Traveling Korea on the Cheap

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."


KOREA ON THE CHEAP GUIDE

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.


Transportation

Train

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.

TRAINS

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.

BUS

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.

SUBWAY

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.

TAXI

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.


Food

GORMET KIMBAP

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.

MANDU SHOPS

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. 

MARKETS

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!

BOOZE

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.


Accommodations

Jeonju Hanok

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.

SPA

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.

COUCHSURFING

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.

LOVE MOTELS

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.

CAMPING

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!).

Activities

GYEONGBOKGUNG

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.

WALKING TOURS

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.

HIKING

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.

SignatureKorea on the Cheap // A Guide

 

 

2017-03-06T09:21:05+00:00 By |Guides, Korea|25 Comments

25 Comments

  1. Gina Panozzo April 6, 2016 at 1:22 pm - Reply

    These are great tips for traveling Korea on the cheap! Jimjilbangs are a great place to stay if you’re a cheapskate! 😉

    • Hedgers Abroad April 10, 2016 at 4:37 pm - Reply

      Glad you enjoyed this guide. Jjimjilbangs are interesting because most foreigners don’t have an equivalent establishment from their own country. Definitely cheap, and worth considering.

  2. Megan Indoe April 6, 2016 at 2:07 pm - Reply

    This post will be super helpful for people visiting and need to get around on a budget! I love how affordable the subway in Seoul is! Korea’s accommodation took us some time to get used to sadly. We hadn’t learned about jimjilbangs until late in the game and were always staying at seedy love motels. I hadn’t even heard of a pension until 6 months into living here, and they are not cheap options! (so wise to not even include them) Depending on where you visit in Korea we found AirBnb to be affordable as well and sometimes include a full meal! Thanks for sharing such a thorough and helpful list!

    • Hedgers Abroad April 10, 2016 at 4:35 pm - Reply

      We, too, didn’t know about many of these options until we had been here a while and, in all honesty, we didn’t muster the courage to show off our Birthday Suits at the jjimjilbang until very recently. Pensions were easy to leave off the list, as were Hanok houses, but they are awesome experiences in their own, albeit expensive, way. We’ve found Airbnb to be great as well, especially when my mom was visiting and we could rent a fully furnished apartment with stellar views of Seoul for less than putting 3 people up in hotel rooms. If you can think of any other Pro Tips, feel free to add them!

  3. Kainoa April 6, 2016 at 2:12 pm - Reply

    Great post! I love visiting Korea and there are some tips I haven’t yet tried.

    • Hedgers Abroad April 10, 2016 at 4:29 pm - Reply

      As many experienced travelers and expats can tell you, this is really just the tip of the iceberg. Getting creative and actively trying to be financially responsible while on the road can be a fun challenge. Korea makes it pretty easy to save money, but these are our favorite ways. Let us know what you think if you give any of these a shot in the future!

  4. odessaabroad April 6, 2016 at 11:36 pm - Reply

    Definitely big super markets can be overpriced, so local produce markets are better! And I’m always impressed by the number or free or nearly free public facilities like museums and gardens. Hostels are great options for accommodation too, especially if you don’t mind staying in a dormitory style room.

    • Hedgers Abroad April 10, 2016 at 4:27 pm - Reply

      There are so many options for saving your money in Korea, it’s wonderful. The added benefit for some of these tips is that you’re supporting local communities, farmers, and business owners rather than larger corporations. Hostels are a great idea, too! We don’t normally stay in hostels, but that’s a great suggestion.

  5. abcdeghizzy April 7, 2016 at 8:24 pm - Reply

    “The first element of travel is means of transport. Transportation is often an unexpectedly expensive aspect that many people do not expect.” — I always preach this! Its crazy how so many people neglect to take travel costs into account!

    Great post on how to travel Korea for cheap. I especially like your recommendation about hiking. I feel like Korea has some of the best trails in the world and its a free activity too. Also when I was trying to save money, gimbab became an everyday staple so much so that I can’t stand the sight of it now! And standing tickets… good for the budget traveler but not when you’re feeling tired (or hungover) 😛 Missing cheap soju here in Vietnam although its pretty good that I’m staying away from that deadly stuff.

    • Hedgers Abroad April 10, 2016 at 4:23 pm - Reply

      Hiking is Korea is really great. So many mountains around, so you’d be crazy not to use them for both their natural beauty and as a cheap form of entertainment/exercise!

      And I hear you about kimbap. We lived off of the stuff while living in Seoul and now Stephanie is hard to convince. Thankfully, there are some fancy kimbap places near our house that do more exciting ingredients than the normal fare. Really good stuff, and perfect for picnics.

