Travel Information on South Korea – Documentation, Money Matters, Roads, Guidebooks, Fuel, Accommodation & More

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Notes:

  • In South Korea people don’t talk about ‘South Korea’ when talking about their country, but ‘Korea’, hence my frequent use of it as such on this information page.
  • March 2018: This is not a new page but I updated the relevant information after our last stay in Korea.
  • We have a separate post on how we shipped to South Korea – find it here.

First, let me give you a couple of good reasons to visit Korea:

  • Food.
  • Culture.
  • Sightseeing (in particular temples and historic sites).
  • Hiking (lots of trails in the forested mountains and favorite weekend outing for Korean people).
  • Oh, and especially for women, of great pleasure to know: No country in the world has as many public toilets as Korea does (except, arguably, Japan). You will find them on every corner of the street and in every subway station. Clean. With toilet paper. With running water. Often with soap. Bliss!

Reality: part of the beaches in northeast Korea are closed off by barbed wire and fences.

If you are looking for the following, however, you are bound to be disappointed:

  • Wildlife.
  • Off-roading.
  • Roaming around in vast empty areas.

Best times of the year to visit Korea:

  • April – June.
  • Sept – Nov.

1. Traveled Route In South Korea

  • April 2016
  • June – Nov 2016
  • Sep – Nov 2017
  • March 2018

Total days traveled in South Korea: 268.

2. Language

Don’t let language be a barrier to come here. Apart from the fact that Koreans are very much willing to help you and that hands & feet language gets you very far, you can call 1588-5644, and select your language (01=English). You then get to speak with a volunteer who will translate for you. Among other languages are French, Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, Turkish and Bahasa Indonesia.

While nothing new, this was a first for us: using our electronic devices to ‘talk’.

  • Coen’s iPhone has the Microsoft Translation app and he downloaded the Korean offline package. He can hold the phone in front of a Korean text and it will translate on the spot. It’s not that particularly accurate and sometimes more funny than useful.
  • Google Translate also has an offline version of its app, but less useful than the above mentioned.

3. Roads, Traffic Rules & Police

Roads

This is the typical scenery in urban areas.
The number of golf fields under these massive net constructions are incredible; they are all over the place.
Driving here during the cherry blossom was quite special (early April).

With the exception of an occasional mountain track, all roads are asphalted. Korea is a small country, about the size of Portugal, with 70% consisting of forested mountains. South Korea is home to more than 50 million people. Ergo: the country is densely populated and roads are often multiple-lane highways crisscrossing the country.

In terms of highways you have two options:

  • Express Ways. These are the toll roads. A Korean told us that on average these roads cost you the equivalent of 5 dollar cents per kilometers on the toll.
  • The other is called Free Way. They often are often two-lane and just as good as Express Ways. Sometimes they wind more around mountains whereas Express Ways are the bridged highways that cross valleys.

Here’s a fun blog post about moving around in South Korea.

Traffic Rules & Police

When clearing your vehicle at the port you will get a yellow round sticker that, for as much as we understand, should be visible on your windshield. This proves you bought the Korean insurance (you will find all about insurance in our Shipping to Korea blog post, find it here).

  • In Korea you drive on the right side of the road.
  • Korea is very small and you can drive from Seoul in the north of the country to Busan in the south in just a couple of hours.
  • Road signs are clear.
  • Korean people are careful drivers and very respectful of the law (e.g. waiting forever at a pedestrian crossing for the light to jump to green, even when there is no car in sight!).
  • We didn’t have any police checks.

4. Roadmaps & Guidebooks

Roadmaps – Electronic

MapsMe automatically steers you to toll roads. In fact, main roads on the map do not always correspond with reality, plus many of the minor roads or not on MapsMe, which is mostly a nuisance when trying to exit a big city with highways (Seoul / Busan). Also, expect 95% of the text to be in Korean.

