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Korea Wrap Up – Daily Average $41 Per Person

We spent ten days in Korea. Here is a collection of our impressions, travel tips, and the cost break down.

Schedule 10/2-10/12

Coastal Walk Busan Jeolyeong Coastal Busan
  • Busan 3 days
    • After a busy two weeks in Japan we decided to take it easy in Busan and limit our activities to one major thing a day. Over the three days we saw Gwangalli Beach, Taejondae Park paired with the Jeolyeong and Jungni coastal walk, Busan Tower, Beomeosa Temple with a hike up to Godangbong Peak, strolled through the area from Nampo subway station to Jagalchi fish market (including BIFF square)
Gate by the Grotto Gyenjou anapji pond at night
  • Gyeongju 2 days
    • Bulgaksa Temple Complex and Seokguram Grotto. Royal Tombs Park, Cheomseongdae Observatory and Gyenjou National Museum. Anapji Pond at night.
  • Haeinsa 2 days
    • Haeinsa Temple Complex and small hikes to nearby temples and monasteries
Palace Seoul
  • Seoul 3 days
    • Korean War Memorial and museum. DMZ tour. Starcraft Tournament. Gyeongbokgong Palace and National Folk Museum, Itaewon foreign district. Myeong-dong downtown area, Cheonggyecheon Stream, Insa-dong street, Gwanghwamun square.
Would we do it the same way? YES!
We loved our short lived trip to Korea and were generally satisfied with the itinerary we planned out. It depends on what type of activities you are most interested in and for die hard hiking enthusiasts I would say Gyengjou could be skipped in place of one of the major mountain parks like Seorakasan. For the temple stay in Haeinsa with time permitting the regular program would be more fulfilling and educational than the freestyle program that we chose. For Seoul the DMZ tour is a must (but unfortunately, overpriced), while Itaweon street can definitely be skipped in our opinion.

Our Video

WIP…

Our Route

Our Impressions

Korea was our second Asian country and, therefore, it’s a little difficult to NOT compare it to Japan, especially since the two were very different in my opinion. Whereas Japan was very peaceful, orderly, and tourist-friendly, Korea was, and I hate to say it, somewhat worse on all fronts.

In contrast to tranquil Japan, Korea tended to be a lot more bustling. Cities were louder, cars drove faster, not yielding as easily to pedestrians, and people moved faster and did not attempt to move out of the way to avoid a collision. There were literally times when we were body checked on a busy street. In some respects this actually was preferable, in that, thinking back, Japan was a little bit “boring” in its own safety. In Korea, just a little bit more, you had to be on your toes. The cities and the people truly feel fiery and alive. There was a constant feeling of “what will happen next?”

fresh seafood stalls Busan

In Korea, we also felt that we were exposed to much more. While in Japan, nothing really struck us as out of the ordinary, in Korea, we might walk into a restaurant, have to stand up to a menu on the wall and point to a random dish in front of everyone, and end up getting chicken feet for dinner with a side of silk worms. Or there was the time we saw eels systematically skinned alive at the Jagalchi Fish Market in Busan, only to be thrown into a bucket still wriggling with the pink flesh vibrant. In Busan we were introduced to many foreign sea creatures we had never heard of before and also the concept of truly fresh fish. At the restaurants there is usually fish tank present and you literally select the fish you want, they scoop it out, carve it up and serve it to you raw – and at times possibly still partially alive.With numerous street vendors crouched over buckets with various crustaceans I felt like we were let into the backdoor of the fish industry operations, yet this was all out in open streets.

