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30 South Korea Travel Tips To Know Before Going!

South Korea is a place you’ll benefit from researching before visiting. If you’re reading my South Korea travel tips, you’re already doing a good job!
Saying this, I went in fairly blind and didn’t do much research before I arrived. Nothing went majorly wrong but there were a few things that floored me, such as why Google Maps wasn’t working and why no one would sell me an affordable SIM card!

KOREA ESSENTIALSAccommodation: Booking.com / HostelworldActivities: Viator / GetYourGuideGetting there: air (Kayak) Getting around: Train (Trip.com) / bus
Pre-book private airport to hotel transfer

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Here’s what to know before going to South Korea…

South Korea tips

After spending three weeks in South Korea, I feel confident to share my Korea tips and advice. I can’t promise I know absolutely everything about the culture and history (although I did my best) but I’m certainly clued up when it comes to Korea travel tips.The following 30 tips for visiting South Korea are designed to share practical advice and cultural know-how, making your trip easier and more meaningful.
Here are some things to know before going to South Korea:

Psst – looking for Seoul travel tips? Check out my Seoul itinerary and guide!

1. Data is expensive

My first Korea travel tip relates to the internet. I assumed I’d buy a local SIM like I do everywhere but this turned out to be more complicated than I’d realised. Without a residency card, you can’t access the deals the locals get.
I tried asking in countless stores and phone shops but to no avail.

2. But Wi-Fi is everywhere

When visiting South Korea, ask yourself if you actually need a SIM card. I’ve never been anywhere with quite so many Wi-Fi hotspots. Every subway station has Wi-Fi access as well as many trains and local buses.
Whenever I was out sightseeing, I’d nip into a station to download directions to my next location even if I wasn’t catching a train. I got by fine without data so you might want to disregard my South Korea travel tip #1 and use Wi-Fi instead.

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Gamcheon Culture Village

3. Rent your SIM/hotspot at the airport

If you do decide you’d rather get a SIM card than rely on Wi-Fi, a good option is to pre-order one and collect it at the airport.I started my SIM card hunt by asking my hostel owner where to get one. She answered ‘the airport’ which wasn’t ideal since I’d just spent an hour coming from there.Yep, it’s hard to find tourist SIM cards anywhere but the airport so this is definitely a helpful thing to know before visiting South Korea. Book your 4g SIM to collect at Seoul airport.
The other option is renting a portable Wi-Fi device. This often works out a bit cheaper than a SIM card and they also can be collected at the airport. Reserve your pocket Wi-fi device here.

4. Tipping isn’t necessary

Worried about the cost of travelling in South Korea? I’ll touch on this later but there’s one thing you don’t need to worry about: tipping. The price you see on a restaurant menu or at the bar is exactly what you’ll pay. In fact, tipping can appear quite rude, just like in Japan.
Giving a tip might suggest you think a waiter is below you hierarchically which is obviously to be avoided. Save those pennies for dessert!

5. Google Maps doesn’t really work

I’d never been somewhere without Google Maps so I was very surprised when I arrived in South Korea. It’s not that Maps doesn’t work at all but it’s not regularly updated and the maps won’t load to a close level. Public transport directions work but walking and driving ones do not.
South Korea prefers to rely on its own system rather than global companies which explains its reluctance to partner with Google. Some apps for travelling in Korea are Naver Maps and KakaoMap.

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Load journeys in advance to avoid getting lost

6. South Korea gets COLD

A tip for visiting South Korea in the winter is to prepare for the weather. Unlike other places in Asia that stay warm all year round, South Korea has severe winters. This means you’ll want to look at the seasons and weather before planning your trip, or at least dress accordingly.
As a lover of the sun (and a backpacker with too many sarongs and summer dresses), I waited for spring to visit. But if you have a woolly wardrobe ready to be packed, winter might be a beautiful time to visit South Korea.

Of all the things to know before going to Korea, the weather may be the most impactful. Here’s a rundown of the seasons.

