Useful Tips for Your First Time in South Korea – Part 1

By Magalí Zaslabsky

When you travel to a foreign destination is never easy to know with certainty what to expect. Have I thought about everything? Am I bringing everything I need? Is this going to be the same as in my country?

I lived in South Korea for almost a year and I asked myself all those questions before moving there. It was even more important for me, since I knew I was going to be there for a long time, but it is also good to know these things even for a short visit. Korea is a wonderful country, but it was different enough to what I was used to in the Western side of the world. This is why I think it’s important to learn some useful tips, tricks and information before you visit this Asian country.

  1. Learn the Korean alphabet
Hangul, Korean alphabet

Probably the most important tip that I can give you when you visit South Korea is to learn the alphabet. Hangul is quite easy to learn because it has an equivalent sound or letter for those of our own alphabet. 

Seoul and many other big cities in South Korea have many things both in hangul and English, but there will be many situations when it will be useful to be able to read the Korean alphabet, even if you can’t understand it. 

What I recommend is to maybe have a copy of the alphabet with you, so even if you haven’t memorized it, you’ll have it handy just in case. 

2. English words written in Hangul

Drink by the American company “Minute Maid” spelled in Korean

The first tip above brings me to the importance of English. Many words that you’ll find written in hangul are actually English words. This is one of the reasons why learning to read Hangul will be extra handy for you. For example, when ordering at a fast-food restaurant, many times the menu items, such as cheeseburger, will be written in hangul: 치즈 버거.

*Personal tip: read it out loud and you will notice how the sound in Korean resembles the English pronunciation of the word. 

So keep English in mind when reading signs and labels in Korean. 

3. Cash and card

I want to mention two things at this point. The first one is the Korean currency, the won. The same way that dollars and euros are on a scale of 1 (being 1 the unit), the Korean won is on a scale of 1000. So it may take you some effort to get used to seeing prices such as 50,000 won if you aren’t used to that. But keep it simple. What I do is trying to remember that 1,000 ₩ (won)= $1 / 0.80 € … both estimates are on the higher side, so you can be confident that you won’t over spend money if you think of it that way.

And in the second place, probably one of the most important things a traveler might worry about is whether a new country takes credit cards or only cash. In my experience, Korea is pretty good compared to other Asian countries in terms of taking both (cash and card) in many cases. In fact, you can pay any amount of money (with almost no exceptions) with card, no matter how little. And obviously the same applies to cash. But here are some useful tips about cash and card: 

Metro is a cash system. As I will explain more later, the metro system in Seoul (that works in other big cities such as Daejeon and Busan) takes cash only. 

-Restaurants and supermarkets/convenience stores take both.

-High-speed national train system takes both, too, but if you are buying a bus ticket, it will probably require cash. 

4. Metro Card

Korean Transportation Card with T Money symbol

Another way you can pay in Korea is with your metro card! The T Money or transportation card, is available to buy at any metro ticket machine (among many other places including convenience store, travel center, etc.). These machines can be switch to English and for 4,000 won you can purchase the card through them. If you need help, the metro workers are very nice about it. Buy it and then you can recharge it with money in cash (again, metro is cash only!). Each metro trip costs a base of 1,250 ₩, as you can see on the screens when you scan your card to get into the metro. And if you go a longer distance, money will be discounted when you swipe your card to leave the station. For more information click here!

T Money can also be used to pay at other places, including some convenience stores such as 7 Eleven. You will recognize the T Money sign that is on the corner of your card in many places. This way, you can put cash onto your T Money card and use it in other places. 

Metro ticket vending machine in Seoul

Seoul metro is not the easiest to use, so make sure that you know where you are going in terms of direction. Some lines form a loop (you can check a metro map and direction here), which can be confusing and you can accidentally end up going to the opposite direction. So make sure that you know where you are going before stepping into the train. 

Useful tips for the metro:

-Old women or ajumma (아줌마) are a little aggressive on the metro sometimes, so I try to avoid getting in their way. 

-Check not only your destination but also what is the next station on the line you want following the station that you’re at because those are marked very clearly and sometimes it helps you to know if you are in going the right direction.

-Respect the lines to board the metro. Koreans are usually very good about queuing at both sides of the metro doors to let people get off the metro before they go in. Follow their lead.

