Getting Around South Korea

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Getting Around South Korea

South Korea is fairly compact and you can get anywhere very fast if you fly, and reasonably fast even if you don't. Subways are available in most of the cities including metropolitan Seoul. Larger cities currently have service or are developing subways. Travel by bus or taxi is easily available, though bus service is more economical.

By Plane

South Korea is small enough that flying is more of a luxury than a necessity, with the notable exception of connections to the island of Jeju. The long-standing domestic flight duopoly of Korean Air and Asiana was broken in 2005 by the arrival of low-cost competitors Hansung Airlines and Jeju Air, which offers flights not only to Jeju, but also serves the Seoul-Busan sector with lower fares than the KTX express train.

By Train

National train operator Korail connects major cities in South Korea. Neglected for a long time, a large amount of money has been plowed into the network in recent years and trains are now quite competitive with buses on speed and price, and much safer and more comfortable to boot. The main problem is that the network is still a little limited and services in rural areas are limited, with trains only once every few hours.

Particularly useful are the high-speed Korea Train eXpress (KTX) services between Seoul and Busan via Daegu, Daejeon and often Ulsan, which use French TGV technology to zip along at up to 300 km/h. The fastest non-stop trains cover the distance in just over two hours. The KTX trains have 18 cars with the first 3 being first class and the rest reserved economy seating except the very last car (number 18) which is open seating. There are drink vending machines on board and an attendant that comes by with a snack cart which includes reasonably priced beer, soda, cookies, candy, sausages, hardboiled eggs, and kimbap (rice rolls).

Non-KTX trains are poetically ranked as Saemaeul (새마을, "New Village"), Mugunghwa (무궁화, "Rose of Sharon") and Tonggeun (통근), corresponding roughly to express, semi-express and local services. Saemaeul trains are a little pricier than buses, while Mugunghwa are about 30% cheaper. However Saemaeul trains are extremely comfortable, having seats that are comparable to business class seats on airplanes. Though with the introduction of the KTX, there are much fewer Saemaeul and Mugunghwa services, they are worth trying them out. Tonggeun, formerly Tonggil, are cheapest of all, but long-distance, non-aircon services have been phased out and they're now limited to short stopping commuter services. Most longer-distance trains have an entertainment car with a small cafe/bar, computers with internet access (W500 for 15 minutes) and a few trains even have private compartments with coin-operated karaoke machines!

Smoking is not permitted on any Korean trains or stations (including open platforms).

Seoul also has an extensive commuter train network that smoothly interoperates with the massive subway system, and Busan, Daejeon, Daegu, Gwangju and Incheon also have subway services.

Tickets are much cheaper than in Japan but more expensive than other Asian countries - although the damage can be lowered by travelling on local trains rather than KTX. Buying tickets is fairly easy - self-service terminals accepting cash and credit cards are in multiple languages and are very simple to use. Station staff can usually speak basic English. Most stations are clean, modern and have good signposting in Korean and English, and compared to China or Japan, Korea's rail system is very user-friendly.

Pre-booking any train tickets a day prior (be they KTX or mugunghwa) is recommended for weekend trips, as all trains can be booked out for hours on end. On Sunday in particular, all but local trains have begun to completely book out regularly. Failure to reserve tickets in advance when departing busy hubs such as Seoul or Busan may see your options reduced to "unallocated seating" on the slowest local trains (sitting on the floor in the unairconditioned space between carriages, or standing in the toilet for much of the trip. You are, however, free to sit on any seat that seems free until someone with the ticket to that seat shows up. If you are confident in your Korean, you can ask to reserve seats on sections that are available and travel standing up the rest of the way.).

Seoul to Busan by train
Type Time Price
KTX 2:08 W55,500
Saemaeul 4:45 W41,100
Mugunghwa 5:30 W26,500

All prices off-peak (Mon-Thu), small surcharges apply for peak (Fri-Sun)

By Rail Cruise

Korail Tourism Development provides a rail cruise tour which enables the customers to travel to all the major siteseeing destinations in Korea with just one luxury train ride.

