Getting around South Korea: Transportation Tips
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Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Travelling around the country is simple – even if the train won’t take you where you want to go, there’s almost always a bus that will; should you have a choice, it’s usually faster but more expensive to take the train. Travel prices are also reasonable by international standards, even if you choose to hop on one of the surprisingly numerous domestic flights. Korea is surrounded by islands, and should you take a ferry to one of these, it may well be the most pleasurable part of your visit. All cities have comprehensive (if slightly incomprehensible) bus networks, and many now have subway lines. Taxis are remarkably good value, and can even be feasible modes of transport from city to city.
Wherever you are, it’s wise to avoid peak travel seasons if possible. During the two biggest holidays (Seollal and Chuseok) it can often feel as if the whole country is on the move, as people rush to their home towns and back again – there’s gridlock on the roads, it’s hard to find a seat on trains or buses, and many shops and businesses (including some hotels) close down. Weekend or rush-hour train tickets can also be hard to come by throughout the year. For travel information, it’s best to ask at a tourist office, or call the English-speaking information line on t1330 (you’ll need to add an area code if dialling from a mobile phone or abroad).
For such a small country, Korea is surprisingly well served by domestic flights. The two national carriers, Korean Air and Asiana, have near-identical services – with near-identical fares – linking over a dozen airports across the nation, with the two main hubs being Gimpo in Seoul, and the holiday hotspot of Jeju Island. However, the country is so well covered by train and bus that only a trip to Jeju would see the average traveller need to use a domestic flight. Prices are reasonable – almost always between W60,000 and W100,000 – which is hardly surprising given that few trips take longer than an hour. Don’t forget your passport, as you’re likely to need it for identification purposes.
With several thousand islands sprinkled around Korea’s western and southern shores, no trip to Korea would be complete without a ferry ride. Several towns and cities have connections, though the main ports of entry to Korea’s offshore kingdom are Incheon, Mokpo, Wando, Yeosu and Busan, all of which embrace sizeable island communities. The choice from Mokpo, in particular, is incredible – some travellers have inadvertently made trailblazers of themselves, finding their way onto islands that had never seen a foreign face. Popular Jeju Island is quite the opposite, and although the vast majority of Koreans travel here by plane, it has ferry connections to a number of southcoast mainland cities. Fares, on the whole, are reasonable – short hops may cost as little as W5000, but for return fares to outlying islands such as Jeju, Hongdo, Ulleungdo or Dokdo you’ll probably have to shell out at least ten times that. Only tickets to these destinations will be in much danger of selling out, and even then, only in high season; at these times, it’s best to head to a Korean travel agent.
A fleet of excellent trains ply the mainland provinces – sleek, affordable and punctual to a fault. There are two main lines, both starting in Seoul; these split in Daejeon, heading to Daegu and Busan to the southeast and Mokpo to the southwest. The highest of four main classes of train is the KTX – these high-speed machines entered service in 2004, and occasionally reach speeds of over 300km per hour. The Gyeongbu line runs from Seoul to Busan and connects the cities in around two hours (W51,800). The KTX has taken over from the previous lord of the tracks, the Saemaeul; though slower (Seoul to Busan takes over four hours), travelling on this class cuts KTX costs by around a third (W39,300 Seoul to Busan), and the greater legroom usually makes for a more comfortable journey. A third cheaper again is the network’s third class of train, the Mugunghwa, which was forced to cede most of its schedule space to the KTX – a good thing, since the Seoul to Busan journey (W26,500) is now a haul of nearly six hours. Last of all are the dirt-cheap commuter class trains, which largely cater for rural communities and Seoul’s satellite cities – only a handful of lines use them, and you’re unlikely to see or need one. All non-commuter trains have toilets, and folk pushing trolleys of beer, peanuts, chocolate and gimbap for sale down the carriages with almost disturbing frequency. For fare and schedule information, check wwww.korail.com.
Almost all stations have English-language signs where necessary, and schedules can also be checked online. When buying your tickets, the bigger stations have special lanes for foreigners, though it doesn’t really matter which one you use, as the ticketing system is computerized and buying one is easy. Simply state your destination and the class you require, and the cashier will swing a computer screen in your direction, showing the price and seat availability. If she’s pointing at a zero and looking apologetic, you’ll probably need another train; additional allocations of standing tickets are available on non-KTX classes once all seats are sold out, and with these you’ll be able to use any empty ones that become available. You’ll be given a carriage and seat number: take your seat and not someone else’s, otherwise it throws the seating system into disarray and may cause a domino-run of disgruntled passengers. As trains are far less numerous than buses, they’re far more likely to sell out quickly – on holidays or weekends, you’ll need fortune on your side to walk into a station and find KTX tickets for the main routes. Advance reservations are highly recommended – tickets for all classes go on sale a month ahead of travel, and can be bought at any station. Also, quite sensibly, a return ticket costs the same as two single ones.
