The Real South Korea on $30 a Day

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Between Samsung, bullet trains, “Gangnam Style,” and the ridiculous neo-Seoul from Cloud Atlas, it’s easy to fall into the erroneous idea that South Korea is an expensive country. It’s not. It’s very, very cheap—if you know what to look for.

Korea was, after all, a poor, underdeveloped country until very recently. The peninsula’s southern postwar half survived the 1950′s and ‘60s by being frugally innovative; you can still see this in its food (e.g. budae jiggae, literally “army base stew,” which is an inexpensive and ubiquitous spicy broth filled with green onions, bean sprouts, and Spam) and its bedrooms, which traditionally don’t feature mattresses but rather mats kept in closets, unraveled each night, and tucked back away each morning. Some motels in fact still feature the distinct option of a “Western Room” with a Western bed, which often runs around $10 more than a “Traditional Room” – roll-out mat style.

That’s the key to traveling cheap in Korea: Go for what’s traditional. It’ll be cheaper, because the country was poor before it began copying Western luxuries. Thirty bucks won’t get you the excess that it would in Vietnam (e.g. a nice hostel, passion fruit shakes, and oil massages), but it will give you a flavor of true Korean culture and save you loads of cash.

In reality, most of Korea is mid-range, between Western expense and Southeast Asian poverty. You can move around a bit more comfortably on a $45-$50 daily budget, and if you want to spend more, there’s no shortage of beachside hotels, swanky raw fish restaurants and foreign foods for foreign prices. But for our purposes, we’re going to focus on the bare bones of Korean culture: hearty and healthy meals, no-cost cultural highlights, and a little-known sleeping arrangement in every town and city.
Note on numbers: Prices will be in dollars, but just add three zeros, and it’ll become Korean won ($1 = 1,000 KRW, approximately).

Food

Kimchi

In August 2012, one media outlet posted an article with the following headline: “Korean Couple Refuse to Pay for Food at a Taiwan Restaurant Because ‘That’s Not How it’s Done in Korea.’” The elderly couple argued that because side dishes and rice are always free in Korean restaurants, they shouldn’t have to start paying now, regardless of whatever country they’re in.

Potential senility aside, they’re right. Rice is almost always complementary in Korea, as are the plethora of delectable (and replenishable) sides, from kimchi to fish cake to sesame-seasoned seaweed. Order pretty much any Korean dish, and you’ll get an additional swath of tiny plates of food. Even most bars will give you a bowl of popcorn or nuts to snack on with your drink, since drinking without eating is effectively unheard of.

As for real meals, virtually any soup will offer a sizable, steaming pot filled with some combination of spicy broth, soft tofu, bony pork, handmade noodles, splashes of vegetables, and dozens of other ingredients for anywhere from $4 to $6. If you like spice, try kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew) or dubu jjigae (tofu stew), both of which offer loads of cabbage, sprouts, green onions, and protein.

If you’d rather carb-load, most diner-style shops will offer bibimbap, a.k.a. salad fixings, laid out on a bed of rice ($5), and a $2 sushi-like roll of rice, meat, and veggies rolled up into what’s called a kimbap. They can also wrap it in an omelet, called kaeran-mari-kimbap - literally: rice and seaweed rolled in egg – and is the closest Korean food to a Western-style breakfast for under $3.

Korean barbecue is a quickly-growing global phenomenon, and while it’s way cheaper in its home country, it’s still a bit of a splurge. For starters, you can’t eat it alone (as with a few styles of Korean restaurant, you’re only allowed in if your party is two or more), and once you sit down, expect to drop at least $10 each—but you’ll eat like a king.

Conversely, eat on the street. Korea’s not as well-known as China or Thailand for street grub, but you’ll be able to find rice cakes and eggs smothered in red spicy paste (dokbukki), fish cake skewers in broth (oddeng) and green onion pancakes topped with small diced octopus (pajeon) for roughly $2 at any vendor tent.

Also, waffles. For some reason, Koreans really, really love waffles, and eat them almost exclusively on the street for a buck apiece.

Sleep

Love Motel

Budget: Here’s the secret to cheap travel in Korea: the jjimjilbang. It’s a public bathhouse/spa, and most allow you to sleep for anywhere from $6-$10. (Really upscale ones will cost twice this much, but you often can’t sleep there anyway because they’re too swanky.) All spas provide towels, smocks, and lockers for your stuff. The ritziness can range from a simple sauna to something resembling a public mansion, equipped with computer rooms, massage chairs, aromatic steam rooms, and jacuzzis. This is easily the best option for solo traveling under $30 per day, assuming you don’t mind sleeping on a mat in a room filled with other people.

  • Note on gender: Sleeping arrangements are sometimes gender-segregated in smaller spas, but this is less common in family-oriented ones. The jacuzzis and saunas; however, are always gender specific.

Mid-range: Korea has an infestation of seedy love motels. If you’re traveling with a partner and prefer to share a private bed, they’re a perfectly fine place to sleep – on a given weeknight, most don’t charge over $50 for a room, and they’re generally clean and offer free water and juice, sexy ceiling mirrors, and strobe lights. That said, some love motels cost up to $150 for a night and can involve two stories, a private jacuzzi, free drinks, and a pink-laced bed in the shape of a heart.

