Korean Air and Asiana, the two major domestic airlines, provide flights to and from a dozen local airports, and usually charge identical but reasonable fares – competition is being supplied by a handful of budget airlines. Gimpo International Airport handles nearly all Seoul’s domestic flights, but Incheon International Airport also has a handful of domestic flights to Busan, Daegu and Jeju-do. Budget T'way Airlines now runs more domestic fights to Jeju-do, from Gimpo, Daegu or Gwangju. 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.
The Korean government promotes cycling as a green and healthy means of transport. Seoul’s metropolitan government has expanded cycling infrastructure in the city, including its own city bike scheme, Seoul Bike (www.bikeseoul.com), which visitors can use. However, poor local driving habits make cycling in Korea a less than pleasurable experience, especially in urban areas.
That said, hiring a bike for short trips in areas with bike paths or little traffic is a good idea. Bicycle hire starts at ₩3000 per hour, with discounts available for one-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 bike lock.
Jan Boonstra’s website Bicycling in Korea (www.janboonstra.com) has some useful information.
Korea has an extensive network of ferries that connects hundreds of offshore islands to each other and to the mainland. Services from Incheon’s Yeonan Pier connect to a dozen nearby and more distant islands, while other west-coast islands further south can be reached from Daecheon harbour and Gunsan.
Incheon, Mokpo, Wan-do, Sam-chunpo
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. Listed bus frequencies are approximate, as 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. Most buses don’t have toilets on board, but on long journeys drivers take a 10-minute rest at a refreshment stop every few hours. When buses aren't busy, locals ignore designated seating and sit where they like.
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 (sometimes overheated) 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 ₩4000 for an hour-long journey on a standard bus.
Buses are so frequent that it’s unnecessary to buy a ticket in advance except on weekends and during holiday periods. Buy tickets at the bus terminals. You can check schedules on www.kobus.co.kr and www.hticket.co.kr.
K-shuttle Bus Tours
The foreigner-only K-shuttle (www.k-shuttle.com) tour-bus service departs Seoul with a couple of three days, two nights packages (₩428,000), which include accommodation, breakfast, a guide who speaks English, Japanese or Chinese, and admission fees to various tourist sites along the way:
- Western Course Stops in Buyeo, Jeonju, Yeosu and Busan before returning to Seoul.
- Eastern Course Stops in Gangneung, Pyeonchang, Wonju, Andong, Gyeongju and Busan before returning to Seoul.
It’s also possible to use the service to cover one or more sectors of a tour without the package component; for example, the fare from Seoul to Jeonju is ₩42,000, or to Andong ₩70,000.
Reserve your place on the 35-seater coaches at least five days in advance. There is no designated seating.
Car & Motorcycle
Drivers must have a current (issued the year of travel) International Driving Permit, which should be obtained in your home country before arrival in Korea; they are not available in Korea and many motorbike- and car-rental companies will not rent you a vehicle unless you have one.
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 Permit (a driving licence from your own country is not acceptable). Rates start at around ₩65,000 per day for a compact car but can be discounted by up to 50%. Insurance costs around ₩10,000 a day, but depends on the level of the excess you choose. It is better to rent a Korean car because in the event of an accident, it is much cheaper to fix, resulting in a lower deductible. Chauffeur service is also an option.
Incheon International Airport has a couple of car-rental agencies. Try Lotte Rent-a-Car (www.lotterentacar.net) or Avis. GPS is likely to be in Korean only.
Insurance is compulsory for all drivers in Korea. 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.
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 islands such as Jeju-do or Ganghwado can be much smoother but public transport is so good that there’s little incentive to sit behind a steering wheel.
- Vehicles drive on the right side of the road.
- The driver and front-seat passenger 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.
Accepting a lift anywhere has an element of risk so we don’t recommend it. 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.
