To spend money or to save money? One of the biggest conundrums that teachers in Korea face every Friday when that final bell rings. Should you go out and blow all your money on mountains of soju and samgyeopsal? Or should you be sensible and save those hard earned wons for your next big trip, mortgage deposit, hefty student loan repayments or anything else you might be saving for?
Since I started my mega saving challenge I’ve been trying hard to strike the balance between living in the moment and saving for the future- we all know that the future is important, but at the same time, I’m not going to live on a street with multiple noraebangs and Korean Restaurants forever. Or an intercity bus terminal, giving me access to numerous destinations across Korea- so what should I do? Should I make the most of it? Or should I make the most of being able to save for the future?
Luckily, travelling in Korea doesn’t need to burst your budget. Spending all your money on shite you don’t need? Yeah, that will do the trick. But budget travel in Korea is pretty easy. Take my word for it- I visit a new place almost every weekend and still only spend around 500,000KRW a month on everything! I’m going to share some of the tips that I’ve picked up over the past 2 years so that you too can leave Korea with plenty of places checked off your bucketlist, and plenty of wons in the bank too.
All costs in this post are quoted in South Korean Won (KRW.)
(At the time of writing 1,000KRW = 60p (GBP) and 85 cents (USD))
Coming from the UK, where we have some of the most expensive (and least efficient) public transport in the whole of Europe, I am always blown away by how far I can get for how little money here. Budget travel in Korea is easy when the transport is this cheap.
Most big cities (Seoul, Busan, Daegu etc) have a subway system and tickets run around 1,300KRW each way. More rural places might not have the luxury of a subway system, but they usually will have quite a well-connected public bus system. If you do ever need to get a taxi, it shouldn’t eat too much into your budget, but most of the time there is no need.
- If you’re going to be here for a while, learn a bit of hanguel and get yourself to grips with Daum Maps to find the quickest and cheapest routes.
- Invest in a T-Money card. You can pick these up at most convenience stores- just load it up and scan it when you get on and off the bus. You’ll be treated to a slightly lower bus fare and won’t be charged extra for any transfers that you make.
For intercity travel, I would always recommend taking an intercity bus over the KTX. To me, the time saved just isn’t worth the investment. For double the price of a bus ticket, the KTX will only get you there a fraction quicker. Sometimes it’s nice to spend a little bit more to cut down your journey time- like taking a 45-minute flight instead of a 12-hour bus journey, but in this case, there is really no need. Another bonus- the bus usually has much more leg room and is far more comfortable than the KTX.
My absolute favourite place to sleep on a budget is the notorious old love motel. While these places might not have the best reputation in the world, they’re clean, comfortable and are usually found near bus terminals or in the main downtown areas, so they’re super convenient too. Double rooms run around 40,000KRW but I’ve found a few for 30,000KRW- not bad at all when split between 2 people.
Probably the cheapest place to sleep, and a place that’s really unique to Korea, is a jjimjilbang. You might need to sleep on the floor with loads of ajjumas and ajjushis, but it’s only 10,000KRW and you can use the baths and saunas as much as you like too- visiting the jjimjilbang is one of my favourite things to do in the wintertime. If you do decide to sleep there, just remember your ear plugs!
Maybe this all sounds like a bit too much cultural integration for you? I’m sure you’ll be
glad to hear that there are more and more hostels opening up across the country. For not much more than you’d pay to sleep in a jjimjilbang, you can easily get a bed in a dorm room with breakfast included. However, you definitely won’t have as good a scrub down in the morning so choose your allegiance wisely!
And then there’s camping. I love my wee tent that I picked up in homeplus for 40,000KRW. It’s free and legal to camp most places in Korea so it’s perfect for weekends in the countryside or at the beach.
Things to Do
With so many free things to do in Korea, there is really no reason to blow all your budget on activities.
Outdoor junkies will be pleased to find that most cities have easily accessible hiking trails with amazing views from the top. Two big ones to check out are Bukhansan National Park in Seoul and Jangsan Mountain in Busan (confession- I’ve still not been to either!) which offer climbers some amazing city views and are completely free. Last weekend I did an amazing hike on an island called Saryangdo. Since I arranged all my own transport it hardly cost a penny. You can read all about it here.
My personal favourite free thing to do in Korea? Cycling! The country is blessed with an amazing bike path system which spans across most of the country and gives you a chance to see a more down to earth, rural Korea. If you’re staying for a while then it might be an idea to invest in a bike of your own, then sell it off before you leave.
For all you culture vultures- museums and heritage sites are both plentiful and are usually free or have a small admission charge.
And of course, how could we forget about the many FREE festivals in Korea. While some of these are a bit weird (like this red pepper festival…) a lot of them are definitely worth visiting, even just for the street food! In Apri, I got my blooms on at the Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival and Cheonju Mountain Azalea Festival without spending a penny, or having to leave my own city. The Korean Tourism website is a great resource for finding out about festivals across the country.
As a general rule of thumb, the more you stick to Korean food, the less you can expect to spend.
One of my favourite places to eat in Korea is at the Kimbab shops such as Kimbab Nara and Kimbab Cheonguk. While I know that a lot of my Korean friends look down their nose at these sort of places, I think they are the ideal place for budget travellers in Korea. Personally, I love them because I can get a filling meal for less than 7,000KRW. Plus, they have a really varied menu, so they’re a great place to go if you want to try a wide variety of Korean dishes. I often go to these sort of restaurants if I can’t be bothered cooking through the week- cheaper than McDonalds, and better for you!
Now, I do understand that going into these shops can be a bit intimidating, especially if you’re not familiar with hanguel so here are some of my personal recommendations:
- Donkasseu (돈까스) is a great choice for fussy foreigners who steer clear of seafood and aren’t too keen on spice.
- Bibimbap (비빕밥) is great for veggies- just ask them to hold the meat.
- And kimchi jiggae (김치지게) is perfect to warm you up on a cold day, or just to fill you up anyday!
- My personal favourite? It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure actually! When I really want to treat myself I go for cheese rabokki (치즈라보기) which is tteokboki AND ramyeon together with a melted cheese slice on top- so indulgent, but so good!
Stopping drinking is the absolute number 1 way to save money while travelling. But what if you’re a bit like me and like to toast the end of your day with a wee bevy? There’s one move you need to make- get out the bar, and get to the convenience store.
Convenience stores in Korea are a godsend for so many reasons. For starters, beer gardens are few and far between in this country. Convenience stores are equipped with little picnic tables outside so you can create your own beer garden- but without the huge markup on your drink. There’s a lot to be said for the variety of drinks too- so many flavours of soju (usually around 1,400KRW for a 350ml bottle/20%alc) that will get you pissed pretty economically and, these days, there’s also a really wide selection of international beers that are constantly on special offer. The cherry on the cake? They even have super convenient ice cups and bags of mixers which I honestly think were made with soju-mixing in mind!
Actually, last time I checked, a bottle of soju was cheaper than a bottle of coke the same size- so really boozing and budget travel in Korea go hand in hand!
So, as you can see, there’s really no reason to spend your year in Korea cooped up in your studio apartment, eating ramyeon and vowing to sobriety- unless, of course you want to! Travelling in Korea doesn’t need to be expensive-I hope these tips can help you really make the most of your time here without sacrificing too much of your savings. If you’re interested in learning more about budget travel in Korea and how I save money for all my big trips, then don’t miss these posts:
- 12 Tips on How to Save Money for Travel
- My 5 Month Mega Saving Challenge
- My Mega Saving Challenge: Month 1 Update
Anymore tips to add to this? Let me know in the comments!