Elaine’s Noob Guide to South Korea

2017-03-11 13.45.17

Q: Hi Elaine, I want to go to Korea! When is the best time to go?

E(laine): The best seasons are definitely spring and fall!

Flying mid-March to early April would be the best if you want to catch the cherry blossoms in full bloom. I went there mid-April in 2016 for my birthday but most of the flowers had already fallen. Luckily enough, I was still able to catch a few cherry blossom trees in bloom while in Seoul.

I  prefer autumn because of the dramatic foliage and the lovely sweater weather. Try looking at flights mid-October to early November as those are the dates the foliage is at its best. If you have low tolerance for crowded places, avoid traveling on the first half of October. There are several Korean holidays that fall on the first half of October. Holiday rush is something you don’t want to experience in Korea. Trust me, I can attest to this.

I haven’t been to Korea during summer (June to August) and winter (December to February) seasons. Avoid going during summer, when the weather is hotter than the Philippines. Mind you that unlike the Philippines, summer in Korea can also be rainy.  I’d definitely want to go on a winter season some time though!  

 

Q: Cool, I’ll consider going during spring or fall then! What’s the weather like? What do I wear?

E: Please check the Accuweather predictions before trip and come prepared. Mind you, global warming is not a myth.

My spring season mid-April travel (April 15-21) was a bit rainy and unpredictable. The temperature was playing between 10 to 18 degrees Celsius. With that as a basis, mid-March to early April should even be colder. It won’t hurt to pack a few of your thermal clothing for emergency use.

My early November travel (November 8-15) went as low as negative 3 degrees Celsius! Thermal clothing and thick outerwear were my best friends. If you opted to go around September to early October instead, then boo, wrong choice. Trees are still green and the weather is still humid with a lot of rain. It would save you a lot of space for winter clothes though.

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Foliage in Gyeongju (November 2014)

Q: How do I get a tourist visa? How much is it? Do I need an agency to apply for my visa?

E: You’ll need the following:

  • A completed visa application form (downloadable from the Korean embassy website)
  • A passport size photo on a white background glued to the form
  • Your latest ITR (BIR 2316)
  • Certificate of Employment
  • Bank Certificate (with specific details needed: account type, current balance, account opening date, ADB)
  • Bank Statement (last three months)
  • Your passport along with a photocopy of the bio-page.

You can cross-check the requirements on the Korean Embassy website.

There is no need to attach things not on the list (e.g. flight tickets, hotel bookings, etc). The guys at the embassy will remove them, so please conserve paper and save the environment instead.

A single entry visa to South Korea for Filipino tourists is free! So unless you are very busy, there is no need to pay for a third-party tourist agency. You also don’t need to be present when applying or claiming your visa – a representative will do as long as he has the claiming slip with him.

Q: How much should be the ‘show money’ on my bank certificate/statement? Can I use my payroll account?

E: I know someone who applied for a Korean tourist visa with only 30k PHP and still got approved so try to keep it in mind as a minimum. Payroll account is acceptable as long as you can provide the bank certificate and bank statement. Anyway, the more money in your account, the better!

Q: Should I book my flights before visa application?

E: Not necessarily. It doesn’t secure your visa approval anyway. People only do it because they save a lot more money from seat sales! I always do book before I apply though again, it’s a risk.

Q: Speaking of seat sales, how much is the lowest fare I can get for a roundtrip ticket? How much is an acceptable seat sale budget? How do you watch out for seat sales?

E: The lowest ticket you can get is around 4.5k PHP (2.6k PHP on promotional events rare af) for a roundtrip Manila-Incheon via Cebu Pacific without baggage allowance. Add your baggage allowance only one to two weeks before your actual trip when you have already settled visa matters.

Average non-piso fare that is still acceptable to the budget is 8k PHP. Anything higher than that, I already consider as expensive. Regular fare is around 12k to 15k PHP – you be the judge if the fare you are booking is sulit.

The lowest price of seat sales usually happens when a national holiday is approaching, around midnight. I tend to stay up late so I am almost always awake when they tweet an info about it. Follow Cebu Pacific and Air Asia Twitter accounts.

Q: Which budget airline is better though? Cebu Pacific or Air Asia?

E: I prefer Cebu Pacific flights because they are cheaper when they go on sale. Departure flights to Incheon for Air Asia are better because you arrive in the afternoon. I prefer Cebu Pacific’s return flights to Manila because there’s more time for last-minute pasalubong shopping.

