Accommodation is likely to swallow up a large chunk of your travel budget, especially for those who favour Western-style luxuries, but for adventurous travellers there are ways to keep costs to a minimum. Finding a place is less likely to be a problem – Korea has an incredible number of places to stay, and one would be forgiven for thinking that there are actually more beds than there are people in the country. Do note, however, that most of these are on the cheaper side – only a few places around the country have top-drawer hotel facilities.
Luxury hotels can be found in all cities and major tourist areas, as well as a number of specially dedicated tourist hotels, though with space at such a premium, rooms are generally on the small side. Dropping down the price scale, budget travellers can choose from thousands of motels and guesthouses – many of which have nicer rooms than the dedicated tourist hotels at far lower prices – or even sleep in a jjimjilbang (a Korean sauna). At these levels, there’s so much choice that reservations are almost unheard of. English is spoken to varying degrees in all top hotels, but elsewhere it pays to know a few keywords in Korean (or to have good miming skills).
The big hotel chains have dipped their toes into the Korean market, and there’s at least one five-star option in every major city. You’re most likely to pay full rack rates in July or August, though high-season at national parks and ski resorts will be autumn and winter respectively. Standards are high, by and large, though even at the top end it’s hard to find rooms of a decent size.
Korean hotels are split by class; from top to bottom, these are super deluxe, deluxe, first-class, second-class and third-class. Categories are marked by a plaque at the front showing a number of flowers – five for superdeluxe down to one for third-class. Many tourist hotels were built as Korea was getting rich in the 1980s, and now offer questionable value; stained carpets, tiny bathrooms and curious smells have become the norm, and few have staff with English-language skills. Indeed, some of the most recently built motels offer better rooms, and at much lower prices. Most hotels have “Western” or “Korean” rooms; there are no beds in the latter (the sandwich of blankets on a heated ondol floor represents the traditional Korean way to sleep), and prices for both are about the same.
When booking, bear in mind that the 10 percent tax levied on hotel rooms is not always factored into the quoted prices; in higher-end establishments, you’re also likely to be hit with an additional 10 percent service charge.
Bearing little resemblance to their American counterparts, motels (모텔) are absolutely all over the place – in any urban centre, you should never be more than a walk from the nearest one. Most offer fairly uniform en-suite doubles for W30,000–50,000, and standard facilities include shampoo and shower gel, hairdryers, televisions, a water fountain and free cans of beer, coffee or “vitamin juice”. Extortion of foreigners is extremely rare, and you shouldn’t be afraid to haggle the price down if you’re travelling alone, especially outside summer.
Korean motels won’t appeal to everybody, as they’re generally used as a much-needed source of privacy by young couples (or those who need to keep their relationship secret). A few would be more honestly described as “love hotels” – pink neon and Cinderella turrets are the most obvious giveaways, while the interior may feature heart-shaped beds, condom machines and more mirrors than you can shake a stick at. That said, the majority of establishments are quite tame, any seaminess is kept behind closed doors, and even for lone women most make acceptable places to stay – indeed, if you can can put up with the decor you will find them Korea’s best-value accommodation option. The motels that have gone up since the turn of the century, in particular, often have cleaner rooms than the average tourist hotel, typically featuring huge flatscreen TVs and internet-ready computer terminals.
Yeogwan (여관) are older, smaller, less polished versions of motels. Slightly cheaper, but often a little grubby, they once formed the backbone of Korea’s budget travel accommodation, and can still be found in teams around bus and train stations. With whole streets full of them, it’s easy to hunt around for the best deal – a double room usually costs W20,000–35,000, though prices are higher in Seoul, and tend to rise in high season. Single rooms do not exist, but almost all have en-suite bathrooms.
Minbak rooms (민박) are usually rented-out parts of a residential property, and are less likely to have private bathrooms. These are most commonly found on islands and by popular beaches or national parks, and though the prices are comparable to yeogwan rates for much of the year, they can quadruple if there’s enough demand – summer is peak season for the beaches and islands, spring and autumn for the parks.
Even cheaper rooms can be found at a yeoinsuk (여인숙) – around W10,000 per night. Slowly disappearing, these are a noisier, more spartan variation of the yeogwan, invariably found in older areas of town, with rooms containing nothing more than a couple of blankets, a television and a heated linoleum ondol floor to sleep on. Such wipe-clean minimalism generally makes for clean rooms, though some have a cockroach problem, and the communal toilets and showers can be quite off-putting.
Aside from a smattering of backpacker dens in Seoul, Korean hostels differ greatly from those that Western travellers might be used to – created for and primarily used by the nation’s youth, the atmosphere is more boarding school than Bohemian. Generally found in the countryside, most hostels are large, well-appointed places with private rooms of various sizes, and a few dormitories; dorm beds go for W15,000–20,000, and private rooms for W35,000 and up.
Most national parks have at least one campsite to cater for the swarms of Korean hikers who spend their weekends in the mountains. Most are free, but those that charge (typically under W5000) have excellent toilet and shower facilities. Jirisan and Seoraksan, two of the largest parks, have well-signposted shelters or huts dotted around the hiking trails; these cost under W8000 per person, though they may only open from summer until autumn, and you’re advised to book ahead – check the national park website at wenglish.knps.or.kr. At both campsites and shelters, drinking water should always be available, and though simple snacks may also be on offer, it’s best to bring your own food.
If you’re looking for a more traditional experience, you could try staying at a temple. Though temples with sufficient room are pretty much obliged to take in needy travellers for the night, many offer interesting, prearranged programmes for around W50,000 per night, some with the capacity for English-language translation – see weng.templestay.com for more details. There’s usually meditation, grounds-sweeping, a tea ceremony and a meal or two on the agenda, but be prepared for spartan sleeping arrangements and a pre-dawn wake-up call. If you’re after something traditional but without the routine, try hunting down a hanok – these are traditional Korean buildings, replete with wooden frames, sliding doors and a woodfired underfloor heating system. Few such buildings cater for travellers, though some can be found at the traditional villages scattered around the country (Hahoe near Andong is the best), and there are dedicated districts in Seoul and Jeonju. Many include tea ceremonies and other activities such as gimchi-making in the cost.
For travellers willing to take the plunge and bare all in front of curious strangers, saunas (known locally as jjimjilbang; 찜질방) are some of the cheapest and most uniquely Korean places to get a night’s sleep. Almost entirely devoid of the seedy reputations that may dog similar facilities abroad, jjimjilbang are large, round-the-clock establishments primarily used by families escaping their homes for the night, businessmen who’ve worked or partied beyond their last trains, or teenage groups having a safe night out together. They can be found in any Korean city, typically costing W5000–8000, and consist of a shower and pool area, a sauna or steam room, and a large playschool-style quiet room or two for communal napping; most also have snack bars and internet terminals. Upon entry, guests are given a locker key and matching T-shirts and shorts to change into – outside clothes are not allowed to be worn inside the complex, though it’s OK to wear underwear beneath your robe. All must be sacrificed on entry to the pools, which are segregated by gender. The common rooms are uniformly clean but vary in style; some have TVs and hi-tech recliner chairs, others invite you to roll out a mini-mattress, but all will have a floorful of snoring Koreans.