How to travel safely using Korea's public transportation

File photo
File photo

How to travel safely using Korea's public transportation

by Stripes Korea
Stripes Korea

You can get almost anywhere on the Korean Peninsula with minimal effort and for a very reasonable price via public or private transportation. Whether by train, taxi, bus, plane or your own privately-owned vehicle, there is an adventure out there with your name on it. Here are the basics for getting started.

South Korea’s mass transit system is a nearly seamless combination of planes, trains, buses and taxis that can get you within a short walk of nearly any destination, while not having to worry about parking or what might happen to your POV. Seoul is the central hub for domestic and international travel.

Travel by train

File photo

Korea’s trains are a great alternative to air travel. They offer many more destinations and traveling times than airlines. Add in the time and money spent getting to and from airports and it makes even more sense. Similarly, time, cost and destination should be the three deciding factors for which of Korea’s three basic types of trains to use.

The fastest and most expensive is the Korean Train eXpress. KTX trains normally run at speeds up to 300 kilometers per hour (186 mph). KTX pricing on tickets was originally designed to provide an option halfway between airfares and the lower priced trains. It is still a fast and economical way to travel between major cities in Korea. The KTX is limited to major cities, so you may have to get creative depending on your final destination.

The Gyeongbu (Kyoungbu) Line starts in Seoul and ends in Busan (Pusan). The Honam Line passes through Seoul (Yongsan Station) and ends in either Gwangju (Kwangju) or Mokpo. The standard fare to Busan on the Gyeongbu Line is about 58,800 won (about $52) for designated seating and 50,000 won ($44) for unguaranteed seating. The fare on the Honam Line to Gwangju is around 34,300 won and 29,200 won, respectively. (Special compartments are 140 percent of the basic fare.) KTX fares are 15 to 30 percent higher than the Saemaeul trains – the next lower level of service.

Saemaeul trains offer a wider range of schedules and destination choices. The KTX may get you from Seoul to Busan lickety-split, but its schedule is limited, and it doesn’t stop at many popular tourist destinations. Saemaeul trains offer amenities such as a dining car, restrooms and “tuk-shil,” or special cars.

Mugunghwa trains are yet another step down in both speed and luxury. They cost less than the Saemaeul and stop at even more locations. When riding the Mugunghwa it’s well worth it to pay extra for a special car, because a standard-car ticket on a heavy travel day will likely have you standing in the aisles.

Korea’s trains are comfortable and offer a great way to mingle with the locals. Contact your local TMO for tickets.

Travel by subway

Several cities operate subway systems and almost all signs are in Korean and English. The Busan subway system has three lines. Daegu, home to Camp Walker, Camp Henry and Camp George (neighboring Camp Carroll), has two subway lines. Gwangju, in the southwest, is a great place to visit if you are looking to relax, and it also has two subway lines.

Incheon’s subway system is connected to Seoul’s. It also has an additional line. From Seoul, the No. 1, or Dark Blue, line goes to Incheon, connecting to the Incheon No. 1 line at Bupyeong (Pupyong.)

The subway in the Seoul metropolitan area is run by the Seoul Subway System. Lines connected to it from outside the city are controlled by Korean National Railroad. There are now 14 or 15 subway lines in or around Seoul, depending on how you count.

No. 1 (Dark Blue) Line: Trains on this line run from Soyosan, just north of Dongducheon (Camp Casey), to either Incheon or Seodongtan. The line separates at Guro (Kuro) Station. Those going to – or coming from – areas near either Osan Air Base or Camp Humphreys will need to be on the Seodongtan portion of the line. There are some trains that do not start or finish at the “terminal stations” listed on maps, so check the destination listed on the front and sides of the train.

No. 2 (Green) Line: This line forms a great circle around some of the best places to go in Seoul. If you are shopping, you can get to either the Dongdaemun (Tondaemun) or Namdaemun (at City Hall Station) market areas. You can get to several universities or the Jamsil Sports Complex on this line as well. Check the map well before boarding; going the wrong direction full circuit will make for a very long ride to your destination.

