South Korea


Transportation - Get In

By plane

South Korea has many international airports; however, only a few actually have scheduled services. South Korea has experienced an airport building frenzy over the last decade. Many large towns have dedicated functioning airports that handle only a handful of flights a week.

  • Incheon International Airport, about 1 hour west of Seoul, is the country's largest airport and is served by many international airlines. There are numerous options for flying there from locations throughout Asia, Europe and North America, and even routes to South America and Africa. This is also frequently rated as the best run and best designed airport in the world. There are direct inter-city buses that travel from just outside the international arrival hall to many locations throughout South Korea. The airport has a metro line (express AREX 43 min and all-stop subway 56 min) that goes directly to both Seoul Gimpo airport and Seoul Station. (There is an airline check-in facility in Seoul station.) Also, the recently opened KTX high-speed train service connects all over the country within 3 hours.
  • Busan's Gimhae International Airport has international connections to Cambodia, China, Guam, Japan, Hong Kong, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Russia, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. Gimhae also has a few flights a day directly from Seoul Incheon, which is much more convenient than changing to Seoul Gimpo airport after a long international flight. The airport has a Light rail Line connecting Gimhae and West Busan.
  • Jeju has flights from many South Korean cities as well as international flights to major Taiwanese, Japanese and Chinese cities. The (Seoul) Gimpo-Jeju line is the busiest flight corridor in the world and the island is well served from other Korean airports as well.
  • Seoul Gimpo airport offers domestic flights to most South Korean cities, and the international "city shuttle" services from Tokyo-Haneda, Beijing, Shanghai-Hongqiao and Taipei-Songshan are quite convenient. It is more centrally located to Seoul than Incheon. You can connect from Incheon airport either by train or by limousine bus.
  • Yangyang Airport is a very quiet airport in the remote North East of the country. Korea Express Air operates Domestic flights between Busan Gimhae International Airport, Seoul Gimpo Airport, and Gwangju Airport. There are charter flights to Chinese cities as well. This airport is also the closest airport to the Seoraksan National Park and parts of Northeast Gangwon-do. Korean Air and Asiana are the principal carriers to and from South Korea. There is a growing number of budget airlines including Air Busan and Jeju Air that fly both domestic and international routes.

Korean Air (대한항공) and Asiana (아시아나 항공) are the principal full service carriers to and from South Korea that fly around the world. Low cost airlines Air Busan, Jin Air, Jeju Air, Eastar Jet and T'Way Airlines offer both domestic flights to Jeju as well as international flights across Asia.

By train

Japan Rail and Korean Rail have an agreement where train trips between the countries can be completed via a ferry journey in the middle. Train travelers coming from or continuing on to Japan can purchase special through tickets giving discounts of 30% on KTX services and 9-30% on Busan - Fukuoka ferries as well as Japanese trains.

Travel to North Korea by train is not an option. There is a train track connecting the Korean Rail network with North Korea and even an active Korean Rail station (albeit with no scheduled trains) on the border. However there is no traffic and it will likely remain more of a political statement than a potential travel option for some time to come.

By boat

Note that the services listed here may change frequently, and English language websites may not be updated with the current information. Do verify before traveling.

Busan Port International Passenger Terminal is the largest seaport in the country and offers ferry rides mostly to and from Japan. The JR's Beetle hydrofoil service from Busan to Fukuoka manages the trip in just under three hours with up to five connections a day. It also offers service to near by Tsushima. All other links are slower overnight ferries, such as Pukwan Ferry Company's services to Shimonoseki. A Busan-Osaka ferry is operated by Panstar Line Co., Ltd..

Incheon's International Ferry Terminal 1 (Yeonan Budu, 연안부두) has services to several cities in China, such as Weihai, Dandong, Qingdao and Tianjin. The largest operator is Jinchon, but Incheon Port has full listings on their website. The Chinese ports of Rizhao, Rongcheng and Lianyungang, all in Shandong province, can also be accessed by ferry from Pyeongtaek.

There are also weekly departures from Sokcho (Gangwon-do) to Vladivostok from USD270 operated by Dong Chun Ferry, and from Donghae (Gangwon-do) to Vladivostok from USD205 operated by DBS Cruise Ferry Co.

By land

Due the political and military situation with North Korea, entering South Korea overland is not possible. The border between North and South Korea is considered the most heavily fortified border in the world, and while some unauthorized crossings have occurred at the truce village of Panmunjeom they have usually resulted in gunfire.

Interesting enough, a select group of South Korean businessmen did until recently cross the border daily by bus in order to work in the joint industrial park in the North Korean city of Kaesong. However, as of 2016, the industrial park is closed, a casualty of inter-Korean tensions.

