Basic South Korea Travel Tips for First-Time Visitors

Planning to visit South Korea for the first time or revisiting? Here’s essential South Korea travel tips and basic information to know before you go.

I’ve been to South Korea four times now, and I’m always learning something new. Here’s information I wished I knew when I first visited.

Prebook before your trip:

📲 Local sim card or eSIM card from Klook

🚊 Ride from the airport: prebook a transfer | airport bus | AREX train

🚊 Purchase a KTX Pass online for travel to multiple cities

💳 Buy a pre-loaded T-money card

🚙 Rent a car in South Korea for as cheap as $28 USD a day

🎫 Browse through dozens of available South Korea tours

South Korea Travel Tips: Quick Facts

Colorful map with Korea circled in red marker

▢ South Korea is a country located in Northeast Asia with a population of 51.74 million people.

▢ The country is divided into 9 provinces: Gangwon, Gyeonggi, Jeju, North Chungcheong, South Chungcheong, North Gyeongsang, South Gyeongsang, North Jeolla, and South Jeolla.

▢ There are 8 main metropolitan cities, with Seoul as the capital.

▢ Its major industries include shipbuilding, electronics, textiles and tourism.

Korean is the main language. Hangul is the Korean alphabet.

▢ South Korea’s currency is called the won. $1 USD = 1,238 won, or $10 = 13,000 won.


Why Should You Visit South Korea?

A green royal palace in Korea with cherry blossom trees

▢ During your visit, you’ll experience Korea’s heritage weaved into its modern culture from architecture, to cuisine, and social customs.

▢ Its historic sites are easily accessible to tourists and are well preserved. Witness these time hops into the Joseon Dynasty, or the last dynastic kingdom of Korea.

▢ There are 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in South Korea: 13 cultural sites and 2 natural heritage sites.

▢ South Korea is a very safe country to visit for tourists with low crime rates.

Add a memorable experience to your trip with a group or private tour:


Some Cultural Differences in South Korea

Myeongdong Shopping Street in Seoul with lots of colorful shops on the side

▢ There is no tipping culture in South Korea and tipping may come off as rude. Many restaurants are self-service, including returning your dishes to the counter.

▢ South Korea has a pretty heavy drinking culture and drinking in public is legal. Some popular drinks are soju, beer and makgeolli, or rice wine.

It’s custom to give and receive with two hands the following items: cash, credit card, business cards, gifts and important documents.

Common questions people ask others are blood type, MBTI, occupation, and age as a way to gauge someone’s personality.


🎥 Watch my South Korea vlogs

Things I wish I knew before traveling to Seoul 🇰🇷 South Korea Travel Tips

Best Times to Visit by Season

High viewpoint of Seoul at night with lit up buildings

South Korea experiences four main seasons:

  • Spring: March to May
  • Summer: June to August
  • Autumn: September to November
  • Winter: December to February

Summer months are hot and humid, with beginnings of rainfall in late June. (Read my Summer in Seoul tips.)

Spring is a great time to experience the cherry blossom season (late March to early April).

Autumn sees mild weather and colorful scenery. Fall foliage is beautiful here.

Winter can be uncomfortably cold with some snow, though beautiful landscapes.

✈️ Tip: Use Skyscanner to see which months and days are cheapest to fly to South Korea


Basic Korean Travel Phrases

Hello written on a lined paper with the translation in Korean underneath

English is not widely-spoken in South Korea. It’s best to learn basic phrases and use a translation app like Papago or Google Translate.

Though most locals are willing to help if you ask!

▢ In non-touristy areas or restaurants, menus may not be provided in English.

Tip: Use Papago or Google Translate’s camera tool to scan the menu to English, or use the translator to communicate with staff. This is one of the most essential South Korea travel tips!

These are the phrases I use most when visiting South Korea:

  • Hello: Annyeonghaseyo (ahn-nyung-ha-seh-yo)
  • One please (1 person, 1 of this): Hana juseyo (ha-na joo-seh-yo)
  • Sorry: joesonghamnida (jeh-song ham-ni-da
  • I don’t speak Korean: Hanguk-mal motteo (ha-ng-gook-mul mo-teh-yo)
  • Thank you: Kamsahamnida (kham-sa-hum-knee-dah)
  • How much is it?: Eolmayeyo? (ol-ma-eh-yo)
  • No thanks / it’s alright: Gwenchanayo (gwen-chan-nah-yo)
  • No: animnida (ah-nim-knee-dah)
  • Yes: deh (deh)

Most Popular Cities to Visit

A large lava cliff on water called Daepo Jusangjeolli in Jeju Island

🚊 If you plan to visit multiple cities by train, get a KTX Pass online.

Seoul

Seoul is a megacity of modern and traditional Korean culture. Visit royal palaces, roam the many green spaces and parks, and enjoy eclectic shops and nightlife.

🎥 Here’s a playlist of my Seoul vlogs and all of my Seoul blog posts.

Busan

The 2nd largest city in South Korea, Busan is a port city known for its beaches and cultural sites. Busan is just a 2-3 hour train ride from Seoul.