No. 3 (Orange) Line: The line runs from Ogeum, south of the Han River, to Daehwa out in the “Western Corridor.” It will get you to Jongno 3 Ga, where there are some good bookstores and shops selling musical instruments. It will also take you to the Express Bus Terminal and Apgujeong, a popular gathering area for a night on the town.

No. 4 (Blue) Line: Trains run from Northern Seoul’s Danggogae to Oido, south of Seoul. This line has stops for shopping at both Myongdong and Namdaemun (Hoehyeon Station). It also stops at Seoul Station. The four stops south of Seoul Station - Sookmyung Women’s University, Samgakji, Shinyongsan and Ichon - are all near entrances to Yongsan Garrison.

No. 5 (Violet) Line: The line runs from either Sangil-dong or Macheon to Banghwa via Gangdong. Gimpo (Kimpo) Airport is on this line, two stops before Banghwa.

No. 6 (Ochre) Line: This line runs from Bonghwasan to Eungam. The stops at Itaewon and Samgakji are located next to Yongsan Garrison.

No. 7 (Olive) Line: Running from Jangam to Onsu, this line has notable stops at Grand Children’s Park and the Express Bus Terminal.

No. 8 (Pink) Line: The line runs from Amsa to Moran. There are stops at Jamsil (Lotte World) and also at Garak Market (Garak Shijang).

No. 9 (Dark Yellow) Line: The line runs from Gaehwa to Shinnonhyeon. However, the major stops are just one or two stations from the terminal. At one end is Gimpo Airport and at the other is the Express Bus Terminal.

Bundang (Yellow-Orange) Line: Bundang is a newer commuter city with plenty of shopping and interesting places to see. Starting at Gangnam, the new Bundang Line, or Sinbundang, will eventually end up at Suwon.

Jungaang (Light Blue) Line: This line runs from Yongsan Station in central Seoul to the eastern reaches of Gyeonggi Province, ending at Yongmun. This line is handy for getting out of town for sledding and other winter adventures.

Gyeongui (Aquamarine) Line: This line begins in Seoul and ends in Munsan, out in the western corridor. It is a great line to use to explore that area.

Sinbundang (Brown) Line:   Some 17 kilometers long, the new Sinbundang line is essentially a shortcut from Gangnam Station down to the Bundang/Seongnam area. It runs from Gangnam Station in Seoul to Jeongja Station in Bundang, with Yangjae, Yangjae Citizen’s Forest, Cheonggyesan and Pangyo stops in between. Taking the Bundang (yellow-orange) Line does indeed get you to the same area, but it takes longer.

Travel by taxi

In Korea, you will find taxis very convenient and inexpensive compared to many other places in the world. There are two main types of taxis in Korea: the “ilban” (basic) taxi and the “mobom” (deluxe) taxi.

The ilban taxi starts at 3,000 won (about $3), while the mobom starts at 5,000 won. Rates start from the basic fare and go up either by the distance traveled or the time elapsed. Fares of the ilban taxis increase by 20% between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m. You can catch cabs at a taxi stand or hail them on the street. During rush hour or in bad weather expect a long wait.

If you are near a base, or if the driver works near a base, you should not have much problem getting to your destination. If not, you can get “taxi cards” from the USO. A bilingual staff member will write your destination in Hangul (Korean) for the driver. Make sure you get one for the way back as well.

Tipping the driver is not normally expected in Korea. However, it’s also customary to not expect small change after paying. On the other hand, drivers who often work around military bases are more likely to expect a small gratuity.

Mobom (deluxe) taxis are normally dark in color and have a yellow sign on top. There is no late-night fare differential. Many of the mobom taxis have stands at major hotels, subway and bus stations.

Many of the drivers speak some English, or at least enough to get you to and from well-known locations. However, it would be wise to look for taxis with a “translation services available” sticker on the side.

It is also wise to ensure that the driver is using the meter when you start your trip, unless you have (willingly) agreed upon a set price prior to starting your ride.

SOFA personnel will find Exchange taxis available on base. (Some bases have a limited number of off-base taxis authorized to come on the bases.) These on-base taxis are very convenient and make life easier in and around bases. Though the rates for these taxis is higher, unlike the ilban, they accept dollars and the drivers can answer some questions you may have about the area.

