Maybe these arn’t “hacks” in the traditional sense but if you come here un-aware of how transportation works or useful apps when getting around you may be lost on how to get to each place on your itinerary.
1. Ditch Google Maps and Download Naver Maps or Kakao Maps.
Google Maps are completely useless here. From my understanding, it’s because South Korea is still at war with North Korea. They have tightly regulated digital maps to keep important government buildings and military bases secret from the North. The second reason is that Korea promotes its own company first, wanting to create better economic stability for its people and who can blame them. A bonuse of theses apps is that you can see bus times and travel routs in real time. The travel routs includ using the subway/metro and if getting on an itercity buss is the best rout between two cities.
Taxies are relatively cheap and government-regulated. There is no ridesharing here, but you don’t have to worry about bartering, and you can pay with a card. One of my favorite things about taxis here is that they’ll drive you anywhere. This makes some of the out-of-the-way hidden gems of Korea easier to reach. Who wouldn’t want to split a $20 taxi ride to go someplace 30 minutes away instead of taking a 2 hr bus ride with only a hope that the bus schedule and your timing is right? The downside to taxies is as a tourist with little or no command of the Korean language, you have little access to prebook one, and calling one is a nightmare. Kakao taxi is really reliable, but they are more expensive. They also become less accessible the further away from a city you are. To use KakaoTaxi, you will need to download Kakao Maps and KakaoTalk to use it, which will require a local phone number.
The KTX, aka the high-speed train, is a dream. It’s clean and smooth, taking you across the country in a few hours. The downside is that the lines are not the easiest to access, nor are they plentiful, depending on where you travel. The SRT is another rapid train system that’s more common on the west side of Korea around Busan.
The other trains (ITX, Mugunghaw-ho, Saemaeul) go everywhere but often take just as long a bus. You also have to be careful because some of their stops drop you off in the middle of the countryside with no chance to grab a taxi and local busses that come by 3 times a day.
One major thing to note is you can’t reserve train tickets with a foreign card at the station’s Keosks. You can pay with forgien card at the counter at some stations. Inconvenient, I know.
KorailTalk app works best on androids but is still a hit or miss when your phone is not on the Korean app store. I recomend booking train tickets using letskorail from a computer for the best user experience.
4. Renting a Car
I personally have never done this, but rental prices are pretty comparable to that of the United States (+$120 USDA per day pre insurience) . The good thing is that you can find rental places at the airports and most bus terminals to choose which part of your trip will be worth the splurge. You will need an international license to drive in Korea and you need to be sure that the company you’re renting from rents to foreigners.
These are the big tour busses that take you around. You can choose from express which makes one or two stops between you and your destination or a slower bus that stops in multiple villiages along the way. The express busses are often filled with fewer seats and have more legroom; however, the slower intercity busses are still roomy.
Price-wise these busses range from around $6-12 for shorter rides to upwards of $50 for long distances. The prices also go up depending on the popularity of where you are going and the time of day. I travel the most on intercity busses when I get out of town. The only real downsides are the bus stops everywhere except Seoul at around a 9pm departure; the more off the beaten track or further away you want to go, the earlier the last departure gets and the more bus hopping between cities you may have to do. Some rural areas only see intercity buses twice a day and they only go to the nearest larger town.
A major disclaimer for intercity busses, is you can only buy at most stations with cash at the counter if you don’t have a domestic card.
TX Bus (global itercity bus) is the app I look to check on times but it is not the friendliest user experience. The best user experience is going to be on the TX Bus website. Again neither of these sites accept forgien cards.
Local Bus (Intracity)
To use these buses, you will tap your T-money card when you get on and off to get a discount if your transfer lines. You will want to purchase a T-money card from a convince store like GS25, 7-11, and Mini Stop. To fill the card, you must pay cash. Of course, you can pay in cash, but as of 2021, the government is trying to phase out cash on city busses in some major cities.
Local bus routes in Korea are pretty reliable and regular. You can go anywhere on the bus, which is true but be forewarned the more rural you get, the harder it becomes to navigate the bus system. Some rural or town buses are not numbered; the only indication of their route is an arrow pointing from their first stop to their last stop which are usualy smaller regional bus terminals. These buses can come once an hour to only 3 times a day.
All You have to do to navigate is make sure you are on the bus page of your Naver or Kakao maps. These apps will thell you time of arival for the next bus (if its under 1hr or 20min depending on the line) and even give you alternative routs.
If you’re looking off the beaten path, there are a lot of islands in Korea and a lot that are only reachable by ferries. Much like the intercity busses, there are two kinds, the fast ferry and slow. What they are is in the names, but they often don’t leave from the same port, so you will want to see which one you want ahead of time. Most ferries here are for both cars and passengers. Like with busses you need to pay at the terminal if you have a forgien card. In good news it’s pretty rare for them to fill up, so no need to worry about reserving a spot the day before.
Korean Subways are cleaner and quieter than those in most countries, and everything is in both Hangul/Korean and the romanization/English, so as long as you know where you’re going and the end of the line you’re going towards, it’s pretty easy. Now there is a Seoul subway app, but navigating through Kakao or Naver Maps will have all the info you need and show you every stop on the lines when navigating. Just remember, you need to tap your T-money card or the one-time purchase ticket you can get before you go on and off.
8. Public Transportation Etiquette
When using public transportation, it is considered rude to talk to your friend or on the phone, but nowadays it depends on the area you are in and in many cases the bus driver. I recommend feeling out the vibe of your bus or subway car. If people are talking, then as long as it’s quiet, you should be fine just don’t be surprised if you get yelled at for talking (usually older men do this).
The second public transportation etiquette you need to know about is to mind the seats with yellow and pink backs on public busses and the subway. These seats are reserved for older people or expecting mothers. Unfortunately, you’ll notice that many younger people and middle-aged men don’t abide by this. I recommend that you mind this common courtesy getting up from these reserved seats if someone gets on who needs the because many Koreans will expect you to follow these etiquettes pretty strictly, even though they do not.
In a pinch or compleetly lost you can always call Korea’s tourist help line 1330 for help navigating to your destination.
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Disclaimer I am not being paid by any of these companies, applications, or services mentioned in this blog nor is the Korean Board of Tourisum paying me to promote any of the things mentioned in this blog. This Blog is writen based of of my own personal experience with these applications and services while living in South Korea. Use each of these aplications and services at your own risk and I am not responsible for what you do or what occures with them.