Transportation - Get Around

South Korea is fairly compact and you can get anywhere very fast if you fly, and reasonably fast even if you don't. Subways are available in most of the cities including metropolitan Seoul. Larger cities currently have service or are developing subways. Travel by bus or taxi is easily available, although bus services are more economical.

By plane

South Korea is a relatively small country with a fast and efficient train service (see the KTX fast train below) and therefore flying around is not necessary unless you are going to the island of Jeju.

Nevertheless, plenty of airlines do fly between the main cities at a cost comparable to the KTX train. Most flights are with Korean Air or Asiana; however, many new options exist with budget airlines such as T-way, Air Busan, Jin Air and Jeju Air (which despite the name also serves the busy Seoul Gimpo to Busan route). The service doesn't vary significantly between full service and low cost airlines on domestic services, in fact low cost airlines offer complimentary soft drinks and 15kg of hold luggage.

By train

National train operator Korail connects major cities in South Korea. A large amount of money has been plowed into the network in recent years and trains are now competitive with buses and planes on speed and price, with high safety standards and a good deal of comfort.

South Korea's flagship service is the high speed Korea Train eXpress (KTX) services between Seoul and Busan, Seoul and Yeosu, Seoul and Mokpo and Seoul and Masan (with new services opening all the time) which use a combination of French TGV technology and Korean technology to travel at speeds in excess of 300 km/h. The fastest non-stop trains travel between Busan and Seoul in just over two hours. There are drink vending machines on board and an attendant that comes by with a snack cart which includes reasonably priced beer, soda, cookies, candy, sausages, hard-boiled eggs, and kimbap (rice rolls).

Seoul to Busan by train
KTX First Class2 to 2.5 hours₩72,200
KTX Standard2 to 2.5 hours₩53,700
All prices off-peak (Mon-Thu), small surcharges apply for peak (Fri-Sun)

Non-KTX trains are poetically ranked as Saemaeul (새마을, "New Village"), Mugunghwa (무궁화, "Rose of Sharon") and Tonggeun (통근), corresponding roughly to express, semi-express and local services. All Saemaeul/Mugunghwa trains can speed up to 150km/h. Saemaeul trains are a little pricier than buses, while Mugunghwa are about 30% cheaper. However Saemaeul trains are extremely comfortable, having seats that are comparable to business class seats on airplanes. Though with the introduction of the KTX, there are much fewer Saemaeul and Mugunghwa services, they are worth trying them out. Tonggeun, formerly Tonggil, are cheapest of all, but long-distance, non-aircon services have been phased out and they're now limited to short regional commuter services. Most longer-distance trains have a cafeteria car with a small cafe/bar, computers with internet access (W500 for 15 minutes) and a few trains even have private compartments with coin-operated karaoke machines!

Saemaeul and some Mugunghwa trains are equipped with power plugs on laptop seats.

Smoking is not permitted on any Korean trains or stations (including open platforms).

Seoul also has an extensive commuter train network that smoothly interoperates with the massive subway system, and Busan, Daejeon, Daegu, Gwangju and Incheon also have subway services.

Tickets are much cheaper than in Japan but more expensive than other Asian countries - although the damage can be lowered by travelling on local trains rather than KTX. Buying tickets is fairly easy - self-service terminals accepting cash and credit cards are in multiple languages and are very simple to use. Station staff can usually speak basic English. Most stations are clean, modern and have good signposting in Korean and English, and compared to China or Japan, Korea's rail system is very user-friendly.

Pre-booking any train tickets a day prior (be they KTX or mugunghwa) is recommended for weekend trips, as all trains can be booked out for hours on end. On Sunday in particular, all but local trains have begun to completely book out regularly. Failure to reserve tickets in advance when departing busy hubs such as Seoul or Busan may see your options reduced to "unallocated seating" on the slowest local trains (sitting on the floor in the unairconditioned space between carriages, or standing in the toilet for much of the trip. You are, however, free to sit on any seat that seems free until someone with the ticket to that seat shows up. If you are confident in your Korean, you can ask to reserve seats on sections that are available and travel standing up the rest of the way.).

KR Pass

The KR Pass is a special rail pass introduced in 2005 only for non-resident foreigners staying less than 6 months in Korea, allowing unlimited travel for a set period on any Korail train (including KTX) and including free seat reservation. The pass is not valid for first class or sleeping cars, but you can upgrade for half the price if you wish. The pass must be purchased at least five days before travel (preferably before arrival in Korea). It’s not cheap as it needs a substantial amount of travel (e.g. Seoul–Busan round trip) to pay off and serious limitations on usage apply during Korean holidays and peak traveling periods including Lunar New Year in February and Chuseok in September. Up-to-date prices and reservation are available on Let’s Korail website. Passes as of May 2015 cost around₩66,900/₩93,100/₩139,700/₩168,400/₩194,400 for 1/3/5/7/10 days, with discounts for youth (age 13–25), students and groups.

