Stepping into a foreign land for the first time warrants us to do loads of homework prior to our departure. I can’t speak nor read Korean language except words that I’ve often heard from Korean Drama or Running Man. But I am certainly not a KPOP or KDrama Fanatic. You may wonder then, why Korea/Seoul?
1. It is safer for solo female travelers.
2. Winter + It was Christmas & my birthday week.
3. It is pocket-friendly as compared to Japan or Eastern/Western Countries.
Traveling on a shoestring budget, I managed to spend less than 2.3K SGD for 12 days all-inclusive: Flight, expenses, lodging and shopping. I could have spent lesser if not for the expensive (almost last min) flight tix! Here are some tips below, hopefully it can help you in your planning:
Air ticket always eats up the bulk of our budget. I booked my flight 2 weeks before my trip and the cost of my ticket was inevitably high but twas’ the cheapest at that point of time. I flew by China Eastern Airlines (non-direct) and the experience was not too shabby. I was comparing prices on Skyscanner and eventually booked my tickets via Cheaptickets. If you were to Google up on Cheaptickets review, you’ll only be overwhelmed by negative experiences but I went ahead albeit feeling skeptical. Thankfully, there wasn’t any hiccups. However, the communication was inefficient though, and additional 6SGD will be charged to your credit card when you purchased the air ticket from Cheaptickets. One very useful tip is BOOK & PLAN YOUR TRIP EARLY.
I spent a mere 5-10% of my budget on lodging. During Winter season, rates will be higher than usual for most accommodations, otherwise, hostels/backpackers are pretty affordable (25-30SGD/night onwards) as compared to staying in a Hotel. I spent 3 days 2 nights in Zaza Backpackers and the rest of my days were at a local’s home for free, which was a little far from the City area via Couchsurfing – you can read up on here. Zaza Backpackers is strategically located at Myeongdong but away from the bustling streets, and it takes approx. 2-3 minutes walk to the nearest Subway and bus stop to N Seoul Tower. Downside is, you have to walk up a mild slope to get to the hostel but to me, it wasn’t an issue.
3. WiFi & SIM Card
Free WiFi is everywhere in Seoul. Most cafes have free WiFi access. Simply approach the counter for password and you can enjoy connection while sipping on a cuppa. Unless you are traveling in a big group, renting a WiFi egg is not worth it. Buy a SIM Card from EG Sim Card Korea and you can connect to the world on the go at an affordable price! WiFi egg rental can cost up to about 120 SGD and above but SIM Card with data only costs you about 30 SGD. The data was enough to last me for 12 days but of course, it varies depending on your usage.
Once your credits are used up, you can top-up automatically via their app. You can register for the Sim Card before your flight and collect it at KBook, Incheon Airport. Check out the instructions on their website, do take note when registering a Sim Card cos’ my intended arrival/collection place was different from the drop-down menu options given so I had to email them regarding that issue and they did the necessary for me. Fuss-free, easy and cheap! iPhone users, don’t forget to travel with your iPhone needle/pin.
4. Getting Around
Seoul is very accessible. Everywhere is connected via Subway evidently shown on their complicated Subway map but it IS really simple. Buy T-money card from their convenience store, like Singapore’s Ezlink card or Hong Kong’s Octopus card and you can top-up credits at any top-up machine. It’s a handy card where you can take the Subway, Bus and do purchases with. Compared to buying per-trip ticket, T-money helps you save a little.
#1: Avoid wearing heels or shoes that will cause blisters. You have to do loads of walking and climbing.
#2: If possible, travel light. Most of the Subway stations have no elevator and escalator. You have to climb flight of stairs to the exit or to change line. It is a pain to do so with heavy luggage/baggage.
#3: In Singapore, if you took the wrong direction or wanted to transfer to another line, you simply have to crossover the platform or walk a short distance but in Seoul, you may have to tap out to go over the other side; climb multiple flight of stairs to get to where you want to.
#1: From what I’ve learned, you have to get ready to alight early. The bus drivers are really fast and they wait for no man. Press the bell early and be at the door even before the bus reaches your desired stop.
#2: If you do not have T-money, cash is fine as well and unlike Singapore, they provide you change. So not to worry if you do not have exact.
Myeongdong is a known paradise among ladies, but I happened to chance upon another cheaper alternative near Ewha University while exploring the area. It is almost like a wholesale store that carries several make up brands however, they only carry selected brands such as Laneige, 3CE, IOPE, Nature Republic, Belif, The Face Shop etc. They are slightly cheaper and saves you the trouble of going through the Tax Refund process.
