I am now planning my trip to Japan (don’t worry, this is still a South Korea travel guide) and pulling out my hair at every turn! It has taken me months of reading hundreds of online blogs and forums to finally settle on a first-timer itinerary for my 15-day trip. And after that, I have spent countless hours trying to figure out the best ways to get to these places!
Yes, Japan has an efficient transportation system but it can be oh-so confusing trying to navigate it as a foreigner planning a trip from outside the country. Should I buy the JR pass or not? Should I book my tickets when I arrive or risk them being sold out? Which trains can get me to the places I need to go? Where should I stay?… The questions, they never stop!
Whenever I start to get overwhelmed, I remember that I felt this exact same way planning my trip to South Korea! And guess what? I did not need to stress that much because everything was so seamless as soon as I figured out my basic itinerary.
I also had questions about whether I needed to buy the Korail Rail pass or not, how to get to Jeonju from the airport, the best places to visit as a first-time traveller, how to get to certain places (like the Boseong tea plantation) independently and on and on it went!
So I am putting together this South Korea travel guide so you don’t have to stress about all these details! This guide will mainly focus on the places I visited but do feel free to leave your draft itineraries or ask me any questions below. I will be happy to take a look and give you some recommendations – as a “Senior Novice!” haha!
Anyway, let's get into it! In this South Korea travel guide, I will tell you everything you need to know about planning your first trip to South Korea, the apps you should download, whether or not you need a rail or city pass and how far in advance you need to request them.
We will explore some sample itineraries and places worth visiting on your trip.
What's Covered in this Post
South Korea Travel Guide - Before Your Trip
Before you travel to South Korea, you should figure out these three things:
- Visa: check if you need to apply beforehand. Nigerians do, but several other nationalities either need a K-ETA or are visa-exempt
- Travel Days: How many days do you have to spend in the country? This will determine your itinerary and whether or not to invest in different passes available
- Do you need the Korea Rail Pass or Not? Would it actually save you some money?
Continue reading to find out!
Trip Planning Resources
Book your accommodation: Find accommodation options for any budget on Booking.com
Purchase Travel Insurance: I use SafetyWing for both my travel and visa application needs
South Korea Travel Guide - Do I Need a Visa or K-ETA?
If you are visiting South Korea for the first time, you need to check whether you are visa-exempt or if you need a visa or the Korea Electronic Travel Authorization (K-ETA). Most countries can apply for the K-ETA in minutes, however, if you are Nigerian, you will need to apply for a visa at the embassy or consulate beforehand.
I have written an extensive post on how to apply for a South Korean tourist visa as a Nigerian and you can find that information here. The process is pretty straightforward once you have all the required documents. I recommend applying for your visa at least one month before your trip to give enough buffer for the processing time.
South Korea Travel Guide - How Many Days is Sufficient?
I spent 12 days in South Korea and left feeling like I had spent a sufficient amount of time in the country. My itinerary was not packed, there were many hours of downtime and several places I did not get to visit. Still, I felt satisfied with my itinerary.
Generally, I recommend spending at least one week in the country and limiting your itinerary to two cities at most. If you spend less than a week, then do so in just one city, preferably Seoul.
I spent four days in Seoul and this post has details of what I did in the city. Some traveller-favourite spots, like Nami Island, N Seoul Tower, the DMZ and Itaewon, are missing but the itinerary gives you a good first draft for your Seoul itinerary.
South Korea Travel Guide - Getting to and Around South Korea
Once you've figured out your visa situation and a first draft itinerary, you can then start to plan your travels to and within the country. I will assume that your first port of entry will be Incheon International Airport, Seoul, the country's biggest airport. From here, you can make your way to the city centre or other parts of the country.
There are buses and trains aplenty. Simply download the Naver app and plug in your destination. The app will give you options to get you to where you need to be.
Be aware that Google Maps does not work in South Korea. Naver is your best bet! Also, read my article here to find out two other essential apps to download and 4 nice-to-have apps for your trip!
South Korea Travel Guide - Do I need a Korea Rail Pass or Discover Seoul Pass?
Now, to the question of whether or not you need a Discover Seoul or Korail Pass, the answer depends on your itinerary. The Korea Rail pass, as the name implies, is great if your itinerary involves several train trips. It includes unlimited boarding, within the specified period, for the high-speed KTX and KTX-Sancheon trains, as well as the conventional and tourist trains.
It does not give you access to the SRT (you don't really need this, the KTX trains are fine) and the metro (you can get a card for the metro at a vending machine in all subway stations)
I spent about 12 days in South Korea, with four of those days being in Seoul. It worked out that I did NOT need either of these passes. I used a combination of trains and buses to get around and typically bought my tickets on the day of my travels. The only train I booked in advance was that from Busan to Seoul.
If you travel during peak seasons (Spring, Autumn and Holidays, especially Chuseok Holidays), then I recommend booking your tickets in advance.
My recommendation is that you tally up your individual train costs, which you can find easily on the Korea Rail website and see if this pass is worth getting. You can get the pass and reserve your seat on the train up to 30 days before your planned travel date.
You will need the Discover Seoul Pass if you plan to visit several places covered by the pass. The pass also doubles as a transit card, so if you do get it, there is no need to get another card like T-Money or Cashbee card.
Now, let's talk about some of the best cities to visit in South Korea as a first-time traveller.
South Korea Travel Guide - The Best Cities to Visit (First Time)
For my trip, I visited Jeonju (for its Hanok Village), Boseong (for its tea plantation), Namwon (quiet countryside, beautiful hanok stay), Busan (for the beach and big city vibe) and Seoul (for everything else!). I thought these were all great places to stop by and each one had its charm.
In addition to these places, you can look up Gwangju, Gyeongju, Andong, Suwon, and Jeju Island and choose your stops based on your preferences.
To wrap up this guide, here are some considerations for the best time to visit.
South Korea Travel Guide - The Best Time to Visit
Spring (Late March to May) and Autumn (Late September to November) are generally considered the best time to visit South Korea. This also means that they are the most popular times to visit. Spring is especially busy because of cherry blossoms blooming. So if you do visit then, be sure to book your flights and accommodations in advance.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this post and it has helped to simplify your planning process or at least inspired you to visit South Korea! I would love to hear from you in the comment section. Leave me your questions and thoughts below!