Updated: Oct 29, 2018
Looking to travel to South Korea? Here are some key tips from expat Sarah Maine, who currently lives here.
I have been living in South Korea for almost six months now, and I am loving every minute of it. I teach English to elementary school students in a small town called Gongju, and when I’m not teaching, I am spending as much time as possible getting to know this wonderful country. Living in a new country – specifically in a very rural, conservative area – has its set of challenges. Overall, though, I am glad that I chose to do this for myself as part of my own life journey.
Whether one is looking for luxury travel or adventure, Southeast Asia has become a go-to place for all. From families to solo backpackers, Asian destinations have a lot to offer any traveller. South Korea is one Asian country that should be seen by all. However, there are four specific things that anyone should know before visiting this unique country. Use these tips wisely to plan your first (or next) Korean vacation:
Tip #1: Thoroughly Research Lodging Options
I cannot stress this tip enough. It doesn’t matter if you choose to stay in a 4- or 5-star luxury resort or a Korean guesthouse or hostel, make sure you complete an ample amount of research on all of your options. I have heard far too many people tell me that they wished they had stayed somewhere else – or even worse, that they regret their choice altogether. Accommodation research should be centered on three things: location, vibe/budget, and reviews.
The first thing you want to look at is where the options are located. Take a look at the activities you want to participate in. There’s nothing worse than spending vast amounts of time and money to get to the actual fun excursions - so try to find lodging that will require the least amount of transportation.
Secondly, make sure your options match the personality you’re looking for, as well as the budget you are trying to stick to. If you are wanting an all-inclusive resort, be prepared to pay top dollar for that type of luxury, just as you would in Europe or the Americas. However, if you’re looking to spend the least amount possible, you should look into staying in hostels or Couchsurfing locations. Personally, these are my favorite places to stay when I’m traveling; these places let you experience the country more like the locals do. Couchsurfing even lets you stay with the locals and interact with them, which is something that I love.
Finally and most importantly, it is imperative that you take a look at the reviews! This seems like an obvious step, but my advice is to check several sources for reviews. Don’t just look at one website or trust one friend – the internet gives people so many options to get our opinions out there, so take advantage of that. Browse through several sources to make sure the lodging options you are considering don’t have any unsettling surprises.
Whether you stay in a big city like Seoul or Busan, on the island of Jeju, or in a small rural setting, you can find a place to stay almost anywhere in Korea. Just make sure it matches what you’re looking for, so that you aren’t regretting any part of your vacation.
Tip #2: Download A Translator App
This is something that I cannot believe more people haven’t done already. English may be the universal language around the world, but it is not as widely spoken in Korea as you may think. If you only plan on staying in a big city for a couple days, then you could probably do just fine without it. On the other hand, if you are going to be staying for a week or longer, or if you plan on visiting any non-touristy areas, then you definitely need to heed this step.
Personally, I recommend Papago over Google Translate. Google Translate does well when translating English to Korean, but translating the opposite way tends to be more difficult for Google. Papago was created by Naver – a Korean company – so they have a better understanding of Korean to English translation. This will be very helpful when you are traveling around Korea; not just when communicating with Koreans, but also when trying to read simple signs.
A translation app will help you immensely when traveling around the country, more than you may realize at first.
Tip #3: Know What to Wear and When to Wear It
This one is crucial to respecting Korean culture, especially for females. What we wear says a lot about who we are, even when we are travelling. Most cultures aren’t as accepting of our individual and unique styles as our home countries are. There are a couple things that you should be aware of before packing for your trip.
Koreans have a thing with showing your shoulders, so to show the most amount of respect for Korean culture, I recommend wearing shirts with sleeves at all times in public. Swimsuits on the beach will be okay, but try to cover up once you step off into the sand. In the heat and humidity of the summer, it will be tempting to wear tank tops or spaghetti straps, but try to avoid that temptation as much as possible. It will spare you many judgemental looks.
The most important time to remember this is when visiting Korean temples or shrines. When seeing these gorgeous and sacred places, it goes further than covering your shoulders. Here are a few pieces of advice regarding clothing specifically for Korean temples:
Cover all tattoos
Remove any excessive piercings that can’t be covered up
Wear closed-toed shoes and socks
Wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off, as you must remove them to walk inside
Cover shoulders and knees (this goes for both genders)
Don’t wear any transparent materials
Always remove your hat and sunglasses when entering the buildings
The first time I visited a temple, I was wearing a tank top and sandals with several of my tattoos showing. My friend later informed me of my misstep. I unknowingly received more glares than I ever thought possible… Don’t make the same mistake I did. These seemingly small cues should help you show huge respect for these sacred places.
Koreans will often look past clothing choices when in Seoul or Busan, but South Korea is still a very conservative culture. As foreigners, it is important to know how to respect that through the clothing we wear.
Tip #4: If You Have a Specific Diet, Always Ask What’s in the Food
You can skip this tip if you aren’t worried about what you eat. If you have any food allergies or are on a specific diet though, read this tip carefully. Most Koreans don't seem to be picky when it comes to food. During school lunches, it feels like they will eat anything that is put on their plates. As a vegetarian, I do not have the same luxury.
Being vegetarian means that I don’t eat anything that an animal had to die for or be harmed to make. When eating out, I am constantly having to ask people what is in the dish, just to make sure I don’t eat any unknown animal products. Interesting fact: Koreans don’t consider seafood, ham, or bacon to be meat, so make sure to ask in great detail before consuming. I found this out when I discovered bacon in my tomato sauce pasta, after I had already asked the waiter if the dish had meat in it.
Koreans don’t find it offensive to ask questions about the food, and it is totally acceptable to say no when offered something you don’t like or can’t eat. If food is something that you struggle with, make sure to question everything.
South Korea is a location that I believe everybody should enjoy at least once in their lifetime. Hopefully these tips will help make your trip easier, so that you can spend your entire time in Korea enjoying yourself!