Travel can be an expensive hobby. Whether we are roaming around South Korea or flying to some exciting country on vacation, we are always being mindful of our finances and the cost of our adventures. By budgeting and seeking out affordable alternatives to what is easy and first presented, we are able to more easily embark on trips and make the most of our time. We have discussed a few tips for budgeting while on vacation where we have experience, but we’ve never shared our strategies while in Korea for saving money and maximizing funds. Below is an introductory guide to traveling South Korea "on the cheap."
Whether you are making a trip to South Korea or live here and simply want to focus on affordable options for touring other areas, we want to share some tips that we employ to make regular weekend trips not break the bank. Most people find Korea to be a very affordable country in terms of food cost and public transportation, but often the most easily found option is not the most fiscally responsible one.
The first element of travel is means of transport. Transportation is often an unexpectedly expensive aspect that many people do not expect. South Korea is often praised for its public transportation network due to availability and reach. We have always been impressed by the simple navigation and use of public systems in Korea, but some choices are more affordable if you know where to look.
The KTX is the most obvious choice for people short on time, but is also the most expensive choice of trains in the KoRail fleet. If you have a few more hours to complete your ride, the Mugunghwa Train is about 40% less and about that much more time. To get even cheaper tickets, a traveler on a very tight budget, or anyone wanting to save their money for any reason, can reserve a standing ticket. Most Korean trains offer this option, and they are far cheaper. The catch is- you can have any available seat until someone else claims it. While not ideal for couples or families, as it is possible that only one person gets a seat, you can save significant money using this option.
Having to suffer through traffic, buses are slightly slower than trains but are often very cheap and sometimes go places that train tracks prevent. Bus terminals can be found in almost every town or city and allow for the most consistent form of public transport. The only real options for buses is to differentiate between direct limousine bus (우등) and “all stop” buses (일반)- the direct being slightly more expensive. These buses can easily be used to get to the nearest train station if you really know what you’re doing, but also have comfortable seats to ease into if you’re riding the whole way. The English KoBus website is extremely useful for looking up schedules and available seats, but does not allow for purchasing unless you can sign up and use the Korean site.
If you are in a city with a subway system, ride it religiously. It’s as simple as that. Your fare will be around $1.10 or 1,300won for a single ride. There are some rules for when this price goes up on longer trips, but it remains relatively cheap compared to anything else in the city.
Also cheap, taxis are a great way to get from Point A to Point B. In many cities, get into the orange ones and avoid the black ones. Trust me. Also, the ones advertising “Foreigner Only” are much more expensive and have about the same number of foreign language speaking drivers as the normal orange ones.
Necessary for the most basic instances of living, food is both important and enjoyable. Korean food is legendary and typically cheap, but can also be found for incredibly cheap.
KIMBAP AND KIMBAP RESTAURANTS
Korea’s seaweed-wrapped rice rolls are everywhere and very cheap. For around a dollar (more if you add meat or other ingredients), these filling meals are a saver’s delight. Somewhat healthy and very cheap, these rolls can be a lifesaver for anyone wanting to save a lot of money on food that is already very cheap. Kimbap restaurants can be find in almost any corner of South Korea and generally offer meals ranging from $3-$5. Take-out options make for perfect cheap picnic food as well, if that’s your thing.
This popular Korean food is not only delicious and filling, but cheap! They come in different sizes (even king sized, 왕 만두) and with different fillings. We have eaten these steamed and stuffed dumplings many times when trying to eat on the cheap. Mandu shops can be found all over Korea and prices range from 1,000 won for a King sized mandu to 3,000 won for 6-10 regular sized dumplings. The best way to find these places is to look for the large silver steamers outside the store.
Far fresher and supporting the source providers of many food groups, visiting a local market not only is cheaper than buying ingredients at the big box stores, but you're supporting local farmers, fishermen, and producers of quality products in general. If you’re visiting South Korea, visit markets and try a few things for the cultural experience, if you’re living here, support your market community and save a few bucks. Win-win!
This one is easy: if you want to save money on alcohol in Korea, avoid all foreign products. South Korean beer, soju, and makgeolli are all very cheap and a great way to “experience Korea” while saving money on more expensive options.