Six Korean cities now have underground networks – Busan, Daegu, Daejeon and Gwangju have independent systems, while Incheon’s lines are linked to the marauding Seoul network; all are continuing to grow, and new networks are likely to be born in other cities. Prices start at about W1000 for a short hop (or from one end to the other on the single lines in Daejeon and Gwangju), and increase with distance in the bigger cities, though even the full run through Seoul from Soyosan to Cheonan – about one-third of the country, and one of the longest metro routes in the world at three hours plus – will only set you back W3100. Signs are dual-language, and station maps easy to read.
There are a staggering number of long-distance buses in Korea – during rush hour, some scheduled services can run as often as every two minutes, with all departing on time. They come in two types – express (고속; gosok) and intercity (시외; si-oe, pronounced “shee-way”). Although the express services are more expensive and tend to be used for longer journeys, they are likely to run in tandem with intercity buses on many routes; allied to this, the two bus types use separate stations in most cities, and even the locals don’t always know which one to go to, or which one they’ll be arriving at – very frustrating, though some cities are starting to see sense and group both into one building (Gwangju, for example). Some cities have even more than two, so all in all it pays to keep a loose schedule when using buses, even more so if the highways are full.
Longer journeys are broken at service stations, housing fast-food bars and snack shops, resonating to the sound of the “throat” (a Korean word for warbly grandmother techno) tapes on sale outside. You typically get fifteen minutes to make your purchases and use the toilets (there aren’t any on the buses), but many a traveller has come a cropper after exiting the building to be confronted by forty near-identical vehicles, of which half-a-dozen may be heading to the same destination – your bus won’t wait for you, so make sure that you know where it’s parked.
Buses are so frequent that it’s rare for them to sell out, though the last service of the day between major cities tends to be quite full. This can be surprisingly early: many services make their last trips at 7pm, though some have overnight connections. Prices are reasonable and usually lower than the trains, with intercity services slightly cheaper than express if the two coexist – Seoul to Busan is around W25,000 (5hr) on the former, W35,000 (4hr 30min) on the latter. Journeys take longer than the fastest trains, and are more prone to delays. Tickets are often checked at the start of the journey, but also at the end, so if possible try to avoid losing your ticket, lest the driver refuse to release you from his bus (which does happen).
With little English language on the signs or vehicles, Korea’s city bus networks can be more than a little confusing for the first-time visitor, and some of Seoul’s route numbers look more like postcodes. Once you are familiar with a route, city buses can be a good way of getting around – they’re pleasingly frequent, and very affordable at around W1000 per ride. Throw your money into the collection box next to the driver; change will be spat out just below – make sure that you’ve an ample supply of coins or W1000 notes with you, as higher-value bills are unlikely to be accepted (though foreigners in such situations may be waved on with a grin). The bigger cities have started to avoid these problems by introducing pre-paid cards; these work out cheaper per journey than paying by cash, and some are also valid on subway networks or longer-distance buses. They last for as long as you have credit, and can be topped up in increments of W1000 at kiosks or ticket booths.
There are good reasons for the relative reluctance of travellers to hire a car in Korea. The main one is the country’s excellent public transport infrastructure, another the threat posed by Korean drivers. Korean road fatality rates are often cited as the highest in the world, with most estimates putting the figures above 30 per 100,000 people per year – five times higher than the UK, for example. If you do decide to drive, you will inevitably get snarled up in the traffic that blights the cities and highways, with exceptions being Jeju Island and rural Gangwon province in the northeast, where the roads are relatively calm and traffic-free.
To hire a car you will need an international driving licence, and to be at least 21 years of age. Rental offices can be found at all airports and many train stations, as well as around the cities. Prices usually start at W45,000 per day, though as insurance is compulsory, you should budget on a little extra. Vehicles usually drive on the right-handside of the road (though not all the time; the pavement can be just as popular in some city areas).
