Getting around South Korea is surprisingly easy. The subway networks in big cities like Seoul and Busan are second to none, rail tracks spider out from metro centers into far-flung corners of the countryside, and there’s almost always a local bus available to take you that extra mile (no matter the time of day or night). If you’re in a hurry you can hop on a plane and take advantage of South Korea’s extensive domestic air network, and if you’ve got your sea legs under you, you can book passage on one of the numerous ferries that connect the country’s islands (and travel to Japan, China and even Russia).
Prices for travel throughout South Korea are remarkably affordable by North American standards, cab drivers are friendly, and bus and metro information is often listed in both Korean and English. Where it’s not, there’s usually a helpful local nearby willing to help you sort out passage from Point A to Point B.
That said, travel in South Korea during holidays can be a lesson in gridlock. The country’s most important holiday periods are Chuseok (usually in September) and Seollal (Korean New Year, celebrated in late January or February, depending on the lunar calendar). During these periods roads, trains, buses, planes and subways become packed to almost unbelievable levels. Avoid traveling on these dates by getting to your destination ahead of time, and book transport (as well as hotels and attraction tickets) well in advance. Likewise, avoid the Seoul and Busan subways during rush hour, if at all possible. The congestion can be suffocating.
Read on to learn more about South Korea transportation.
Flying to and Around South Korea
Seoul’s Incheon International Airport is a major East Asian transportation hub and handles numerous daily flights from North America on Korean Air, United and Delta — many of which are nonstop (L.A., San Francisco, Atlanta, etc.). Incheon is well connected to other parts of Asia as well as Europe, the Middle East and beyond.
Most domestic air travel is handled by smaller Gimpo International Airport, also in Seoul; it’s connected to the Seoul subway system and to Incheon Airport by the AREX train system. Gimpo is served by Asiana Airlines, Jin Air and Korean Airlines. Other international airports can be found in Busan, Jeju, Daegu and Cheongju, among others.
Renting a Car in South Korea
Seoul and Busan are notoriously difficult cities to navigate if you’re unfamiliar with the roads and driving customs. By contrast, driving in other cities (and in the countryside) can be a leisurely affair and offers a great opportunity for you to plot your own course across the country. Rentals are expensive, and an International Driving Permit is required; you will also need to present your domestic license at the rental counter.
Consider renting a car at Incheon International Airport upon arrival; this is usually the most affordable and efficient way to get your own set of wheels. South Korea’s largest and most professional rental agency is Kumho-Hertz (managed under a Lotte Corporation license), with Avis not far behind.
Make sure you update your GPS or keep your phone’s map system current. South Korea’s English maps are largely useless — translations are far from accurate, and streets are often incorrectly marked. The legal driving age is 18 for four-wheeled vehicles and 16 for motorcycles. The Korea Expressway Corporation manages the city’s network of tolls; rather than deal with them directly, drivers should consider purchasing a Hi-Pass system, which makes the toll system much easier to navigate (purchase one from your rental company). The speed limit is usually 60 kph (about 37 mph) on urban roads and 100 kph (about 62 mph) on the highway.
South Korea by Train
Traveling by train is without a doubt the most efficient and comfortable way to get around South Korea. Before you leave for your trip, consider purchasing a KORAIL rail pass, which will make getting around upon arrival much easier.
South Korea’s famed high-speed bullet train, the KTX, connects Seoul to Busan on a journey that takes less than three hours. The KTX connects major cities throughout the country, and makes getting around a breeze. Train cars are modern, clean and quiet. You can purchase tickets for the KTX, as well as the Mugunghwa and Saemaeul trains, online (via the KORAIL website) or at train stations. Consider reserving tickets ahead of time if you plan to travel during holiday periods. The Seoul – Busan route is particularly busy during these times.
Many of South Korea’s smaller cities feature their own rail lines, which connect dozens of different destinations to the centralized networks.
South Korea by Bus
If you can’t connect to your destination by plane or train, chances are good that you can find a bus making the rounds. Buses are cheap, efficient and, outside of big cities, rarely crowded. The Seoul Express Bus Terminal and the Central City Terminal (both in Seoul) are the gateways to bus routes that connect most of the country. Express buses are comfortable and often air-conditioned, and feature cozy recliner seats. The websites below can help you research and schedule your route.
Local buses are not quite as comfortable as their express counterparts, but they’re still far superior to buses found in most of the rest of the world. It helps to understand a bit of basic Korean if you plan on navigating local bus routes, as apps, maps and websites can be confusing. Carry small bills for local bus fare; asking your driver to provide change will often earn you a stern look.
South Korea Ferries
South Korea’s ferry network is substantial; ships connect major destinations (Busan, Incheon, Jeju, Mokpo) with far-flung islands (like Ulleungdo) as well as international ports. If you’re not familiar with the nuances of Korean ferry travel, it is usually a good idea to book your trip (especially if you’re traveling to Japan or heading out on the popular journey to Vladivostok, Russia) via an experienced local travel agency like Adventure Korea.
South Korea Taxis
Taxis are safe and inexpensive, and drivers are usually friendly — even if they don’t speak a word of English. Meters are the norm, not the exception; if you encounter a driver running off-meter, the best bet is to get out and find another cab. You’ll find taxis plying the roads in both major cities and far-flung outposts. If you have trouble locating one, head to the nearest subway or train station, where you’ll usually find a taxi stand.
You can choose between ilban amd mobeum (also spelled mobum) taxis — terms used to describe regular and deluxe cabs. Ilban taxis, featuring a taxi sign on the roof, are the most common cabs in South Korea. Mobeum taxis, almost always painted black, are twice as expensive as ilban taxis, but feature drivers who speak English and cater to business travelers. You can call them up directly (your hotel can help) or find them at regular taxi queues throughout the city. Mobeum taxis accept credit cards and will provide a receipt upon request.
South Korea Subways
Seoul’s modern subway network is the envy of much of the world; with more than 400 stops across more than a dozen lines, there’s hardly a nook or cranny of the city not served by public transportation. Station signs are usually written in Korean and English. If you’ll be in a major city (Busan, Daegu, Daejeon and Gwangju also have subway systems) for a significant period of time, consider preloading a subway card, which can be done at most stations and convenience stores.
–written by Flash Parker