5. Cheap Hotels

Hotels in South Korea are quite inexpensive, which makes it easy to be able to get a decent hotel for an affordable price. But, it is important to understand that some Korean hotels are not Western style. That means that sometimes you will find things like towels, breakfast or beds to be more Asian style… meaning, small towels, heartier food for breakfast (i.e. not pastries or bread) and smaller beds. 

Most hotels also offer complementary bottles of water, which is a very nice touch, and include an electric kettle, with complementary tea and instant coffee. Feel free to take those since they are included in the price. 

But, if you are planning a long stay in Korea and you are anything like me, I would recommend getting a hotel with a kitchenette. This is very useful if you get tired of eating out or eating at weird times (I will mention this in my article about Korean restaurants).

6. Korean bathrooms

There are a couple of things to be aware of about Korean bathrooms: namely small towels and wet floors. You are probably wondering what this means. It’s very simple. Many hotels in Korea, and even Korean homes, have small towels. What we would consider to be a hand towel is what they use as bathroom towels. Again, there are exceptions, but be prepared in case you book a hotel and discover that it only has small towels that don’t cover your entire body. 

Floor view of hotel bathroom in Seoul with no division between shower floor and bathroom floor

And about wet floors… well, that’s it. Sometimes the shower isn’t separate from the rest of the bathroom (meaning the toilet and sink), which means when you shower everything will get wet. There is a drainage system on the floor with an inclination that helps the water drain easily, plus a great ventilation system that makes the bathroom a very dry environment. I’ve always been impressed with how dry (mold-free) Korean bathrooms are. 

You will always get a pair of “flip-flops” to wear inside the bathroom while the floor is wet. This can be very uncomfortable if you aren’t used to it. But eventually you’ll get used to it. 

And as another useful tip, shampoo, conditioner and body wash are usually available at most hotels, so there’s no need too worry much about that. 

7. Bring your own personal hygiene products

Talking about bathrooms brings me to another important thing to remember when visiting South Korea (or many other Asian countries for that matter): bring your own personal hygiene products. If you like a specific deodorant, shampoo, body lotion or toothpaste, it will be a good idea to bring it along with you. You probably won’t find your brand there. And if you are a woman, bring tampons. It’s not hard to find pads (although you won’t recognize the brands), but I don’t think it’s possible to find tampons in Korea. So bring them with you when you travel. 

Some international brands of hygiene products, such as Nivea, Gillette or Head and Shoulders are available in big supermarkets or drugstores such as Olive Young. But if you are specific about your preference, or you have curly hair like me, you may want to bring your own products.

8. Taxis are cheap and a good alternative

Classic Korean taxi with GPS and other gadgets

Taxis in Korea are very affordable and a great alternative for getting around. Maybe you won’t need to use a taxi in Seoul, where the metro lines take you pretty much anywhere you want to go, but in smaller cities or other areas of the country, taxis are a great alternative to find your hotel, getting around with luggage, etc. Taxis are easy to spot at any station, and there is usually a line of them waiting at a taxi stand. Take the first one in the line, if that’s the case. You can also stop a taxi on the street. If the red sign is on that means it’s available. 

I like to carry with me a card from my hotel or a printed address to show the taxi drivers, to avoid awkward language problems. Check here some of these useful phrases to get around with taxis.

9. Change Train Tickets

Views of Seoul Station KTX tracks

The easiest way to get around between cities in Korea is the awesome high-speed KTX train system. I love how you can get from Seoul to Busan in just a few hours and with free Wi-Fi! Trains are great, with assigned seats, affordable prices, fast, with restrooms and complementary Wi-Fi connection. 

And what’s even better is that if you purchase the train tickets, you can still change them up until last minute. If you arrive to the station early and ask for an earlier train to your destination, if there are seats available (which is almost always the case) they will change it for free. Just walk up to the ticket window and ask for it. 

If you plan to buy the train tickets online, take into consideration that you can’t do it more than a month in advance.     

10. Public Restrooms    

Talking about how awesome this country is… something I like a lot about South Korea is the fact that there are free restrooms available in most public areas. For example, in metro stations, parks or shopping areas. And I must add that they are usually clean and accessible. 

Continue reading “Useful Tips for Your First Time in South Korea- Part 2.”

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