Like South Korea’s flag, Seoul is twofold: loud and humble, overwhelming and friendly, burgeoning and contained, cheap and expensive. Spend a single night out “Gangnam Style,” and you’ll wake up wondering how you spent a flight ticket’s worth on Budweiser and taxi fare. But, just as travelers’ experiences in this city of over 10 million people vary wildly, so do the prices of goods, travel expenses, and food. To explore the medley of Seoul without saying “Annyeonghi Gasayo” (Goodbye!) to your budget, check out these five tips from a Seoul insider that follow.
1. Buy a T-Money card.
Taxi fares in Seoul are usually less expensive than New York City fares, but there’s an even cheaper way to explore the city: take public transportation. Before you shudder at the thought of unknown sticky substances on bus straps and musty subway corridors, know that Seoul’s public transportation is an immaculate miracle. The capital city’s railways and highways are clean, timely, and totally affordable.
If you’re staying for just a few days, you can purchase tickets at the machines next to subway turnstiles. But if you’re staying for a week or longer, you should snag a T-Money card at Korean convenience stores in tourist-heavy areas or near subway exits. The cards themselves cost under a few bucks, and you can refill them for use on the subway, on the bus, or in a taxi. Use a T-Money card to transfer, and you’ll even get a little discount.
2. Trade pet-sitting for accommodation.
Seoul has plenty of budget-friendly hostels and homestays to choose from. But, if you’re lucky, you can get out of paying anything at all for accommodations. Seoul is home to many foreign English teachers, and just like you, they love a good vacation. But some foreigners who’ve lived here for years have pets they can’t travel with. Search for Facebook groups such as, “Pet-Sitting Network – South Korea” or become a house sitter to see if you can trade pet- or house-sitting services for accommodations during your stay.
3. Stick to Americanos.
If you’re a coffee-addict, consider switching to espresso while exploring Seoul. In fact, if you order a “coffee” in Korea, you’ll either be served a pricey “drip coffee” or a cheap Americano. To be sure you’re not accidentally charged for the former, it’s best to order a cheap Americano to begin with. Visit coffee chains like Paik’s Coffee, Mammoth Coffee, and Coffee Man for cheaper coffee, and choose places like Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Starbucks, A Twosome Place, and Holly’s Coffee only when you’re ready to splurge.
4. Eat Korean-style.
The tip “eat locally,” applies to many travel destinations when on a budget, but in Seoul, it’s especially true. Restaurants serving up Korean-style food are often inexpensive and plentiful because they serve dishes meant for sharing. Plus, you’ll get a variety of free banchan (side dishes) that vary by restaurant and season. Korean restaurant chains, such as School Food or Robot Kimbap, offer OK prices, but the local, often unnamed, shops always have the best prices (and the best food!). At many of these Korean-style restaurants, you can get a bowl of bibimbap (a dish of rice, vegetables, ground meat, egg, and spicy sauce) for under 4 USD or a roll of kimbap for under 2 USD.
If you’re feeling adventurous, dive into one of the plentiful street foods, like tteokbokki (a rice-cake dish slathered in spicy chili paste), Korean egg bread, or mandu (Korean dumplings). These dishes are usually under 3 USD and sometimes cost just a few coins in change. Namdaemun, one of Korea’s oldest marketplaces, is home to snaking alleys full of these culinary gems.
5. Don’t rack up bar tabs.
A word you thought you’d never hear again post-college, “pre-gaming,” or drinking before going out into the night’s adventures, will save you a ton of money in Seoul.
Beer and soju at convenience stores is dirt cheap (though sometimes Korean beer also tastes like dirt.) But if you wait until you’re inside a club or bar to order spirits and booze, you might end up paying $6 for just a Budweiser.
Alternatively, skip the club and bar scene altogether, and just drink at the tables outside of the convenience store with some friends for superb people-watching. Remember that drinking on the streets of Seoul is legal and quite common, especially in the foreigner community.
If drinking at a convenience store isn’t your ideal Friday night, consider a bottle bar instead. In Korea, most places that serve beer consider alcohol an accompaniment to food. So, if you walk into a “chimaek” shop (a chicken and beer shop) and order beer without buying food, you’ll get a glare from the shop owner at best. Alternatively, bottle bars have a serve-yourself policy, and although they offer food, booze is the focus.