As most travelers will tell you, it depends entirely on where you want to go, what you want to do, and how high your standards are when talking about how much it costs to travel in South Korea. You can be safe sticking with the “live like a local” experience as South Korea has a low crime rate and ultramodern cities. Prices don’t vary much between city and country, though you will need to pay more for transportation in the countryside.
Here is a rundown of prices for a typical week of tourism “Korean-style”:
1 USD = 1,126 KRW (Nov. 2011)
- Quality hostel: KRW 30,000 per night
- Breakfast: Snack and drink at a convenience store: KRW 3,000 per day
- Lunch or dinner at a Korean restaurant outside a tourist location: KRW 7,000 per meal
- Subway fare: KRW 1,000 per ride
- Bus fare: KRW 1,500
- Occasional late-night taxi fare: KRW 30,000
- Museum entry: KRW 5,000
- Palace or temple entry: KRW 2,000
- Club or bar entry with a drink: KRW 10,000
- Cultural event: free
Assuming 6 nights in a hostel, 3 meals a day, and about 2 tourist spots each day around the city, you can expect to spend at least KRW 370,000 in one week.
And here is an example of what it would be like if you need breaks from local fare, i.e. tourist prices:
- Modest hotel or “love hotel” (don’t judge – these hotels are incredible for the price!): KRW 70,000 per night
- Western-style breakfast: No such thing – Koreans eat rice and kimchi for breakfast.
- Lunch or dinner in an upscale Korean or Western restaurant: KRW 10,000-20,000 per meal
- Bullet train from Seoul to Busan: KRW 200,000
- Daytime taxi fare: KRW 15,000
- Events and sights packaged with a tour: approximately KRW 100,000+
For this route, you can expect to shell out at least KRW 1,600,000 in just a week.
Travel cheap tips for South Korea
Since you are surfing a budget travel site, I am going to assume you want to plan more on the side of the first itinerary, so here are some tips for saving money:
Use the subway as much as you can, no matter what city you are in. Buses are more difficult to navigate and cost almost twice as much – three times as much if you miss your stop and need to pay again. Oh, and get a T-money reloadable transit card to save yourself the headaches of always getting tickets and having to get more tickets if you get lost or need to change your route.
Always carry a subway map on you, but be observant of names of places. Generally, if the area you want to get to shares the name of a subway station (it usually will) and is only one station away, you can walk there instead.
Stay in a hostel or find a love motel that has rooms for less than KRW 40,000 per night. Keep in mind that love hotels tend to be booked up on weekends and holidays and many of them may not let you check in until after 10 p.m. If you can read or speak a little Korean, book one ahead of time on http://www.yanolja.com.
Scout out local food joints that sell kimbap (similar to sushi rolls). These places have a huge menu of inexpensive dishes and you can probably find one on every other block. In fact, kimbap can be your staple food: it has rice, meat, and vegetables and only costs KRW 2,000-3,000 per roll.
If you need some basic care for a cold or other mild illness, don’t rush to a clinic just go to the nearest pharmacy (also located on every block in Seoul) and pick up some medication for less than KRW 5,000 a box. Korean medication tends to be rather strong, and many pharmacists will be able to help you in English (when in doubt, body language is always effective, too). Don’t blow money on traditional Korean medicine or acupuncture unless you really want the experience – it can squeeze you for KRW 60,000 or more per visit.
I know it may be hard to resist, but there really is more to do in South Korea than drink and go clubbing. Although alcohol is pretty cheap, the clubcoaster can be hard to get off after getting on, and before you know it you’ve blown through KRW 100,000 on drinks and exorbitantly-priced side dishes. National monuments and museums are extremely cheap, if not free…and you won’t wake up with a headache the next day.
There is no system of tipping in South Korea. Don’t waste money by throwing it down on the table. Doing so, as with offering tips in person, will only get you a look of confusion.
If you plan on traveling to the countryside, pay for a local train rather than a bullet train, which costs barely a fraction of the price. Long-distance buses will take you around the country even cheaper.
If you plan on gift shopping in Insadong, spend time comparing prices at various shops. Literally dozens of shops on that same street offer the exact same goods at different prices, so it pays to shop around. Feel free to negotiate prices at shops like these or at independent vendors on the street or in the Dongdaemun/Namdaemun markets. Some will give in, some won’t, but it’s always worth a shot.
You may not be able to use your debit or credit card at certain stores or ATMS, so carry around cash. Believe it or not, Koreans do this all of the time…and even tend to keep their wallets in full view in their back pockets. This is effective for avoiding bank or transfer fees and works fairly well in Korea as theft is a rare occurrence, even for foreigners.
When taking a taxi, bring a Korean friend or a map so you have some idea of where you are going. If drivers know you are not from around there, they will give you the “run-around”: the longest possible route from point A to point B.
If you have a cell phone, charge it while you are in a coffee shop – most of them have free charging stations available. You can also charge your battery for KRW 1,000 per hour at any convenience store. No one uses pay phones in South Korea, so they are expensive – depending on the length of your stay, you are probably better off just getting a rental or pay-as-you-go phone.
As always, make friends and try to learn some phrases or the Korean alphabet – the more aware you are of your surroundings, the easier it will be to travel on the cheap and avoid unnecessary costs. In comparison to, say, Japan, it is easy to navigate South Korea both cheaply and safely at the same time.