Backpacking South Korea
Looking for important travel information while backpacking in South Korea? Here you will find information on working in South Korea, entry visas, South Korea hostels, and much more.
Table of Contents
- Facts About South Korea
- Things to do in South Korea
- Entry Visa Requirements for South Korea
- Foreigner Work Permits and Backpacker Jobs in South Korea
- South Korea Hostels
Facts About South Korea
South Korea’s rapid expansion as one of the world’s tiger economies has seen it become increasingly westernised. This has brought with it numerous improvements in infrastructure as well as a huge increase in facilities for travellers.
The good news is that this hasn’t displaced the traditional Korean culture completely and the country at the moment in many ways offers the best of both worlds. While in major cities you will find plenty of shops, bars and clubs you will also find alleys where traditional markets hold full sway and the bustle of a typical Asian city hasn’t yet given way completely to the orderly queues and multi-national chains of the western world.
- Currency: Won (SKW)
- Time Zone: GMT + 9
- Language: Korean
- Telephone Services: Country code +82, International access code 001
- Emergency Numbers: 112 Police, Fire and emergency 119
Climate in South Korea
Like North Korea and unlike many of its Asian neighbours South Korea has four distinct seasons, the hot summer months also contain the monsoon season which is generally in July and August, the winter runs from December to mid-February. The best time to visit South Korea is in the Spring and Autumn which are mild and fairly dry.
Things to do in South Korea
When deciding the best things to do in South Korea, there is an abundance of options. Here are the top bucket-list items when backpacking South Korea.
The nation’s capital is the city of Seoul which offers the sort of pleasant mix of east and west that South Korea is famous for. As well as ample accommodation of all standards ranging from cheap budget hotels to luxury international hotels, the city also offers plenty of clubs, bars, restaurants and of course shopping.
Taking some time to explore you will also find vestiges of the countries oriental past. Soel’s most famous attractions are undoubtedly its palaces, the Gyeongbokgung Palace is the most well known and have been exquisitely restored following destruction during the Japanese invasion.
The highlight of this exquisite palace is the decadent two-storey throne room which was a seat of power for the Joseon dynasty. A somewhat lesser known site is the summer Changgyeonggung Palace which is just a short bridge crossing away from the famous Jongmyo Shrine which contains the 27 ancestral tablets of the Joseon dynasty kings. Also well worth a look is the Seoul Tower which is the third tallest tower in the world, the nationally prized Namdaemun gate and the War Memorial.
Next in line on most tourists list, after Seoul, is the town of Gyeongju. This town was the capital of the country for some 100 years before Seoul displaced it and is now the site of numerous ancient ruins.
The key sight here is the Bulguska which is a splendid temple constructed on a stone terrace just outside the town. This temple is world renowned as one of the finest examples of Asian art and within its walls, you will find plenty of Buddhist artwork and relics. The other main attraction is Tumuli Park, which is a walled-off enclosure containing the tombs of 20 Korean rulers. Just a stone’s throw away is the Cheomseongdae which is one of Asia’s oldest known observatories.
For those who like a taste of the outdoors, South Korea offers two excellent national parks. The most popular is the Seoraksan Park which boasts an extraordinary selection of scenery ranging from waterfalls, rivers and beaches to rocky foothills and lush forests.
Some of the most popular areas are the Osaek Hot Springs which is where most of the accommodation is and the Daecheonbong mountain. Those looking for a more secluded experience and prepared for plenty of good hiking trails might prefer to head for the Songnisan National Park which also boasts the excellent temple of Beopjusa, as well as an enormous pagoda, visitors can see a 33m high solid bronze standing Buddha statue which is the largest of its type in the world.
Unique Activities in South Korea
Since popular places in South Korea can get crowded during tourist season, it is wise to reserve tickets and activities ahead of time. GetYourGuide sells entrance tickets to museums and landmarks at face value so you can avoid the lines and save that precious time for more exploring.
Viator is another popular travel website that helps you book things to do in South Korea. They work directly with local tour operators in South Korea, so you won’t have to scour the internet or roam around town trying to find the best deal.
If you know your schedule ahead of time, a great insider tip is to buy tickets for major tourist attractions ahead of time. Tiqets has entrance tickets and skip-the-line passes for major attractions in Seoul, which can be a worthwhile cost during peak tourist season.
How to Find Cheap Flights to South Korea
In order to find the best flights to South Korea we recommend using a few well-known flight comparison search engines. These websites offer powerful search options, like entering flexible dates and airports in order to find the cheapest flight to South Korea.
