Seoul is a big city. Wait, no let me revise that statement; Seoul is a huge city. At over 12 million people just in the city proper, Seoul is one of the world’s most populous cities, and when it comes time to travel from one side of Seoul to the other the city’s immense size shows.
You’ll want to master Seoul’s many different modes of transportation as soon as possible. For the people who are coming here on a short trip, becoming familiar with the transportation options here will give you more time to do the things you want to do. That is unless you really came to Seoul in order to stand close to some ahjummas on a subway while viewing Seoul’s sights from a subway window. For the people who are here for an extended period of time, mastering the transportation systems here will save you a lot of time in your everyday life, and believe me this adds up fast.
First, before you arrive in Korea I recommend downloading an app called ‘Jihachul’ to your smartphone or tablet if you have one. It is free but I would easily recommend it even if the cost of admissions was a few dollars. It is an absolute life saver for locals and tourists alike. Familiarize yourself with the subway map and the places you will be going — Seoul has over 120 subway stations and so it can be a little overwhelming at first.
Second, upon arrive in Korea buy a T-Money Card as soon as possible. A T-Money Card (T-Card) is an electronically chargeable transportation card. It can be purchased at most subway stations and convenient stores around Seoul for 3000 won (3 USD) and can be used when taking the subway, the bus, and even in taxis. Recharge stations are found at every subway station as well. I recommend keeping about 10,000 won on your card at all times just in case. The subway opens at about 5:00am and runs until 1:00am on weekdays and 12:00am on weekends. However don’t cut coming back too close to the closing time if you want to make it to your station.
The third tip of the day is one that my friends and I have learned the hard way. If you see a black taxi DO NOT, I REPEAT DO NOT TAKE IT! This tip is mostly relevant for the Seoul area as other cities have black taxis that are okay to take. In Seoul black taxis are more expensive than other taxis (acceptable colors being white, and silver taxis). The starting rate for a normal taxi is 2400 won however black taxis starting rate is about double that and the rates increase about twice as fast. Although you might hear people call them deluxe taxis, I have yet to see any difference in their quality during my few trips in them, other than the fact that one of the black taxis I took had curtains on the rear windows. So unless you are looking to throw away perfectly good cash or you want to pay homage to the old throwback of curtains in cars from way back when (See the VW Bus), then stay away from these tricky little cars. Be super wary of them at the airport. The drivers of these taxis will often take your backs – sometimes without even offering – speak a little English, and tell you they can take you anywhere. If you do decide one from Incheon International Airport, expect to pay about 100,000 won (about 100 USD) or more depending on your destination.
That being said I would say that all other taxis are an acceptable and reasonably priced mode of transportation. I would not take them everywhere or all of the time, but compared to the United States, taxis are relatively affordable here even on a student’s budget. The starting cost is about 2,400 won and unless you are going across Seoul fares are usually under 10,000 won even for taxis rides of decent lengths. Rates do go up a little after the subway closes, so keep that in mind for those late nights out in Gangnma or Hongdae.
Tip number four: Buses are also a great mode of transportation but can be a little more complicated to get used to. Bus schedules use less English and of course you have to be sure you are on the right bus. There are local buses, district buses, and intercity buses for the Seoul area, all of which can be identified by different colors and sizes. I myself usually use the subway because it is on tracks and I appreciate the peace of mind that comes in knowing it will always go where it is supposed to go. Admittedly I have found myself a little lost from time to time while taking the bus. If you are interested in busing it around Seoul from time to time I recommend that you download the “Seoul Bus” app. It has various bus routes in English and as long as you have internet on your phone it will tell you how long you have to wait until the next bus will arrive at each stop – so long as you know which stop you are waiting at or looking for.
My final tip for the day is to get a rental phone or a SIM card rental for your own phone if it is unlocked. This is true for short trips, but especially for extended trips. Whether or not you get a smartphone is up to you. Regardless, not being able to communicate with people you meet either from school or at work is an absolute pain. Banks and other institutions almost always require you to write down your phone number in conjunction with your e-mail address and place of residence and many of them know that a foreign phone number is likely to be inactive or useless. Rental phones can be had for about 1500 to 3000 won per day. This is usually sufficient for a decent amount of calls and texts. However if you are texting like it is the week before prom and you still don’t have a date then expect to pay more. There is also a deposit and you’ll need a valid credit card in order to rent a phone but for most this should not be a problem. I recommend going with a rental company here in Korea for better phones and services although it is possible to rent a phone prior to your trip. SK Telecom and KT Telecom are phone companies that I have used and have been happy with. They have kiosks and rental facilities at Incheon Airport conveniently located near the main exits. You can rent a smartphone from them as well (usually an iPhone) but this is quite a bit more expensive. I can say that having a smartphone in Korea is useful but it is up to you if it justifies the roughly 10,000 won cost per day and the roughly 700,000 won (about 700 USD) deposit.
I hope that these tips help you in your travels and can save you some time, some money and some headaches. I will upload more tips as soon as possible. Good luck and safe travels.