Saturday, December 3, 2011

Bottom Line - South Korea

Written by Karen
Gets confused with barking and parking!
I spent a day tracking our travel expenses at home - a mere six weeks after we returned from South Korea!   When it comes to money already spent, what’s the rush?
Our average cost per day for two travelers visiting South Korea was $135.63 USD.  All expenses are shown in USD and use the exchange rate at the time of our trip, which was 1,000 won to .865 cents USD.  We visited South Korea for 11 days in mid-to-late October, 2011. We included all accommodation, travel and food/drink costs during our visit. 

This is typically the biggest daily expense incurred when traveling, and South Korea was no different.
We primarily stayed in non-tourist hotels, guesthouses, and studios.  These choices in lodging caused our rates to vary widely throughout the country.  I would say that overall the average prices were much lower than what I expected before we left, and are quite a bit less than, say, similar facilities in Western Europe. We had no reservations prior to leaving for South Korea except for the small studio that we rented in the Hongik University area.  For the most part, we didn’t have any trouble finding accommodations either online or by recommendation, except for one night when we wound up staying at the Seokyo Inn.  
The least expensive accommodation was a studio apartment that we rented in the Hongik University area of Seoul.  We spent $50/night for the use of the self-accommodating studio.  It was pretty basic, but it was clean, offered free wi-fi and had a hot shower.  The location was terrific and allowed us to wander the streets and alleys of the surrounding neighborhoods.  Nights were generally quiet, and great inexpensive food options and a wide-range of shopping options were available just steps away.  
In Busan and in the Seoul shopping district area, we stayed at the Toyoko-Inn.  This is a Japanese-based hotel chain that offers mini rooms that are clean, have wi-fi, a great shower/soaking tub, and included a substantial Korean-style breakfast.  The posted prices ranged from $62 - $69/night.  The posted rates are even less for the single traveler.  A benefit to this hotel were the windows that opened up for enjoying the fresh air, and framed expansive city views.  We found this hotel at toyoko-inn.com.  I can recommend this hotel chain because it is comfortable, the staff was helpful, and the other guests were not intrusive - a sense of decorum ruled.  For the price...a bargain.  
Busan, South Korea - right outside the hotel

We also stayed at a Korean eco-friendly guesthouse called Studio 41st.  It was small, but was very clean and offered wi-fi. The room was set up for a family of four, with a bunk bed and a double bed and a small kitchenette en suite.  The guesthouse was located on a small, discreet street in a typical Seoul neighborhood.  We spent time wandering around the tiny alleys and shops nearby.  We paid $90.00/night for the self-accommodating room at Studio 41st. This place lost a few points in my book as the shower was only lukewarm at best and was not more than a trickle.  Saving water and saving energy - I felt good about my contribution!  The staff was exceedingly friendly, and we received heartfelt hugs upon our departure!  We left with very good feelings. 
The most expensive accommodations were incurred at the Seokyo Inn in Seoul at $178/night. The typical room rate was over $250/night, but I think the front-desk folks felt sorry for us arriving dripping wet and they just happened to have this one room that was vacant just for one night.   We didn’t have much of a choice, as everything else in the city was completely booked for conventions and the sudden onslaught of packed tour busses, and the weather had turned very stormy as well.  The room was clean and comfortable and the service was outstanding, but the room did not include either wi-fi or breakfast for the price we paid. This was a business hotel and I’m sure we were the only two backpackers in the facility!  For example, I paid $10.00 USD for a cup of tea in the lobby restaurant.  Just when I needed an expense account...but I enjoyed the hotel nevertheless.  
On average, our accommodations were $77.00 for two per night.  
Travel/Getting Around:
The Seoul subway is extremely efficient, and we rode it daily throughout the city.  The average cost for a one-way ticket was .87 cents.  It’s a great value and a very effective way to get around the city.  Don’t forget to get your deposit back after arriving at your final destination!
We also found out that taxis were very reasonably priced.  You start out with 2,500 won on the meter and  that rate stays for a certain amount of time.  So if we couldn’t figure out the subway for some reason and we were trying to go to a specific place, we would take a taxi.  The average cost for a fifteen minute taxi trip was about $5.75 for the two of us.  Taxi drivers seemed professional, and very low-key.  
South Korea has high-speed train service that takes you from Seoul to Busan non-stop in about 2-1/2 hours.  The train is extremely clean, quiet and gives you a great vantage point to see the quickly-changing Korean landscape.  We paid about $190.00 USD for the two of us to go on a second-class round-trip train ride.  I can really recommend this trip.  Seoul Station is a fairly large station on the subway and is the jumping-off point for high-speed train travel throughout South Korea.  Most memorable were the crowds, but not the noise you would expect.  Everyone seems to wait patiently in South Korea, and the train ride itself occurs in relative peace and quiet, with only a murmur heard here and there.  Feel free to take a nap!
Seoul is a very walkable city.  After we wandered around the neighborhoods surrounding our studio/guesthouse/hotel, we would often jump on the subway and find another neighborhood or area to explore.  If you somehow get lost or caught in deteriorating weather, no problem: take that affordable cab.  If you have your hotel name written on a piece of paper by the desk clerk before you wander off...no language problems!
In calculating our subway, high-speed train and taxi expenses, we spent on average, $18.18 USD per day for the two of us on travel costs.  
The food is tasty, wonderful and relatively inexpensive.  Because we walked so much, we would often stop at a cafe, 7-11, or a little noodle house for some sustenance several times throughout the day.  Chocolates (Adam’s favorite) or Mentos (my favorite)  at 7-11 ranged from .50 USD to $1.50 USD.   Coffee and a pastry ranged from $3.50 USD to $7.00 USD.  Sandwiches ranged from $5.00 USD to $7.50 USD.  Snacks abound in South Korea!
Ice-cold and very spicy

