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.
That said there is only one problem with 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, activities 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”
Ours was a 45 days cycling trip and we spent a total of 500€ per person, so a bit more than 12$ per day. This guide can be used by hitchhikers, walkers, and all sort of backpackers with a little adventurous spirit, and should make you able to enjoy South Korea with such a low budget.
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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.
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 on sleeping just check AirB&B or hostels.
Hostels can be indeed cheap in Seoul and Busan, you can get a bed in a dorm for less than 10US – There are fewer options out of major tourist destination so we really recommend a tent – you’ll get to experience the Korean camping and barbecue culture, make local friends, get treated many dinners and save a lot of cash while staying in nature.
For a different experience and a full immersion into Korean culture, you could try to stay in a temple, several ones offer this opportunity, check here how to experience a Korean temple stay at Baekyangsa.
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 is 24h open.
You have to pay the entry fee, usually around 5$, and then you’re in, with nice hot water and a “comfortable floor” in a common room to sleep on.
Some of these Jimjilbang have rooms separated by sex, some are mixed. Check this article if you want to know more about this very interesting sleeping option.
Though Koreans are incredibly kind people, especially outside the big cities, it’s very rare to be invited to sleep at some stranger’s house. More than once we had been treated meals, once a fellow cyclist even gave us some money (he didn’t have time to eat lunch with us) but we have never been invited for the night.
Warmshowers and Couchsurfing are widespread in Korea but many members don’t speak English and so often are just too shy to host you. Give it a try anyway, we met very beautiful people.
Where to eat for cheap in South Korea
Korean food is very good but also very spicy! We once had been with an Indian guy in a restaurant and he could not cope with it, an Indian! Anyway, variety is so wide that we wouldn’t even attempt a list, there are many on the web, this is one of the best. Great meals are not cheap though, compared to the Asian standards.
So, how do we experience Korean food on a budget? No problems, there are many ways.
Restaurants in Korea
The average cost of a meal in a cheap restaurant can be compared to Western Europe prices, 10 to 15€ per person, so not really a budget option. Anyway, it’s possible to find cheaper restaurants, especially in big cities, where you can find a basic meal for as low as 5$ 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 these places at least a few times.
There are a plethora of convenience stores in South Korea (7eleven, FamilyMart, and others), they are everywhere. In these places there’s a good choice of pre-cooked 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 ourselves, after making those out primary food source for two months).
Cheap Korean food such as gimbap, soondae (blood sausage), and ddeokbokki are also available in markets stalls, cheap street food is always the best – much better than convenience stores.
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.
But the best way to experience real Korean cuisine is to have a Korean person cooking especially for you, so make friends! Koreans are very hospitable persons and backpacking or cycling around off the beaten path areas is likely to get you invitations for meals.
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 in Korea
This is quite hard. Korea is still a little bit better than Japan regarding the number 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.
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
Hitchhiking is certainly a good option when it comes to backpacking Korea on a budget. Koreans are less shy than Japanese and are more likely to give you a ride.
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 cycling Korean 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 your legs.
Criminal threats are the least 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.
South Korea is a great destination also for solo women traveling in Asia. Harassment is very rare and, as opposed to most Asian countries, drinking is considered normal for girls in Korea, you don’t have to worry.
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.
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 it 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.
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