Coen preferred using an Android tablet loaded with OsmAnd, however, it was terribly slow to update and a pain to use the user interface.

So, most of the time, MapsMe was on the iPhone and we choose routes manually for a shorter distance, which worked perfectly. The latest update also includes hiking and biking, which is handy as it incorporates elevation charts.

Coen also liked the nice-looking cartoon-like icons showing your current location when moving, as well as the speed. To our amazement it showed a bullet train icon when we used the train to get from Seoul to Busan.

Roadmaps – Paper & Tourist Information maps

To have an overview of the country we love our Reise KnowHow Roadmaps (buy it here). The Korean map is 1:700.000.

For detailed maps we used local maps. Korea has tourist information centers all over the place, in cities, along highways, and they all have regional maps, many of them listing cultural sites as well.

While most tourist information is in Korean, you can generally find information with both Korean and English.

Guidebooks & other books

We’ve become ambassadors of Insight Guides. We steered away from Lonely Planet guidebooks because they are more focused than ever on endless lists of hotels, restaurants, and how to get there & away chapters (great for backpackers, not for us) rather than on sightseeing (the part we care most about in guidebooks).

Insight Guides focuses on sightseeing and comes with lots of beautiful pictures, which helps me get a feel for a place. In the back is a short overview with practical information of websites, addresses, and phone numbers. We are thrilled with this choice (buy the South Korean guidebook here).

But, no matter what guidebook, it contains general information and well-known places. So, to get off the beaten track and to find lesser-known sites, we depend on:

  • What people tell us.
  • Information we find in museums (these can be great leads to sites, we find).
  • Tourist information offices of which, as I said before, there are plenty in this country.

Specific book I bought in Korea: Baekdu-daegan Trail: Hiking Korea’s Mountain Spine (paper book, find it here, a super book if you want to hike this trail. I ordered the book on Amazon and had it send to a friend’s house in Korea. Very easy, no hassle whatsoever, it simply ended up in the mailbox (as it should).

Edited to add, March 2018: The author published a new edition of the book. For some reason it’s not properly visible on Amazon, so find it on his website instead.

5. Water & Food

Bibimbap
Jjinppang, steamed bread with sweet red bean paste
Bungeoppang — Fish Bread (without fish), named so because of shape. Is filled with red bean paste.

Water

We have a water tank with a filter in the car (read about it here) so we don’t have to worry about filtered water anymore. What we understand from Koreans is that all water is safe to drink, so when not in the car we always drank it from the tap. However, they prefer buying bottled water, or drink filtered water from water fountains.

Food

There is enough to write several books about it, so I won’t do that here. But a good tip for on the road: try kimbab (or gimbab), which is the Korean version of Japanese sushi. It comes in all kinds of varieties and easy to take with you as a snack. In the Korean language: 김밥

I wrote two articles about eating vegetarian food in South Korea, find them and here, and another about what Koreans eat at home – find it here.

6. Money Matters

The Korean currency is won.  In March ’18 the rate was 1,311 won to a euro.

We had a hard time finding ATMs that worked with our (Dutch) debit card (Rabobank). Woori Bank and KEB Hanna Bank did work but charged a fee (respectively 3,600 and 7,500 Won).

The City Bank was the only one that didn’t charge a fee. There few  City Banks in Korea, and we found them in Seoul, Suwon, and Busan.

We ended up using our Visa credit card, which everybody uses here.

7. Our Travel Budget in Korea

Not included: health insurance, electronics, ferry to Kyushu (Japan), flights to the Netherlands, hiking& camping equipment for our 2-month hike in South Korea.

Time spent in South Korea: 268 days (in 2016, 2017, 2018).

Average distance covered: 23 kms/day. An all-time low. This is largely because we spent a number of weeks hiking the Baekdu Daegan (read here), and spent quite some time stationary in Seoul, working online.

Average expenditure: €28/day (2 persons).

