Posted in Travel

How to get around in Korea

In late July and early August of this year, I had the opportunity to travel to Korea for work. This was my first international work trip since the pandemic and I was strangely uneasy about it.

To begin with, the entry requirements and steps I would have to go through just to make it to my hotel in Seoul seemed overwhelming. But of course, once I actually got through all of that (22 hours after leaving home) everything slowly fell into place and I remembered how to travel.

Korea is a beautiful country. It is absolutely spotless and I never once encountered something that was dirty or messy. Even the trash was neat. The country also seems very safe. I wandered around Seoul for hours looking like a lost tourist with my phone in my hand and not a single person looked at me twice. And of course, everyone I met on my travels was infallibly polite and considerate. All of which is pleasantly the opposite of Los Angeles.

Below I’ll describe the procedures for getting into Korea (as of August 2022), how to take the KTX train, and then how to use the City Airport Terminal at Seoul Station.

Getting into Korea

K-ETA: This is a visa waiver and I was eligible to apply. It was a pretty simple process and I did it online here. I had the results in an hour.

COVID Testing – apparently it’s no longer required to have a pre-departure and entry COVID test for Korea.

Pre-departure COVID test: In July 2022, Korea still required an entry test so I booked a PCR at CVS for 2 days before departure. Evidently, this was the wrong kind of CVS test as it didn’t have “date of result” anywhere on the results form. So, on the morning of my flight, I went to the testing center at LAX and got a rapid test. I had my results in just a few minutes (note LAX has already stopped doing COVID tests).

Arrival COVID Test: When I went in July, you also needed to book a PRC test on arrival in Korea. Luckily Incheon Airport has a COVID test center which was pretty straightforward to book. The testing there was predictably efficient.

Q-Code: We were advised to upload your pre-departure COVID test to the Q-Code website to make immigration easier (my experience: don’t use Firefox for this as the page is impossible to use with that browser!). Then when we got the results of your arrival test, you are also supposed to upload it there but it was almost impossible to work out how to do that. It seems that as of now, you are still advised to add your health information to the Q-code system before traveling to Korea.

Currency: I took $200 USD in Korean Won with me for my nearly 2-week trip. I came back with more than $100 USD. I found that credit cards are used pretty widely and there was almost nowhere where I actually needed cash except on public transport. Taxis and housekeeping didn’t seem to want tips.

Flying Korean Air

I flew to Seoul with Korean Air which was a code share with Delta. I think I probably flew on that same 747 plane 20 years ago but otherwise, the experience was very good. There was nice food, good service, and enough movies to keep me amused on the long flight.

Using KTX Train (Bullet Train)

KTX Train: At the midpoint of my trip I needed to go from Seoul to Busan, which is in the south of Korea. The KTX bullet train is by far the simplest way to go and not that costly. I booked more than a month in advance using Rail Ninja. The trains were on time, to the second. The only slightly disappointing thing was the wifi which was basically unusable.

Getting around – Taxi, bus, map app

Taxis: Taxis worked and were relatively cheap but no driver spoke English. At Incheon airport, there was a nice person directing us to taxis and telling the driver the destination. Generally being prepared with the name of your destination in Korean script will make everyone’s life a lot easier. Two-thirds of the taxis I used took a credit card, one took cash. One even preferred a credit card when I offered cash.

Public transport: I only used it in Busan, where it worked very well (and was on time to the second..) The simplest thing is to get a Tmoney card and refill it at convenience stores with cash, though I did manage to pay for a bus ticket in cash and got two handfuls of coins as change….

Navigation: Google Maps doesn’t really work in Korea – especially for walking directions. Instead, I installed the Naver Map app, and while it was a struggle to get used to, and I don’t think I used it to its full potential, I found it invaluable for getting around. Somehow I got it to display in English and it gave walking directions as well as public transport with connections and up-to-the-minute location of the bus you were waiting for. Here is a guide on Reddit.

Using City Airport Terminal at Seoul Station

While my trip started in Seoul, it ended in Haeundae, near Busan, and I had a pretty long and multi-step journey back from there via Seoul to home to LA. However thanks to the reliability of public transport it all worked like clockwork. Here was my 6-hour itinerary to get the 300+km to Incheon Airport on public transport:

  • 6:00 am: Get a taxi from Haeundae to Busan KTX Station. The hotel front desk ordered this for me with an app, so the driver already had my destination. The driver was most concerned that I would be on time for my train: “Time time!” he kept asking. I assured him I had plenty of time. There was no traffic of note, except perhaps at the toll to get over the bridge.
  • 6:40am for 7:00am departure: Get on KTX Train to Seoul. You are only supposed to board 15 mins early, but I got on a few minutes before others so I would be able to get a spot for my suitcase.
  • 9:41am: Arrive Seoul Station: the train was on time (of course). There was somewhat of a queue to get up the escalators. I used up some time in a lovely coffee shop with good coffee in a china mug (Beans and Berries) inside the station.
  • City Airport Terminal Seoul – this is where my best-laid plans (thanks, internet) went a bit astray. I thought everything would be much simpler than this procedure I had to follow so I was a bit tight for time. Starting at 10:30 am from the coffee shop it turns out I had exactly 20 minutes to make my train (which I did with 2 minutes to spare):
    1. Inside the KTX terminal, follow the trail marked on the floor point to City Airport Terminal.
    2. Go down many escalators until you are deep inside and it’s clear you are at the City Airport Terminal – there are a handful of check-in desks behind a barrier.
    3. Buy a train ticket for AREX at the machine: 9,800 KRW for a specific train (and specific seat) [I thought this was free – as the internet told me – so I couldn’t get to check-in until I bought a ticket. So then I had to really hope I had enough time for my planned train]
    4. Use your train ticket to get through the gate to check-in
    5. Check-in like you would at the airport – including your luggage which goes by itself to the airport
    6. Exit through the barrier then turn immediately right to the tiny Immigration room office – behind a slidey glass door
    7. Then come back out and get the elevator down to the train to the B7 level
    8. Get on the AREX train, which will be on time to the second (of course), and sit comfortably until you arrive at the airport.
  • I got on the AREX train at 10:50 am, with minutes to spare before departure, and arrived at T2 at 11:41 am. To get to security, go upstairs – there are two options for security but either side takes you to the same place.
  • The airport is vast and was quite empty (COVID I guess). There is a food court in the middle of the terminal and a few food places in either wing. The Wifi was good. A person was playing the violin on a stage by a beautiful garden.

Despite not being able to read any signs, or really having any clue what was going on, I found Korea a very simple country to navigate. I would love to come back one day!

In my next post I’ll share a few of the touristy things I got up to in Seoul and Busan on this trip.



Travel, photography, blogging, being an expat. And that's just in my spare time.

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