Why spend money when you can save it without compromising on fun? Korea may not be the first country to come to mind for budget travel but with these travel tips, it’s definitely possible! So hang on tight because this is going to be one really comprehensive guide (and it's all you'll need for your next trip to Seoul). Check out these budget tips for Korea!
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We’ve covered how you can get your cheap air tickets previously, but getting around a foreign country can be one of the most confusing things to figure out, especially if you don’t even speak the language. So let us simplify it for you!
1. Get a T-Money card to save on travel fees
First piece of advice for anyone travelling to Seoul, or South Korea? Get a T-Money card the moment you land because you’re going to need it on most transportation in Seoul and other major cities in Korea such as Busan. It's a pre-loaded card that allows you to take public transportation at a slightly lower fare than if you get the one-time pass. It's similar to the EZ-Link card in Singapore, Oyster card in London, or Octopus card in Hong Kong.
And if you’re on a budget, forget the fanciful K-Pop, Hello Kitty, or Rilakkuma designs (which are way more expensive) and just get a plain ole trusty card! They cost KRW2,500 and you’ll have to top up the card as it doesn't come pre-loaded. You can also easily top-up your card at the train stations or most convenience stores, so that's handy!
#HHWT Tip: You can keep your T-Money for a trip in the near future as there’s no expiry date! But if you don't think you’ll be returning (really?!), don’t forget to get a refund for your T-money at any major convenience stores – GS 25, 7-Eleven, Mini Stop, etc.
2. Get a Discover Seoul Pass to save on admission fees and discounts
If you're only going to be in Seoul for 1-3 days you could also purchase a Discover Seoul Pass for foreigners. The pass comes in either physical or digital form, starting from SGD52.25. Not to mention, it's valid for 5 years so if you see yourself visit Korea a lot - it's definitely worth the investment!
The physical card is also enabled as a T-money card so you can use it on public transport. BTS fans might also be interested to know that there's a special BTS design for the 24-hour physical pass as they're currently ambassadors for the city!
P.S. For more sights every K-Pop fan has to see while they're in Seoul, check out this 5D4N K-Pop focused itinerary!
If you have a Discover Seoul Pass, you won't have to pay for entry to iconic spots such as Gyeongbokgung Palace, Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, COEX Aquarium, SMTOWN@coexartium, or Lotte World! You'll also get discounts to Lotte World Tower, Lotte Duty Free, and the famous Nanta Show. Totally worth it!
3. Plan, plan and plan some more before your plane touches down
Like with any other country, it’s always good to plan in advance so you don’t waste your cash on taking the train for two stops only to realize that you could have walked there or that you alighted at the wrong station. Yes, it happens. We’re speaking from experience!
Download this map of the subway system (courtesy of Seoul Metro!) so you can see the bigger picture more clearly. You can also use Seoul Metro's interactive subway map which includes estimates for the time taken and travel fees for a train journey. The interactive map can also be toggled to display stations that have elevators, wheelchair lifts, and nursing rooms!
#HHWT Tip: If you’re more of the ‘wing-it’ type, we suggest to at least peg your location for the day to a particular area/train station and explore from there. In neighbourhoods such as Hongdae (Hongik Univ. station), Itaewon (Itaewon station), and Dongdaemun (Dongdaemun/Dongdaemun History & Culture Park stations) you can spend a whole day exploring cafés, eateries, and shopping spots.
4. Download the Free Subway Korea App for instant updates
When you're in Seoul itself, this app will come in extra handy as the Korean train system can be pretty complex (especially if this is your first visit). Some stations have more than 10 different exits or multiple lines!
The Subway Korea app displays the station names in both English and Hangul and allows you to plan your train route, providing the fastest route, route with least transfers and estimated fare. You can even bookmark certain stations that you know you'll be using (such as where your accommodations are). Getting used to the app might take a bit of time - especially if you're in a rush to get somewhere! - but trust us when we say that it'll make navigating the subway so much easier.
For major attractions such as Gyeongbokgung Palace or Bukchon Hanok Village you can input the name in English, but for smaller places such as cafés do try to find the Korean name for easier searches. You can also use a voice-to-text function if you know what the place is called but aren't sure how to pronounce it. The street view option (the second button on the bottom row) is also great when navigating train stations or smaller alleys and streets.
5. Navigate the streets more accurately with KakaoMap
But of course, the best way to save money is to explore the city on foot. No, we don’t mean to skip public transport altogether but certain areas can be covered in a day simply by walking. However, while Google Maps might be our best friend in other cities it's not the most accurate map when it comes to Seoul. Most Seoulite use NAVER or Kakao in their everyday lives, so download NAVER or KakaoMap to get a more accurate read of the area. We recommend using KakaoMap as the mobile app actually comes with a simple-to-use English interface! No clunky translations to slow you down.
