Tuesday, September 2, 2014

South Korea on a budget

For our planned 15D14N holiday in Korea I used our Japan trip expenses as the guideline. It's our most recent trip before South Korea and I thought some of the costs might be comparable. 

Here were our travel and expense considerations as well as bookings made for the trip.

Visa applicationPhilippine passport holders like us need to apply for Korean visas to visit Korea. The good news is that it's FREE (for stays up to 59 days). Do visit the link to check visa requirements, fees and other details.

For our visa application, it took 4 working days from submission (April 15) to collection date (April 22). The process was very straight forward. I filled in application forms for all of us, photocopied required documents, brought our passport and IDs along and submitted to the visa officer. I was lucky enough to go early in the morning as there were not many people in the embassy. I didn't have to wait long and there were also no questions asked. It's always best to bring all necessary documents to avoid delay and hassle in processing of visa application.

Here are the details for Korean Embassy in Singapore:

Address: 47 Scotts Road #08-00 Goldbell Tower, Singapore 228233
Tel: 65-6256-1188
Fax: 65-6254-3191
Email: info@koreaembassy.org.sg

Hours of operation:
Embassy Office: Monday-Friday 09:00-12:30, 14:00-17:00
Consular Office: Monday-Friday 09:00-12:30, 14:00-16:30
(Visa Matters: 09:00-11:30)

Air tickets. It's usually the cost of air tickets that make up a big bulk of expenses, especially if the whole family is travelling. It pays to monitor prices of your preferred airlines and compare. Thankfully, there are budget airlines now which makes travelling much cheaper. 

For this trip, we had to book international and domestic flights. For the international leg of our trip we booked with Airasia. They fly to Busan and Seoul, but we chose to fly into Busan because it was cheaper, and it would give us a chance to visit the city, too. We got our tickets for just $144/$145 one way, excluding luggage (depends on luggage weight preferred). Airfare prices vary depending on departure dates and time. It's best to monitor the rates a few months before travelling to get an idea of how much the rates are fluctuating. Usually the earlier you book, the better. But make sure you already have an approved visa, unless you're willing to risk it. We usually book our tickets months in advance to get good deals. Our international flight was booked in Feb 18 which was 3 months ahead of departure date. 

For our domestic flights (we had 2), I've read about several airlines and websites giving travelers a hard time in booking. So I took down notes and warned my husband about the do's and don'ts before going through the airlines websites. We canvassed flight tickets from Air Busan, Korean Air, Asiana Airlines and Jeju Air. Other websites were not as user friendly. We booked our tickets first week of March (3-4 months before travel date). Below are our domestic flight details:

Gimpo (Seoul) to Jeju 

- via Air Busan
- we took the 6pm flight from Gimpo, arriving Jeju at 705pm. We chose the late afternoon flight to have more time with my in-laws on our last day in Seoul.
- airfare KRW 56,000  adult ($66.27) / KRW 42,000  child ($49.70) + fuel surcharge KRW 12,100  ($14.32) + airport surcharge KRW 2,000  child ($2.37) and KRW 4,000  adult ($4.73) -- cost per person
- baggage allowance 20kg per person

Jeju to Busan

- via Jeju Air
- we took the 340pm flight from Jeju, arriving Busan at 435pm. We chose the after-lunch flight so we could still go around Jeju until lunch time, and arrive in Busan not too late to give us time to walk around early evening.
- airfare 15,500 KRW ($18.34) + fuel surcharge 12,100 KRW ($14.32) + airport surcharge 2,000 KRW child  ($2.37) and 4,000 KRW adult ($4.73)-- cost per person
- baggage allowance 20kg per person

Travel insurance. We were lucky to get a deal from DBS Travellershield for MSIG. For a Premier plan - family cover, single return trip policy, we paid only $110 (money well spent) with a discount of at least 30%. If you are living in Singapore, I suggest you check our DBS's promotions for travel insurance as they do offer a good deal. It's always better to have travel insurance to prepare for unforeseen events. 

Car Rental. Although Jeju Island is relatively small and easy to explore by bus or taxi, we opted to rent a car. We've always wanted to drive around (or should I say have hubby drive us around) during our holidays. It gives us a different perspective as compared to taking the local transportation and we could stop anywhere we wanted to (as long as it's legally permitted) to take photos of beautiful scenery.

Hubby booked online thru KT Kumho. For a six-day car rental we paid KRW 211,200 ($249.94) for a Nissan March. There was a 60% discount during time of booking so it it was a pretty good deal

Tip: Try to remember where the office is located, don't rely on GPS alone. It can be tricky going back to the garage following the GPS using the telephone number details.

Local transportation. If you've been to Japan using the trains and buses in South Korea will be a breeze. Both have complex train maps/network that intimidated me until I was actually there to go into the system. It's not really that difficult, as long as you have the train map and know where you're going.