Splurge: We won’t get into the rich hotel options because this article isn’t titled The Cozy Korea for $200 a Night. Suffice it to say, if you want an expensive hotel, they’re everywhere, but if you’re reading this, we’re going to assume you’re into roughing it a bit.

Transport

Train

Trains: There are three primary types of trains in Korea, perfectly suited for budget, mid-range, and splurging travel styles:

  • The KTX is one of the world’s fastest bullet trains, racing up to 218 miles per hour and able to cross the entire length of the country, from Seoul to Busan, in under three hours. It’s comfortable and quiet and slightly expensive: a one-way ticket costs $57.
  • If you can afford twice the hours for half the price, the $24-Mugunghwa train runs the same Seoul-Busan route in six hours. The Mugunghwa is a ratchety old beast of a train that’s connected to more of Korea’s rural cities than the futuristic KTX, which is still fairly new and currently only services the country’s most common routes.
  • The middle-ground option is the Saemaul, which is literally the best of both worlds. The above-quoted Seoul-Busan route costs around $42 and takes a bit over four hours. It’s a bit of an awkward choice, though, because to ride it is to neither save money nor time, so it is often ignored by travelers.

Intercity buses: Awesome thing, these buses are. Any given city will offer a bus route to any other major city, and—as if to make it easy for English speakers—the Korean word for “bus terminal” is “buh-suh toh-mee-nohl.” Buses are reasonably quick and always run on schedule, with prices comparable to the Mugunghwa and times that are often shorter: the express bus from Seoul to Busan runs just under five hours for $20-$30. But, being road vehicles, they will obviously feature bumpier rides and more cramped seats, and be susceptible to the country’s unfortunately ubiquitous traffic jams.

Getting around: Aside from good ol’ fashioned walking, you’ll have to choose between taxi, bus, or subway to get around a city.
Cabs are cheap by Western standards but slowly getting more expensive, precisely because their wages are so low and cabbies make barely $1,000 in a month. For now, though, base fares are around $2.50 and an average trip won’t surpass $7.

  • Note on meters: Scams are exceedingly rare and taxis always use the meter. There are very few reportings of drivers taking deliberately roundabout routes to run up your tab.

If you can figure out the local bus system, which can be a bit confusing because all the routes sprawl across winding roads and/or different townships, it’ll save you money. A trip costs around $1 in cities, and up to $3 if moving between smaller townships.

Local rail transit only exists in Busan/Gimhae, Gwangju, Daejon, Daegu, and the greater Seoul area. Tickets are around $1. Unless you’re from Tokyo, New York, or London, Seoul’s labyrinthine subway map will give you an instant headache.

Inefficient, expensive or generally unpopular modes of transport

Bike

Bikes: Bicycling is unfortunately rare in Korea. Don’t bank on finding a rental shop; even if you do, city traffic is wild and dangerous.

Air: Korea’s too small a country, and its cities’ airports too rurally located, to make flying worthwhile. To fly Seoul-Busan costs around $80 one-way, but neither of Seoul’s airports are within an hour from the city center, so it becomes a matter of $20 more than the KTX train to save maybe one hour in travel time.

Korean low-cost carriers include T’way Airlines, Jeju Air, Eastar Jet, and Jin Air. However, very few of these fly between Korean cities; most just go from Seoul to Jeju Island or from Seoul to China and Japan.

Boat: Big coastal cities offer ferries primarily to Jeju and whatever remote islands are nearby, as well as to China and Japan. Aside from the remote islands without airports, don’t bother with this option. Flying to Japan by a low-cost carrier like Air Asia or Air Busan is often comparable for cost (around $100 one-way), is significantly more comfortable and takes way less time. Likewise, the ferry to Jeju takes around four hours at least but leaves at irregular times, and again, still costs as much as flying.

Awesome free stuff to do

Hiking

Korea’s got a few typically touristy things (Seoul and Busan, for example, both offer prominent towers that are neither very tall nor very spectacular), but aside from a few old temples and large fortresses, it isn’t a big city for tourist destinations. There is no equivalent to the Statue of Liberty or Forbidden City. The best way to experience Korea is to walk its alleys, browse its markets and, most importantly, experience its natural beauty.