Our go-to flight search engine is Skyscanner, which we love for its extremely flexible search options. Our favourite way to get travel inspiration is their “Everywhere” feature. Simply enter “Everywhere” as a destination, and it will then list all available flights from your departure city in order of price. This also works when entering the entire country of South Korea as your destination. Skyscanner will search all possible airports in the country in order to find the cheapest option.
Kiwi is another new favourite flight search engine among savvy travelers. Kiwi works by combining flights from different carriers in order to get the best deal. Also, if there is a better ground or ferry option for the route you’re searching, Kiwi will include that in the search results. On average, we have found the cheapest flights to South Korea with them compared to the other websites out there.
How to Travel Around South Korea on a Budget
Train and long-distance bus are the standard modes of transport for how to travel in South Korea on a budget. Buses are the more economical option, nevertheless, they are well-equipped with the usual modern conveniences that expect when travelling in Europe. Train travel, on the other hand, is the fastest way between cities in South Korea, and the train stations are conveniently located right in the center of town.
Train Travel in South Korea
The best way to get around in South Korea, where available, is the rail network. Operated by Korail, the network is fast and efficient and also very affordable. There are four classes of train ranging from the high-speed saemaeul to the sedate bidulgi and kkachi classes which lack air conditioning and have more uncomfortable seats. There is a KR rail pass which is available and allows unlimited travel for between 3 and 10 days but these can only currently be purchased from Japan or America.
Bus Travel in South Korea
Local and inter-city buses are safe, fast and incredibly cheap and also make a very good way to travel. You may find that there is little provision for English speakers on the buses but hotel staff will generally be happy to help you select the correct bus.
Buses are run by a variety of local companies and in general travel on local buses requires payment to the driver. For inter-city buses, you will most often have to get a seat reservation which are only valid on one bus, if you miss it you will have to buy another ticket.
Renting a Car in South Korea
You may also want the flexibility to stop in smaller towns between the major cities. If you decide you want to rent a car in South Korea, you can use DiscoverCars to compare offers from the major car rental agencies in the region.
Backpacking Tours in South Korea
Though part of the fun of backpacking South Korea is exploring on your own, there are situations, especially when venturing off the tourist trail, when it does make sense to go with a guide or a small group.
G Adventures is another great option for organized travel, but with a smaller group. It’s a great choice for anyone backpacking South Korea alone who would like to meet up with like-minded travellers. It’s also a practical option for exploring places where you need an experienced guide, like a long hiking adventure or visiting a place well off the beaten path. You can choose from different styles of small group tours like active, wellness, hiking trips, 18-30somethings, and more. Their most popular trip in South Korea is their classic 8-day Best of South Korea tour or their 24-day Highlights of East Asia: Japan, South Korea, and China tour.
Health and Safety in South Korea
The health service in South Korea is adequate especially in tourist areas but not up to the standard of Western Europe. Hospital staff rarely speak English and payment will almost exclusively be required up front.
As with travel to all other countries abroad, it is vital that you get travel insurance before you leave for South Korea. Even for short trips, our go-to travel insurance provider is World Nomads, which is also recommended by Lonely Planet, HostelWorld, and other major travel companies.
There isn’t any known risk of polio, typhoid and cholera in South Korea and vaccinations against these are not required. There is a slight malaria risk but it exists only in the benign vivax form.
Water is heavily chlorinated and whilst safe may cause mild stomach upsets on first exposure. Bottled water is widely available and should be used for the first week or so of your stay until you can become adjusted to the environment. Milk is not pasteurised so it is safest to boil milk before use and avoid dairy products. Meat should be eaten well cooked and hot, vegetables should be cooked and fruits peeled before consumption. Normal precautions should be observed when buying food from street vendors.
Entry visa requirements for South Korea
All visitors require a valid passport and a return ticket for entry to South Korea. EU and USA nationals require a tourist visa which is valid for between 30 and 180 days depending on the exact nationality. British nationals can apply for up to 90-day tourist visas. Applications should be made to the nearest Republic of Korea embassy.
Visa requirements for South Korea can vary widely depending on your country of origin and can change over time. To avoid any unpleasant surprises, be sure to check the latest visa requirements while you’re still planning your trip.
Foreigner work permits and backpacker jobs in South Korea
It is relatively difficult to find well-paid jobs in South Korea and in fact teaching is the only profession that you are likely to find any opportunities for employment in. Many people travelling to South Korea on gap years do so having already saved enough finances, from work in the UK or Europe for example, and so volunteer work is popular in this part of the world.
Teaching English in South Korea
Most opportunities for paid teaching jobs in South Korea can probably be found by asking in schools and institutes (hogwons) in Seoul, and also by checking for vacancies in daily newspapers such as the Korea Times.