Since trains and buses were the mode of transportation we plan on taking while sight-seeing in Seoul and Busan, we decided to buy T-money cards. Bus and train fares are cheaper as compared to paying in cash using per trip tickets, and we could avail of transfer discounts. T-money is the same as the EZlink card used in Singapore. T-money can be purchased from convenience stores (GS 25, CU, Mini Stop, Buy The Way, 7-Eleven, Story Way) bearing the T-Money logo and Ticket Vending and Card Reload Devices inside subway stations. Do note that some stations actually don't have card vending and reload devices. Cost of T-money card is 2,500 won ($2.96). Then you need to charge (top up) the card before usage. This can be done in the outlets mentioned above.

Tip: If travelling with children, inform the salesperson right away (most of them don't speak English well, but they do understand a little bit of the language so bear with them). Some outlets don't have T-money for children. We were able to buy ours only from 7-11.

KTX. We took the KTX from Busan to Seoul on the day that we arrived in South Korea via Busan. We booked our train tickets online a few weeks before departure. The timetable on the website shows the train numbers, departure and arrival times, as well as the number of stops the train makes along the way. Do take note that even though it indicates "Direct" in the type of travel, some trains to stop in several stations. If you click the train numbers (highlighted in pink) it will show you which stops the train makes. The train we took didn't have any stops - Train 002 leaving Busan at 13:45, arriving Seoul 16:02. Confirmation email was sent after online booking but did not indicate seat allocations. These were given to us upon collection of train tickets in Busan. Adult tickets cost KRW 57,700 ($68.28). Child ticket cost KRW 28,800 ($34.08). These are for Standard Class tickets. They were comfortable enough for the length of our journey.

Accommodations. My trusted resource is booking.com. I've been making hotel reservations through this website for some years now. So far we've been happy with the places we've chosen to stay with and they fit our budget well. We are simple travelers - clean room and bathroom, with bed and basic amenities, close to train stations and groceries/eating places, and we're good. We're out most of the day anyway. 

Here is the list of accommodations we booked for this trip:

In Seoul, we only stayed in one place for the duration of our stay. There were 8 of us - 4 adults and 4 children - 2 families in total.

Yongsan Residence
Address: #411 Hyundae Hyel, 2-36, Hangangro-2 Ga, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
Phone: +82-2-6402-9742
Email: cozyseoul@naver.com

I initially reserved this place with booking.com. When the reservation was confirmed I compared the rates on their own website (http://www.cosyseoul.com). Out of curiosity, I emailed them directly to get a quotation for our party of 8 (we were travelling with in-laws from the Philippines for a few days). To my luck, we were quoted a cheaper rate. So I cancelled my booking.com reservation but not without confirming our room first with cosyseoul. The owner, Charles, was easy to deal with and was very accommodating. We even got free pick up/drop off from train station and airport!  
  • booking.com's quotation for 5 nights stay at a duplex apartment was KRW1,000,000 ($1,183.43) -- KRW 200,000 ($236.69) per night for 2 families, total of 4 adults and 4 children. Not bad!)
(+) the duplex has 1 king bed, 2 queen beds, and a sofa bed. Also equipped with kitchen (complete with pots and pans, cutlery, plates, etc), washing machine, tv, aircon. Has 1 bathroom (with toilet and shower).
(+) close to Yongsan and Sinyongsan Stations
(+) restaurants and convenience shops within walking distance
(+) Yongsan Electronics is just 10mins away (for tech travelers)
(+) big grocery store located at Yongsan Station
(+) Charles can communicate in English (which was a big factor in our stay there)
(+) no deposit needed
(+) free wi-fi

In Jeju Island, our itinerary took us from Jeju to Seogwipo, then back to Jeju so I had to book 3 separate times using 2 different hotels. 

1) Jeju December Hotel 
Address: 260-58 Yeon-Dong, Jeju 690-813 South Korea
Phone: +82-64-7457800
Email: jejudecember@gmail.com
  • booking.com, easy to book. No deposit needed. Family room for 4 adults cost   
  • KRW 85,000 ($100.59) per night
  • booked for June 4-6 and June 9-10 (3 nights)
(+) basic room (2 queen size beds) and bathroom (with bathtub), with cable TV, fridge, coffee/tea-making facilities, toiletries
(+) walking distance to restaurants, GS25 convenience shop, Domino's pizza (what luck we had!), shopping district
(+) English-speaking receptionists
(+) free parking space
(+) free wi-fi
(-) door difficult to open (special instructions necessary, but easy to follow)
(-) carpet on the hall looks dirty and old
(-) hallway was dark, but no safety issue encountered

We stayed at Jeju December Hotel on the first 2 nights and on the last night of our stay in Jeju Island. We were assisted by 2 different male receptionists during our stay. Both were basically helpful. Getting an accommodation where the receptionist is English-speaking was a big advantage because he could easily direct us to places we were looking for.

