AT first glance, Korea doesn’t look to be the cheapest place to travel. As one example, take a walk down Gangnam’s main drag and peruse the sky-high prices for clothes (they want how much for a t-shirt?!). Get away the luxury clothes and pretentious restaurants, however, and a surprisingly cheap side of Korea emerges. It’ll never be as cheap as Vietnam or Cambodia, but you can confidently make it on US$40 a day and have enough left over for souvenirs.
Accommodations: the biggie for most people.
Cheap: If you’re traveling with some other people, you might find a love motel to be exactly what you need. They’re clean, comfortable, and surprisingly modern – a growing number sport 42″ TV’s and desktop computers with internet. Rooms all have private bathrooms, and the amenities can be surprisingly nice. Expect to pay 30,000 – 60,000 won (US$26-53) a night – split two, three, or four ways that comes out pretty nice. There’s quite a few in the Sinchon area (line 2).
Cheaper: Hostels / Youth hostels / backpacking guesthouses. If sharing a room with other people is fine, 15,000 – 20,000 won (US$13-17.50) gets you a bed for the night – often in a great location. If you like a bit of privacy, 20,000 – 30,000 won (US$17.50-26) nets you a private room. Note that most prices are quoted as per person rates – a group of three or four might find a love motel to come out cheaper!
Cheapest: Jimjilbang it! Essentially a public bathhouse with sleeping areas and segregated bathing facilities, jimjilbang provide a great place to clean up and crash for the night. If coming to Seoul, check out this post on some of the better ones across the big city. Expect to pay between 8,000 – 12,000 won (US$7-10.50) per person. The biggest drawbacks: a relative lack of privacy, and you’re sleeping on a mat on the floor. Most are open 24 hours, but double-check before you pay the admission fee.
They’re fairly easy to spot – just look for the ‘three rays of water coming from a bowl’ icon below:
Food – because everyone’s gotta eat.
Cheap: Korean food is already pretty cheap without any tricks – most Korean meals I’ve enjoyed have been less than 10,000 won (US$9) (not including alcohol, of course). As a standard course, consider the samgyeopsal, or strips of pork grilled at your table. Between the meat and the banchan (side dishes), you’ll be full before you know it.
Cheaper: There’s more than a few franchises offering food about as cheap as it comes – Jaws Food and Gimbap Cheonguk are the two that come to mind. For 6,000 won (US$5.25) or less, order some gimbap (rice and veggies in dried seaweed), don-gga-seu (pork cutlet), or head to any college campus area. Hongdae AKA Hongik University (line 2 and the AREX) has a trendy nightlife scene, while Konkuk University (line 2) in southeast Seoul has plenty of food amongst the side streets. It’s not uncommon to have your entire meal cost less than a trendy cup of coffee. Drawback: no candlelight or violins sweetly playing in the background.
Cheapest: Street food! Almost anywhere you go around Seoul, there’s street food a-plenty. See this post for some pictures and what to get. Suffice it to say a few thousand won will get you back in the game. I’ll steer the vegetarians to the ddeokbokki (cylindrical rice cakes cooked in red pepper paste), which may be a bit spicy. The meat-lovers can enjoy the hot dogs or corn dogs, although the shish kebabs are wonderful as well.
Sights – why you decide to travel in the first place.
Cheap: It’s really only the private museums that have expensive admission fees. At 3,000 won (US$2.60), Gyeongbokgung is the closest thing Korea has to a main attraction. The location in central Seoul makes it close to almost everything, and the palace can take the better part of a day to thoroughly enjoy. The National Folk Museum is nearby – and free.
Cheaper: A subway ride across town – if you’re the sort that prefers the journey to the destination, you might just enjoy a random ride around town. Seoul Sub>urban has made it a point of getting off at random subway stops throughout Seoul and seeing what’s around.
Cheapest: It’s pretty hard to beat free – and that’s precisely the price of most parks, art galleries, shopping centers, indoor spaces like The Story of Sejong, outdoor spaces like Gwanghwamun Plaza and Insa-dong, and a palace like Gyeonghuigung. There’s also Buddhist temples, the National Museum of Korea, and Olympic Park, just in case your stay turns into a second week.
Nightlife – what to do after the lights go down.
Your biggest cost is likely to be alcohol, which correlates with the ambiance and admission – no surprise there. Where and how you enjoy it is up to you.
Cheap: Plenty of live shows are around the 5,000 – 10,000 won (US$4.50-9) price range, which seems to be a sweet spot for Hongdae. Keep your eyes peeled for posters, or check out koreagigguide.com to know what’s happening in advance.
Cheaper: Plenty of bars have specials from Sunday to Thursday – not exactly prime time for party-goers, but there’s usually a crowd around Itaewon (Itaewon station, line 6) or Hongdae.
Cheapest: With locations open all night, Club FM serves up drinks in an unpretentious atmosphere at a better price you’ll find in any other club. In case you haven’t heard the inside joke, the ‘FM’ stands for ‘Family Mart’, the nationwide chain of convenience stores. Quite a few of them have an outdoor patio complete with chairs and tables for your party’s drinking or eating pleasure. It’s a great way to people-watch as well.
When you’re finished at Club FM, Hongdae Park has a multitude of shows, from rappers to drummers to tap-dancing jam bands – it varies according to the night, of course.
Readers, how do you enjoy Korea on the cheap?
Author’s note: This article is part of my ‘Coming to Korea’ series, posts that are aimed at tourists and those still new to Korea. If you have a more experienced voice, please share in the comments!