6. Avoid black cabs (and higher fees!)
If you absolutely have to take a cab (Late night shopping at Dongdaemun? We’ve been there), here’s one tip – avoid black cabs on your way back. Their fees run higher than the usual taxis, especially for longer distances.
#HHWT Tip: If you're planning on taking taxis it’s also good to have the Korean address of your destination with you to avoid any miscommunication! Keep a list of these addresses on you during your trip - it'll help with asking for directions on the street too.
7. Stay in a guesthouse/hostel rather than a hotel
Guesthouses or hostels have always been our go-to choice for accommodation in Seoul, especially if you’re travelling with a group of friends. They’re very easy to find around Seoul, especially in prime locations such as Hongdae (Hongik Univ station). Our personal favourite location would be Hyehwa, which is also a university area (meaning more affordable food and trendy shops around) and extremely convenient to get around but isn’t as crowded with tourists as the other more well-known areas.
Credit: EID Guesthouse on Facebook
If you’re looking for a Muslim-friendly guesthouse, you can also check out FNSTAY Muslim Guesthouse in Itaewon also known as EID Muslim Guesthouse. The guesthouse is a bit of a walk away from Itaewon station (and from personal experience, Itaewon is one of the hillier areas of Seoul) but it's near to the Seoul Central Masjid and plenty of halal eateries such as Eid Restaurant - check out 7 halal Korean dishes you can try there!
P.S. There have been some concerns or stories raised of accommodations in South Korea fitted with secret cameras or recording devices. Do make sure to do your research and check reviews before booking a location - if you're using Airbnb you can also stick to Superhost properties with multiple trustworthy reviews.
Even though most attractions in Korea aren’t free, there’s still plenty to do around the city that won’t cost a dime! We've covered a whole list of free things to see and do in Seoul (near halal food) but here are some additional tips to save your moolah.
8. Visiting Namsan? Skip the cable cars
Going up the Namsan (or N Seoul) Tower isn’t free but you can save some bucks by skipping the cable car! The tower is accessible by foot or shuttle buses, picking up from major stations such as Myeongdong and Seoul Station.
#HHWT Tip: You only have to pay for the observatory. Enjoying the scenic views of the park and taking photos around the love locks are totally free.
8. Go on a free English or Indonesian tour at Gyeongbukgung and Changdeokgung Palaces
We made the rookie mistake of visiting one of the palaces in Seoul without a tour guide. While the palaces were absolutely gorgeous and there's so much to explore, we got bored pretty quickly as the signboards would only give you the barest information of the building or pagoda you were looking at.
You might be thinking: Palaces, they all look the same, right? Well, not quite! It was an entirely different and fascinating experience to walk the palace grounds with a Korean guide explaining bits and pieces of Korea's rich history to us! Gyeongbokgung even has tours conducted in Bahasa Indonesian too!
P.S. Did you know that visiting the famous Gyeongbukgung palace is one of the 11 unforgettable experiences in Seoul for every solo Muslimah traveller? It's truly an experience unlike any other!
English tours: 11AM, 1.30PM, 3.30PM
Indonesian tours (every Wed and Sat only): 9.20AM, 11AM, 2.30PM
English tours: 10.15AM, 1.15PM
Note: You'll still need to purchase the entrance ticket to the palaces. For Changdeokgung, there is also a separate entrance fee and tour for the optional Secret Garden within the palace compound.
9. Get your tax-free shopping refund before flying back home
Korea's tax-free shopping for tourists comes in 2 forms: Duty-Free shops that remove any taxes or additional fees at point-of-sale, and Tax-Free shops where you can later apply to have the tax amount removed. Either way, it means cheaper prices for us in the end!
- Keep your VAT refund receipts after purchase - the business has to offer a certified "Tax Free" service. This will be visible in the store (in the form of a sign) and on your receipt (with a logo or icon).
- The tax refund limit is currently KRW5,000,000 so keep an eye on your spending!
- Claim your refund at major airports or service branches. Incheon Airport is typically where most people will get their refund.
- At Incheon Airport, get your boarding pass but do not check in your luggage yet.
- Present your goods and refund receipt to the customs officer or kiosk (for total of less than KRW75,000) to receive a stamp of approval.
- Check-in your luggage at the oversized baggage counter.
- Proceed to a tax refund counter or kiosk machine to claim the actual refund. If no one is present at the kiosk or counter, fill out the form to receive your refund via your international credit card.
You can look for more information on the tax refund process and tax refund companies here.
#HHWT Tip: Always PLAN your purchases especially for beauty products. It's easy to get carried away with impulse purchases. Browse the selection, do your research, then make a bulk purchase to get your tax refund (or get some free samples - see point 12 below).
