How to get to South Korea
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Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
With no way to travel to Korea by road or rail, the vast majority of travellers arrive at the gleaming Incheon international airport; often referred to as “Seoul Incheon” on international departure boards, this offshore beast handles a large and ever-increasing number of international flights. The only other way in is by sea – there are services from both China and Japan.
Korean Air and Asiana are the two big Korean airlines, operating direct flights from a number of destinations around the world. Seoul increasingly features as a stopover on round-the-world trips, and the country is well served by dozens of international carriers. Fares increase for travel in the summer months and at Christmas time. A departure tax applies when leaving Korea, but will almost certainly be factored in to your ticket price.
Incheon itself is served by a number of Chinese ferry ports, and there are services from several destinations in Japan to Busan. Those arriving by ferry will be rewarded with a pretty introduction to the country – the Korean coastline around Incheon melts into countless islands, though the port area itself has been ravaged by industry, as have some nearby islands. Yet more interesting would be to arrive by train through North Korea, though the country’s relationship with the outside world has so far prevented Seoul-bound trains from making the journey from Beijing.
Korean Air and Asiana have direct connections from London Heathrow to Incheon – Korean Air has a daily service, while Asiana has five per week. The journey takes eleven hours, with fares costing around £600; this can sail over £800 during summer and at Christmas, when it’s common for all flights to be fully booked weeks in advance. You can save money by taking an indirect flight, with prices often dipping below £400 during low season; good options include Finnair via Helsinki, Qatar Airways via Doha, Aeroflot via Moscow and Emirates via Dubai. It’s also worth checking deals with KLM and Air France, whose routes are as close to direct as possible.
There are no direct flights to Korea from Ireland so you’ll have to transfer in the UK or in mainland Europe.
If you are coming from the US you have a number of options available to you: there are direct flights to Incheon from New York, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Seattle, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington and Honolulu; carriers include Delta and United, as well as Asiana and Korean Air. Sample low season fares are $1400 from New York (a journey of around 14hr), $1200 from Chicago (14hr) and $1150 from Los Angeles (13hr). In all cases you may save up to a couple of hundred dollars by transferring – San Francisco and Seattle are popular hubs. Fares on many routes can almost double during summer and Christmas time.
Korean Air has direct flights from Incheon from two Canadian cities, Vancouver and Toronto, but these can be very expensive when demand is high (over Can$3000). Again, you’re likely to save money by taking an indirect flight, in which case Can$1700 would be a typical low season fare from both cities.
From Australia, the only three cities with direct connections to Korea are Sydney (10hr), twice per day; Brisbane (9hr), five times per week; and Melbourne (11hr) three times per week. There are sometimes direct flights from Cairns during the Korean winter. The number of Koreans going to Australia means that bargain flights are few and far between, but Qantas usually prices its direct services competitively – return fares start at around Aus$1500, while the Korean carriers may ask for almost double that. It’s worth checking around for indirect flights via a Southeast Asian hub; prices can often drop close to Aus$1000. Likewise, if travelling from New Zealand – keep your fingers crossed for a NZ$1400 fare, but assume you’ll pay around NZ$1900. There are also direct flights from Auckland (12hr), and a few from Christchurch.
At the time of writing, there were no direct flights from South Africa.
If you’re travelling from elsewhere in Asia – particularly from Japan or China’s eastern seaboard – it may be worth checking for a connection to another Korean international airport. In decreasing order of importance, these include Busan’s Gimhae airport, Jeju, Daegu and Gwangju; those at Yangyang (near Sokcho) and Cheongju are also equipped to handle international flights, though don’t always get the opportunity. There’s also a handy, and extremely regular, connection between Seoul’s Gimpo airport and Tokyo Haneda, both of which are closer to the centre of their respective capitals than the larger hubs, Incheon and Narita.
Despite the fact that South Korea is part of the Eurasian landmass, and technically connected to the rest of it by rail, the DMZ and North Korean red tape means that the country is currently inaccessible by land. This may well change – two old lines across the DMZ have been renovated and 2007 saw trains rumble across the border as part of a peace ceremony. However, overnight trains from Beijing to Seoul station remain a distant prospect. Until then, surface-based access from the continent takes the form of ferries from Japan or China, possibly via a ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Note that if you’re heading to or from China or Japan, you can make use of a combined rail and ferry ticket that gives substantial discounts on what you’d pay separately – see wwww.korail.com for details.
There are several ferry routes from China’s eastern coast, almost all of which head to Incheon’s international termini. All vessels have numerous classes of comfort, with one-way prices starting at around 700 RMB. The most popular connections are Dalian and Qingdao, and Tianjin’s port in Tanggu, which is most convenient if you’re heading to or from Beijing. for more on these routes.
Services from Japan depart from Fukuoka and Shimonoseki to Busan, and arrive reasonably close to Busan train station, so you can be heading to other Korean destinations in no time. Fukuoka is by far the better choice, since there are, in fact, two different services to and from Korea – one a regular ferry, departing Fukuoka every day except Sunday (6hr; ¥9000), or a faster jetfoil with at least five services per day (3hr; ¥13,000; wwww.jrbeetle.co.jp).