Our stay in the hotel was comfortable for our needs. We were given a room that was just next to the lift. The beds were big enough for the 4 of us. Other than the slightly dark hallway and dirty-looking, old carpeting, we didn't have any major issues with this accommodation.

2) Dreaming Forest Pension Seogwipo
Address: 214-6, Hogeun-Dong, Seogwipo 697-090 South Korea 
Phone: +82-64-7381010
Email: jo99jo@hanmail.net
  •  booking.com. No deposit needed. Free cancellation. Deluxe Duplex Studio with balcony, living room, fully equipped kitchen, flat screen tv, bathroom with shower facilities. Two double beds located on the second level. No meal option. 
  • Cost was KRW 120,000 ($142) per night.
(+) if you want to wake up with nature surrounding you, this is the place to be. It's located uphill, in a forested area, surrounded by greenery. It's very peaceful at night, a great place to unwind after a long day of walking or driving around town.
(+) welcome basket of food from the owner, Lei
(+) free wi-fi
(+) clean and simple
(+) friendly owner who speaks English
(+) E-mart is a few minutes drive away
(+) major attractions are within a few minutes drive away
(+) free parking
(-) can be confusing to drive to at night

In Busan, I only booked one hotel since we were there for only 3 nights and we could conveniently use the trains and buses to go around the city.

Busan Mobydick Hotel

Address: 638-9 U-dong, Haeundae-Gu, Busan, 612-021 South Korea
Phone#: +82517415009
Email: mobydickinn@hanmail.com
  • booking.com. No deposit. Free cancellation. Korean Style family room with aircon and heating system, Korean Yo mattresses and blankets, flat screen TV, mini fridge, en suite bathroom with bath and shower facilities and toiletries. No meal option. 
  • Cost was KRW 70,000 ($82.84) per night.
(+) clean, basic rooms and bathrooms
(+) proximity to eating places (Lotteria, Korean restaurants)
(+) train station about 10mins walk
(+) bus stops about 10mins walk
(+) Haeundae beach about 15mins walk
(-) dark corridors, which were tolerable as we felt secured enough in the hotel

Attractions. There are A LOT of tourist sights to choose from as with any other travel destinations. With the help of the internet you can easily drown from the number of attractions listed. I usually go the traditional way - reading brochures and travel guidebooks. These are (mostly) well-prepared, well-written and teeming with beautifully-taken photographs which always catch my attention and give me a better idea of what to see and do in a city. And since brochures are usually issued by the tourism ministry of the country, I find them more reliable (often). I suggest you get tons of brochures from the nearest Korea Tourism Office if you have it in your city. Alternatively, when you arrive in Korea you can get them in the nearest KTO, in the airport, or in your hotel. In Singapore, I have Korea Plaza to thank for the first few brochures I got that helped me prepare our itinerary.

Korea Plaza 

Address: 3 Church Street, Singapore 049483
Phone#: 6533 0441

I have listed the attractions we've visited in separate blogs for each of the cities. I will be posting them soon together with our travel experiences and photos.

here are 3 of the brochures cum travel guidebooks I used to prepare for our trip

Useful links and apps

I found the Korea tourism website generally very informative - http://english.visitkorea.or.kr
You have to double check certain details though. I found some information that were a bit outdated. Researching and comparing with other websites is always the safer way to go about it.

For smart phone users, I recommend the following apps (this ones are android apps):

  • metroidhd - great help in navigating the complicated train system in Seoul and Busan. Input your departure and arrival stations and the app will show the route to take. This was the most useful app I had during our trip.
  • visitkorea - an app by the Korean Tourism Organization. It lists down travel highlights, attractions, dining, accommodations, shopping, transportation and useful information. You can also bookmark the places you want to visit and be able to check which attractions are nearby.
  • busan - summarizes what a traveler needs to know when visiting the city
  • seoul mobile reference - almost the same as visitkorea. It has an attractions list that is by category so you can easily go to what interests you.
And last, but definitely not the least, you can get travel updates about Korea in Facebook. They have up-to-date tourism info as well as cultural immersion activities. There are several links to choose from:

Korea Tourism Organization
For K-pop fans
WAH Korea social club

It's better to subscribe few months before your trip to be able to make full use of the programs they have. For WAH Korea, there are language and cooking classes held regularly. Watch out for it and join when you have time. It will definitely prepare you for the trip, especially language courses. 

I hope our travel considerations will help you in planning your next trip to Korea. Watch out for my blog on our experiences in Korea as well as photos of our adventures there.


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