KR Pass

The KR Pass is a special rail pass introduced in 2005 for non-resident foreigners only, allowing unlimited travel for a set period on any Korail train (including KTX) and including free seat reservation. The pass is not valid for first class or sleeping cars, but you can upgrade for half price if you wish. The regular pass costs 58,200/84,600/127,000/160,400/185,100 won for 1/3/5/7/10 days, with additional discounts of 10-20% for youths (age 13-25), students and groups of 2-5 traveling together. The pass must be purchased at least five days before travel (preferably before arrival in Korea), and already took an incredible amount of travel (eg. Seoul-Busan roundtrip) to pay off, even prior to the 2011 jacking-up of prices. Serious limitations on usage apply during Korean holidays and peak travelling periods including Lunar New Year in February and Chuseok in September.

Joint KR/JR Passes between Korea and Japan also exist, however, considering how much of a discount the JR Pass offers, and how strikingly little the KR Pass does by comparison, such a combination in all practicality simply deducts value from the JR Pass. Do the maths.

By Bus

Buses (버스 beoseu) remain the main mode of national transport, connecting all cities and towns. They're frequent, punctual and fast, sometimes dangerously so, so fasten the belts you'll often find in the seats.

There is a somewhat pointless division of long-distance buses into express buses (고속버스 gosok beoseu) andinter-city buses (시외버스 si-oe beoseu), which often use separate terminals to boot. In addition, local inner-city bus (시내버스 si-nae beoseu) networks often connect directly neighbouring cities. The express vs. intercity bus differentiation comes down to whether the nation's toll expressways (고속 gosok) are traversed. In practical terms, express buses are marginally faster on long runs, but inter-city buses go to more places. For additional comfort, look for Udeung buses (우등 버스) which have just three seats across instead of the usual four; these cost about 50% extra. A fourth layer of bus exists, which is the airport limousine bus, a seperate network of express buses that ferry people directly to and from Incheon International Airport. Note that the airport limousines typically run from seperate pickup points again to the intercity or express bus terminal.

No Korean buses have toilets, and rest stops are not standard on trips of less than 2 hours duration, so consider thinking twice about that bottle of tea at the terminal.

By Boat

Ferry boats surround the peninsula and shuttle out to Korea's many islands. The main ports include Incheon, Mokpo, Pohang, and Busan. The most popular destinations are Jeju-do and Ulleungdo. However even at peak times, the mostly undiscovered and scenic islands off of Incheon can seem almost deserted. Foreigners as well as locals will opt for the warmer shores of the South and East.

By Car

An International Driving Permit (IDP) may be used to drive around South Korea. In general, road conditions are good in South Korea and directional signs are in both Korean and English. Car rental rates start from ₩54400 a day for the smallest car for about a week. Traffic moves on the right in South Korea.

However, if traveling in the big cities, especially Seoul, driving is not recommended as the roads are plagued with traffic jams, with parking expensive and difficult to find, and many drivers tend to get reckless under such conditions, weaving in and out of traffic. Drivers would often try to speed past traffic lights when they are about to turn red, and several cars (including fully-loaded public transit buses) will typically blow-through the light after it has turned red whether pedestrians are in the crosswalk or not. Driving habits in Korea, while not the best, are still significantly better than in China. Note that road courtesy is almost non-existent in Korean cities and it is best to read up on Korean road culture before attempting to drive.

By taxi

Taxis are a convenient, if somewhat pricey way of getting around the cities, and are sometimes the only practical way of reaching a place. Even in the major cities, you are extremely unlikely to get an English-speaking taxi driver, so it will be necessary to have the name of your destination written in Korean to show your taxi driver. Likewise, get your hotel's business card to show the taxi driver in case you get lost.

Note that whilst technically illegal, cab drivers, particularly the lower-flagfall white cabs on busy Friday or Saturday nights, may deny service to short-distance fares. A very handy technique to counter this is to have your destination (hotel name or just gu and dong, in Korean of course) written in thick black ink on a large sheet of paper and hold it to the traffic. Passing cab drivers responding to long distance call outs, or with space in their cab in addition to an existing fare in that direction will often pick you up en route.

When hailing a cab in particular, ensure you follow the local custom and wave it over with your hand extended but all your fingers extended downwards and beckoning as opposed to upwards in the Western fashion (this style is reserved for animals).

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