Of note:

  • No costs for the Land Cruiser! Hurray. See below under 7-2 Land Cruiser.
  • Ending up with some €15 per day for groceries/outdoor lunch wasn’t that bad a deal, especially if you take into account the quality and good sizes of lunches in restaurants. Also included in this is a huge amount for coffees (expensive; 2-5 dollars) in cafés so we could use the WiFi (see below, 7-8 WiFi).
  • The relatively high percentage for public transport is due to the ferry we took to a Japanese island of Tsushima to renew our visa.

Beforehand we thought South Korea would be much more expensive. A couple of things helped: few kilometers, few car breakdowns, and a lot of hospitality.

7-1 Documentation

Unfortunately, today South Korea can’t be reached by land. We depend on boats: cargo boats carrying containers, ferries, and RoRos.

We were the first to arrive by container, for as far as anybody’s recollection went at the Custom’s office. We wrote a separate blog post on it, which you can find here. A couple of weeks later Ivan & Hyein’s car arrived by container from South America. They wrote about their shipping procedure as well, find it here.

Around the time we arrived, Ulf & Berna shipped from Thailand to Korea by Roro. To read about their procedure, find their blog post here.

Ulf & Berna

Visa

Our visas were free of charge (for Europeans) and given at the airport. We got a three-month visa. You can’t extend it, except in emergencies, so to stay longer we took a ferry to Japan for the day (read about it here).

Carnet de Passage / Temporary Import Document & Third-party Insurance

You don’t need a Carnet de Passage for South Korea (not that German & Brazilian vehicles can’t enter at all, read about it here). At the port (Busan) you are issued with a Temporary Import Document (TID) for your vehicle.

Requirements:

  • Korean third-party insurance.
  • Valid visa.

New rule (since July 2017): your TID will not extend the time you get on your visa.

Extension:

  • It is not evident to extend your TID. It may be possible, but you definitely have to argue the case. You can do that at the customs in Busan but also at customs office at the airport in Incheon. Among the reasons for granting an extension is car trouble and the ferry being out of service (the 2 reasons we used).

Note on costs:

  • We paid a guarantee fee of 180,000 won on arrival (also when we returned from Japan)
  • Car insurance is expensive. In 2016 we paid 420,000 won (€330) for 6 months, plus an additional month that cost the absurd fee of 140,000 won (€110). So it’s better to get it right the first time, but as you know, we are not great planners ;-). In 2017 we paid 574000 (515) for 8 months.
Wendy Choi

Most overlanders get an insurance via Wendy Choi in Seoul who, by the way, is also a good person to contact if you need help when importing your motorcycle (by plane).

Wendy Choi
wendychoi2@gmail.com
+82 10-6213-3961

As mentioned before, we posted a full write-up on bringing the Land Cruiser into the country, with all the paperwork involved. Check out our blog post on the topic (find it here).

7-2 Land Cruiser

For once the Land Cruiser did well. Granted, it didn’t have to work very hard either. Asphalted roads – albeit most of them mountainous – and with an average of 23 kms/day, how much can go wrong?

However, just a week before leaving for Japan, water suddenly spurted out of the engine block. One of the welch plugs [or freeze plugs] had a little hole in it. This happened before in Argentina albeit that plug sat in a more difficult place. So we knew it wasn’t all that bad, just a corroded cap that kept the coolant water in the block.

We posted a short movie on Facebook and got some tips on how to MacGyver it. Soldering didn’t work and we drove to a little mechanic shop where we hoped it would be an easy job to obtain a 21mm plug. It so happens that Toyota’s are extremely rare in South Korea and the guys phoned around and could only source a 20mm cap.

So we improvised and smeared bondo over it, and so far it held until we got it properly fixed in Japan.

On our last return to Korea, in March 2018, the brakes failed when on our way to the Romance Factory to install some parts we had brought from the Netherlands. They are not a regular workshop but their business is storage systems for car camping (think: roof racks including boxes, drawer systems in the vehicle, etc). We already knew the guys and the offered to help us with car issues (read about it here). On departure, they wanted no money for the work they had done, which was more than generous. Thank you Romance Factory!