Hot and delicious
The noodle soups were one of my favorite things to eat.  You could purchase a large bowl of homemade ramen noodles with vegetables in chicken stock for 3,500 won, or about $3.00 USD.  The street food was awesome, offering homemade dumplings for about .87 cents USD each, or steaming hot waffles for about $3.00 each.  Good, simple, hearty food - easily available.
Options abound....
Vending machines abound throughout the city, and offer you bottled water or a coke starting at about .87 cents USD.  Cokes and other drinks were undersized compared to the larger American sizes.  They were actually the perfect size for a quick pick-me-up.  Try Pocari Sweat...even on a cool evening! 
Dinner could be a little more expensive if you aren’t careful.  Experiencing Korean barbecue was one of those must-do activities.  We ordered two different cuts of beef and enjoyed some Korean beer when we tried it.  What a feast.  Tiny dishes of vegetables, condiments, and spices surrounded the tiny wood-fired barbecue.  A high-velocity vacuum tube picks up the smoke and sends it upward!  No smoke smell on your clothes!  A server grills the meat for you,  and then you are free to pick up pieces of beef or pork and wrap them in greens with bits of condiments and spices.  Yum.  That particular dinner was about $80.00 USD.  But, it was totally enjoyable and quite entertaining.  
The meals really ranged in price: from the coffee/pastry shops to the noodle soup stands to the more extravagant dinners in formal restaurants.  We found a little coffee shop at the Hongik University that mainly catered to students and found that coffee and pastries or a coke and a sandwich were considerably less expensive than those for sale just down the street.  If you see that students are eating somewhere out of the corner of your eye as you walk down the street, it is probably affordable and tasty food that is being served - guaranteed.  
Spicy noodles on a hot skillet

Beef sushi being prepared at the table with a torch

Homemade dumplings with assorted sauces...lovely!!
In calculating our combined drink and food costs, we spent, on average, $38.00 per day for food and drink.
We didn’t need to pay any admission to visit any of the national or local museums or temples - the visits are free.  We did visit the Busan Aquarium for a $27.00 USD admission fee for the two of us.  This was a wonderful aquarium focusing on creatures found within the Australian ecosystem.  Admission to the Busan Aquarium was the only entrance fee that we paid during our entire stay.
Final Thoughts: 
Turns out South Korea is a wonderful - and not too overly expensive - place to visit. In contrast, Japan, for example, is a much more expensive country to visit. Hopefully, this brief overview will be useful as you begin planning a possible trip to South Korea.  We certainly did not speak any competent Korean, but you are still able to navigate the society quite easily since the Korean people that we met were quite friendly and approachable.  We never felt uncomfortable or nervous by either our surroundings or people who were nearby.  
Busan - a beach community - seemed to have a population of what might be described as down-and-out types; maybe some having a little too much to drink for breakfast - those kinds of unfortunate souls. There was not a palpable police presence to speak of in South Korea, although the police stations were large and quite prominent.  There are soldiers seemingly everywhere you go in Seoul, but they carry no weapons, and were probably just commuting to their commitments just like everybody else. 
South Korea - a colorful tapestry
$135.63/day USD for the two of us to visit South Korea for 11 days - not too bad. If we chose to not stay at the Seokyo Inn, or didn’t splurge on several lunches/dinners, we could have brought this cost down quite a bit.  So that is something to consider when you are putting together your South Korea trip.  But even at $67.82/day per person - it’s still a great price and a great place to go exploring!  You gotta go check out this place!

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