South Korea is very small, so if you fly, you can go somewhere quickly, and even if you don’t, you can get anywhere quickly. Most cities, including Seoul’s metropolitan area, have subways. Subways in larger cities are either operational or in the planning stages. Travel by bus or cab is convenient, but bus services are more cost-effective.
Because South Korea is a tiny nation with a quick and efficient rail system (see the KTX fast train below), flying is not required unless you’re traveling to the island of Jeju.
However, several airlines fly between the major cities at a price similar to the KTX railway. The majority of flights are with Korean Air or Asiana; however, cheap carriers like as T-way, Air Busan, Jin Air, and Jeju Air provide a variety of new choices (which despite the name also serves the busy Seoul Gimpo to Busan route). On domestic flights, there is no difference in treatment between full-service and low-cost airlines; in fact, low-cost carriers provide free soft drinks and 15kg of hold baggage.
South Korea’s national railway operator, Korail, links the country’s main cities. Trains are currently competitive with buses and aircraft in terms of speed and affordability, with excellent safety standards and a fair degree of comfort, thanks to a significant amount of money poured into the network in recent years.
The high-speed Korea Train eXpress (KTX) services between Seoul and Busan, Seoul and Yeosu, Seoul and Mokpo, and Seoul and Masan (with more routes launching all the time) utilize a mix of French TGV technology and Korean technology to run at speeds of more than 300 kilometers per hour. The quickest non-stop trains take little over two hours to travel between Busan and Seoul. On board, there are drink vending machines and a snack cart with moderately priced beer, soda, cookies, candies, sausages, hard-boiled eggs, and kimbap, as well as an attendant who comes by with a snack cart (rice rolls).
Non-KTX trains are classified as Saemaeul (, “New Village”), Mugunghwa (, “Rose of Sharon”), and Tonggeun (, approximately equivalent to express, semi-express, and local services, respectively. All Saemaeul/Mugunghwa trains have a maximum speed of 150 kilometers per hour. Trains in Saemaeul are somewhat more expensive than buses, whereas Mugunghwa are approximately 30% less expensive. Saemaeul trains, on the other hand, are very comfortable, with seats that are similar to those seen in business class on aircraft. Though there are less Saemaeul and Mugunghwa services now that the KTX has arrived, they are still worth trying. Tonggeun, previously Tonggil, is the cheapest of the three, but non-aircon long-distance services have been phased out, leaving only short regional commuter trains. The dining car on most long-distance trains has a small cafe/bar, PCs with internet connection (W500 for 15 minutes), and a few trains even feature private compartments with coin-operated karaoke machines!
Laptop seats on Saemaeul and certain Mugunghwa trains are provided with power outlets.
On any Korean railway or station, smoking is prohibited (including open platforms).
Busan, Daejeon, Daegu, Gwangju, and Incheon all have subway services, while Seoul has a large commuter rail network that seamlessly integrates with the huge metro system.
Tickets are considerably cheaper than in Japan, but more costly than in other Asian nations – however the financial impact may be mitigated by using local trains instead of the KTX. Purchasing tickets is straightforward; self-service kiosks that take cash and credit cards are available in a variety of languages and are simple to use. The majority of station employees are able to communicate in basic English. Most stations are clean, contemporary, and well-signposted in Korean and English, and Korea’s rail system is extremely user-friendly when compared to China or Japan.
For weekend excursions, pre-booking any rail tickets (whether KTX or mugunghwa) a day in advance is advised, since all trains may be sold out for hours on end. On Sundays in particular, all but local trains have started to sell out on a regular basis. When leaving major hubs like Seoul or Busan, failing to book tickets in advance may limit your choices to “unallocated seats” on the slowest local trains (sitting on the floor in the unairconditioned area between carriages, or standing in the bathroom for most of the journey). You are, however, free to sit in any seat that seems to be available until someone with a ticket for that seat arrives. If you’re confident with your Korean, you may ask to reserve seats in available portions and travel the rest of the way standing up.)
The KR Pass is a special rail pass established in 2005 that allows non-resident foreigners staying in Korea for less than 6 months unrestricted travel on any Korail train (including KTX) for a fixed amount of time and includes free seat reservation. The pass does not let you to travel in first class or sleep in a sleeping car, but you may upgrade for half the price. A minimum of five days before to departure, the pass must be bought (preferably before arrival in Korea). It is not inexpensive since it requires a significant amount of travel (e.g., a round journey from Seoul to Busan) to pay off, and there are severe restrictions on use during Korean holidays and peak travel seasons, such as Lunar New Year in February and Chuseok in September.