Bus, subway, taxi and train fares can all be paid using the rechargeable, touch-and-go T-Money Card (http://eng.t-money.co.kr); the card provides a ₩100 discount per trip. The basic card can be bought for a nonrefundable ₩3000 at any subway-station booth, bus kiosks and convenience stores displaying the T-Money logo across the country. Reload it with credit at any of the aforementioned places and get money refunded that hasn’t been used (up to ₩20,000 minus a processing fee of ₩500) at subway machines and participating convenience stores before you leave. A competitor, but less widely accepted and available, card is Cash Bee. Both cards can be used to purchase goods at convenience stores and from vending machines.
T-Money cards are highly recommended because of the convenience but also the discounts offered when transferring to a different bus or train route. In Seoul for example, you can transfer within 30 minutes of one trip and potentially pay only ₩100 for the second leg of the journey.
Local city buses provide a frequent and inexpensive service (from ₩1200 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. Put the fare in the glass box next to the driver – make sure you have plenty of ₩1000 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 usually don't speak English. Writing your destination in big hangeul (Korean phonetic alphabet) letters on a piece of paper will be helpful. Local tourist information centres usually have English-speaking staff; these are the best places to find out which local bus goes where, and where to pick it up. The app Naver Map is available in English and has accurate journey planner information for the whole country.
Six cities have a subway system: Seoul, Busan, Daejeon, Daegu, Gwangju and Incheon. The subway (also referred to as the metro) 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, it is foreigner-friendly and easy to use.
Taxis are numerous almost everywhere and fares are inexpensive. Every taxi has a meter that works on a distance basis but switches to a time basis when the vehicle is stuck in a traffic jam. Tipping is not a local custom and is not expected or necessary.
Ilban (regular taxis) cost around ₩3300 for the first 2km with a 20% surcharge from midnight to 4am, while the pricier mobeom (deluxe taxis; black with a yellow top) that exist in some cities cost around ₩5500 for the first 3km but with no late-night surcharge.
Any expressway tolls are added to the fare. In the countryside check the fare first as there are local quirks, such as surcharges or a fixed rate to out-of-the-way places with little prospect of a return fare.
Since few taxi drivers speak English, plan how to communicate with the driver; if you have a mobile phone you can also use the 1330 tourist advice line to help with interpretation. Ask to be dropped off at a nearby landmark if the driver doesn’t understand what you’re saying or doesn’t know where it is. It can be useful to write down your destination or a nearby landmark in hangeul on a piece of paper.
South Korea has an excellent but not comprehensive train network operated by Korail (www.letskorail.com, 1544 7788). 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.
If you plan to travel by train a lot over a short period consider buying a ‘KR pass’ – see the website for details.
The fastest train is the Korea Train Express (KTX). A grade down are Saemaeul services, which also only stop in major towns. Mugunghwa trains are comfortable and fast but stop more often.
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 (www.letskorail.com). 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. KTX tickets are discounted 7% to 20% if you buy them seven to 30 days before departure. Tickets are discounted 15% from Monday to Friday, 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 seat. Children travel for half price any time; over 65-year-olds receive a 30% discount Monday to Friday.
The railway ticketing system is computerised and you can buy tickets up to a month in advance online, on the Korail app KorailTalk (from the Apple App Store or Google Play), at train stations and many travel agencies. Seat reservations are sensible and necessary on weekends, holidays and other busy times.
Foreigners can buy a Korail Pass (www.letskorail.com) at overseas travel agencies or online; it offers unlimited rail travel (including KTX services) for one (₩81,000), three (₩113,000), five (₩168,000) or seven (₩195,000) consecutive days; there is also a 'select pass' that allows you to select either two (₩102,000) or four (₩154,000) days within a 10-day window, without having to travel on consecutive days. Children (four to 12 years) receive a 50% discount, and youths (13 to 25 years old) receive a 20% discount.
However, distances in Korea are not great, and trains don’t go everywhere, so the pass is unlikely to save you much, if any, money unless you plan to shuttle more frequently than a Lonely Planet researcher back and forth across the country.