For the purposes of our backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, South Korea was kind of a bonus country. We had anticipated the budget being more than we would spend in countries like Thailand or India. Other travel blogs had said that you should expect to be spending about 80 to 100 Dollars per day (The exchange rate is around 1,140 Won per US Dollar at the time of this post). Between two people, we ended up spending around 50,000-60,000 Won per day. We are not very big shoppers or spenders so if you are wanting to acquire various items, then you could be spending more per day. Here is a list of ten items that could help keep you on track with your budget.
- Book Accommodations Online – Using a travel site to book your hotel or hostel will help lock you into a price and provide cheaper rates for many guesthouses. A couple of nights we had booked somewhere online and asked how much it would be to stay an additional night, and they wanted to charge us almost double what we had initially paid for the first night. Also, many guesthouse hosts own multiple guesthouses, so you might be moved to a different house. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Often the guesthouses are within a block of each other (maybe even next door) and the quality of the rooms are basically the same throughout. Tripadvisor, Kayak, and Agoda are a few travel sites that were helpful for us.
- Drink Soju Instead of Beer – Drinking is a big part of Korean culture. Long meals with mass amounts of food and beverages are common everywhere you go. If you’re out at a Korean restaurant, you’ll often see tables full of food, Soju and beer. While light Korean beer is around 5,000 Won, a bottle of Soju (rice liquor) is around 2,000 Won. If you go into an expat bar, you’ll often be encouraged to order an appetizer with your beers. Walking through markets, you’ll often see signs on bars for craft beers. These bars will usually end up being pretty expensive compared to domestic light beers. A craft beer will run you around 7,000-10,000 Won. Outside of restaurants and bars, beer and liquor are pretty cheap. Any 7-11 will have various sizes of light beers for around 2,000 won and Soju will be between 1,000 and 2,000 Won. I recommend trying the flavored Soju, because the Soju from convenience stores can basically taste like a shot of Vodka and have a pretty nasty bite to it if you don’t have some flavoring to take some of the bite away. Soju at restaurants is more like Sake and will go down much smoother.
- Be Wary of Prices Listed Outside of Restaurants – Many restaurants in Seoul, especially Korean barbeque, will have prices listed outside of the restaurant. This is a good indicator of how expensive the place will be. If you want to keep to a budget, avoiding westernized touristy type restaurants will be very helpful. There are an abundance of restaurants with English names and some of them could be reasonably priced, but if you’re going for cheap and delicious, then you’ll want to probably find a place that’s name isn’t in English. Also be mindful that the prices listed outside are generally per person or per serving. If it says 9,000 Won, it might be 18,000 for two people. They often tell you that you are required to order at least two entrees. This will be a lot of food. Many of the lunch specials are also huge portions, but it is not impolite to not finish your meal. In order to keep your daily food budget down, try to eat cheap for the alternate meals of the day. Some backpackers we met would cook their own meals since many guesthouses have a kitchen. Our guesthouse in Myeongdong had free noodles, PB&J, and coffee. You could also have your large meal at lunch which is often cheaper, but also a huge meal, and then have beers and appetizers for dinner at a bar. Bibimbap (like Sushi) can be found in most quick convenience stores and is a pretty filling snack to keep you going throughout the day. You can also snack on stall food in the markets which will be much cheaper than restaurants. Be prepared for an assortment of oddities, though.
- Take Public Transportation – The rail system in Seoul is one of the best I’ve ever traveled. Not only is it clean, but it is very organized. There are English directions on every stop and subway maps are abundant. Aside from traveling to the airports, fares are usually somewhere between 1,350 and 1,950 Won. Airport trips will be closer to 5,000 Won. Stopping in any travel information center throughout the city will provide you with a map of the city as well as a subway grid. Most places are within walking distance of any subway stop. Buses are also an alternative to walking between stations and sights. We did not have to take a taxi at all. Places can be difficult to find due to a very confusing layout of the city, but if you can find landmarks on the Seoul map, then you should be able to maneuver your way around. Also, if you’re standing in the subway looking at a map, a fellow backpacker will probably come to your rescue and either send you in the right direction or possibly (like in our case) walk you 20 min all the way to your hostel. While generally this approach might not be the safest in other more crime abundant cities, Seoul is an incredibly safe place to travel and you should not have any issues with looking like a tourist. You can also rent bikes by the hour to tour around the Han River. This is a fun way to explore without having to spend a lot of your day underground going from stop to stop.
- Take Advantage of Free/Cheap Activities – Throughout our days in Seoul we spent very little on actual tourist sites. We did not have time to go to the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone), which would have cost somewhere between 30,000 Won and 90,000 Won depending if you want to go to the JSA (Joint Security Area) or not. Although I unfortunately don’t have firsthand experience, I’ve heard that the JSA is the best part of the DMZ tour. Aside from the DMZ tour, much of the city can be explored for as much as a metro ticket and possible entrance fees. If you’re an outdoorsy type, taking a train up to Bukhasan National Park is a good free way to take some beautiful pictures and spend the day. You can climb to the summit of various mountains and your only expense would be a roll of Bibimbap, some Soju, and a strap on shot glass for your bag. It is customary for locals to climb up into the mountains and have a lunch consisting of Bibimbap and Soju. If you want to fit in, you’ll have to purchase some bright colored hiking clothes to match the locals, but if not you’ll just have to deal with them laughing at you and thinking that your keen sandals are a ridiculous choice to wear up the mountains. It is all good natured, and you can just smile and nod. Wandering around the markets is also a cheap way to fill a few hours. Usually there are an assortment of street performances throughout the city during the evening and it’s completely free to watch Korean youth showcase their break dancing skills, karaoke, and instrumental expertise. Another cheap way to explore the city is to rent a bike on the Han River. This will cost around 3,000 Won for the first hour and another 500 Won every 15 min after that. You can cover a lot of ground on the paved bike path following the river. There are many viewing cafes along the way to stop in for a cold beverage and a snack to take a break from the heat. Many locals take breaks under the bridges where the air is nice and cool. Seoul Tower is also a great cheap destination. You can take a cable car up the mountain for 7,000 Won or walk the 20 min path for free. Once you reach the summit, you can view the city and snap some great pics. For an additional 9,000 you can go up the tower, but you would not need to do this to take in the beauty of the city. Many of the palaces and museums are also free or very cheap to enter. Using your Seoul tourist map will be very helpful to scope out the areas of interest for you.