If you want a direct-flight to Busan, the only choice you have is Cebu Pacific.

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Gwangalli Beach, Busan (April 2016)

Q:  How about accommodation? Which hotel should I book if I want to travel on a budget? Which area? Should I book it before I apply for a Visa?

E: First of all, I don’t book hotels – I only go for hostels or guesthouses. My reason is I’d rather spend my money on food and other things than shed extra bucks for a room that I will only use to sleep. Most dorm-type rooms are gender separated unless specified. They also have personal lockers you can borrow to secure your important stuff too. If you aren’t comfortable with dorm-type rooms, opt for a more expensive yet still practical private rooms in these guesthouses. 

I am actually very picky with guesthouses. They should be less than five minutes away from the subway exit, since I hate ending a day full of walking with more walking. They also need to be within the budget, serve free breakfast, and look good. I read lots of customer reviews and make sure the place is within an acceptable user rating. I use Booking.com because of their free cancellation policy.

Hongik University (Hongdae) or Myeongdong area are the two best areas for accommodation, in terms of accessibility to the tourist spots.

Hongdae’s crowd is younger, hence, more alive at night. I prefer Hongdae area because it’s more accessible via AREX, the airport line connected to Incheon International Airport. I still haven’t found the ‘perfect guesthouse.’ As for the budget, 25k KRW per night per person (around 1125 PHP) is my ceiling for guesthouses within Hongdae.

During my most recent Korea trip (April 2016), I’ve stayed in Lian Guesthouse – it would have been perfect if they had an elevator and I didn’t have to carry my luggage up and down four floors. I stayed at Hongdae Guesthouse during my first two Korea trips, but I would not recommend it to anyone as their service and facilities have deteriorated through time. My sister stayed at KW Line in Hongdae on her last trip (November 2016) although she said it was a 10-minute walk from the subway exit and didn’t have an elevator too.

There are lots of hostels and guesthouses around Myeongdong area too, although way more expensive than those in Hongdae. I opted for the Myeongdong area when my sister and I traveled with our mom in September 2015 since it is closer to the tourist spots. We booked a guesthouse called Casa Myeongdong – I failed to note that their dorm rooms were capsule style, hence there wasn’t enough space to pack and unpack our luggage. The lack of space reminded me of those tight Hong Kong accommodations! If I remember correctly, we paid for around 40k KRW (around 1800PHP) per night per person for this guesthouse.

Again, research is key!

And yes, I do book accommodations before applying for a Visa so I can write my hostel address as my Korean address. Again, I like using Booking.com because of their free-cancellation policy.

Q: Is Korea expensive? How much should be my pocket money?

E: Depends on how you look at it. Comparing to other countries like Hong Kong and Singapore, it’s pretty much the same. Travelling made me realize other countries aren’t expensive – Philippines is cheap. Excluding air fare, my pocket money is usually around 30k-40k in PHP for a one to two-week stay – including transportation within South Korea, food, accommodation, shopping, etc. I keep my ATM and credit cards with me in case I run out of cash. Make sure to call and advise your bank (in my case, BPI) to enable international banking so you can use it to withdraw abroad. I stayed for 11 days on my very first Korea trip, brought 50k PHP with me and still went home with 15k PHP in excess. The key is to avoid unnecessary spending. Not gonna lie though, I tend to go out of budget whenever I go crazy on cosmetics (and KPop shit, I love KPop shit).

Q: How long do I stay for my trip to be worth-it?

E: I’d say at least 5 full days. I’ve never stayed less than 7 days and it’s always still bitin. Korea is such a beautiful country so make the most out of your visit!

Q: Should I go Seoul or Busan? Perhaps Jeju?

E: Definitely Seoul on your first time. If you are staying for less than five days, then stay in Seoul. If you have more than that, you can take off three days to spend in Busan (and Gyeongju area too!) before heading back in Seoul.  There are so much things to do in Seoul and neighboring areas that you can go for a day trip instead. Save Busan for your next trip.

As for Jeju, I wouldn’t recommend it if you are not planning to rent a car and drive on your own. It is the cheapest way to go around. Booking bus tours are more convenient but can be expensive. I also dislike how you have too little time, only about an hour, to explore places that you always feel the need to rush. I’ve also tried DIY – taking bus and taxi as these are the only way you can get around Jeju without joining tours. They are doable but tiring. Taxis in Jeju are all ‘negotiated’ – it’s very rare that you’ll pay by the meter. Doesn’t it sound familiar *ehem*PH taxi drivers*ehem*? You can also hire a taxi for the whole day but I did not consider since it can be expensive even for a group of three. A taxi we rode tried offering us package tours with all his materials prepared and all, but we declined. Again, sounds familiar?

