Backpacking South Korea: Tips, Tricks, and More!

South Korea is one of the bigger countries in Asia, not only in size but also in number of visitors all year round, so the flock of tourists somehow makes the demand very high: a factor that could make traveling here a bit expensive. But with careful planning, of course budget traveling is still possible. Here are some tips and tricks to save money when in South Korea!

Take the train and subway

The Koreans are lucky for having an amazing public transportation system. It's safe, convenient, and tourist-friendly. Almost all tourist spots are accessible by train or subway. You can easily go from the city to the province through the connected railways. Even the locals themselves, regardless of the profession and age, ride them on a daily basis. 

Right at Incheon International Airport, you can take the train. Although there are taxis and airport buses available, the Airport Railroad Express (AREX) is the fastest way to get to Seoul. It has 2 types: the Express Train and the All-stop Train.

If you aren’t in a hurry at all, then take the All-stop Train. It is cheaper! One-way ride only costs KRW 4,250 as compared to the Express Train’s KRW 14,800. It stops at 12 stations before reaching the final stop, Seoul Station. Traveling time is 58 minutes as compared to 43 minutes with Express Train. There is only a slim difference in time, but the price is tripled. Here is a table of comparison:

AREX Express Train
AREX All-stop Train
KRW 14,800
KRW 4,250
12 stops
Travel time
43 minutes
58 minutes
Train interval
Every 35 minutes
Every 10 minutes
First train
05:20 AM
05:23 AM
Last train
09:45 PM
11:42 PM

Use T Money

T Money is one of South Korea’s tap cards that may be used in trains, subways, buses, and even at convenience stores. Aside from saving time in buying tickets all the time, it gives discounts per ride. For adult passengers, there is a KRW 100-discount when using the T Money against paying in cash. So imagine, you can save KRW 1,000 after 10 rides, an amount that can relatively buy you a coffee at the convenience store.
T Money cards are mostly sold at convenience stores. There is one at the ground floor of the arrival area of Incheon International Airport. The card itself costs KRW 4,000 without any load yet. You have to load and reload it separately, which may be done at convenience stores or any reloading machine at the train or subway station.
The amount to put in the T Money card depends on you. But to give an idea on how much to put in, I initially loaded KRW 25,000 and I was able to use it for five days in Seoul and Busan’s subways and trains. The T Money card can also be used in the AREX All-stop Train.

Stay in a dormitory style accommodation

To get the cheapest accommodations in Seoul, stay close to university areas such as in Hongik University (Hongdae) or in Ewha University. Aside from accommodation, food and shopping items are usually cheaper here than anywhere else to fit the budget of university students.
I stayed for 4 nights at Kimchee Guesthouse Downtown. I loved this guest house for many reasons. First, it was so cheap at KRW 10,750 (PHP 505) per night. It is dormitory type. I slept in a bunk bed in a shared room with three other female guests. 
Both the locker and door are equipped with pass codes so security was not an issue even though I shared most of the facilities here with other travelers.
The atmosphere is also very youthful. I got to know many young backpackers especially in the common area that has a reading, computer, and play area. The fully functional kitchen where one can cook and prepare food also makes it cost-friendly. But most of all, the location was a win-win for me as it is a hop away only from Chungjeongno station lines 2 and 5.

Enjoy the street food

I find food prices in South Korea quite similar in Japan: expensive. It is not bad to eat once in a while at restaurants and cafes, but doing it every single meal may get pretty harsh in the pocket.
As an alternative, try Seoul’s diverse street food. They are filling to the tummy and wallet at the same time. For example, a stick of fish cake is priced at KRW 1,000, chicken skewer at KRW 2,000 and octopus cake at KRW 3,000.
It even includes a delicious cup of hot ginseng tea for drinks.
Watch out for the spicy food though. It is very common in South Korea and spiciness is defined there at a different level! You can say: “Ahn maep-gae hae-ju-se-yo” (“Do not make it too spicy, please”) to inform the vendor. 

Wear the traditional hanbok

Seoul, despite being a city, reserves a lot a spot for history. The 5 palaces namely: Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung, and Gyeonghuigung are all located in the heart of the capital. And if palace-hopping is your thing, then you may want to rent and wear hanbok, the traditional Korean costume. Why? 
Aside from making you look so Joseon dynasty-ish in photos, entrance ticket to the palace is waived when wearing a hanbok!  Most hanbok rentals are priced at KRW 13,000 and up for 4-hour usage. If you want to buy hanbok and keep it as good souvenir, ready-made ones are sold cheaper in Dondaemun market.  
But if you're just after the experience of wearing a hanbok, there's a FREE hanbok experience in Myeong-dong. Head to Seoul Global Cultural Center, reserve a slot, and have a 5-minute photoshoot wearing the hanbok. It's open daily, from 10AM to 6PM. There are a couple of colorful hanbok costumes and head accessories to choose from. They offer costumes to men, women, and kids.

How to get there

Complete Address:  Seoul Global Cultural Center, 5th floor M Plaza, 27 Myeong-dong 8-gil, Myeong-dong 2(i)-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul South Korea

From Myeong-dong subway station, take exit 6 and turn left. When you're at  Myeong-dong (shopping street), you'll see M Plaza building at the 3rd block to your right. There's a huge Zara store at the ground floor of the building. Take the escalator to the 5th floor.

Rent a locker at the train or subway station

Some accommodations charge an amount for very early check in or late check out. While the intention is to just put down the heavy luggage to freely move around and spend the entire day out, there is no place to leave them. In South Korea, you may safely leave luggage in the train or subway station locker.
I only got a full day in Busan. The time was too short to get an accommodation yet too long to go straight to the airport. I did not have any plans of sleeping within the day anymore since I was able to take a nap during the 2-hour train to Busan already. But my problem was, I was already bringing everything with me coming from Seoul.
Instead of getting an accommodation, I decided to rent a locker at Haeundae subway station to keep my trolley and other belongings. It only costed me KRW 4,000 for a large locker.
Most train and subway stations in South Korea conveniently have lockers in small, medium and large sizes that can keep belongings for 24 hours. Although it is self-service, the machine has English instructions and very easy to follow.

How much to travel South Korea 

Promo air fare (Manila to Seoul) via Air Asia
PHP 3,760
Air Asia 20-kilo Baggage Allowance
PHP 1,070
Promo air fare (Busan to Manila) via Cebu Pacific
PHP 3,726
Cebu Pacific 20-kilo Baggage Allowance
PHP 1,298
Philippine Travel Tax
PHP 1,620
PHP 2,020 (4 nights)
     Train and subway expenses
     KTX train to Busan
     Namsan cable car
     Grab car

PHP 1,722
PHP 2,175 (one-way)
PHP 276 (one-way)
PHP 444 (for 2 rides)
PHP 5,193
Shopping and souvenir
PHP 4,848
Entrance tickets
PHP 141
Locker rental
PHP 184
PHP 180
PHP 28,657

To sum it all, I managed the spend less than PHP 30,000 ALL IN for a 5D / 4N backpacking in Seoul and Busan, South Korea.

Do you have other budget tips when traveling South Korea?

Backpacking South Korea: Tips, Tricks, and More! Backpacking South Korea: Tips, Tricks, and More! Reviewed by Shelly Viajera Travel on 24.3.17 Rating: 5
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