Navigating Korean metro an unforgettable adventure for military couple

Photos by Avery Aiken
Photos by Avery Aiken

Navigating Korean metro an unforgettable adventure for military couple

by Avery Sanders
Stripes Korea

Did you know that metro stations in South Korea have “express” trains? Well, I didn’t. And unfortunately for me, I learned that while stuck on one.

Photo by Subway06, Wikipedia

My husband, Corey, and I had been trying get to Pyeongtaek Jije Station, but the metro we were on raced passed Jije and continued for another 15 minutes. We didn’t have 15 minutes to waste. We had a bullet train to catch; one that left in half an hour.

As we stood on the wrong platform in the wrong city, I started to cry. By miscalculating the train route, we had turned our early arrival at Jije into a missed connection to Busan. I felt so defeated. How were we going to make it back to the right station on time? Answer: we probably weren’t.

We had suitcases slowing us down. On top of that, I was wearing a skirt that didn’t make sprinting to the taxi pick-up zone very practical. And even once we made it into a taxi, a car can only go so fast.

When our driver entered Jije Station into Naver Map, I realized the 15 minutes we had spent zooming farther and farther from Jije on the metro was going to take 30 minutes of racing through traffic to undo. Our train to Busan left in 5 minutes. We were defeated.

I had spent weeks planning this trip, a whole afternoon getting our bullet train tickets, and a couple of hours mapping the route from our apartment to Jije Station, which is where the bullet train leaves from.

An ‘express’ tutorial
All that effort seemed like enough to get it right. But I didn’t know about the express train, and it foiled my plans. So, let me take a moment to explain it for you so that you don’t end up crying in the middle of train station like me.

To begin, most metro lines have an “express train” which runs the same route as the normal metro train. However, the express train stops at significantly fewer stations. If you’re using the KakaoMetro app to map your travels, look to see if there is a gray train symbol above your intended destination. If there is, then you can get on the Line 1 express train at Pyeongtaek Station and start your journey seamlessly. The gray symbol indicates which stops the express train will make.

Additionally, you’ll know if you’re getting on an express train because (1) Naver Map annotates them by putting an “E” next to the name of whichever line you’re supposed to be on, and (2) as the train approaches the platform, there is an announcement over the loudspeaker which literally says “the express train to [X] is approaching.”

So yeah, that was embarrassing to learn. But I’m glad that I did.

Also, when you’re using Naver Map to route your trip, pay attention to the time the app says your designated train is supposed to be arriving. You might be on the right platform and it might have signs that are pointing in the right direction, but if Naver says your train isn’t supposed to be there until 9:38 and a train arrives at 9:32, it’s not your train. At least, not when you’re riding the metro.

Learn from me. Don’t get on an express train when you’re supposed to be on the regular one. And don’t get on the regular train when you’re supposed to be on an express train. It will add a ton of time to your journey. I made that mistake too, and it turned a 30-minute return trip into an hour-and-a-half meander through Gyeonggido.

Man behind the counter
Anyways, back to my story.

I’m crying in the back of the taxi. Corey is squeezing my hand and already thinking of perfectly good solutions that, in my disappointment, I refuse to consider. And our taxi driver is weaving between buses and delivery drivers like we’re in a video game.

Finally, we arrive at Jije Station. Corey hops out of the car with renewed optimism and begins to unload our bags while I finish paying our driver. We ride the long escalator up into Jije and walk over to the ticket counter. I have stopped crying at this point.

We hand our ticket printouts to the man working the counter. It’s pretty impossible to buy bullet train tickets online without a Korean credit card. And we don’t have one. Which means the only way we could buy tickets in advance was to go to the Discover Seoul office on Camp Humphreys and pay in cash. That is why we have printouts instead of an email or some sort of high-tech ticket. That is also why I was very concerned about catching this one particular bullet train to Busan.

I tell the man that we missed our train. He reads the tickets: “12:50 departure.” He turns to look at the large red numbers on the digital clock behind him: “13:09.” He kindly confirms that we did, in fact, miss our train. We nod, our eyes widening to look like a puppy dog’s.

Without a word, he pulls up the train schedule. The next one departs at 13:21. He asks if we want to reschedule our tickets. We nod, our faces bright with hopeful smiles.

His computer screen is mirrored on a screen facing into the station lobby, so we can see what he’s seeing. He clicks on the only ticket that seems to be listed. Miraculously, that ticket is on the next train to Busan, but there are no more tickets listed for the rest of the day. I keep thinking that he’s going to break the news to us, but instead he clicks the single ticket to claim it and then refreshes the screen.


He refreshes it again.

Nothing, again.

He keeps refreshing it, again and again and again, his index finger jamming “enter” on his keyboard probably 20 times every minute. The time is passing and we’re getting closer to that 13:21 departure time.

I am holding my breath, sure that this man is going to give up on us. But he doesn’t. He calls someone over to assist the people who get in line behind us. He won’t stop looking for our second ticket.

Never in my life have I had someone work so hard to correct my mistake for me. But this man is determined to save our weekend.

It’s now 13:18, and I am pretty sure we’re going to have to start seeing if there are any tickets to Busan for tomorrow. It’s too late to cancel the first night at our hotel, but that seems like the least of our concerns right now. Just as I’m about to voice my surrender, a ticket appears. It leaves an hour after the 13:21 train.

The man asks if we’re okay going on two different trains. We nod, our heads moving so fast that my sunglasses fall off the top of my head.

He smiles, claims the second ticket for us, and starts processing our payment. We decide Corey will go first. The clock hits 13:20 and he tells Corey to run to the train. We yell our goodbyes, and I collect the receipt.

An hour later, as I’m standing on the platform waiting to board, I see the man who saved our trip. He’s helping people find their seats and lift their bags up the train’s steps. With a smile, he walks to me, gives me a playful nudge, and exclaims that now it’s my turn to start the vacation.

I must repeat, never in my life have I had a total stranger invest so deeply into helping me fix my travel mistake. Not a gate agent at the airport or a taxi driver in any city I’ve ever visited. And certainly not someone at a train station’s ticket counter.

Last time I was in Boston, I had the wrong tickets for the commuter rail and when I asked for help getting the right tickets, the ticket agent told me it would “probably be fine” as she gulped down a Dunkin latte.

For the entire two-hour ride to Busan, I kept my eyes glued to the window and said little prayers of thankfulness in my head for the Korean ticket agent who got me a seat, who fixed my mistake, who saved the day.

Traveling in Korea might be filled with “firsts” and hard-learned lessons, but the kindheartedness of Koreans makes it a lot easier to learn those lessons. And once you do, you can sit back and enjoy picturesque views on the bullet train to Busan.

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