Korean hikers

Don’t even get us started on the hiking attire in Korea. These people were all decked out in colorful and professional looking sports clothes, fully equipped with hiking gloves, ski poles, backpacks and sun hats. This is how they got ready for the coastal walk along the beach in Busan. While hiking up the mountain this seemed slightly more appropriate but for a walk along the beach this was sheer comical. Actually, this is all part of some sort of Korean “keeping up with the Jones'” mentality, whereby they spend tons of money on fancy clothes and items as a way to show off their wealth earned from hard work. It’s not wonder golf, the stereotypical “rich” sport, is very popular in Korea!

kimchi and small plates

Let’s talk food.The food is Korea is completely different from the food we sampled in Japan. Hello kimchi. This is a culture that is so committed to these fermented veggie dishes that each family has its own kimchi fridge – where the supposed secret is to keep the kimchi at 0 degrees C. Over the 10 days we ate a lifetime’s worth of kimchi. It accompanied our every meal in a manner of many different small and free plates, with the complimentary part always a plus. As is expected in Asian cultures rice is huge here and also a big component of the meals. We found the food to be spicier than the food in Japan with the Koreans having their own red pepper paste and powder which is liberally added to soups, stews and various other dishes. Over our stay we never had any problems with food poisoning and generally found the food to be delicious overall (though Dave was pretty sick of kimchi by the end). With bulgogi – thinly sliced and stir fried beef, bibimbap – rice topped with a fried egg, kimchi, red pepper paste, etc, Korean barbecue – where you cook your own meat to roll up in lettuce leaves with numerous sides and soondubu jiggae – tofu soupy stew – how could we complain?

One of our couchsurfers described Korea as “Japan 20 years ago”. We can’t really comment on that, but it certainly seems plausible. The cities seem somewhat dirtier, the transportation less efficient and the people rougher around the edges. We actually kind of grew to like it.

Bests And Worsts

Grilled Pork Roll Up

Best food: Our Seoul host, Chelsea took us out for Korean barbecue with her friends. They bring you a slab of sliced pork that you grill yourself and snip into smaller pieces before creating lettuce rolls with the meat, various kimchi and other side dishes. The final result is amazing and you will not be able to limit yourself to just one. This feast of food with beer only cost us $8 a person – a steal I would say.

Tteokbokki

Worst food: On our last night in Seoul we decided to same some of the street food options and though it didn’t even look desirable I knew I wanted to try the Tteokbokki – cylindrical rice cake with fish cake and green onion all in a fiery red pepper paste sauce. The texture and consistency just wasn’t all that good. Maybe with more rice cake and green onions it could be better but I ended up with numerous mouthfuls of spicy rice cake – not exactly up my alley.

Best deal: Starcraft Tournament – free, exciting, and hours of fun for everyone (or just Dave). It’s also a nice way to see some authentic Korean culture in action.

DMZ MDL Line with north korean side

Worst rip off: We hate to say it but it was the DMZ tour. Though we highly enjoyed the tour and would recommend a DMZ tour to anyone passing through Seoul this was our most expensive activity coming in at $108 a person and frankly this was an incredibly expensive activity for us. Unluckily the USO tours for 80,000 KRW were all booked up so we had to go with a different tour company which ended up being more expensive.

Bucket List Activities: While Japan is generally considered the kingdom of karaoke, Korea has it’s own culture called Norybang, which both Vicky and I tried in Seoul with our hosts (sorry, no videos).

Tips For Traveling

Use Convenient Stores And Grocery Stores

As usual, we strongly urge people to leverage convenient stores and grocery stores to buy important items like water. It’s significantly cheaper. The best places are actually supermarkets, but not nearly as easy to find as your local 711.

ATMs

Everywhere we went had ATMs either in banks or convenient stores like 711. The biggest problems we had were

  1. No English option on the ATM
  2. Didn’t accept foreign cards

I think our success rate was about 50%, so take out double of what you think you are going to need in cash.

Storing Bags At The Metro

The bus and train terminals, like in Japan, had places to store bags. That said, there were always less options and this wasn’t true for the metro stops. Luckily, our couchsurfing hosts were always around and we could leave our bags with them, so we were never with them for too long.

Tourist Centers

We found these fairly often, good for a map and some directions.