  • Spring (March to May) – the best time for cool temperatures and seeing cherry blossoms
  • Summer (June to August) – hot and humid in the cities but generally manageable
  • Autumn (September to November) – this season is short with cool temperatures of 10-20 degrees. Note this is typhoon season.
  • Winter (December to March) – temperatures go down to -3 degrees.

7. It’s amazing for hiking

One thing that South Korea isn’t overly famous for is hiking. I hope this changes because this green and glorious island is the perfect place for long and short hikes for all abilities. I took some excellent day trips from Busan that nature lovers will enjoy.
Most are super easy to reach from the city thanks to efficient public transport.

Worthwhile hikes include:

  • Bukhansan National Park from Seoul
  • Seoraksan National Park (2.5 hours from Seoul, stay over in Sokcho city)
  • Apsan Park and observation deck from Daegu
  • Palgongsan Mountain from Daegu
  • Igidae Coastal Walk from Busan
  • Taejongdae Resort island hike from Busan.

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Igidae Coastal Walk, Busan

8. The Korean alphabet is easy

Apparently! I can’t say I learnt it but many travellers claim it’s pretty easy, plus it would be a fun activity for your South Korea bucket list.
Of course, I’m not saying that learning fluent spoken Korean is easy, but knowing the alphabet will enable you to recognise dishes on menus and place names.
If you’re good with languages, this could be a worthwhile tip for visiting South Korea.

9. Get a Tmoney card

My top South Korea tip for getting from a to b? Purchase a travel card.
Tmoney cards only cost 500 won when you consider than you get back 3,500 of the 4,000 deposit you pay. They make travelling South Korea so much easier because you don’t need to queue for ticket machines and you can quickly tap on to any bus or subway train.
You can buy them at subway stations and convenience stores.

10. The subway is efficient but don’t overlook the buses

Jumping on buses in foreign countries can be nerve-wracking but don’t worry in South Korea. The buses are safe, efficient and regular. For certain routes, they’ll even be quicker than catching the subway.Personally, I much prefer to get my bearings and watch the world go by from the window of a bus than sit underground so I always take the bus when I can.
In smaller cities like Daegu, Gyeongju and Jeonju, buses are the only option as there’s no subway. This South Korea travel tip is to embrace them!

11. Use Trip.com to book trains

You can book trains on Trip.com, the official partner of Korail (the railway network of Korea). This is the only train website that will take foreign payment card.

12. For buses, just show up

Unfortunately, for buses, you can’t use Trip.com and other booking websites only take Korean payment cards. Don’t worry because buses rarely book up so you can just turn up on the day. This is what I did and never had any problems.
As a general rule, before moving to a new place I checked out bus and train prices then took whichever was cheapest or quickest, depending on how much time I had.

13. You can only visit the DMZ with a tour

Visiting the DMZ is a fascinating addition to your South Korea trip. However, the only way to visit is with an official guide and organised tour group. Check out my tips for taking a DMZ tour from Seoul.

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Visiting the DMZ from Seoul

The second thing to know about visiting the DMZ is that tours can book up during busy months. Book a couple of days in advance if possible.
An additional South Korea tip: bring your passport to the DMZ with you otherwise you’ll be refused entry to the area. Imagine coming all that way and not being allowed in!

14. There are lots of affordable tours

Despite the fact that general costs are higher in South Korea than many other Asian countries, the price of tours are pretty similar. Trips and day tours on GetYourGuide and Klook start at $15, a useful Korea tip if travelling on a budget without your own vehicle.

15. Bank cards are widely accepted

Before arriving in South Korea I’d been in Southeast Asia, somewhere you can rarely pay on card. While I’d recommend having some cash on you in South Korea, most restaurants and shops do allow card transactions. However if you’re having street food for dinner, it’s cash payment or going hungry.

16. The currency is the South Korean won

The South Korean currency might make you feel wealthy but soz, it’s an illusion! The rate at the time of writing (Jan ‘22) is 1,600 to the pound or 1,200 to the dollar. You’ll be dropping at least 5,000 for dinner and 20,000 for hostel beds.

