Backpacking South Korea. A budget travel guide.
Everything you need to know to travel Korea for cheap. Where to sleep, what to eat, how to stay connected and much more.
Backpacking Korea on a budget is not easy, if you really want to stay cheap, let’s say on a travel budget of less than 20USD per day, you should really consider cycling and camping in South Korea.
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 in Korea, a lot more than the 4 rivers bike path. However, things are changing, and South Korea ranked an amazing 2nd place on Lonely Planet’s best countries to visit in 2018.
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 – for example ativities which require a mandatory tour, such as visiting the DMZ Zone – 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”
If you want to experience things differently
Backpacking Korea on a budget
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 fully serviced with toilets, showers, and shaded tent spots.
But even when there are no 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! Free camping is also a really viable option for those backpacking Korea, you’ll be surprised how easy it is.
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$, and then you’re in, with nice hot water and a “comfortable floor” in a common room to sleep on. Some of this Jimjilbang have rooms separated by sex, some are mixed. Check this article if you want to know more about this very interesting sleeping option.
Though Koreans are incredibly kind people, especially outside the big cities, it’s very rare to be invited to sleep at some stranger’s house. More than once we had been treated meals, once a fellow cyclist even gave us some money (he didn’t have time to eat lunch with us) but we have never been invited for the night.
Great meals are not cheap though, compared to the Asian standards.
No problems, there are many ways.
Restaurants in Korea
The average cost of a meal in a cheap restaurant can be compared to Western Europe prices, 10 to 15€ per person, so not really a budget option. Anyway, it’s possible to find cheaper restaurants, especially in big cities, where you can find a basic meal for as low as 5$ 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.
Instant noodles are for sure the cheapest option but beware to don’t abuse it, they are very unhealthy (we experienced that ourselves, after making those out primary food source for two months).
Supermarkets in South Korea
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.
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 in Korea
Like Japan, in South Korea is not possible for non-residents to purchase a Korean SIM card, so backpackers and cyclists have to rely on WiFi, not a big deal though.
Hitchhiking and Roads in South Korea
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). If you are wondering why, maybe you should read some books about North Korea.
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
Buses are plentiful and economical. A bike can go in the trunk of 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.