Using The Metro/Bus

One thing we did differently in Korea, per recommendation from one of our hosts, was to get a bus/metro pass. This is essentially a rechargeable card that you can use on local buses and the metro, so you don’t have to fumble around with getting exact change. It costs about $6 and can be filled at any metro station and I think convenience stores. The bus in Korea is a bit of a hustle, so it was really nice for both of us to have this. Moreover, if you have to transfer buses, you can get out of paying the extra fee if you do it in under 30 minutes, so a nice money saver there. Overall, it was definitely worth it for the convenience alone. It worked in all the cities we visited.

Cabs

We only took a cab once on our way to the airport, like most things in Korea, it was cheap ($20 but it was on the other side of Seoul), and the driver used the meter.

Mosquitos and Deet

After not being very diligent in Japan about our deet Vicky and I put it on for Korea when we were in the forest. It was also getting colder so we were mostly covered with pants and long sleve. Korea does not have malaria but it does haveJapanese Encephalitis, but all the same, be careful.

Student IDs

Came in handy a few times, most notably the ferry ride over from Japan (who would have thought we’d get $20 off for being students riding a ferry).

Public Facilities

While Korea did not have as many public facilities out in the open as Japan, it still did have some in the parks and at the temples, but be prepared to squat.

Food and Restaurants

English

Despite having at least 10 years of English in school, most Koreans couldn’t speak it at all. When they learn languages they learn very formulaic, from a text book, with little speaking practice. This is a pretty terrible way to learn languages. Moreover, many places we went to did not have English signs and many restaurants did not have English menus or even picture menus. Ironically, there is a large population of foreign, English teachers which the government appears to be throwing money at simply to have foreigners teaching their kids. I’m not sure how long they’ve been doing this, a few years I think, so it’s going to be awhile…

Credit Cards

Unlike Japan, we did not have any issues when the credit card was accepted, that is, if they accepted Visa, it worked, and was not mysteriously rejected. Still, not everywhere accepts them so bring cash (Korean Won).

Finding Couchsurfers

On the one hand it was easier to find couchsurfers, despite the fact that we were traveling during a famous Korean holiday (what they call Thanksgiving, but not really). On the other hand, it’s mostly a lot of foreigners. We only stayed with 1 Korean couple out of our 3 couchsurfing hosts, and most of our accepts were other foreigners as well. If you want to know the exact details, we kept track of all our requests and the results.

  • Sent – How many we sent. I sent the same request under both Vicky and Dave profiles, to see if there would be a difference (thinking that Vicky’s profile might have better success since she’s a girl).
  • Accepted – Our request was accepted outright
  • Maybe – This usually means that they accepted a few nights out of all the ones we requested, or maybe could host us.
  • Pending/Declined – Said no or didn’t respond.

Cost Break Down

Korea for us was another expensive country, by Asia standards. We budgeted around $45 per person, per day (part of the reason we only spent 10 days there was due to the cost). As usual, we did a lot of couchsurfing, with our big splurges being the DMZ tour as well as the Haeinsa temple stay. We kept track of every cost we had down to the purchase level and categorized it into 5 groupings:

  • Entertainment – Mostly sightseeing, we didn’t really go out in Japan.
  • Food and Water – Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as snacks (little things we bought in the middle of the day, chips, ice cream, etc).
  • Gifts – For couchsurfers, usually a bottle of wine or some chocolates, sometimes treated to dinner
  • Transportation – all forms
  • Utilities – Things like lockers for bags, pay phones, small purchases like detergent
  • Accommodation – Pretty limited since this was mostly couchsurfing but we did have one night stay in a monastery

So where did we end up?

$41 per person, per day. (NOTE: This DOES NOT include our ferry over there, which was $231 total from Japan)

Our major cost in Korea was visiting the DMZ. That was $108 per person, and without that we would have been significantly lower, but unfortunately, what is a trip to SK without going to the DMZ? Had we booked farther in advance we could have got a cheaper tour, but not by much ($75). Other than that, it was pretty standard travel, though I suppose one might argue the temple stay was a bit pricey, but it did include breakfast lunch and dinner!

