budget travel south korea

the incredible landscape of Suncheon Bay

A guide to travel South Korea on a Budget

South Korea is not a top tourist destination like Japan or Philippines but it’s a very interesting country really worth visiting. There’s much more there then Seoul and Busan, and as it goes for cycling, a lot more than the 4 rivers bike path.

That said there is only one problem about traveling here, South Korea is probably the most expensive country in Asia. Yes, even more than Japan. But don’t worry, this article aims to give some hints on how to budget travel in Korea, maybe you’ll have to give up something, but still enjoying and deeply experiencing this beautiful and underrated country.

“Take side roads, go where people tell you there’s nothing to see, is there that you will find the real South Korea”

 

Our trip was done bicycle touring but most of this guide could be used by hitchhikers, walkers and all sort of backpackers with a little adventurous spirit.
Nothing could beat though the freedom of the bicycle, South Korea it’s a very easy destination for bicycle touring beginners so consider buying a bike.
This guide is based on our sole experience, so please contribute in the comments!
Subscribe our YouTube channel for the upcoming travel videos about South Korea if you like.
free camping south korea

free camping in a Korean gazebo on the remote unknown island of Sangnagwol-ri

where to sleep in South Korea

Free camping in South Korea

Nothing can beat free camping in South Korea! This is definitively the most camping friendly country we have visited so far, Koreans love to camp, they do it every time they have the chance. There are plenty of free camping structures in South Korea, literally everywhere. Usually, those structures are full serviced with toilets, showers, and shaded tent spots.

But even when there are not such facilities, camping in South Korea is easy, legal and can even make you meet new friends. The country is indeed full beautiful wooden gazebo, you will find those at every corner, and they are purposely made for resting, so why don’t just rest there? We even camp in one of this gazebo in the center of Seoul!

Most of these are wide enough to pitch a small tent inside, so to have a comfortable shelter to don’t get wet or get too hot. Even if these are in very exposed positions, don’t worry, you may have a nice surprise in the morning with some kind Korean bringing you coffee literally in your bed! This happened more than often to us.

If you really want to budget travel South Korea, bring a tent with you!

Accommodation

When we say budget we really mean it, so when it comes to hotels in South Korea, just forget about it, you’re not going to find anything cheaper than 30€ per night (very very rare) for one room. If you have a little more to spend for sleeping just check AirB&B.
 rice fields Korea

rice fields in Sorok Do

Sleeping in a Korean public bath (Jjimjilbang)

It looks weird but this is actually the best option if you want to have a roof over your head for the night. Korean public baths are very widespread and most are 24h open. You have to pay the entry fee, usually around 5$, and then you’re in, with nice hot water and a “comfortable floor” in a common room to sleep on. Some of this jimjilbang have rooms separated by sex, some are mixed. Check this article if you want to know more about this very interesting sleeping option.

random host

Though Koreans are incredibly kind people, especially outside the big cities, it’s very rare to be invited to sleep at some stranger’s house. More than once we had been treated meals, once a fellow cyclist even gave us some money (he didn’t have time to eat lunch with us) but we have never been invited for the night.

Warmshower and Couchsurfing are widespread in Korea but many members don’t speak English and so often are just too shy to host you. Give it a try anyway, we met very beautiful people.
cheap korean food

making Gimbap in Busan market

where to eat for cheap in South Korea

Korean Food

Korean food is very good but also very spicy! We once had been with an Indian guy in a restaurant and he could not cope with it, an Indian! Anyway, variety is so wide that we wouldn’t even attempt a list, there are many on the web, this is one of the best.
Great meals are not cheap though, compared to the Asian standards.
So, how do we experience the Korean food on a budget?
No problems, there are many ways.

Restaurants

The average coast of a meal in a cheap restaurant can be compared to Western Europe prices, 10 to 15€ per person, so not really a budget option. Anyway, it’s possible to find cheaper restaurants, especially in big cities, where you can find a basic meal for as low as 5$ per person. The great thing about this kind of restaurant is that just ordering a single dish you will get many side dishes for free, and you can ask for (almost) unlimited refills of those! This is still not what we call cheap but is really worth dining in one of this place at least a few times.

budget korean food

a typical Korean restaurant meal, so many side dishes

Convenience stores

There are a plethora of convenience stores in South Korea (7eleven, FamilyMart and others), they are everywhere. In this places there’s a good choice of precooked meals for fairly cheap (3€), the quality though is not great. There are frozen meals, rice with meat, gimbap and so on, often with a discount on products close to the expiring date. Hot water and microwave are always available.
Instant noodles are for sure the cheapest option but beware to don’t abuse it, they are very unhealthy (we experienced that in first person after making those the primary source of our alimentation for two months).

