6 Things I Wished I Knew Before Holidaying in Korea (April 2016)

Finally, I’ve completed writing about my recent Spring holiday in Korea after returning home almost 2 months. 😛 It’s been quite a while since I last enjoyed any overseas holiday of more than 1 week long, & also about 5 years since I last visited the Land of Morning Calm. Here’s a recap of my 11-day adventure (Seoul-Andong-Gyeongju-Busan-Suwon-Seoul):

Day 1 Singapore-Incheon-Seoul:

Early morning arrival at Incheon International Airport. Took the 45-min Airport Railroad Express (AREX) to downtown Seoul. Booked an 1-night accommodation via Airbnb near Seoul Station. Enjoyed a scrumptious Korean dakgalbi lunch with friend in Hongdae (홍대) before heading to Yeouido for the rest of the day.

Day 2 Seoul-Andong-Gyeongju:

Start of a self-drive weekend out with friends as we drove down southeast to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Andong – Hahoe Folk Village (안동 하회마을). Had a delectable Andong Jjimdak (안동찜닭) lunch in the Andong Gu Market. Following, continued our drive to the historical Gyeongju city, to visit another UNESCO World Heritage Site – Gyeongju Yangdong Village (경주 양동마을). After that, checked in to a traditional Hanok for the night at Lucky Won Guest House. Gyeongju becomes prettier as it gets dark, so of course we ventured out to immerse ourselves in its beauty in the Eastern Gyeongju Historic Area too.

Day 3 Gyeongju-Busan:

Another Korean history day as we set out to Bulguksa Temple (불국사) & Seokguram Grotto (석굴암 석굴) in the east. Thereafter, we also checked out the Gyeongju National Museum (국립경주박물관), Oreung Royal Tombs (오릉) & Poseokjeong Pavilion (포석정지) back in the city centre. Time to say goodbye with my friends as I proceeded to Busan via KTX. Checked in to Hotel Foret Busan Station, my lovely “home” for 3 nights. Last activity of the rainy day was to explore Jagalchi Market (자갈치시장) & BIFF Square Street Food Market near Jalgachi Station.

Day 4 Busan:

A long day touring eastern Busan, starting from the Haeundae Station area where Haeundae Market (해운대시장), Haeundae Beach (해운대해수욕장) & the famous Korean dessert cafe Sulbing can be found. Next, I also visited the beautiful Haedong Yonggung Temple (해동 용궁사) by the sea, before moving to the quieter Gwangalli Beach (관안리해수욕장) for a lovely evening.

Day 5 Busan:

Perfect weather to head to Gamcheon Cultural Village (감천문화마을) for its beautiful scenery. Following, I explored the Yongdusan-Jagalchi Sightseeing Special Zone of Busan. My last night in Busan was spent near my hotel, at the Choryang Ibagu-gil (초량이바구길) & Choryang Ibagu Night Market (초량이바구야시장) where an important part of the city’s history lies.

Day 6 Busan-Suwon:

Time flew, I was already in the middle of the 11-day trip! Before leaving Busan for Suwon, I had a quick tour of Yeongdo-gu – home to Busan’s first connecting bridge & famous fish cake (어묵). Thereafter, took a 2 hr 44 min ride on the KTX back north to Suwon in Gyeonggi-do. Checked in to Benikea New Suwon Tourist Hotel for the night & then headed out for early dinner at the nearby Suwon Chicken Street (수원통닭거리). Attempted to climb a bit of the Hwaseong Fortress (수원화성) & traditional markets in the evening.

Day 7 Suwon-Seoul:

After checking out of hotel, revisited the Hwaseong Fortress by taking the Hwaseong Trolley (화성열차). Next, I made my way down the mountain to Hwaseong Haenggung (화성행궁) & also explored mini-Insadong in Suwon – the Gongbang Street (공방거리) for unique handicrafts. Of course, I had to tuck into another chicken feast at the famous Suwon Chicken Street before leaving the city. Arrived in Seoul & was picked up by my Airbnb host to check into Liga Apartment for my last 4 nights in Korea. Met up with my long-time-no-see Sogang University classmate in Hongdae & had fun reminiscing the good old days by visiting the campus!