If you want to arrange work before you set off on your travels, try the English Program in Korea’s website. University graduates can find placements with the English Program, teaching English as a foreign language, earning between 1,200,000 and 1,600,000 won per month. It is sometimes advantageous to train for a TEFL qualification before leaving the UK, particularly if you intend to teach English in other foreign countries as well, see the TEFL website for more details.
Volunteering in South Korea
Volunteer travel is a great way to explore South Korea on a budget while also giving back. Typically, you’ll work on the project a set number of hours per week in exchange for free accommodation, and sometimes other perks such as free food, free bike rentals, and more.
If volunteer work in South Korea sounds like something you want to do, it’s best to do it via a reputable agency. An agency will help screen volunteer programs and hosts in South Korea to make sure you have support every step of the way.
Volunteer work in South Korea can be organized through the WorldPackers agency, and you can use promo code BACKPACKING10 to save $10 on your membership. WorldPackers can connect you with volunteering opportunities in South Korea with NGOs, hostels and homestays, agricultural or wildlife experiences, and more.
South Korea Hostels and Budget Accommodation
South Korea boasts plenty of modern tourist hotels and all of these are registered with the state. Most hotels offer air conditioning, heating, private baths as well as bars, restaurants and other shops. The Korea National Tourist Organisation maintains a list of all tourist hotels in the country.
One of the more unique ways to stay in South Korea is in the inns or Yogwans. These traditional inns are famous for providing a unique and traditional Korean experience. Prices are usually very cheap and you will be given a mattress and pillow and will be expected to sleep on the ondol, which is a traditional heated floor system. The Korea National Tourist Organisation can provide a list of Yogwans throughout the country.
There are also over 50 youth hostels in the country which provide dormitory style accommodation. These are mainly centred around the tourist areas.
We have had good experiences finding hostels in South Korea on HostelWorld. They have the largest inventory of hostels worldwide, and with over 10 million reviews and ratings from other travellers, you know exactly what to expect.
Another good way to find accommodation in South Korea is by checking booking.com. You’ll find hotels, homestays, hostels, and other unique accommodations. They have the most reviews and advanced filtering of any accommodation-booking site, so you’ll be sure to find a great place in your budget. Many of the places on booking.com also offer free cancellation, which takes the pressure off the planning phase of your trip to South Korea.
If you are backpacking with another travel companion, we highly recommend booking a rental via VRBO. With a vacation rental in South Korea, you’ll have more space, your own kitchen, and you’ll get a better feel for how the locals live. Plus, the cost of a vacation rental can be split among your group, oftentimes making it cheaper than doing individual hotel rooms.
If you’re looking to save even more money while backpacking in South Korea, there are plenty of creative ways to get free accommodation in exchange for work. For example, one of our favorite ways to stay in amazing locations for free is by signing up as a petsitter with Trusted Housesitters. The site connects responsible animal lovers with petsitting opportunities in South Korea and all over the world. It’s a win-win for both sides – travellers can stay in amazing locations for free, and homeowners can rest easy knowing that someone is watching over their place.
And lastly, CouchSurfing is a great community that connects travellers with local hosts in South Korea. You can stay for free with verified hosts, who will usually take some time to show you around the local spots.
The other option when staying in South Korea is the home-stay and temple-stay programs. As their names suggest the home-stay program allows you to live with a Korean host family and the temple-stay program allows you to stay in various temples and allows you to see the day to day rituals first hand. The Korea National Tourism Organisation can provide details of the home-stay program.
Useful Links for Backpacking in South Korea
- GAdventures – guided small group tours in South Korea, great for solo travellers or for those interested in a more adventurous trip which would require a guide
- DiscoverCars – The world’s leading rental car search engine to rent a car in South Korea
- Kiwi and Skyscanner – Flight comparison search engines to find the cheapest flights to South Korea and within the country
- GetYourGuide and Viator – a collection of local tours and activities in South Korea. Also offers Skip the Line tickets for crowded attractions
- Tiqets – Website selling entrance tickets and skip the line tickets for major tourist attractions in South Korea
- HostelWorld – #1 hostel search website to find accommodation while backpacking South Korea. Thousands of hostels and millions of reviews from fellow travellers
- Booking.com – commonly used booking site for accommodation in South Korea. Find hostels, hotels, and other unique accommodations in South Korea with advanced filtering and millions of reviews
- World Nomads Travel Insurance – Comprehensive travel insurance for long and short trips when backpacking South Korea
There you have it, the ultimate South Korea backpacking guide. We hope you have found all the information you need for backpacking around South Korea.
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