7-3 Diesel & Gas Stations

Diesel costs around 1 euro per liter (Nov ’17) although prices vary per gas station. With the millions of cars driving in this country you won’t have any problem finding gas stations. Most have public toilets but it’s not common to have a convenience store or even a coffee machine on the spot. For this you stop at huyugeso – rest areas along the highway, or convenience stores (7 Elevens).

7-4 Public Transport

Public transportation such as the public-bus network is super organized but the fact that everything is in Korean isn’t exactly helpful to foreigners. Having said that, the subway in Seoul in Busan works like in any other major city in the world.

For the bus and subway, you can use the rechargeable T-Money card that can also be used to pay at convenient stores and for taxis.

Train: we took only one train from Seoul to Busan. There are many different trains, with more or fewer stops in between, and priced accordingly. We paid 52000 won for the 2 of us for a, if I remember correctly 4-hour, train ride to Busan.

Ferry: we took the ferry from Busan to the Japanese island of Tsushima (read here)to renew our Korean visa. The ferry cost 191.000 won (Summer 2016. 2 persons, booked via Internet and paid with visa).

7-5 Sightseeing

Enactment of the changing of the guards at one of the palaces.
Penis Park along East Coast.

In Seoul, what we particularly liked among all the ‘must-sees’:

  • Kimchi Museum.
  • Change of guard ceremony at the Deoksugung Palace.
  • Jogye-sa Temple.
  • National Palace Museum.
  • National Museum of Korea (top tip! go! It’s awesome and free)

And here’s what we did when the country, and thus Seoul,  was hit by a heatwave and we fled to air-conditioned places.

Among the temples that impressed us:

  • Busan, Beomeosa Temple.
  • Hadong (north of), Ssanggyesa Temple.
Statue to represent South Korea’s comfort women
DMZ near Yanggu.

National Parks we particularly enjoyed:

Don’t forget to check out the cherry blossom during the beginning of April, read about it here.

7-6 Accommodation

We were invited to stay with various Koreans, some through our website, some after having met them on the street. We always take up these invitations and they have always contributed to appreciating the country on a deeper level.

Apart from that, we camped. In terms of safety you can camp anywhere in this country. You’ll also find it easy to find places to stay as you can use parking lots all over the place.

Finding a super beautiful place to camp is not always that evident because the country is so overcrowded. Here you can find the overview of our accommodations here, including GPS Waypoints.

7-7 Daily Expenditures

Everything mentioned above minus what we totally spent is what we call daily expenditures. This is mostly groceries and going out for lunch/dinner and, in the case of Korea, a lot of money for coffee in cafes so we could use WiFi.

A note on WiFi:

You can often access iptime, but whether it works at all, a bit, or very good, is a gamble. Instead we opted for cafes (e.g. Ediya Coffee Bar, a chain all over the country) that have their own dedicated WiFi, which in most cases is excellent.

8. Other Sources of Information

We hope this page is useful. Things you missed? Feel free to leave a comment or question in the comment section below and we’ll answer it asap!

Putting together information pages like this cost a huge amount of time. I’m happy doing that and spreading the good vibes for traveling the world. Would you like to support us in any way? See how you can fuel our adventure, or shop around among Coen’s T-shirts, stickers, and other goodie designs. Or consider supporting us on Patreon. Enjoy the ride!

(Originally published in November 2016 / Updated in March 2018)

For more on South Korea, check out these articles:

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Thank you for your support — Karin-Marijke & Coen

4 thoughts on “Travel Information on South Korea – Documentation, Money Matters, Roads, Guidebooks, Fuel, Accommodation & More

  1. Thanks for the great posts and info as usual. All the best for the holiday season. Hopefully we chase you two down at somepoint and we can have our fill of Catan!

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