🎥 Watch my Busan vlogs and check out all of my Busan blog posts.

Jeju Island

Jeju-do is an hour flight south of Busan. It’s a nice escape to experience UNESCO sites, hiking, and waterfalls. The only public transit available is bus, but Jeju by bus is 100% possible.

🎥 Watch my Jeju travel guide video with everything you need to know before you visit and all of my Jeju blog posts.

I personally have not yet been, but the other metropolitan and largest cities in South Korea are: Daegu, Daejeon, Gwangju, Sejong, and Ulsan.

Other cities I’ve been to include Gyeongju and Pohang, both beautiful cities. You can watch my Gyeongju vlog and Pohang vlog that include additional South Korea travel tips.


Notable Festivals & Holidays

Trays of colorful traditional Korean desserts for Chuseok holiday

January 21-24: Lunar New Year’s Day (Seollal) celebrates the start of the Lunar calendar. Many businesses may be closed during this time.

Mid-March to April: Cherry Blossom season is a popular time to visit South Korea. Cherry blossom trees bloom throughout the country.

August 15: National Liberation Day of Korea (Gwangbokjeol) celebrates the end of Japan’s rule over Korea. Gwangbokjeol means a return to light.

September 28-30: Chuseok is a 3-day holiday for families to spend time together and give thanks to their ancestors and for a fruitful fall harvest. Many businesses may be closed during this time.


Getting Around South Korea / Transportation

A blurred image of locals walking through a subway station in South Korea

Quick Links:
💳 Buy a pre-loaded T-money card

🚊 Purchase a KTX Pass online for travel to multiple cities

🎫 Prebook your KTX train tickets online

🚙 Rent a car in South Korea for as cheap as $28 USD a day

🚌 Prebook an express bus to travel to other cities

▢ Besides Ulsan and Sejong, there are rapid train systems in all major metropolitan cities. The trains are efficient and easy to navigate with signs in English.

▢ You can purchase single-journey tickets, but I recommend buying a T-money card upon arrival at the airport or at most convenience stores. It’s a topable card that you can use to pay on trains, buses, most taxis, and many stores throughout South Korea. This is probably in my top 3 South Korea travel tips.

For travel between cities, you can take the KTX, or South Korea’s bullet train, as well as express buses that you can prebook on Klook.

If you’re traveling to multiple cities in South Korea, make it easier by buying a KTX Pass.

For taxis, Uber works in major cities, though rides may be limited. You can also download the Kakao Taxi app to book rides and pay in cash after the ride.

Another option is to hail white taxis. A translator app may be needed if you do not know basic Korean phrases, or make sure to have your address written down prior.

▢ You can also rent a car in South Korea for as cheap as $28 USD a day.

Google Maps is not optimized to use in South Korea, especially for walking directions. For Seoul I recommend the app CityMapper, which is in English.

While less tourist-friendly, the most popular apps for getting around in South Korea are Kakao Map and Naver Map. They are especially useful for taking buses.


What to Pack for South Korea

Three graphic icons of plug, teal backpack, and a phone charging - essential South Korea travel tips

▢ South Korea uses 220V voltage and 60Hz, plug type F. While some hotels provide USB charging outlets, it’s best to bring or purchase the correct plug or a travel adaptor. I use a universal travel adaptor.

Power Bank, for best practice, especially if you’ll be out all day.

Reusable tote bag and handkerchief (for hot summer months!)

Umbrella, especially during the summer and autumn months. Rainfall can be unpredictable. You can purchase an umbrella at most convenience stores.

Good walking shoes! You’re most likely going to be walking A LOT. I wear Xero Shoes – I can walk for hours and not have sore feet.


Average South Korea Travel Costs

Large pile of different Korean won currency
South Korea travel tips for money:

▢ While many restaurants and stores accept credit cards, cash is required to top T-money cards. Some places like underground shopping areas, local markets, and street food stalls may only accept cash.

▢ You can exchange some back up cash at the airport, withdraw from an ATM, prepare Korean won at your home country, or look for a currency exchange service, which are plenty.

Average Costs:

▢ Basic fare for subway and buses: $1 USD

10-day local sim card for $26 USD or $12 eSIM card from Klook

Hostels: $20 USD per night

▢ Mid-range hotel: $50 USD per night

▢ Higher-end hotel: $75+ USD per night

▢ Taxi ride from Incheon Airport to downtown Seoul: $50 USD (Other options: prebook a transfer, take the airport bus, or prebook an AREX train ticket.)

▢ Inner-city taxi ride: $14 USD

▢ Food costs will vary. An average restaurant meal may be $7-11 USD per person

I hope these South Korea travel tips were helpful, especially for those visiting South Korea for the first time!

Have a great trip to South Korea!

Prebook before your trip:

📲 Local sim card or eSIM card from Klook

🚊 Ride from the airport: prebook a transfer | airport bus | AREX train

🚊 Purchase a KTX Pass online for travel to multiple cities

💳 Buy a pre-loaded T-money card

🚙 Rent a car in South Korea for as cheap as $28 USD a day

🎫 Browse through dozens of available South Korea tours

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