South Korea doesn’t come high on too many ‘cheapest places to visit’ lists, and rightly so. It’s hard to beat the beers for a buck in Vietnam or Laos, or the Thailand street food at around the same price. Korea’s first-world nature means you have to look a little harder to make things work for the cheaper.
I’ll note that expats and tourists alike have long equated 1,000 Korean won to 1 US dollar, when in fact 1 US dollar will buy around 1,100 – 1,200 Korean won. Currency fluctuations (and inevitable price increases aside), I’ll note that my aim is to come in at around 25,000 Korean won, and that all prices are based on Seoul’s prices (rural and smaller-city prices are cheaper, as you’d expect).
Yep, I knew you were going to ask about this one. While I’d note AirBnB and Couchsurfing are around, there are some more authentic ways to take in the country. If you’re OK with upping this to $30 a day, you can safely split a ‘love motel’ style room around town three or four ways and be fine. If you’re traveling by yourself or are pinching every penny, it’s time to find a jimjilbang.
Think of a jimjilbang as a 24-hour day spa with sleeping areas. For anywhere from 6,000 – 12,000 won you get admission (usually for up to 12 hours) a locker, and all the hot water you can handle. Your bedding options are limited to a spot on a heated wooden floor, and this isn’t a hostel or dorm room (shagging will be highly frowned upon, in other words). Note that a few thousand won more in admission usually indicates how foreign-friendly the place is, or its location.
Accommodation spend: 9,000 won (average between 6,000 – 12,000 won)
TOTAL SPENT SO FAR: 9,000 won
Unless you’re walking the Gangnam neighborhood or trying to impress some women with your Dom P, Korean food isn’t overly expensive to begin with. For around 9,000 – 15,000 won most any Korean meal comes complete with enough side dishes to guarantee fullness.
Since we’re working with a rather severe budget, though, look for a Jaws Food or a Gimbap Cheonguk to stretch your food budget. A classic Korean entree, donggaseu (pork cutlet) is almost never more than 6,000 won, and is usually one of the most expensive things on the menu. On the cheaper side, a roll of gimbap (rice and veggies wrapped in seaweed) is around 1,500 won at most places. Average those two out for lunch and dinner, or look for some street food – ddeokbokki (rice cakes cooked in red pepper paste) or meat kebabs are both on the cheaper side. Factor in a few bottles of water or cheap instant coffees over the day, found at any convenience store.
Food spend: 9,000 won
TOTAL SPENT SO FAR: 18,000 won
Sights / Transportation
This one’s easy – seriously. There’s enough to see and do throughout Seoul for free that paying for admission need not happen even once during your trip. You still have to get there, naturally.
For your first day, I’d hit up the area that is central Seoul – eminently walkable, and with plenty to take in. Take one subway trip to City Hall station (line 1 or 2), and within walking distance you have Gwanghwamun Plaza, Insa-dong (along with the dozens of art galleries there), Cheonggyecheon stream, The Story of Sejong, Gyeonghuigung (Gyeonghui palace), Jogyesa (Jogye Buddhist temple).
For a second day, I’d take a subway to Samseong station (line 2, in southeast Seoul) and take in the COEX Mall, Bongeunsa, then walk across the river to the Sports Complex area and park.
For a third day, I’d head to the Sinchon station (line 2, northwest corner of Seoul) – three major universities are all within walking distance, and each has their own fun times to take in. Also nearby, and a short bus ride away is World Cup Park – there’s the potential for a full day of hiking and exploring this former landfill turned into one of Seoul’s largest park.
Figure one subway ride to get you there, walking around for the day, and one subway ride to get you back to wherever you’re staying
Sights spend: Zilch.
Transportation spend: 2,500 won
TOTAL SPEND SO FAR: 20,500 won.
Alcohol really is the budget killer… but live a little! Just a little, though.
Inside the jimjilbang might (might) be some alcohol for sale. While they may not close shop until the wee hours, I wouldn’t have you drinking mere meters from your bed and bath for the night!
Before going to the jimjilbang, hit up any convenience store, and take in the fine ambiance of the plastic chairs just outside. Make a bottle of soju part of your purchases, and indulge in some ramen for a midnight snack. Or some beer. Your choice. You’ll probably have more fun crowd-watching, anyway.
Figure one green, glass bottle of soju per person to get you nice and tipsy (or possibly rather drunk if you’re under 65 kilograms – take it slow and stay classy, folks), a large bottle of water, and a snack to wash it all down.
Nightlife spend: 4,500 won.
TOTAL SPEND SO FAR: 25,000 won.