      Glad you’re loving Vietnam! I’m sure your body is happy be be away from “The Soj” as much as your tastebuds are loving Vietnam’s amazing cuisine. We might need some tips for traveling cheaply on our (hopefully) upcoming trip!

  6. Wendy Flor April 11, 2016 at 11:33 am - Reply

    Wow! This is a very extensive list, one that I would recommend. Thanks for sharing.

    I didn’t know about the Mugunghwa train till now. I’ll have to look it up. My sons are not fans of kimbap but they are of mandu and ramyeon from convenience stores:-).

    And for travellers, it’s better to get yourselves t-money cards. Using the t-money guarantees that your fare is carried over to the next transpo you get as long as you properly log out. Example, your 1,150-won fare in the subway will be used (additional fare depending on distance) if you get on the bus or another subway within 30mins. That’s great savings, too.

  7. Laura Nalin April 11, 2016 at 1:59 pm - Reply

    Korea is SO CHEAP to explore and the transportation system is incredible. I do appreciate the affordability of the country, though I found the food to be so boring in comparison to its neighboring countries. I DO like the fancier kimbap that has cream cheese, etc. inside as I found it to be a refreshing change of pace from the typical, more traditional type. I do miss those little kimbap shops, though. Best places in my opinion. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Chelsea Brady April 11, 2016 at 11:21 pm - Reply

    You’ve hit all the basics! I took the KTX for the first time a few weeks ago and was shocked by how expensive it was to go to Seoul, in comparison to the bus. KIMBAP IS MY ABSOLUTE FAVORITE! I love how yummy and cheap it is! And love motels are definitely for the win! They are relatively cheap and comfortable. This is a great guide and I agree with all your points. Thank you for sharing!

    • Hedgers Abroad May 15, 2016 at 11:26 pm - Reply

      Thank you so much for your compliment! Glad you enjoyed the post, and we agree- the KTX is a lot of money, but invaluable if time is limited. We live in Yeosu (almost as far from Seoul as possible) so we get on at the last stop and get offf at the last and it’s not cheap. Buses are great most of the time, but they’re way too hot in the Winter when the driver can’t feel the torture he’s putting the other passengers through. Thanks for commenting and reading!

  9. Ali April 18, 2016 at 9:29 pm - Reply

    Minbaks are also a good accomodation option. I’ve mostly seen them in the beach towns or more touristy places, like Gyeongju. They’re similar to pensions but much more basic (floor sleeping only) but they can be very, very cheap. There are also a lot of hostels popping up. We stayed at a really nice one in Gwangju (dorm room since it was just my group of friends) and we spent 27,000w each for two nights.

    • Hedgers Abroad April 21, 2016 at 10:41 am - Reply

      You are right, minbaks are totally cheap! They are usually only in the rural areas unfortunately and locals run them which definitely makes for a difficult communication barrier.

  10. smasonnc May 14, 2016 at 1:05 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the info. I’m debating about whether to pop up to Korea before we leave Asia. So many places, so little time!

    • Hedgers Abroad May 15, 2016 at 11:23 pm - Reply

      I know, it’s really hard to choose where to go and which places to prioritize. We are certainly biased on South Korea, but everyone we’ve had visit us has been more than impressed. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Tourism don’t do as much as many SEAsian countries to promote tourism, but Korea is absolutely worth a visit if you get the chance!

  11. Dianne May 26, 2016 at 12:19 am - Reply

    These are great tips. Thanks for the info. I’m planning to visit Seoul this fall. I heard Dragon Pavilion Park Observatory is a great place to see Seoul’s view, especially at night. However, I can’t find any information on it. Can you please help? I’d like to know how to get there via subway if I can. Thank you!!!

    • Hedgers Abroad May 26, 2016 at 12:29 am - Reply

      Hi, Dianne! I’m glad you found this post useful and we hope it helps you out on your trip this fall! Seoul is a beautiful city and has many great places to see night views, but we’ve never heard of the Dragon Pavilion Park Observatory. From a quick google search, I think this park is actually located in China. We have some recommendations for night views in Seoul if you’re interested, though! The view from Ansan Mountain and Namsan Tower are both great places to see the city at night. Click the link below and check it out!

      http://hedgersabroad.com/2014/03/13/3treks/

  12. StephanieA November 13, 2016 at 12:31 am - Reply

    Oh Korea sounds great! I am excited and curious about the food.
    Hopefully someday I can visit Korea 🙂
    x

    • Hedgers Abroad November 29, 2016 at 9:01 am - Reply

      You absolutely should! Let us know if you have any question or need recommendations during your planning!

  13. sergiamaria November 29, 2016 at 2:05 am - Reply

    Can you please tell me what camera do you use? Love the article btw

  14. Frida HR September 20, 2017 at 4:37 am - Reply

    Really really helpful!! Thanks!

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