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Seopjikoji, Jeju (September 2015)

Q: Now, on to the most important question of them all as a millennial traveler…where do I rent Wi-Fi?

E: The most convenient way is renting pocket wifi from the airport. I suggest SK Telecom (5000 KRW/day or around 220 PHP/day) which you can reserve online and pickup from the airport and return on the same place. I’ve tried bringing this to Jeju and had no problems with connections or whatsoever. Some hostels or guesthouses also offer pocket Wi-Fi rental services for around 3000 KRW/day around 135 PHP/day, but I don’t know how reliable they are. When I traveled solo and had no means of renting a pocket Wi-Fi (since I flew into Busan and was going to fly out of Seoul and my hostels did not have any for rent), I opted for KT Olleh’s prepaid Wi-Fi card from a convenience store instead. A card costs 9900 KRW and is valid for four days (you can also buy a card valid for one day which costs 3300 KRW). Most tourist spots in Seoul have connections for Olleh Wi-Fi including subways and the speed is still pretty fast!

Q:  So wait, do you have a sample itinerary readily prepared for me?

E: I actually do but they are not updated and may be inaccurate as of writing – most of them followed them, others did free-style  it . If you are still interested, click on the links below. I’ll try to come up with a cleaner version of these itineraries when I actually find time (I won’t).

Seoul (11 Days) – Trip with my Sister and my friend Karen, October 2013 [Link]

  • Summary: N Seoul Tower – Myeongdong – Nami Island – Petite France – Gyeongbuk Palace – Bukchon Hanok Village – Insadong – Everland – Hongdae Trickeye Museum – Han River + K-Pop related shit you can ignore
  • This itinerary contains a lot of K-Pop shit, but also contains the most basic of the tourist-y spots within and nearby Seoul.
  • Not helpful if you want the specific instructions on how to get there (I remember I had the instructions handwritten on a handy dandy notebook), but I’ll still put it here.

Seoul (4 Days) – Written for a friend and her husband, September 2014 [Link]

  • Summary: N Seoul Tower – Myeongdong – Nami Island – Petite France – Gyeongbuk Palace – Bukchon Hanok Village – Insadong
  • A lot of things here may be inaccurate already. Don’t exchange for KRW at the foreign exchange counter in NAIA 3 post-immigration! They have the most expensive rates among all counters in NAIA 3.

Seoul (7 Days) – Written for cousins and friends, October 2014 [Link]

  • Summary: Dongdaemun Gate – Dongdaemun Fortress Park – Cheonggyecheon Stream – Dongdaemun Design Plaza – Banpo Rainbow Bridge – Nami Island – Petite France – Everland – DMZ – Itaewon – Lotte World – Han River – Coex – Bongeunsa Temple – Nanta – Gyeongbok Palace – Gwanghwamun – Insadong – Bukchon + More K-pop shit
  • Supposedly a more “advanced” Seoul itinerary for a second timer in Seoul, but not really.
  • There is a more accessible way to the Banpo Rainbow Bridge — do not follow the instructions on this itinerary (my cousins cursed me after following this route).
  • Contains specific instructions on how to go to Nami Island and Petite France.

Seoul-Busan-Gyeongju-Seoul (8 Days) – Trip with my friend Karen, November 2014 [Link]

  • Summary:
    • Busan: Taejongdae – Jagalchi Market – Nampo-dong – BIFF Square – Haeundae Beach – Haedong Yonggungsa Temple – Shinsagae Centum City – Gwanggalli Beach
    • Gyeongju: Bulguksa Temple – Daereungwon Tomb Complex – Cheomseongdae Observatory – Bungwangsa Temple – Gyeongju National Museum-Anapji Pond-Gyerim
    • Seoul: Changdeokgung + K-Pop shit to get you bald
  • The places in Seoul here aren’t the usual ‘tourist-y’ places as we’ve already done most of it a year prior.
  • We were actually half-day late in Gyeongju so we skipped Bulguksa Temple and rented a bike instead for the bike tour.
  • If I were to change things in this itinerary, I would not leave for Busan the morning after arriving in Seoul. I would spend a day or two first before going so that way, you get enough rest.
  • You can actually leave your baggage with your Seoul guesthouse since you are coming back to check-in again in a few days. Bring an extra luggage enough to bring your Busan/Gyeongju belongings.
  • Also, check-in to your Busan Guesthouse before you go around so you don’t end up carrying everything with you. Which brings me to my next point:
  • Swap the Day 1 Busan activities with Day 2 Busan activities. If you are checking in first upon arrival, Haedong Yonggungsa Temple is nearer (although an hour away by bus) to your hostel than Taejongdae (more than 40-min train ride + an hour bus ride) which on the extremely opposite side!