Joint KR/JR Passes exist between Korea and Japan, however given how big of a discount the JR Pass provides and how little the KR Pass accomplishes in contrast, such a combination merely deducts value from the JR Pass in all reality.
Buses (beoseu) continue to be the most common form of national transportation, linking all cities and villages. They’re frequent, on time, and quick, sometimes dangerously so, so tighten the seat belts you’ll frequently discover.
Long-distance buses are divided into express buses (gosok beoseu) and inter-city buses (si-oe beoseu), which frequently utilize different terminals. Furthermore, local inner-city bus networks (si-nae beoseu) often link directly neighboring cities. The difference between express and intercity buses boils down to whether or not the country’s toll expressways (gosok) are used. In practice, express buses are somewhat quicker on lengthy trips, but intercity buses go to more locations. For further comfort, seek for Udeung buses (), which have just three seats across instead of the customary four, and cost approximately 50% more. On highly competitive lines like Seoul-Andong, however, some intercity buses utilize Udeung buses without charging additional fees. The airport limousine bus, a distinct network of fast buses that transport passengers straight to and from Incheon International Airport, is the fourth tier of bus. It’s worth noting that airport limos usually travel back and forth from several pickup locations to the intercity or express bus terminal.
There are no bathrooms on Korean buses, and break stops are not required for journeys of less than 2 hours, so think twice about that bottle of tea at the terminal.
Bus terminal employees and drivers, unlike railway personnel, are less likely to know or comprehend English.
The peninsula is surrounded by ferry boats that transport passengers to Korea’s many islands. Incheon, Mokpo, Pohang, and Busan are the major ports. Jeju-do and Ulleungdo are the most popular locations. Busan’s daily domestic route to Jeju Island has restarted. (at the time of writing, April 2013) Near Incheon, there are a number of unknown and beautiful islands that seem to be abandoned.
To drive around South Korea, you’ll need an International Driving Permit (IDP). In general, South Korean roads are in excellent shape, with directional signs in both Korean and English. For approximately a week, vehicle rental prices start at $54,400 per day for the smallest car. In South Korea, traffic flows to the right.
Driving is not advised if you are going in the major cities, particularly Seoul or Busan, since the roads are frequently congested and parking is costly and difficult to come by. In such situations, many drivers become erratic, weaving in and out of traffic. When traffic lights are about to turn red, drivers often attempt to rush past them, and many vehicles (even fully loaded public transport buses) will usually go through the lights after they have turned red, whether or not people are in the crosswalk.
It’s worth noting that Koreans see traffic laws as recommendations only, and they don’t expect to be fined for parking illegally or running a red light. This implies that if you want to drive, you’ll have to be aggressive and drive through a junction, forcing other drivers to yield.
While traveling Seoul or Busan, a GPS is strongly advised. Lanes terminate or change into bus lanes with little to no notice, and the nearest spot to do a U-turn may not always be apparent. Staying in the center lane is a good rule of thumb since vehicles will often park illegally in the right lane, while the left lane will abruptly stop. Google Maps does not provide driving instructions in South Korea due to strict national security regulations that require navigation processing to be done on local servers. Waze and Kimgisa are two free alternatives (now KakaoNavi).
Taxis are a handy, though rather expensive, mode of transportation in cities, and are often the only feasible method to go there. Even in large cities, getting an English-speaking taxi driver is very rare, therefore you’ll need to have the name of your location written in Korean to show your taxi driver. In case you get lost, have your hotel’s business card to show the taxi driver.
While legally unlawful, short-distance fares may be refused service by taxi drivers, especially lower-flagfall white cabs on busy Friday or Saturday evenings. To combat this, write your destination (hotel name or just gu and dong, in Korean, of course) in strong black ink on a big A4 piece of paper and hold it up to the traffic. Passing taxi drivers who are responding to long-distance calls or who have room in their cab in addition to an existing fare in that direction may often pick you up en route.
When hailing a taxi, be sure you wave your hand over with all of your fingers extended downwards and beckoning, rather than upwards as in the Western manner (this style is reserved for animals).