Joint KR/JR Passes between Korea and Japan also exist, however, considering how much of a discount the JR Pass offers, and how strikingly little the KR Pass does by comparison, such a combination in all practicality simply deducts value from the JR Pass.

Rail Cruises

Korail Tourism Development provides a rail cruise called 'Haerang', which enables the customers to travel to all the major sightseeing destinations in Korea with just one luxury train ride.

By bus

Buses (버스 beoseu) remain the main mode of national transport, connecting all cities and towns. They're frequent, punctual and fast, sometimes dangerously so, so fasten the belts you'll often find in the seats.

There is a somewhat pointless division of long-distance buses into express buses (고속버스 gosok beoseu) and inter-city buses (시외버스 si-oe beoseu), which often use separate terminals to boot. In addition, local inner-city bus (시내버스 si-nae beoseu) networks often connect directly neighbouring cities. The express vs. intercity bus differentiation comes down to whether the nation's toll expressways (고속 gosok) are traversed. In practical terms, express buses are marginally faster on long runs, but inter-city buses go to more places. For additional comfort, look for Udeung buses (우등 버스) which have just three seats across instead of the usual four; these cost about 50% extra. However, Some inter-city buses use Udeung buses without extra fares on highly competitive lines such as Seoul-Andong routes. A fourth layer of bus exists, which is the airport limousine bus, a separate network of express buses that ferry people directly to and from Incheon International Airport. Note that the airport limousines typically run from separate pickup points again to the intercity or express bus terminal.

No Korean buses have toilets, and rest stops are not standard on trips of less than 2 hours duration, so consider thinking twice about that bottle of tea at the terminal.

Unlike trains, the bus terminal staffs and drivers are less likely to speak or understand English.

The Korean Express Bus Lines Association have timetables and fares of the Express bus routes in South Korea on their website.

By boat

Ferry boats surround the peninsula and shuttle out to Korea's many islands. The main ports include Incheon, Mokpo, Pohang, and Busan. The most popular destinations are Jeju-do and Ulleungdo. Busan has resumed its daily domestic route to Jeju island. (as of April 2013) There are mostly undiscovered and scenic islands near Incheon that can seem almost deserted.

By car

An International Driving Permit (IDP) may be used to drive around South Korea. In general, road conditions are good in South Korea and directional signs are in both Korean and English. Car rental rates start from ₩54,400 a day for the smallest car for about a week. Traffic moves on the right in South Korea.

If you are traveling in the big cities, especially Seoul or Busan, driving is not recommended as the roads often experience heavy traffic jams and with parking expensive and difficult to find. Many drivers tend to get reckless under such conditions, weaving in and out of traffic. Drivers often try to speed past traffic lights when they are about to turn red, and several cars (including fully-loaded public transit buses) will typically run through the lights after they have turned red, whether pedestrians are in the crosswalk or not.

It is useful to note that Koreans consider driving rules as guidelines only, and don't expect to be punished for parking illegally or cutting through a red light. This means that if you want to drive you will need to do so assertively by pushing yourself into an intersection and forcing other cars to yield.

A GPS is highly recommended while navigating Seoul or Busan. Lanes end or turn into bus lanes with little to no warning and it may not always be obvious of the closest place where U-turns are allowed. A good rule of thumb is to stay in the middle lane as cars will often illegally park in the right lane while the left lane will end without warning. Because of stringent national security laws that mandate navigation processing be done on local servers, Google Maps does not give driving directions in South Korea. Free alternatives are Waze and Kimgisa (now KakaoNavi).

By taxi

Taxis are a convenient, if somewhat pricey way of getting around the cities, and are sometimes the only practical way of reaching a place. Even in the major cities, you are extremely unlikely to get an English-speaking taxi driver, so it will be necessary to have the name of your destination written in Korean to show your taxi driver. Likewise, get your hotel's business card to show the taxi driver in case you get lost.

Note that whilst technically illegal, cab drivers, particularly the lower-flagfall white cabs on busy Friday or Saturday nights, may deny service to short-distance fares. A very handy technique to counter this is to have your destination (hotel name or just gu and dong, in Korean of course) written in thick black ink on a large A4 sheet of paper and hold it to the traffic. Passing cab drivers responding to long distance call outs, or with space in their cab in addition to an existing fare in that direction will often pick you up en route.

When hailing a cab in particular, ensure you follow the local custom and wave it over with your hand extended but all your fingers extended downwards and beckoning as opposed to upwards in the Western fashion (this style is reserved for animals).

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South Korea - Travel guide


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