Day 8 Seoul:

This was the day I broke my own steps record, as I was on the road (walking) most of the time from 11 am to 10 pm in downtown Seoul (중로)! Started the day with a tour around Deoksugung Palace (덕수궁), followed by a short bus ride to the arty neighbourhood of Buam-dong (부암동). After that, I also visited another charming artistic neighbourhood – Samcheong-dong (삼청동). Thereafter, I moved eastwards to Ihwa-dong Mural Village (이화동 벽화마을), before my last stop of the day in Dongdaemun (동대문) area.

Day 9 Seoul-Paju-Seoul:

This was probably 1 of the more relaxing days throughout my holiday, because I joined a DMZ-JSA (Panmunjom) Tour. After the tour, I visited Myeongdong (명동) as it was nearby to the tour drop-off point. Again, I went to Dongdaemun because I wasn’t satisfied with leaving empty-handed the night before haha.

Day 10 Seoul:

An informative tour at Changgyeonggung Palace (창경궁) to check out the cherry blossoms after an early lunch with friend at Gwangjang Market (광장시장). We also strolled to Insadong for afternoon tea before she left for the day, while I did some shopping at Myeongdong.

Day 11 Seoul-Incheon-Singapore:

Not much time left to explore the capital, but I managed to squeeze in a morning tea at my favourite O’Sulloc Tea House & some final quick shopping of beauty products in Myeongdong. Holiday time always flies & I had to say goodbye to Seoul already!

Before the holiday, I thought it shouldn’t be an uphill task to be travelling alone (for most of the days) around Korea, given that I can somewhat understand the language + I lived in Seoul before. But I wished I had known about all these hard truths before I actually stepped into Kimchi-land!

1. The Expensive (& Restrictive) Prepaid Data SIM Card

Since I’d be mostly travelling alone in Korea, I thought it’s essential for me to get a prepaid SIM card with data & a local phone number, for ease of communication/ navigating around. Numerous attempts to research on which mobile network offers the most value-for-money prepaid travellers’ SIM card package were kinda futile because most reviews were focused on just mobile Wi-Fi, i.e. no local phone number. 😦 Anyway, I sort of gathered that the KT network seems to be the better 1 out of the lot (although I couldn’t find its exact pricing details because its website forever says “service in preparation” -_-) & noted where I could get 1 at Incheon International Airport. Little did I know I was in for a shock at the KT Olleh counter between exit 6 & 7 on level 1 arrival hall.

KT Olleh offers 3 types of prepaid SIM cards with different durations: 5 days (KRW22,000), 10 days (KRW33,000) & 30 days (KRW44,000). All come with unlimited data & free incoming calls/ sms. Outgoing calls/ sms are not included in the pack. The staff asked me for my specific day of departure, & then advised me to buy the 30-day pack. I was puzzled & asked if I could get the 10-day pack instead (thinking my last day I may not really need it). Sadly, she told me it’s not possible, as the SIM card is only for rental, meaning I had to return it on my departure day at the airport & pay any outstanding amount (due to outgoing calls). What? I’ve used quite a number of prepaid SIM cards overseas, but this was the 1st time I had to return a prepaid SIM card! Just because of 1 extra day, I had to pay KRW11,000 (S$13.20) more. 😦

This wasn’t the end of my sad finding, because after I bought the prepaid SIM card, the staff tried to setup my phone for a long time, but it just couldn’t connect to the network. Eventually, we both realised it was because I was carrying a dual-SIM mobile, but unfortunately the Korea mobile network doesn’t allow the use of dual-SIM phones! 😦 I had no other choice except to rent a Samsung Galaxy R phone (no other phone choices) from them. The rental of this phone was at KRW1,100 per day, so that meant an additional KRW12,100 (S$14.50) added to my bill, for such a small-screen smartphone. 😦 The total bill I spent on the mobile network in the end was a whopping KRW56,100 (S$67). Ironically, that’s almost double the cost of my Telstra prepaid SIM card for my 11-day Australia holiday back in May 2014, when Australia is supposedly more expensive!

