South Korea has one of the cheapest, most convenient and efficient public transportation systems in the world. Because the country is so small, you will find it neither difficult nor expensive to travel from one end of the peninsula to the other. Travel is, of course, easiest within major metropolitan cities like Seoul or Busan, but even small cities such as Daegu have quaint subway systems. Because it is used more often, public transportation is actually cheaper within cities, and you can easily get from point A to point B anywhere in the city for under a buck.
Seoul Metro Systems
Your best friend in Seoul will be the Seoul Metropolitan Subway system. Unlike some other world metros, even though the subway lines are owned by separate countries, you will not need to pay or feed your ticket again when switching between different lines. (One exception to this is the new line 9 and line 9 express, whereby you’ll need to feed your ticket again but not pay an additional fee for the transfer.) You can purchase a one-way ticket, but most travelers and all locals purchase a metro card called a T-Money card for quick and easy travel. The cards themselves cost around 3,000W and can be recharged infinitely from both charging booths in the stations and also at many convenience stores around the city. If you buy a regular ticket card for a 500W base charge, you can also deposit the card in a recycle booth at the station and get back your 500W deposit. One subway ride at the longest distance from end-to-end of the lines can cost up to 1,900W, but most trips won’t cost you more than 1,000W. Compared to rising metro fees in other developed countries, this is a steal. Another bonus is that T-Money can also be used in Busan and in some Seoul suburbs such as Cheonan and Ansan, stretching the value of the card even more.
Other features of the metro line include the aforementioned new line 9, which connects some of the major hotspots in the city and also runs frequent express trains on the hour (and extra trains during rush hour), as well as a remarkably luxurious new airport express line built within the last year – luxurious at the cost of about 13,000W rapid express from Incheon International Airport to Seoul station and around 3,000W for a regular speed train. This is comparable to airport limousine buses (for 9,000W, which could hit traffic) and taxis (which cost far, far more). Most importantly, the system is so easy a gerbil could figure it out – signs in English, Chinese, and Korean, along with color-coded signs directing you to lines and transfers, make navigating a breeze. All major landmarks are noted on exit signs so you can find major tourist attractions and government facilities nearby.
Although people pack like sardines into subway trains during rush hour (typically 7-9 a.m.), they are the best value for the budget traveler.
Bus travel in South Korea
However, sometimes you might need to go a shorter distance that is either too far from a subway station or that you want to arrive at directly. In this case you can use the city’s bus system, which is, like the rail lines, conveniently color-coded: small green “ma-eul” (마을) village buses will take you short distances within about 10 minutes for 800W. Bigger green or blue buses will take you between districts for 1,000W, and red long-distance buses will travel out to suburbs for about 1,400W (or more, depending on the distance). Also note that the shorter the distance, the more frequently the buses will run (green and blue buses run about every 20 minutes, to give you an idea). The trick with buses is that, in many cases, you’ll need to be either somewhat familiar with the area or listen very carefully to the announcements (which are often obscured by the driver’s blaring radio station or general talking) lest you end up abandoned at the wrong stop. The bus signs will have arrows pointing in the direction of the route, so make sure you stand on the side of the street that is going in the appropriate direction (lest you end up abandoned at the end of the bus line with the driver requiring you to pay the fare again to get back).
Taxis are also an option, but not one often called upon by the thrifty traveler. During the day they start their meters at 2,500W and double them after midnight; however, some less-than-ethical drivers will end up giving you “the roundabout” by taking you on the scenic tour of Seoul for an otherwise 5-minute destination – and then charging you for it. If you must feel desperate enough to hail one, there are orange taxis that are supposedly “foreigner-friendly” and offer phone translation services. The dependability of taxi drivers highly varies between time of day (at night they become choosy and refuse short-distance passengers) and part of the city (you’re more likely to find a more foreigner-friendly driver near tourist attractions, but also one that’s more willing to take advantage of your foreign lack of awareness at the same time).
Train travel in South Korea
Once you’ve finished perusing the convenience of city life and you’re reading to venture out into the countryside, you have a number of regular to high-speed trains to choose from to take you all over the country from mass transit stations at Seoul, Yongsan, and Yeongdeungpo as well as long-distance buses from the city’s DongSeoul, Express Bus, or Nambu Terminal stations.
The longest distance, for example, from Seoul to Busan will cost less than 46,000W one-way on the Saemaul, Mugunghwa, or commuter lines and around 72,000W one-way on the comfortable KTX bullet train; closer destinations will be correspondingly cheaper. You can book tickets in advance on the Korail website or just buy them at the stations themselves.
Public Transportation in Rural South Korea
What do you once you’ve arrived in the countryside? Sadly, that is where the challenge of transportation finally comes in. If you’re traveling to minor cities, there will be buses, but they will be slightly more expensive and run far less frequently. In more rural areas such an Andong, Samcheok, or Jeju Island, it will be much more difficult to travel without a car, especially if you want to make the most of limited time.
Fortunately, you can rent a car if you feel you’re up to it and if you arrived equipped with an international driver’s license. Prices for rentals start at a hefty 70,000W per day.
So what is the best way to travel around the countryside if you’re on a budget? Make a good Korean friend who has a car!
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