10. Visit Hongdae Free Market for jaw-dropping bargains
Think shopping in Seoul is just the mall-lined streets of Myeongdong? Think again! The Hongdae Free Market takes place over the weekends in Hongdae Playground and you can find anything here. Initially started as a way to showcase the talents of local artists and brands, the market is one of the hotbeds for Seoul's creative side.
Clothing (both trendy and vintage? Yes. Old cameras, vinyls, or accessories? Yes. Talented local artists putting up pieces for sale or offering to draw you on the spot for a small fee? Yes! If you're looking for something unique or just have an afternoon to spare, you should definitely add this into your itinerary and see what unexpected gems you might find.
Address: Hongik University Playground Park (19-3, Wausan-ro 21-gil, Mapo-gu, Seoul)
11. Haggle at Dongdaemun for a lower price
If you're heading to Dongdaemun and are planning to buy 3 items or more from the same shop, don’t forget to unleash your bargaining king/queen. If you can’t speak Korean, don’t worry. Download our free Korean phrasebook and use a calculator to communicate with the shop owners! Check out where to shop in Dongdaemun in our ultimate Korea shopping guide!
12. Get cosmetic samples and freebies just by entering the store
Credit: OOTD by Nikki & Kate on Facebook
Those familiar with purchasing Korean cosmetics would probably already know this – the sale girls (especially in Myeongdong) will tempt you to enter their cosmetic stores with freebies ranging from a free mask or cotton pads. And yes, you can keep these even if you don’t purchase anything! (Our writers never had to bring any cotton pads when we travel to Seoul...). If you're planning to stock up on cleansers and moisturisers, we also shared 9 popular Muslim-friendly Korean beauty essentials for your Seoul shopping spree!
#HHWT Tip: In the case that you do make a purchase, you’ll also get free samples to try their other products. The more you purchase, the more you’ll get!13. Keep an eye for grand or summer sales
13. Keep an eye for grand or summer sales
Our favourite seasons for visiting Korea are definitely spring and autumn but if your travel dates are more flexible and you want to indulge in some retail therapy you can look out for year-round sales!
14. Grab your cuppa at a neighbourhood café and have it to-go
Café-hopping can be pricey in Korea, so instead of visiting the chain cafés such as Caffe Bene, Dal.Komm Coffee, A Twosome Place, etc, look out for smaller cafés in the neighbourhood. Koreans love their coffee, so you can be assured that these neighbourhood cafes will also be able to serve up a decent cup of coffee! Coffee at a chain cafe may cost around KRW5,000 or more but an Americano at a neighbourhood cafe can be as cheap as KRW3,000. Another perk of visiting a neighbourhood café? It’s usually KRW500 cheaper if you choose to take away your coffee instead of consuming it there! ☕️
15. Grab some quick-bites instead of a full meal
It might not be very cost-effective to head to a restaurant when the hunger pangs strike, and in some neighbourhoods it's also difficult to find halal or Muslim-friendly restaurants. Thankfully, Seoul is pretty packed with affordable street food (especially touristy spots like Myeongdong). So if Itaewon (where most of the halal food is found) is not accessible, you can grab some of these snacks for a quick bite - yachae pajeon (vegetable pancake), hotteok, gyeran bbang (egg bread) and even kebabs at certain areas in Seoul.
Halal Status: During our trips we've checked that the products are fried in vegetable oil or are suitable for vegetarians, and are not sold with other meat products. However many of these street food stalls are not halal-certified, so do check with the owners of the stall or try to stick to fully vegetarian stalls. Do note that some stalls may display a halal logo to entice Muslim visitors, but we recommend you to eat only at your own discretion.
16. Look out for free wi-fi around the city
Social media junkies, rejoice! Seoul is the land of incredibly fast internet and thankfully this extends to free wi-fi too. It’s really not tough to find a wi-fi spot when you’re just walking down the streets of Myeongdong. Just do remember to keep your wi-fi on and look out for Seoul Free Wi-fi zones! In certain areas, you can also try your luck with iptime. So really, getting a wifi egg is not as imperative as you think!
Some touristy areas with free wifi include - Myeongdong, Itaewon, Insadong, Hongdae, Sinchon/Ewha, Namdaemun Market, Gangnam, Cheongyecheon, Yeouido Park, Banpo Park, Dongdaemun, Samcheongdong... You get the drift. Most cafes provide free wi-fi as well, so be sure to ask the staff for the password! Although more often than not, you'll find it on your receipt, so don't throw it away immediately after getting your latte.
17. Bring your passport at all times
When you’re out and about, make sure to have your passport with you so that you'll be able to get discounts! Always enquire about foreigner discounts especially when you’re at attractions or taking the train out of Seoul for a day trip. Your passport is required to get these discounts, and photocopies may not be accepted.
Having spent some time in Seoul, these tips are all from our personal experiences. Do you have any additional budget tips to share with us? Let us know in the comments below!