Lesson learnt: next time if I visit Korea & need a prepaid SIM card again, I’ll plan the length of my trip such that I maximise the duration of the prepaid SIM pack + I won’t bring dual-SIM phone along anymore! 😛

The KT Olleh rental Samsung Galaxy R phone + casing

The KT Olleh rental Samsung Galaxy R phone + casing

2. Be prepared to carry your luggage up the big steps & wide gap between platform & KTX

See the wide gap between platform & train, as well as the tall steps to get on the train

See the wide gap between platform & train, as well as the height of the 1st step to get on the train

It was a challenge for the 3 occasions when I had to travel from 1 city to the other via the Korea Train eXpress (KTX) / train. Because carrying my 26-inch luggage up & down the train was a tiring task. Not only was the gap between the platform & the train wide, I also had to make sure I balance well with a luggage in tow while climbing up the big & tall steps to get onto the train. Furthermore, there isn’t much luggage storage space in the train, only a small section in between carriages, & sometimes you may need to lift it up again on the upper storage space if others have placed theirs on the 1st deck.

Lesson learnt: It’s best to just bring a small luggage or backpack if possible! Otherwise have to be prepared to train some muscles. 😛

3. Google Maps not of great help when it comes to finding your directions in Korea

I’m a supporter of Google Maps whenever I need to navigate my way around in some foreign place. But it seems that this app wasn’t that helpful to me throughout the trip, particularly when I was out of Seoul. Many times, the suggestions Google Maps gave to get from point A to point B were confusing & contradicted what the locals told me. I realised it’s because there are many small alleys in Korea that the app didn’t register. The situation improved when I was in Seoul, maybe because the capital is already very structured & developed so it’s easier for Google Maps to build a comprehensive guide for the city.

Lesson learnt: I’ll download Daum or Naver Maps next time when travelling in Korea for better navigation as these are developed by the Koreans. Who else know the country better than the locals, isn’t it?

4. T-Money card can’t be used on Busan transport network

The Cashbee card (top) & T-money card

The Cashbee card (top) & T-money card

In case you don’t already know, T-money card is a stored-value card that you can use to pay for transport in addition to using it for payment in convenience stores etc. My T-money card has been my good Korea travelling companion since 2005. A few months ago, I got a complimentary Cashbee card, thanks to Korea Tourism Organisation, who told us that it works in the same way as the T-money. Fortunately, I brought it along with my T-money for this trip. When I was in Busan, I 1st tried to use my T-money card to board the subway but was denied entry. Then I found out from the station officer that it wasn’t accepted & she suggested me to use Cashbee instead. I’m puzzled why this happened as the KTO website claims it’s acceptable in most Korean cities: http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/TR/TR_EN_5_4.jsp. In any case, you may want to take note if you are planning to use public transport out of Seoul.

Lesson learnt: Just bring out all the stored-value cards I have wherever I go in Korea, instead of keeping 1 in the hotel & create unnecessary hassle for myself again. 😛

5. Korean beauty stores not as generous in giving out plenty of samples these days

OK, call me a cheapo, but I’ve been pampered by the Korean beauty stores in the past, which would hand you some door gifts to welcome you into the shop. They would also pour lots of samples into your bag of purchase upon payment at the counter. So I really miss the “good old days” at the Korean beauty stores now. Maybe they’re enjoying brisk business due to the K-wave so don’t wanna waste money on dishing out freebies…

Nowadays, most of them don’t bother giving you even a sheet of facial mask or small sample as a welcome gift. When you make your purchase at the counter, they’ll just pull out 1 small sample item as a gift to you. Some, like Skin Food, don’t even bother to give you any even if you buy their products. 😦 Only Aritaum was somehow more generous than the others in dishing out substantial freebies, or maybe because the total value of my purchase was almost KRW150,000 (S$180).