Supermarkets

Korean supermarkets are nothing like the Japanese ones, no bento (ready made meals), not wide choices. There are though decent varieties of canned food, frozen tteokbokki, cold noodles with powdered sauces, cooked white rice and curry, and so on. Unlike Japanese supermarket though, there are no microwaves here, so you must use your own cooking gear to heat this stuff up.

Fresh fruit and vegetables are quite expensive, beer is around 1.50€ for a 500cl can, for more specific product’s price check Numbeo.

But the best way to experience the real Korean cuisine is to have a Korean person cooking especially for you, so make friends! Koreans are very hospitable persons and being around off the beaten path areas is likely to get you invitations for meals.
South Korea on a budget

sunrise in Muui Do

Water Supplies

Drinking water it’s available everywhere, tap water is perfectly safe in South Korea. Gas stations also have toilets and sometimes showers or just a plastic hose.
Public baths are widespread but not so easy to recognize (memorize 찜질방), in the countryside, we often used to quickly soak in rice fields irrigation channels, may seem not too polite but usually Koreans just laugh at it.

Communication

This is quite hard. Korea is still a little bit better than Japan regarding the amount of English speakers, close to 5% probably (random number), similar to China. Speak very slow and very basic English, use very simple sentences and learn some basic Korean, numbers and greetings will get you sincere smiles. The alphabet is not so complicated as it seems, if you have patience you can learn it in a couple of weeks.
South Korea public gym

South Korean public gym, those are everywhere

Connectivity

This is great! There’s public free WiFi literally everywhere in South Korea, even in the most remote islands.
Like Japan, in South Korea is not possible for non-residents to purchase a Korean SIM card, so you have to rely on WiFi, not a big trouble though.

Roads

There are tons of long distance bike paths in Korea and that is just great but believe me, you don’t have to stick on that. Actually, Korea has a very good road network and is so easy to find alternative roads that will be almost all for yourself. I find bike paths quite boring, not really adventurous, just follow it and that’s it. Not for me, thanks.
Take side roads, go where people tell you there’s nothing to see, is there that you will find the real South Korea.Anyway, roads are sealed and well maintained, the only “real” mountains are in the north but South Korea is a constant up and down that could be quite challenging for you legs.
bicycle touring south korea

roads of South Korea can be surprisingly beautiful

Safety

Criminal threats are the last of your worries here, South Korea is one of the safest countries in the world. You can leave your wallet on the table of the bar and go for a walk, no problem.

Getting to South Korea overland

If we literally mean “overland”, then this is almost impossible, North Korea is in the middle and there’s almost no way to get across (I say “almost” because this couple did it, but I can’t even imagine how much they paid).

There are though very interesting ferry connections with many cities in China (we came to Incheon by ferry from Qingdao), with Vladivostok in Russia and a few ferry routes for Japan, we went from Busan to Fukuoka for less than 40€ on a beautiful ship.

Transportation in South Korea

This part of the article is made in collaboration with Korea By Bike, check the blog for a lot of information about cycling in South Korea.

Buses are plentiful and economical. A bike can go under the bus for free without any packaging. This is great for jumping from one route to another. Average price ₩35,000 to cross the country by bus.
A very modern train takes you from inside the airport to the beginning of the cross country bike path in 20 minutes. Stay on for 20 more minutes to Seoul. It’s just ₩8,000 and bike goes aboard free and fully assembled. Weekends and holidays only.

Ferries connect all of the islands not served by bridges. Sometimes can be hard to understand the routes, especially in minor ports where you’ll hardly find any English spoken. But don’t let this put you down, explore the islands, especially the less known ones, they are some of the most amazing and pure parts of South Korea. Once we took a random ferry, one other time we pointed a little island on a map and went there, both times we didn’t regret.

Small fees apply for bicycles but they can go aboard fully assembled.

south korea best beach

lonely beach in the tiny island of Hanagwol-ri

Did you liked this article and want to know more? Check our full travel journal in South Korea! Don’t forget to follow us on Social Networks and share this post if you find it useful. Thanks!
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budget travel south korea

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5 Responses

  1. Richard Dorsett

    Curious about the train to town with bicycle, but only weekends and holidays. What about other days? I arrive on a Thursday. Suggestions?

    Reply
    • Cycloscope

      Sorry for the late reply. You could use the bus if you really don’t want to ride in.

      Reply
  2. borvest inkral

    Thanks for sharing excellent informations. Your web site is very cool. I am impressed by the details that you¦ve on this site. It reveals how nicely you understand this subject. Bookmarked this website page, will come back for extra articles. You, my friend, ROCK! I found simply the info I already searched all over the place and just couldn’t come across. What a great web site.

    Reply
  3. Ron

    Thank you so much for mentioning how safe Korea is. I lived there for quite some time and it still makes me sad when people talk about is how it’s “a dangerous area”. Good to see people supporting the truth!

    Reply

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