Korean taxis are pleasingly cheap for a developed country, and in any city you shouldn’t have to wait long to spot one. Look for cars with illuminated blocks on top, usually something resembling a plastic pyramid. Those whose blocks aren’t illuminated are taken or on call; others can be waved down from the roadside, though to make sure of being understood you’ll have to do it the Korean way – arm out, palm to the ground, fingers dangling underneath. As few drivers speak English, it’s a good idea to have your destination written down, if possible – even the cheapest motels should have business cards with their address on. Rates will vary slightly from city to city, though they should start at under W2500 – over short distances, cab rides may work out cheaper than taking buses if you’re in a group. All taxis are metered and though dishonesty is rarely an issue, when you start moving, check that the numbers are doing likewise. The only time that you may have to negotiate a fee is if you’re using a chong-al – or “bullet” – taxi. Piloted by death-wish drivers, these hover like vultures around train and bus stations when tickets have sold out, or daily services have finished. Rides in such vehicles are not recommended for those of a nervous disposition, while others may find it quite a thrill.
You’ll be hard pushed to find two-wheeled vehicles above 125cc in the country, as the vast majority of Oriental superbikes are exported for use in Europe or America. Despite this, though, a sizeable number of expats still don leather during their Korean stint. One good place to hunt for information or cycle partners is Yongsan Motorcycle Club, whose website (wwww.roaddragons.com) features a calendar of forthcoming trips and events.
There are nowhere near as many bikes on the roads of Korea as there are in other Asian countries, the chief reason being that Korean roads are dangerous places to be whatever vehicle you’re in or on. Not that you’re much safer away from the street; cars regularly glide along the pavements looking for a place to park, and half of the country’s road fatalities are pedestrians – an unusually high proportion. There are, however, a few pleasant areas to cycle along rural roads; particular recommendations are the sparsely populated provinces of Gangwon and Jeju Island. Rides circumnavigating the latter take three or four days at a steady pace, and are becoming more and more commonplace. Those confined to a city will usually be able to go for a ride on a riverbank, with bikes available for hire at the most popular places.
Foreigners who attempt to cover long distances by hitching rides in Korea generally have a hard time of things. Even with your destination on a handwritten sign, and even after having confirmed to the smiling driver where it is that you want to go, you’re likely to be dropped at the nearest bus or train station. After all, to Koreans, this is the only sensible way to travel if you don’t have a vehicle of your own – hitching is almost unheard of as a money-saving device. Short-distance rides are a different proposition altogether; although the scope of Korea’s public transport system means that you’d be very unfortunate to find yourself stuck without a bus or train, it can happen, and in such circumstances hitching a ride can be as easy as flagging down the first car that you see. Of course, accepting lifts with strangers isn’t devoid of risk anywhere on earth, but if you’re ever determined to give it a try, there can be few easier and safer places to do it than the Korean countryside.
First, the good news – almost all Korean road signs are dual-language, spelling the Korean hangeul out in Roman characters. The bad news is that there are very few street signs – most streets don’t even have names. Instead, addresses point to a numbered section of a dong (city district), which until recently were doled out in chronological order when the buildings were made. In 2010 the Korean government slapped new road signs all over the country, with addresses listed by their position on a road rather than their relative age, but it’ll be a while before these new addresses find common use.
As you can imagine, this patchwork system leads to all sorts of problems; it’s common for hotels and restaurants to include a small map on their business cards. The local tourist office may be able to contact hotels and get them to fax you through a map, or you could take your chances in a taxi. Drivers will know the location of each city dong, but not necessarily the exact road or address, so don’t worry if they pull in at a police station – it’s quite common for cabbies to consult police maps for exact directions.
Despite the general confusion, addresses fit into a very rigid system; unlike the Western world, components are usually listed from largest to smallest when writing an address. The country is split into nine 도 – do, or provinces. In these you’ll find cities (시; – si, pronounced shee), towns (읍; – eup) and villages (리; – ri or – li), with the larger cities split into a number of 구 – gu, or wards. The number of – gu will vary with the city’s size – Seoul, for example, has 25 such sections – and these are further subdivided into 동 – dong districts. Large roads are signified by a 로 (– no, – ro or – lo) suffix, with the very meatiest divided into numbered 가 – ga sections. Smaller roads come with a 길 – gil suffix; anything else will be a number in its local – dong city section, which is itself part of a larger – gu. Therefore Tapgol Park in Seoul-si sits at the end of Insadonggil in Insadong, part of Jongnogu, at the confluence of Samillo and Jongno 2-ga. Happy hunting!