Seoul-Jeju-Seoul (8 Days) – Trip with my Mom and Sister, September 2015 [Link]

  • Summary:
    • Seoul: N Seoul Tower – Nanta – Han River – Dongdaemun Design Plaza – Bukchon Hanok Village – Samcheong-dong – Insadong – Cheonggyecheon Stream – Changgyeong Palace – Korean Folk Village – Lotte World – Namdaemun Market
    • Jeju: Manjang Cave – Udo Island – Seopjikoji – Halim Park – Suweoulbong – Spirited Garden – Althr Airfield – Mt. Sanbang – Teddy Bear Museum
  • Included some ‘tourist-y’ places in Seoul here for our first-timer mother
  • We followed almost everything in here except the places to eat. When you are too hungry, you end up eating anywhere you want.
  • Also, we literally finished the Bukchon Hanok-Samcheongdong-Insadong-Cheonggyecheon walking route very early in the afternoon (around 4pm) so we ended up going to Lotte World for late admission.

Busan-Jinhae-Busan-Seoul (8 Days) – Solo YOLO Birthday Trip, April 2016 [Link]

  • Summary:
    • Jinhae: Yeojwa Stream – Gyeonghwa Station
    • Busan: Shinsaegae Spa Land – Dalmaji Hill
    • Seoul: You tired yet? KPop shit.
  • No useful info because I was only going to stay in Busan  but decided I didn’t want to skip Seoul so I rebooked an extended my stay a week before my flight.
  • For some reason, I made it to Jinhae alive without Wi-Fi by prior research, asking around, and reading signs. I took a bus from the terminal to get to Yeojwa stream (I forgot which exact bus but I just asked directions from the station). I was about to give up going to Gyeonghwa, but I saw a signage to take a certain bus and managed to pull off that adventure. The technique was taking note of every step I take so I could trace it back home.
  • Try this itinerary (Jinhae, particularly) only when there are cherry blossoms to see, else it’s not worth it. Not sure how Jinhae looks during autumn.
2017-03-08 20.58.53

Cherry Blossoms in Yeouido Park, Seoul (April 2016)

Q:  Will you draft me an itinerary?

E: Depends on how much I like you. Kidding. Actually, try to draft one by yourself based on the sample itineraries above and I’ll review and revise it for you.  

Q: Anything else I should know?

E:  Buy T-Money (a stored value card for all transportation needs in Seoul) from the cashier of 7-Eleven or GS-25 in the arrival hall of the airport. Ask the cashier to charge the T-Money (reload/top-up, but they use the term ‘charge’) additional 20000 KRW to be safe. You can also top-up from self-service ticketing machines. Extra credits are refundable from ticketing machines.

Download the most useful subway app for Korea called ‘Subway’ and you will never get lost. Google Maps/Naver Maps (if you can read Hangul) is pretty helpful too.

If somehow, you still get lost, don’t be afraid to ask for directions. Korean people are very helpful and polite in general – even if they can’t speak in English. They will still try their best to help you through body language! Approach the younger looking crowd (the university students), as they are more proficient in English.

Everyone practices clean-as-you-go in Korea. Never leave your dirty plates on the table; it will be rude.

Bills in restaurants are usually paid right on the counter after eating. The trick is to observe how other people do it first before making your move.

E-Mart is a better place to go grocery shopping for pasalubong than Lotte Mart (which only offers Lotte products). Be careful not to go on a Sunday though as most if not all branches are closed.

You can probably find the cheapest non-food pasalubong at Namdaemun market. Way way cheaper than Myeongdong and Insadong for items of the same kind.

Lastly, have fun!!! You’ll love it there!!!

P.S.: If you went here expecting a guide on K-Pop/K-Drama in Seoul…sorry. Maybe next post. Maybe.

2017-03-09 02.21.18

Old SM Entertainment Building, Seoul (October 2013)

 

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