South Korea: Hanguk East of the Sea

South Korea is a great place to travel with so many things to do and see that you may have to take numerous trips just to scratch the surface. If you are traveling on a budget, South Korea is particularly appealing since it is an inexpensive country to travel around in. From skiing to relaxing on a beach, the range of activities to enjoy in South Korea will astound you.


Getting in, out, and about South Korea


US travelers entering South Korea for the purpose of a vacation do not need to apply for an entry visa. Your passport will allow entry for up to 90 days, although this does not mean you will receive a passport stamp for the entire 90 day duration. Furthermore, it’s vitally important that you leave the country by the date stamped on your passport. Otherwise, you won’t be allowed to leave until you have paid a steep fine.


It is possible to apply for an extended stay while you’re in South Korea, but it is not possible to apply for a different type of visa while you are in the country. Consequently, if you travel there for tourist purposes, but you find a job while you are there, for instance, you would have to leave the country while your work visa is processed. Conversely, if you traveled to South Korea for a vacation but you needed to stay longer than the exit date stamped on your passport, you could apply to extend that stay while you are in the country if your purpose for being there remained for tourism purposes.


Although the US Center for Disease Control recommends that all travelers to South Korea should be current on their standard vaccinations, the country does not require you have any particular vaccination in order to enter. Most travelers will find it advisable to get additional vaccinations against Hepatitis A and Typhoid, particularly if you are an adventurous eater or plan to stay in more rural areas in South Korea. Depending upon your vacation itinerary, you might also consider taking vaccinations against rabies, Hepatitis B, malaria, or Japanese encephalitis. Make sure you consult with your local doctor to determine which vaccinations would be appropriate for you. Also, be sure to do so well in advance of your travel plans. Some vaccinations such as the one against malaria involve a schedule of treatments over the course of months.


Travel within the major cities of Korea is best done via their extensive public subway systems. It’s a cheaper option than renting a car or taking taxis. Traffic in the larger cities tends to be highly congested and driving habits are extremely aggressive, so that traffic accidents and fatalities are far more common than in the US. Even pedestrians should use extreme caution when crossing the street and try to use overpasses and underpasses whenever possible because drivers often tear through intersections after the light has changed. In order to drive in South Korea, you must have a valid International Driver’s Permit.


Outside of the major cities, you have several options to get from place to place. Recently, South Korea has updated its rail system and even offers a rail cruise pass, which is a ticket that enables you to visit most of Korea’s popular tourist sites via the train. Since the rail system has only recently been revamped, bus travel is still the most common way to move about the country, and often the only way to get to extremely rural destinations.


The traveler’s tongue


The official language of South Korea is Korean, and although there are many dialects, the standard dialect as spoken in Seoul will be understood throughout the country. Being able to speak at least a little Korean and, most especially, read it will come in particularly handy because English is not widely spoken and most signs are in Korean, which involves an entirely different writing system than what is used in the West. Even where English is spoken, most speakers will not have a great degree of fluency due to lack of practice. You can get by speaking only English in the more popular tourist areas, but learning some basic Korean words and phrases will enhance your experience considerably. In some areas, you may find Japanese, Cantonese or Mandarin Chinese spoken as well.


Etiquette in South Korea is quite different from what you will find in the West. For example, when shaking someone’s hand, you should grip your arm with your other hand. Likewise, whenever someone hands you something, it is considered rude to take it with one hand alone. Instead, you should always use two hands. South Koreans are particularly status conscious towards their elders. When you are a guest at a dinner, for instance, do not begin eating or drinking until the eldest at your table has done so. Lifting bowls or plates off of the table when you eat is considered rude, as is pouring a drink for yourself. However, it is quite appropriate to refill other people’s drinks when they are empty.


Money matters in South Korea


The main currency used in South Korea is called the won (rhymes with yawn). While most businesses accept Visa and Master Card, some of the less expensive places will not. Changing your money into Korean currency can also be a bit of an adventure because most ATMs, with the exception of Citibank ATMs, do not accept non-Korean cards. You can change money at many banks, and these tend to give better exchange rates than ATMs and money changing booths located near tourist areas. Traveler’s checks also enjoy a good exchange rate.


The cost of travel in South Korea is fairly inexpensive compared with the US. For instance, it is possible to find a room at a hostel in Seoul for as low as $2 USD, although it is more common for hostel rooms to range from $10 to $25 USD per night per person. Three star hotels can range anywhere from $25 to $150 USD per person per night.


Food prices can vary widely from the extreme low-end of $2 for a small meal to the sky’s the limit. Restaurant prices in the tourist areas tend to be commensurate with those you would find in the US. Entry tickets into Korean attractions can range from $2 to $30 USD depending on the attraction. For budget travelers, if you stay in hostels, use public transportation, eat modestly, and limit your sight-seeing to free and low cost options, you can get by for as little as $50 to $60 USD per day.


Tipping at restaurants is highly uncommon, and if you do so, make sure that you hand the money discreetly to your server. Even then, tipping more than the change might be a cause for awkwardness and embarrassment. Most restaurants do include a service charge that goes to the wait-staff. Similarly, tipping taxi drivers should also include the leftover change only. In hotels or bars frequented by Westerners tipping may be more common, but anything more than 10% might even be considered rude because it implies they are providing service in exchange for a bribe.


Highlights of a vacation in South Korea


South Korea has four distinct seasons. Unless you plan to spend most of your time at the beach, the summer time is not the best time to visit South Korea. It gets a lot of rain in the early summer months and by late summer, it grows extremely humid. Spring and fall are the ideal times to visit South Korea, when milder temperatures predominate. Winter is a great time for going skiing, but beware that the climate at this time gets uncomfortably cold. Here are just a few highlights of a vacation in South Korea:


  • Seoul. South Korea’s capital city is one of the most highly populated in the world. Consequently, you will find a plethora of things to do, as you would in any other large urban area. Some notable sights and activities include visiting the Gyeongbok-gung and Changdeok-gung palaces, hiking the trails on Mount Bukhan, taking in the serene temples, such as those found on Mount Inwang or the Jogye Temple. If you enjoy comic books, particularly anime, you have two opportunities each month to take part in the World Comic Convention. If you enjoy games of chance, check out the Seven Luck Casino.
  • Busan. South Korea’s second largest city is famous for its hot springs and beaches, but there are numerous other attractions, including Yonggungsa and Beomeosa temples, the Jagalchi Fish Market, and the Busan Aquarium. In addition, you’ll find many gorgeous parks and nature preserves where you can take in Mother Nature as she expresses herself in South Korea.
  • Panmunjeom. This village is located right at the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea. For a real perspective on the political realities of the past half century, this area is a must-see.
  • Boryeong Mud Festival. If you like to get dirty and find yourself in South Korea during mid-July, head on over to Boryeong for this fun and messy experience. Activities include mud wrestling, mud sliding, body painting, and even mud skiing. The festival lasts two weeks, but the second weekend in July is the culmination of the festival and the best time to experience it.
  • Jeju. This island getaway is a great place to hike around. Visit lava tubes and caves throughout the island or enjoy the two-tone sands on Iho beach.


These highlights merely touch on some of the great things to do on a vacation to South Korea, but there are infinitely more experiences you can have, so start making your travel plans today.