Getting There and Around
Practical advice for Korea healthcare and wellness travel
Korea has a fine public transportation infrastructure that gets you where you want to go on time, with the usual blend of planes, trains, subways and buses. The main airport, Incheon, is regularly named the best facility in the world. Taxis are easy to find, and inexpensive.
The Korean language is the only official language spoken throughout Korea. Although you’ll find a certain percentage of Koreans speak English in major cities such as Seoul—and sometimes other languages such as French, Japanese and Chinese—they’re shy about using them. That percentage decreases as you get into more rural areas.
The most constant threat to safety comes from North Korea, which is still technically at war with South Korea and has made some provocative moves lately. However, there is little likelihood that an actual attack will occur, and Korea welcomed a record one million tourists last year. Crime rates are low, and even walking around at night in major cities is a safe proposition, but take the usual precautions with your person and your valuables. Protests can occasionally turn violent, so check the news to see if any demonstrations are going on. Street traffic can also be hazardous, so be alert about vehicles and crossing the road.
Airports and Transportation
Incheon International Airport is Korea’s biggest airport and the main portal for travelers visiting Korea, and over the last decade has been named the world’s best seven times. In 2012, Incheon handled around 39 million passengers. Incheon offers three domestic destinations: Daegu, Busan and Jeju, including multiple flights on most days, and is expected to have more domestic routes available soon. Gimpo International also services many international flights, mostly from Asia, although Incheon far outstrips it in passenger load.
Rail is one of the most convenient ways to travel between cities in Korea. Trains here operate on fixed schedules, so you can expect to arrive when the schedule says you will. Korea has two main railways: the Gyeongbu Line connecting Seoul to Busan, and the Honam Line from Yongsan Station in Seoul to Mokpo. Other lines include the Jeolla and Gyeongjeon, which reach areas such as Yeosu or Changwon. Korea classifies trains based on their speed and the amenities offered onboard, and ticket prices follow suit. There are three classifications: KTX express trains and the nonexpress Saemaeul and Mugunghwa trains. Visitors should consider buying a KR Pass, an exclusive and affordable railway pass that allows unlimited use of trains, including KTX expresses, for a fixed number of days.
Subway trains here are cheap and offer a convenient way of exploring cities in Korea. Subway fares differ slightly according to your age. Transportation cards are required for passing through the security gates. Single-journey cards are best for one-time, one-way trips, while multiple-journey cards are for travelers going to several locations during one day or more. Many subway stations provide facilities like multipurpose self-storage locker systems and phone-charging stations, and offer shopping, exhibitions and performances.
Taxis in Korea are abundant, clean, safe and inexpensive. Fares are calculated according to distance and time. There are taxi stands in most busy city areas, and you can also flag them down on the street. Some taxi services take phone reservations, but are slightly more expensive than the ones you hail yourself. Most taxis operating in the Seoul area accept credit cards and even prepaid public transportation cards, but those in smaller cities may be cash only.
An increasing number of taxi drivers speak some English. In 2009, Korea launched a special "International Taxi" service featuring drivers who can speak English or Japanese. These taxis are available by reservation only, and the fees can be calculated by the meter, destination or time. For example, hiring a regular taxi for three hours will cost around US$50, while a full day will run around $115. You can pay using an international credit card.
The usual options and rental companies are available here, and a full-size sedan can be rented for around US$45 a day. Joining the website of a car rental company can provide you with some benefits, including substantial discounts. If there is a particular car model you want, reserve it in advance, especially during the summer holiday season. You’ll need an international driver’s license to operate a vehicle.
Driving in Korea is not for the faint of heart, however. Traffic signals tend to change randomly, drivers are aggressive (and stop in unlikely and inconvenient places), and buses and other large vehicles change lanes at will.
If you do rent a car, one highly recommended free navigation application is Waze.
Travel times can vary depending on road conditions, but buses almost always depart on time, so they are a popular mode of transportation. There is no integrated reservation system, so buy your tickets directly from the bus terminal ticket counter. In most cities, bus terminals are located in the downtown area. There are accommodation facilities and restaurants around terminals, so a bus terminal can be a good starting point for your travel. Travelers here should invest in a T-money card, which can be used for buses or subways while traveling in Seoul and other cities such as Incheon, Ilsan and Bundang.
Korea and in particular Seoul have plenty of world-class hotels, although you’ll pay a significant amount for a room. In general, a double room in a super deluxe hotel costs approximately US$200-400 a night, excluding special services. A deluxe hotel will run around $150-250, a first class hotel $100-150, and so on. Prices vary depending on season and location.
Cellphones and Wi-Fi
Korea is one of the most wired nations on the planet. A government initiative in Seoul that offers 10,000 free public Wi-Fi zones is supposed to be completed by 2015. You won’t need a login or password—just look for “Seoul Wifi”—and the hotspots are located in very popular areas. Download the “Smart Seoul Map” app to find out exactly where you can gain access. If you want to be more certain of getting a connection, you can purchase a card or receipt at Seven-Eleven or other convenience store for service for around US$3 per day or $10 for four days.
Korean food is the spice of culinary life, from staples such as kimchi, bibimbop rice dishes and the many popular forms of bulgogi. Whether you love rice, noodles or seafood cuisine, or veggies or meat, Korea has something fresh and flavorful to offer you. Various blends of chili pepper, sesame oil, soy sauce, salt, garlic, soybean paste and ginger gives Korean food its distinctive spicy taste. Korea is especially big on garlic, consuming more of it than any other nation.
Even better is that you won’t be paying much to excite your taste buds: a typical lunch will cost anywhere from US$1 to $7, and dinner from $3.50 to $15. There are usually several side dishes served to round out the meal. Street vendors also serve up a host of tasty dishes, such as hotteok, a gooey and warm dessert pancake.
One of the nonculinary delights about eating in Korea is great service—you seldom have to wait long for your food, and no tips are required. As in Japan, you’ll get water and perhaps green tea to start you off, and a moist towel to wipe your hands with.
Although you’ll find various other Asian cuisines to sample, Western cuisine is harder to come by, and outside of Seoul and major hotels is represented mostly by the usual fast food joints.
Travel and Sightseeing
Korea is a great destination because there are so many facets to explore: culture and history, tech wonders, all types of terrain and sporting options, islands and a whole resort environment, ecotourism, the arts and more.
Naturally, the riverside capital of Seoul is the heart of the place. Mountains surround this city of contrasts in time, the world’s tenth-largest city, surrounded by mountains and yet one of most technologically sophisticated metropolises on Earth. Royal palaces like Jongmyo and Gyeongbokgung and museums such as the National Museum of Korea are repositories of the country’s long history. Seoul was named a UNESCO City of Design in 2010, and is part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network. This city is also known for its nightlife—countless restaurants, gyms, bars, cafes and entertainment venues are open past midnight.
Jeju Island has the finest beaches in Korea, including ones with sands that are by turns golden, black and white. You can also ski and snowboard in Korea at several venues. Busan, Korea's principal port and second-largest city, boasts the Jagalchi Fish Market, one of the country’s most famous. The market offers visitors a fine outing as buyers and sellers bargain over the catch of the day. Jejudo Island, known as “Little Hawaii” for its volcanic landscape, picturesque subtropical scenery, sandy beaches, waterfalls and hiking trails, draws over seven million visitors a year. And the whole city of Gyeongju—the ancient capital of the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.-A.D. 935)—is now an open-air museum. Temple sites with weathered stone pagodas, royal tombs and the ruins of fortresses are scattered all around the city and have produced ancient treasures.
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