You've got to sleep somewhere! Why not save money on your bed so that you can put it toward whatever you value more? If you like having a luxurious bed, you can skip this option for saving money, but most of them are better than you'd probably expect.
Korean spas, or jjimjilbang (찜질방), are not only places of uniquely Korean relaxation, but also allow customers to stay overnight for very little extra money. Many jjimjilbangs cost only $5-6 and offer an array of services, but a small additional fee $2-3 will allow customers to stay overnight in a common quiet room on the floor. Some jjimjilbangs also offer private rooms for $15-25 (which includes access to the spa) but some do not. For the most savings, just leave your belongings in your locker and enjoy a night of sleeping on the floor like it’s a night at camp as a child.
Many foreigners across Korea offer couches and floor space in their apartments to travellers for little-to-no money, which makes couchsurfing one of the more affordable options for accommodation in South Korea. While there is little guarantee for comfort or privacy, you can often find honest people willing to show you around and give you a place to stay in their own homes.
Much cheaper than regular hotels, these specialty motels have a stigma in Korea that, generally, guarantees cleanliness, discretion, and affordability. If you must have a room with a private bathroom, shower, parking, or television, go for a Love Motel. Normally they are found in areas just off of the “restaurant and bar” districts, in droves. They can average around $30-$50/night depending on the area and how modern they are! Always hop around from place to place to price check before settling.
A favorite option here at HedgersAbroad, camping is another great option for a cheap place to stay in Korea. Many of the most beautiful locations in this country are devoid of hotels and lend themselves easily to pitching a tent and camping. Some of the most popular camping areas have paid camping plots, but often a short walk or drive away from these areas are unregulated and very conducive to a private campsite. Obviously, this option is most applicable to people living in Korea, but I know many travelers take a tent with them on each adventure and will surely find numerous beaches and clearings in/on which to spend a unique night under the stars.
If you plan to camp in a national park, you must now make all reservations in advance on the website. Fortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, there is a very easy booking system for foreigners which is all in English, shows maps and photos of each campsite, and only needs an email address to register! Click here for the "Korea National Park Service Reservation Totally Service" (what a name!).
There are many things to do and enjoy in Korea, but many of the options do a good job of NOT breaking the bank. Below are our top options for enjoying a day or weekend of activities.
What’s free and takes little effort? Walking! Many cities in Korea have beautiful and historic locations near each other and within easy reach of public transportation. Major cities have rivers rife with natural beauty which provide perfect avenues between different cultural sites, but local neighborhoods also provide apt areas to wander for a leisurely afternoon.
The landscape of South Korea is littered with mountains and, while National Parks may charge a small entrance fee, many mountains are free. You can hike the large majority of these beautiful mountains without paying much more than the cost of your local makgeolli, and that means very cheap entertainment. Not only does hiking provide a healthy activity, but often produces some of the most spectacular landscapes in Korea from above the obtrusive high-rise buildings and skyscrapers.
TEMPLES, PALACES, AND MUSEUMS
South Korea is a country laden with rich culture and tradition. There are few places better to experience artifacts and relics of this long history than temples, palaces, and museums. Most of these are free and offer wonderful chances to experience Korea, but a seldom few require a few dollars as an entrance fee (museums and palaces, only). Some of the most beautiful historic relics of Korea, being religious, historical, or cultural, are often found in these places. Thankfully, these are some of the most affordable options for entertainment!
BEACHES, RIVERS, AND PICNICS
Some of our most relaxing days in South Korea have been walking along beaches and rivers. There are few better ways to experience and enjoy Korea than a day spent enjoying its water ways with a picnic thrown into the mix. From the Han River in Seoul to the beautiful beaches of the southern coast, these areas are magical and worth every small cent.
While not the most affordable country in Asia, South Korea is easily experienced in an affordable way. While we cannot say that this is a 100% comprehensive guide, it is a great way to start thinking about spending less of your hard earned dollars while experiencing this amazing country.
If you have more tips to share for spending less money in South Korea, please share them in the comments section below or shoot us an email. I hope this guide will give some assistance to you during your time here.