Travel by car

Driving around Korea has become much easier with GPS systems available in both English and Korean. At the same time, improvements to the highway system have made driving less of a nightmare than it once was.

If you plan on spending time on the highways, consider shelling out a little money for the Hi-Pass system to pay your tolls. Hi-Pass allows you to pay the tolls without having to stop and count out the money each time.

Hi-Pass requires an “On Board Unit” (OBU) and a Hi-Pass Card. The OBU can be purchased for less than the equivalent of $20 online and at highway business offices, shopping malls and even at some highway rest stops.

The Hi-Pass Card can be purchased and charged at many of the same locations. There is a 5,000 won deposit required when the card is purchased, and the card can be charged and recharged in amounts from 5,000 to 500,000 won.

Travel by bus

Bus travel in Korea is reliable and the schedules are more convenient than the trains. Some expressways have bus-only lanes for peak travel times such as weekends, rush hour and major holidays. The bus companies also run extra buses on such peak days. One bus fills up and pulls out, and another immediately pulls in for more passengers.

All major cities and most towns in Korea have a main bus terminal. Transportation to other cities is possible via the “kosok bus” express system. In Seoul, the main hub is the Gang-Nam Express Bus Terminal. Express buses do not have toilets on board, but they do make frequent stops at rest areas. Seats are comfortable enough for travel but are not quite as roomy as those on a Greyhound cruiser.

Some buses run between cities on secondary roads. These dependable inter-city buses make plenty of stops and are an interesting way to see Korea. There are also buses that run from Incheon International Airport to key cities such as Gunsan (Kunsan). 
Each city has its own bus system. Ask people who might know or check with your local Morale, Welfare and Recreation Center. They should have information on bus routes, points of interest and other matters.

In Seoul, there are four different color-coded bus systems (bus numbers indicate specific routes):

Blue buses serve major roads between downtown Seoul, its outskirts and sub-centers. Routes are usually direct and efficient, with few detours from main roads.

Green buses run between blue bus routes and subway lines, usually using less direct routes. Their terminal stops will be in adjacent zones.

Red buses serve wide areas and connect the outlying suburbs with Seoul’s sub-centers.

Yellow buses move through the downtown areas and shopping districts of the metropolitan area. They usually follow circular routes in limited zones.

Bus fares, like train and subway fares, are based on the distance traveled. Transfer discounts are also available, but only when using a T-Money Card rather than buying tickets for each ride. This rechargeable card is the easiest way to pay for bus, subway and even taxi travel in and around Seoul. It can be purchased from subway or bus ticket vendors and machines. The basic charge is 3,000 won (about $2.70), and it can be recharged with up to 90,000 won.

As an example, if you take local buses and subways five times within 10 kilometers in 30 minutes or less and pay the fares with T-Money, it will cost only 1,050 won because the five rides are counted as a single trip. However, if you pay cash for tickets following the same itinerary, it will cost 5,750 won. To get this transfer discount, scan the card on the sensor at the front of the bus when getting on, and then use the sensor at the rear door when exiting the bus.

Seoul Metropolitan Subway recently replaced many of its ticket windows with automated vending machines. You can use them to purchase tickets as well as buy and recharge T-Money Cards. The vending machines are easy to use and have instructions in Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese. Subway staff is also available at stations to help.

Travel by plane

Roundtrip domestic airfares between major cities should cost less than the equivalent of $200. depending on when you travel and which airline you use. Travel agencies can often save you money on airfares, while tour packages may reduce lodging costs.

Some airports, especially those in smaller cities such as Kunsan, offer few flights and destinations. (To get to Seoul you may have to go to Jejudo.) You may find that other means of travel better suit your needs.

Airports are far from downtown areas which, along with security checks, can increase travel time significantly. Travel plans should include the time it takes to get to, from and through an airport.

There are plenty of places to visit in the Land of the Morning Calm. Why not make getting to them part of the adventure? Try them all!

Online help to get around Korea

Train how-to information, maps, routes, schedules, booking:

Bus zones, numbers, stops, fares:

Subway how-to information, maps, stops, fares:

Plane flights, schedules, booking:

Hi-Pass On Board Unit (in Korean):

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