhism and they provide a chance not only to experience the life of a monk but also to stay in some incredibly beautiful places. That said, you do learn about Buddhist practices such as meditation and the 108 prostrations; there is usually at least one person who speaks some English. This is an increasingly popular choice of accommodation, with more temples geared towards accepting foreigners, while others will also happily let you stay if you bring along a Korean to help translate.
‘Adequate but shabby’ sums up most yeogwan (small, family-run hotels), which provide old-fashioned budget rooms, but are only ₩5000 to ₩10,000 cheaper than much better modern motels. Quilts are usually aired rather than washed so you may want to bring sheets with you.
Hostelling International Korea (www.youthhostel.or.kr) runs 70 large modern youth hostels around the country. The dormitories offer a good deal for solo travellers on a budget, at around ₩20,000 a night. Private and family rooms cost as much as motel rooms and are unlikely to be as good. They also can be rather institutional and inconveniently located, and are sometimes full of noisy children on a school trip. You can buy e-membership through a Youth Hostel Certificate and use it immediately from your phone (annual membership ₩17,000).