Trust me, the Tax Refund in Korea is so cumbersome to a point I got frustrated with the process. I gave up after one receipt claimed. Just imagine having to wait in a snake-like queue while hoping you won’t miss your check-in or flight, and after collecting your refund documents, you cannot have your refund yet cos’ you have to go into the departure area to collect your refund in cash. That’s not the end, you still have to queue AGAIN for your refund in there at another refund booth. It’s not worth the time and energy to beat the crowd to go through the hassle if you had only bought a few things. It’s definitely not worth it to pay extra if you missed your flight because of that.
How to get there: Facing Ewha University, the shop is on your left hand side. Look out for the name of the shop: Bavi Phat. It’s well-lit, you won’t miss it.
6. What to wear (For Winter)
The lowest temperate hit -15 degree Celsius when I was there. So do keep warm and be well-prepared, especially during Winter. You can shop and buy Winter clothes in Korea, it’s definitely a lot cheaper and better in quality than buying in Singapore.
Body: I wore a layer of Uniqlo heat-tech, thermal wear, 1 thick knitted top with a normal summer long sleeves. On top of that, I wore my trustworthy down jacket and it was enough to keep me warm. However, when the wind blows, it penetrated into my bones. The coldest part of my body were my hands and face.
Bottom: On some days, I wore one thermal, summer tights and jeans. On other days, i only wore one tights and jeans.
7. Useful Apps
#1: Naver Map
#2: Subway (Jihachul)
This app is my savior for the trip! Tell the app where is your start-off point and destination by tapping/keying on the map and the app will plan the subway route for you! It will also estimate the time taken to travel with each specific route however, do buffer a longer time and avoid following closely to the time reflected on the app cos’ sometimes, shit happens (i.e. getting lost or extra time is needed to walk to another subway line).
If you’re like me, can’t speak a word of Korean language, then translator is what you need! I would recommend using both for reliable translation.
You’ll NEVER go hungry in Korea. Restaurants and street food are everywhere even in the Subway station! There are even vending machines at the platform for you to grab a quick cuppa while waiting. Honestly, I did not go on a food or cafe hunt when I was there cos’ 1) I was blessed with home-cooked food by my host’s family on a few days 2) I was alone, and most good eateries are crowded with people. 3) Their normal portion is good for sharing BUT me being alone can’t stomach so much. Other days I randomly patronized the restaurants that I thought looks decent and good judging from their shop front, moreover I couldn’t read any Korean word so I had to bank on the visuals to aid me in decision-making. I just went with the flow when it comes to dining there!
Must-try in Korea:
1. Live Octopus (and Seafood) at Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market
2. Korean BBQ aka Samgyeopsal
3. Fried Chicken
4. Chicken Galbi
5. James Cheese Back Ribs @ Hongdae
6. Korean Beef Tartare aka Yuk Hwe (Raw ground beef mixed with uncooked egg)
Well, whatever that is available in Singapore, have a try in Korea. It’s a lot better and different. :)
9. Hanbok Experience
What’s Korea without trying on their Traditional Hanbok for memories? There’s a FREE experience @ Seoul Global Culture & Tourism Center in M Plaza. Alternatively, you can try out Go Guan Studio, located inside the building of Trick Eye Museum in Hongdae, Seoul. At Go Guan Studio, you get to choose your outfit (from Geisha to Princess to Court) and complete the look with desired hairstyle at about 20,000KRW. If you don’t mind paying more, you can have Korean style makeup done at another cost. After which, you’re free to roam around the studio and snap/selfie your time away. There will not be professional photographer but the shop assistant will offer to help you take a group shot or two.
10. Korean Culture/Customs
Over the course of 12 days and learning from the locals, I’ve noticed and was told about these few:
#1: Do not eat before a senior/elderly.
#2: They are particular about recycling so you’ll often see bins carefully categorized. Do not trash all in one.
#3: Speak formally to senior/elderly. You can Google up some formal korean language.
#4: ALWAYS return your tray after meal unless the shop does not have such practice.
#5: You can ask for no side dishes or side dishes that you don’t eat if you are unable to finish them. They are rather particular about food wastage.
#6: ALWAYS remove your shoes before entering a home and for some eateries as well.
#7: ALWAYS greet before you ask for help or directions.
Alright, have fun planning! Meanwhile, you may check out my Seoul journey video here.
[Post contributed by Gen. N]
I hope these tips are helpful! If you have further questions or doubts on anything Seoul, do leave a comment and we’ll try our best to help you! If you have some tips to share, do leave a comment because we would love to hear from you! :)