In this guide we will tell you all about travelling in South Korea on a budget, including what to see, where to stay and how to get there.
From the bright neon lights and busy streets of Seoul and Busan to the amazing hiking in Seoraksan National Park and Jeju Island, South Korea has something for pretty much everybody. The added bonus of the incredibly friendly locals and delicious food make South Korea one of our favourite Asian destinations.
Seoul truly is a world city and offers up an incredible amount of stuff to see, experience and eat! Spend a morning in the world class Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, gain an amazing insight in to Korea’s long history of war at the War Memorial of Korea and then dunk your feet in the somewhat quirky but incredibly relaxing Cheonggyecheon Stream. Despite mostly being destroyed during the Japanese occupation, Seoul has done an amazing job recreating it’s stunning array of palaces – Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung and Deoksugung are the pick of the bunch and will take at least a day to see completely.
As much about the eating and drinking as its major sights, Seoul has many amazing parts of the city that let you really experience Korean culture. The busy restaurants, hip cafes/bars and youthful student vibe make Hongdae a must visit area of Seoul. Grab an delicious dinner and then find a cozy bar to see what all the fuss is about. Insadong transports you back in time to small cobblestone alleyways and traditional Korean buildings full of small tea houses, restaurants and souvenir stalls.
TRAVELATOR TIP: The metro in Seoul is absolutely massive but incredibly easy to use and will take you everywhere! Save yourself the hassle of buying tickets every trip and grab a T Money card from 7/11, GS25 and other convenience stores. It’s a rechargeable card that can be used for the metro, buses, taxis and some stores/restaurants – the best part is that it works throughout all of Korea!
Seoul’s smaller, more laid back beachside counterpart dishes up more than enough to make it a stand alone destination. The glitzy Haeundane beach is the perfect spot for dinner and a few drinks while the sun goes down. Igidae Park offers a close escape from the city along its beautiful walking trail and a bus ride out to the seaside Haedong Yonggung Temple is a serene way to spend half a day.
TRAVELATOR TIP: Busan’s International Airport connects to a lot of cities throughout Asia and can often be a cheaper, more logical place to begin or end your time in South Korea than Seoul.
Recently voted one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, Jeju Island is a cheap and quick flight from the mainland that gives tourists an escape from the hustle and bustle of the cities. Climbing Korea’s highest peak, Halla-san, is a taxing 9 hour hike but the views from the top make it more than worth the effort.
TRAVELATOR TIP: Staying in the smaller southern town of Seogwipo gives you closer access to Jeju’s main sites and is a more relaxed alternative to Jeju-si on the north of the Island. The airport limousine bus is easy to catch and takes you straight to Seogwipo in just over an hour. Hop on outside the arrivals hall and buy your ticket on the bus.
Seoraksan National Park
Seoraksan National Park is the home to arguably the best hiking in Korea and gives you the chance to check out the Korean people’s amazing “alpine fashion”. Using the small fishing town of Sokcho as your base, Seoraksan can been visited as a day trip or as multiple day treks staying in the park itself.
TRAVELATOR TIP: Sokcho is a 45 minute bus ride from Seoraksan and has more choices for accommodation and food. The accommodation in Sokcho is also much cheaper than the options closer to the park.
A perfect stopover between Seoul and Busan, Jeon-ju is an off-the-beaten-track town with a fantastic traditional village. Centered around the Jeonju Hanok Village with its dozens of traditional buildings, the Gyeonggjieon Shrine is well worth a visit. Jeon-ju is also the birthplace of bibimbap, so make sure to grab one while your there!
TRAVELATOR TIP: Stop by Hanguk Jip for their famous bibimbap – it’s absolutely delicious and supposedly the truest version of the popular dish.
Where To Stay
South Korea is one of Asia’s more expensive backpacking destinations but along with the higher prices come better facilities. Here are a few of our favourites:
- Seoul – Dustin Guesthouse – In the perfect location right next to Hongdae, this small hostel offers both dorm beds and private room. Sabrina the host knows Seoul like the back of her hand and will help you with anything you need!
- Busan – Kim’s House 2 – Clean, comfy and within walking distance of great restaurants, bars and the subway, Kim’s House 2 is helped greatly by Kim himself who will help you plan out your days in Busan.
- Jeju Island – MIDO Hostel – Modern-style hostel with everything you need! Dorm accommodation, incredibly clean, great breakfast and very helpful staff. The dorm beds all have curtains and individual lights for added privacy.
- Seoraksan National Park (Sokcho) – The House Hostel – Easily the best hostel in Sokcho, great private rooms, breakfast is included, fantastic common/outdoor area for socialising and in the perfect location for catching the bus to Seoraksan.
Korean Fried Chicken
It’s crispy, it’s juicy, it’s delicious and it’s everywhere! Best enjoyed with a few pints of ice cold beer, you will find Korean Fried Chicken restaurants everywhere. It comes in normal and spicy varieties and the servings are massive so make sure you bring some friends!
A South Korean staple, bibimbap can be found in a wide range of varieties country wide and is a fantastic option when you are looking for something cheap and quick. It usually comes as a bowl of rice with a mixture of cooked vegetables, chilli paste, your choice of meat and a raw or fried egg! Delicious!
You’ve seen it everywhere else, now it’s time to try the real thing – it’s incredible. Korean BBQ places are all over the place and serve up everything from fresh baby octopus to cow’s intestine – each restaurant will usually have a speciality. The meals are designed to be shared so grab a friend.
There are dozens of varieties of hot pot all with different names so we have grouped them under the one heading. The common element in them all is that you sit around a large pot over a gas burner, sit back and let your waiter do the rest. You will get a choice of ingredients and additions before it is all freshly prepared right in front of you. Be careful with the spice however – if you waiter says it’s going to be spicy, it’s going to be very spicy!
Korea’s alcohol of choice, soju is as cheap as it is alcoholic. Available pretty much everywhere, it comes in a variety of flavours (grapefruit being our favourite) and no night out in Korea is complete without a couple of shots of soju.
There are few countries that we have visited that are as easy to navigate as Korea. The bus and train systems are easy to use, cover the entire country and are relatively cheap. We did most of our travel via bus. Once at the bus station there are electronic ticket terminals that operate in English where you can search for your destination, pick your departure time and pay – it’s so easy! You don’t need to book in advance as there are usually a few buses per hour.
With a range of budget airlines operating all over the country it is also incredibly cheap to fly within Korea. This is by far the best way to visit Jeju Island, with a direct flight from Busan costing as low as USD$20. Budget airlines include Jeju Air, Asiana and Eastar Jet.
Getting In and Out
Both Seoul (Incheon International and Gimpo International) and Busan (Gimhae International) are very well connected by air to pretty much any destination that you can think of. From Asia, many budget airlines such as Air Asia and Hong Kong Express will get you to Korea on a budget.
If you are coming from or heading to Japan or China you can also catch ferries to a number of Japanese and Chinese ports from various coastal cities throughout South Korea.
USD$100 per day (for a couple) will get you comfortable private rooms in cheap hostels/guesthouses, good local food, bus transportation throughout the mainland and all the soju you can drink!
Best Time To Visit
April to June is the most desirable time to visit South Korea, with excellent weather throughout the country it is definitely the high season for international and local tourists alike. We visited in the month of June and the weather was fantastic with sunny days, and cool nights. We only encountered rain twice.
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