  • Climb a mountain: Korea is home to over 500 mountains. Few are really strenuous, especially within a cityscape, where most sit at an average of a breezy 2,300 feet (700 meters). All, of course, are free. Grab some kimbap and a bottle of soju and make an afternoon of it to enjoy the best views of Korea.
    • The three holiest and largest mountains are Hallasan on Jeju Island, Jirisan to the south, and Seoraksan in the north. All tower over 5,500 feet (1,700 meters) and require a solid day of hiking.
    • Note on gear: Koreans are shockingly serious when it comes to mountain climbing, so don’t be surprised when everyone you see is clad in jumpers of neon green and propped up on hiking sticks, while you’re sporting jeans and a t-shirt. They won’t judge you—though some might be eager to practice their English and even join you for a bit. On the plus side, they’ll probably share their soju, too.
  • Visit a temple: If you do decide to take a hike, you’ll almost certainly discover a temple or two—they pepper these mountains like dandruff. Most have open doors, freely inviting anyone to pop inside, admire the statues, and take a few photos.
    • Some of the country’s most famous temples are Beomeosa (Busan), Bongeunsa (Seoul), Bulguksa (Gyeongju), and the Three Jewel Temples (Tongdosa, Haeinsa and Songgwangsa). Some require a small entrance fee, but all are fairly large and can fill an afternoon.
  • Consider a temple stay. For no more than $50, you spend a weekend waking up at 4 a.m. to pray, meditating for hours without moving, eating kimchi and rice for every meal, and hiking proper mountains with spiritual relevance. Know that most are Korean-language only, so while they won’t reject you, they can’t help you verbally achieve enlightenment, either.
    • Note on attire: There’s no formal dress code for temples, so don’t worry about shorts or skirts; however, to enter, as with all Buddhist temples, you’ll have to leave your shoes at the entrance.
  • Lounge on the beach: Every coastal city has a few sandy beaches to enjoy. Busan’s Haeundae Beach is one of Asia’s busiest, known for the fact that, from a bird’s-eye-view, one cannot see sand for the swarms of red and yellow umbrellas covering it during peak summer months. Jeju, Pohang, Sokcho and Boryeong all offer a few options, ranging from touristy and busy to quieter and farther from the city.
  • Market shopping: Korean street vendors tend to band together by content. Every district in every city has a food market worth walking through; they’re cleaner than Southeast Asian markets and make for very gripping photos. You can also browse clothes in vintage markets that make Western hipster shops look like The Gap (with prices unfortunately comparable and sizes small for most), or else scope out specific markets in larger cities, like Seoul’s Yongsan Electronics Market or Busan’s bizarre tool market in Beomil-dong.
  • Find a festival: Koreans love festivals. There’s one pretty much every weekend somewhere in Korea, and many are free; there are festivals for lanterns (Jinju), mimes (Chuncheon), bullfights (Cheongdo), fireflies (Muju), mud (Boryeong) and pretty much every type of fish available (smelt in Inje, mackerel in Busan, yellowtail in Moseulpo).
    • Korea’s got a few huge international music and movie festivals, namely the Busan International Film Festival (largest in Asia) and the Valley Rock Festival (2012’s headliners were Radiohead and the Stone Roses), which will obviously cost a bit, but are cheap compared with equivalent Western fests.

Off the beaten path

Geomun-do

Korea is enormously populated given its tiny size, and its best moments tend to be away from the heavily expat-trodden metropolises.

  • Catch a ferry from any of the big coastal cities to a remote island like Cheongsan-do, Bogil-do or Geomun-do. Much less touristy than the major hotspots, Jeju-do and Ulleung-do, and many are home to quiet national parks with gorgeous natural beauty and humble farmers.
  • Check out the demilitarized zone (DMZ) with North Korea from anywhere other than Seoul. Nearer to Seoul are the more famous sights, but Goseong-gun or Yanggu-gun, in the northeastern province of Gangwon, are more remote and offer a subtler view of the most heavily guarded border in the world, as well as a glimpse into how everyday Koreans deal with the situation.
  • Guinsa is an massive temple complex, impossibly tucked away between mountains in the middle of the country, near Danyang. It’s the headquarters of Cheontae Buddhism, one of the largest sects in Korea. Though it takes a bit of bussing to find, it boasts an unbeatable view of the country’s mountainscape and very few non-Korean tourists.

Adding South Korea to a longer trip

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For more on travel in South Korea, check out the following articles and resources:

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Photo credits: Jess Lander, Justin Ornellas, calflier001, seafaringwoman, JayHyuck Shin, all other photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.

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  • Terri Lynn Merritts said at 2013-06-10T21:17:02+0000: I'd really love to see "The Cozy Korea for $200 a Night" type article because that is how we travel. We choose first class air transportation, first class train travel, and luxury hotels. It is just as "real" as sleeping on the floor with the unwashed , eating stuff I couldn't look at when it was alive on the street, and being crunched on a bus with smelly people. Ugh. One can spend on the comforts of good air, train, hotel, and food and still do plenty of hiking, sightseeing, and cheap or free activities. There is much to enjoy in South Korea for free or cheap.
  • Doug Walsh said at 2013-06-10T16:40:39+0000: A great way to get some inexpensive entertainment in Korea is to attend a baseball game. For $6 we got to see Seoul's two home teams battle it out. The fans had choreographed songs and thunderstick routines for every batter and it was quality ball. Beers were about $1.50 each and though we didn't have the dried salt fish, it too was inexpensive. Best of all, the atmosphere was unlike anything I've seen in the MLB. A wonderful way to spend an evening and you get to visit a former Olympic site to boot!
  • Dale Davies said at 2013-06-10T11:36:36+0000: Staying in a jimjilbang was one of my highlights of my time in South Korea. And as for kimchi, I miss that stuff almost every day :(