17. Prices are fairly high

I’d put South Korea between Southeast Asia and the West in terms of costs. You’ll certainly find it expensive if you’re used to Vietnam or Thailand but it won’t seem so bad if you’re arriving from the UK or US.

Read next: Korea on a budget

Hostel dorms cost around 20,000 won (£15 / $18) per night; street food meals cost between 2-5,000 won; cheap restaurant meals cost between 5,000-10,000 won; and train journeys are between 5-000-25,000 won. If you’re looking for South Korea tips for travelling on a budget, you need to get familiar with market food and dorms!

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Eat at markets to save money

Read next: guide to Seoul street food

18. The beauty culture is something else

Get ready to be bombarded with beauty products left right and centre! The South Korean beauty industry is one of the biggest in the world worth over $10 billion US. It’s also impossible to avoid. South Koreans are often super glamorous and rely heavily on whitening products.
Areas of Seoul like Myeondong are packed with beauty stores selling everything you never knew you needed. They’re a lot of fun to browse.

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Fancy Myeondong

19. Get ready to feel scruffy!

On that note, I’ve never felt scruffier than in South Korea. My backpack wardrobe was passable in other Asian countries but felt oh-so-crumpled and faded compared to what the locals wore. Particularly in Seoul!
If you’re looking for Seoul travel tips, I would suggest you pack a few smart outfits if you want to visit nice restaurants and bars. They aren’t mandatory but might make you blend in better!

20. Go hard or go home

I was surprised to learn that South Koreans are big social drinkers and love to party. Previously I’d been in Taiwan where the drinking culture was virtually nonexistent so I’d expected more of the same. How wrong I was!
In Seoul’s Hongdae, local partygoers stay out until 6am. You’ll also see businessmen pretty tipsy after post-work drinks. It was a side I’d not seen before in Asia and liked – after all, how often do you get to party with the locals?

21. Soju is life

If you’re headed to South Korea and don’t yet know Soju, you’ll want to remember this Korea travel tip. Soju is a fermented spirit and the national drink of South Korea. Apparently, it’s considered offensive to refuse a shot. And we wouldn’t want to cause offence now, would we? 😉
If you’re backpacking Korea on a budget, there’s a second reason to know about soju. It’s very cheap. Drinking soju at home is a fraction of the cost of drinking at a bar. Visit the 7-Eleven for apple, grape and grapefruit flavoured soju that can be drunk neat (it’s nowhere near as strong as the flavourless version).

22. There’s nowhere as crazy as Seoul

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Hongdae street art

Seoul is different from anywhere in the country. It reminded me of London in that way.If you try and compare anywhere else in South Korea to Seoul, you’ll end up surprised or even disappointed. While I’d recommend around 3 days in Busan, I’d suggest at least 5 days in Seoul. Nowhere rivals Seoul in size, quirkiness or diversity of the things to do.
For a real taste of what makes Seoul special, visit Hongdae in the evenings. You’ll find live music, street food, bizarre cafes where you can pet sheep and racoons, street art, and locals dining out and drinking coffee ‘til 4am. And partying ‘til even later!

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Hanok house in Jeonju

23. Buddy up for dinner

Something I didn’t anticipate in South Korea was not being to dine solo.Sure, sometimes newbie solo travellers might feel uncomfortable dining solo anywhere but that’s usually down to fear of being judged rather than actual restaurant restrictions. For Korean barbecues and dak galbi meals (a chicken and cheese hotplate dish), there’s often a minimum of 2 diners required. Super annoying right?
My best South Korea travel tip is to always ask. I found a barbecue restaurant that were happy to seat me but charged me an extra 5,000 won (£3). Irritating but better than not being able to try a Korean barbecue while in Korea. The other option is to stay in a hostel where they offer shared dinner trips to counteract this problem.

24. Veggies & vegans may struggle

South Korean food is meat-heavy, from barbecues to Korean fried chicken and street food. Even bibimbap usually contains beef although you can usually ask for it without.
Use HappyCow to seek out veggie and vegan cafes and restaurants. You can also check out this Seoul vegan guide.