Lesson learnt: Just treat the samples as a bonus without expecting them in future, so as to minimise the “unhappiness” haha. Otherwise just consolidate my purchase at the few more generous beauty brands! 😉

6. The cumbersome tax refund service

Foreigners who buy at least KRW30,000 worth of goods from tax refund participating establishments are eligible to receive a refund for the value added tax (VAT) as well as individual consumption tax (ICT) on the purchased items they will take out of the country. There are 3 tax refund brands – Global Blue, Global Tax Free & KT Tourist Reward in Korea. You can only keep your fingers crossed which brand the participating establishment you bought from belongs to.

I had the chance to experience the different service from Global Blue (purchase from Tony Moly) & KT Tourist Reward (purchase from Aritaum). The former required me to either go to the tax refund counter at the airport or at designated branches downtown. I was happy to hear that they have a booth in Myeongdong, so made my way there after getting the form filled by Tony Moly. At the counter, I was asked for my credit card to charge a refundable security deposit (provided I return a portion of the form at the airport). To my dismay, my Standard Chartered Bonusaver credit card was rejected, because it wasn’t embossed & their machine couldn’t accept such cards. Only embossed credit cards are accepted. She suggested I go to the airport counter for the tax refund instead as there isn’t any need for security deposit at the airport. See what I mean for how these 2 cards look in the image below:

The Standard Chartered credit card is not embossed, i.e. numbers/ characters don't pop out = NOT accepted. Only cards like the one below can be accepted

The Standard Chartered credit card is not embossed, i.e. numbers/ characters don’t pop out = NOT accepted. Only cards like the one below can be accepted

For my tax refund at Aritaum, all I had to do after paying, was to head to the refund counter on a higher level in the shop to get the refund processed right away. Although KT Tourist Reward also needed my credit card to charge a refundable security deposit, there wasn’t any problem with using my non-embossed credit card. Pleased with the smooth tax refund transaction here! 😉

On the other hand, I really almost headed to the Global Blue tax refund counter at airport, but thankful I didn’t need to in the end. Luckily I went to the Myeongdong branch on my last day with an embossed credit card (that I didn’t bring on the day of my 1st attempt) to complete the tax refund, because the queue for tax refund at the airport was horrendously long! Do take note of this if you need to do tax refund in Korea!

You may think, just buy at the duty free shops to avoid the hassle of going through tax refunds. Well, I thought so too, until I went to the Lotte Duty Free Shop in Myeongdong & was shocked to see so many tourists there with big trolley luggage to bring their “loot” back. It’s like a fish market where you gotta fight for your desired products in there. Not sure if this is really the best shopping environment to you, but it’s certainly not for me!

Lesson learnt: Bring along “normal” embossed credit card(s) if you want an easier time to claim your tax refund downtown, to save the hassle of joining long queues at the airport! Also don’t bother trying to squeeze through the massive crowds at Duty Free outlets unless you’ve nothing better to do. 😛

To conclude, I guess I overestimated my ability to roam freely in Korea. After all, I’ve only stayed in the developed capital on my own before. As for the other Korean cities, this was the 1st time I was on my own, because I had joined group tours previously where I could depend on others. Times have changed so it’s probably only natural to see so many changes in the country as well. I shall take note of the above for future trips to Kimchi-land. Hope these will help you in future too! 😉

You may also like these Trip101 articles:

5 Mouth-Watering Korean Food Not To Miss For Your Next Trip To Korea
Stay In These Traditional Hanoks In Gyeongju, A Historical Korean City
Feel At Home In These Cosy Airbnb Apartments In Seoul’s City Center
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