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So you're traveling to South Korea? Awesome! You will undoubtedly have a great time soaking in the local culture in this off-the-beaten path destination. As you move forward with planning, keep these tips in mind, and you'll be prepared for anything!
Get to the know the language before you leave.
South Koreans are wonderfully friendly, and in major cities like Seoul, Busan, Gwangju, or Jeju, you can expect to find people who speak English—especially those under 40. But here's the thing: South Koreans use a different alphabet called Hangul. You'll do yourself a huge favor if you spend a few days memorizing the characters so that you can at least sound out street signs and the names of shops, cafes, and museums so that you know where you are. If you're really ambitious, you could take classes and try to learn greetings and phrases in standard Korean. Be aware, though, that local dialects may make it difficult for you to have a sustained conversation with someone unless you really throw yourself into language learning.
Don't be afraid of public transportation.
Public transportation is generally quite safe in South Korea and it's also clean. Intercity buses are a great option if you're on a budget. The subway is safe and clean. Just buy a money card and you're set to go for both the buses and the subway. You can buy money cards at convenience stores anywhere public transportation runs. If the clerk selling you the money card does not speak English, don't worry—when you add value to the card in bus terminals and on the subway, you can select English. Beyond the basics of the subway and intercity bus, trains are also great to get from city to city, and KTX is the perfect option if you need to get somewhere quickly. If public transit isn't your thing, don't worry: taxis are plentiful in major cities, and you will likely get a taxi driver who is friendly and able to help if you can clearly point to the address where you'd like to go on a piece of paper or your phone.
Get a South Korean SIM card for your phone.
If your phone is unlocked and can support GSM network frequencies, one of the best travel tips out there is to pick up a South Korean SIM card or a prepaid SIM card so that you can continue to use your phone while you're there. Although English is common in South Korea, it could happen that your taxi driver does not speak English and you have to find a way to quickly translate. We all know that online translators are not perfect, but they can definitely help you articulate if you're in a bind. Ditto for maps: if you're lost and need to find your way, you'll be so glad you are able to use your high tech gadget to look up your location and plan your next steps rather than puzzling over a paper map.
When you think about traveling to South Korea, you might first think of Seoul and K-pop. But nature abounds, and you probably should be thinking of mountains and green space. Do yourself a favor and take one of the best travel tips from recent visitors: go to a national park. There are 21 national parks in total, and a good tour guide will show you just where to hike if you hire one. You may even want to bring some of the best freeze dried backpacking meals. Of course, you can always go it alone, but a good tour guide will help you see all you want to see and stay safe on the trails. This will require venturing beyond the city you fly into, but it will definitely be worth it. Some of the most popular national parks include: Bukhansan National Park, Seoraksan National Park, Hallasan National Park, and Mudeungsan National Park.
Embrace cafe culture.
As parts of South Korea begin to blend western style with traditional Korean values, a culture of cafes has arisen which will appeal to tourists. Many cafes are housed in private homes or in areas that don't immediately look commercial, and you can expect to find coffee—a relatively newer product in South Korea—alongside traditional hot beverages, such as tea. Look for special unique touches, such as bakeries with South Korean food and shelves of books in up and coming book cafes. No matter where you go in Seoul or in any major city, you should be able to find a cafe or two for an afternoon burst of caffeine.
Book a hostel to save money.
Do yourself a favor and save your extra cash for tours and duty free shops in South Korea. Use Air BnB or book a hostel to save on cash while you're there. You can, of course, find western style hotels, including chains, but they may cost significantly more than their American counterparts. Expect to spend around $20 a night for a shared room and a shared bathroom. Air BnB can get you a slightly better set up if you don't want to share a room, but it will be more expensive. If you do opt for a hotel—whether it's a western style chain or a local brand—you'll find clean rooms with luxurious accommodations.
Take advantage of duty free shops.
Duty free shops are all the rage right now in South Korea, so you'll find plenty of them selling high-end luxury items for less in travel areas such as airports and seaports. To avoid paying taxes, though, you'll want to save your airline ticket so that you can prove you are on vacation and not subject to local taxes. Great buys at duty free shops in South Korea include beauty products, designer items, and alcohol. Not so great? High tech gadgets, which may not be the latest model or design. Definitely plan some extra space in your suitcase for your duty free items! And make sure to buy some soju so you can enjoy the soju cocktails that you need to try right now!
Even though you've got your high tech cell phone with you, some of your favorite high tech features—such as Google Maps—might not work in South Korea. South Koreans generally use KakaoMap. Download it to make traveling to South Korea so much easier. Whether you're taking public transportation, walking, or trying to explain where you want to go to a taxi driver, having KakaoMap will help you so much, especially if your taxi driver does not speak English. Bonus: having KakaoMap will allow you to find those cool spots tour guide took you to if you opted for a tour so that you can retrace your steps later in the day to find that great street food you passed along the way.
Eat kimchi—and other South Korean favorites.
Whether it embraces western style or veers toward the more traditional, Korean food is definitely something to write home about. You can pay top dollar for a fancy restaurant if you want, and you may want to do that to see how South Koreans do luxury one day. Vacation is no time to worry about how to stay healthy on a budget! You should definitely try out street food. Spicy kimchi dumplings, Korean popcorn chicken, Korean mochi donut holes, sweet pancakes, and rice cake skewers might just change your life. Bring cash—most vendors will not accept credit cards—and try something new every day. Street food in South Korea is not to be missed and is part of the South Korean travel experience.
Just go with the squat toilets.
Squat toilets in South Korea might surprise you at first. They are the opposite of western style toilets, in that you do not sit on the toilet seat because there is no toilet seat. South Koreans are used to them, but traveling to South Korea requires that you adjust. To put it bluntly, there will be a hole in the floor and you should simply pull down your pants and squat as close to the ground as you can to avoid splashing on yourself. Sometimes you will find toilet paper there, and sometimes you won't. To be safe, carry around some toilet paper or tissues that can double as toilet paper so you're always prepared. Some squat toilets are very clean and others are not. The same could be said for any bathroom in the U.S. Just bring some hand sanitizer with you if you're worried about cleanliness.
Enjoy your time!
No matter where you stay in South Korea, you will probably have a great time. Traveling to South Korea is a wonderful experience, and enough South Koreans speak English to make it manageable. Follow these travel tips, and you're even more likely to avoid confusion and enjoy the wide array of national parks, great street food, and amazing travel opportunities in front of you.