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Bibimbap saves the day

25. Fresh veggies are hard to find

This follows on from the last point. I’m not vegetarian but that doesn’t mean I want to eat fried meat three times a day and never see a vegetable!
Of all the places I’ve been (apart from maybe the Philippines), South Korea is the most challenging for finding fresh food. The best you’ll get in a 7-Eleven is a lone banana wrapped in plastic and strapped to polystyrene.Supermarkets aren’t prevalent so unless you know where the local markets are and manage to haggle in Korean (or with a bit of pointing and gesturing) it can be tricky.
My best Korea travel tip for staying healthy is to have a Korean barbeque meal and go easy on the meat and heavy on the salad bar. Otherwise, get your miming skills on and pick up some sweet potatoes and peppers at a local market.

26. South Korea is safe for solo females

Super safe! South Korea has a low crime rate and you’ll feel perfectly safe during your trip. The locals can be shy when talking to foreigners but they’ll certainly help you out if they can. Whenever I asked for directions, they went out of their way to help even if they clearly had no idea!
Check out my solo female travel archives for travel tips around the world.

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Safe and happy in South Korea

Finally, some tips around etiquette and society…

27. South Korea only became wealthy recently

South Korea today is thriving, especially in the cities. Locals have money for leisure and socialising which means there are great cafes, restaurants and theme parks. However this hasn’t always been the case.The Korean War lasted until 1953, destroying the economy and ripping the country in two quite literally. For many years, people struggled and the average family had very little to live on.
Nowadays things have drastically improved. Young people may not remember the dark days but the older generation do. Many traditional professions are dying because young people prefer to work in offices or within the tourist industry. I can’t say I blame them but it’s a sad situation to consider.

28. South Koreans are very romantic

When you arrive in South Korea, you might notice the couples behaving very… coupley. Although not quite how they would in the West. Rather than openly kissing, young couples in South Korea like to play fight in a cutesy way. They’ll tickle each other’s arms, pinch ears, lovingly caress elbows. Well, each to their own right?Apparently, showing public affection wasn’t considered acceptable until a couple of decades ago. In fact, it was frowned upon to even hold hands. Nowadays, young people are enjoying their newfound freedom – elbows and all!
The other thing to know? There’s a huge pressure to couple up. Single shaming is way worse than the West and I’m sure some of us can vouch for how bad it is there!

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Solo and happy in SK, what dis?

29. Respect the elders

Most Asian societies have strong respect for their elders but Korea has a whole language to honour theirs!The Korean language takes into consideration the relationship between the speaker and their subject. So if you’re addressing someone of hierarchal superiority (like a boss, customer or teacher) or an elder, you’ll use different nouns and word endings.
You’ll only use informal versions if someone is younger than you or an employee/student. And getting it wrong is considered very rude. Eek. It’s unlikely to affect you as a tourist but you should always try to be extra polite and respectful to older Koreans.

30. South Korean society is stressful for young people

This point is more of a cultural one than a tip for visiting South Korea. However I think it’s an interesting point to consider while travelling around.South Korea is a wealthy nation with good education and career opportunities for young people. Perhaps because of recent improvement in these areas, the older generation are keen to ensure their children and grandchildren do as well as possible and therefore put tremendous pressure on them, in terms of getting good grades and then high-flying jobs.Despite being modernised, South Korea is still a conservative country. Gay rights are poor and sex before marriage is still frowned upon. People are expected to get married young and feel they are ‘left on the shelf’ otherwise. Combine that with unrealistic beauty standards (remember all those products I mentioned) and I’m sure you can imagine the stress on young South Koreans.With all the above considered, it’s little wonder mental illness and suicide rates are at an all-time high for South Koreans. With a long life expectancy and ageing population, the problem even extends to older people who don’t want to be a burden on their families.
You’ll unlikely see any evidence of this travelling around but it’s something to think about, plus we should all practise kindness wherever we go!