The other cost that I DID NOT include was the ferry from Japan ($231), because in some sense it does not accurately depict how expensive it is to actually BE in Korea, but you know, you have to get there somehow!

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13 Responses to Korea Wrap Up – Daily Average $41 Per Person

  1. I love these posts too, guys! Looks like Korea was quite a bit cheaper than Japan and about on par with China (we found that moving about as we did in China, it wasn’t as cheap as we had expected).

    I think after all of that kimchi, I would be sick of it too (generally one meal is enough to do me for months!)!

    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) October 21, 2012 at 7:26 PM Reply
    • Yeah we’ve been a bit disappointed with how “expensive” China is.

      Granted, meals are pretty cheap, we can get dinner for the two of us for $10 (and not a bad dinner at that). However, transportation, as you said, is expensive because the distances are so far. Also, there were the visas, which were expensive (but will average out over time). Lastly, the entertainment (temples, etc) are kind of pricey too! That’s why we’ve still be doing a lot of couchsurfing…

      Hope SEA is as cheap as I want it to be lol.

      Dave and Vicky October 22, 2012 at 10:10 AM Reply
  2. I wish I had one of you guys counting all my expenses and making graphs. I would say “wish I did it”, but no I don’t 🙂 would be nice to see the dollars and cents though… all I have to go by is my credit card statement after-the-fact.

    Ian [EagerExistence] November 5, 2012 at 11:52 PM Reply
    • In a past life I was an analyst – can you imagine?

      Dave and Vicky November 6, 2012 at 12:04 AM Reply
  3. You did quite well at $41 a day. Korea is one of those places where you can spend a TON or not so much. For example, the Family Marts have patios! I had friends in Seoul who would spend entire evenings at these places! You can also go to some bars, though, and pay 10-12 USD for a beer. Food is the same. If you’re not couch surfing, “love hotels” are pretty cheap. …just ignore the knocks on the door in the middle of the night!

    Cheers,

    Ryan

    Ryan Wiley November 13, 2012 at 7:48 PM Reply
    • Thanks Ryan – we were also really excited about being able to spend so little in Korea but not economize on the experience!

      Dave and Vicky November 14, 2012 at 4:13 AM Reply
  4. Loved this post. I often wonder what my perception of Korea would be if I had only been here for a short time… but going on 9 months I can definitely sympathize with all you wrote about and more. I love how cheap the cabs are here though!

    Abby November 29, 2012 at 6:47 AM Reply
  5. I love this! I lived in Korea for 2 years and chuckled at a few of your comments, the Hiking attire, tteokbokki, and making sure not to get run over while crossing the street (even when you have the “right of way”). It’s all true. Glad you enjoyed your time in Korea!

    Arienne December 2, 2012 at 6:39 PM Reply
    • Yeah we already kind of miss it. It was a real treat when we saw a large group of Korean hikers on a mountain in China.

      Dave and Vicky December 2, 2012 at 6:58 PM Reply
  6. The hiking attire in Korea was HILARIOUS. I remember they used to get decked out in professional gear from head to toe, simply to walk a few kilometers on the outskirts of Seoul. You got to look the part, I suppose.

    Daniel McBane - Travel Stories and Guides December 19, 2012 at 12:08 PM Reply
    • It’s definitely better than the Chinese who just wear suits everywhere, how does that even make sense?

      Dave and Vicky December 21, 2012 at 4:16 AM Reply
  7. I lived in Korea for a year last year also. I must say I am deeply impressed by this country in terms of discipline of the people and cleanliness of the place. I agree with you that most people are always in a hurry, but I am delighted to encounter people who had great respect for professors like me. 🙂 Your story about food in Korea is very interesting. I also loved the samgyeopsal, and didn’t like at all the street foods, especially the live small octopus. 😉

    Ria Dancel July 27, 2013 at 11:23 AM Reply
  8. The hiking attire is not about showing off wealth or keeping up with the Jones’s, but dressing appropriately.

    jstele August 13, 2015 at 5:34 PM Reply

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