Are you planning a trip to South Korea? Then you are at the right place. I will give you some tips based on my experience so that you can be better prepared and get the most out of your trip.
BEFORE LEAVING HOME
Plan your trip before coming. Read books, travel blogs, Wikitravel and create your plan based on what you enjoy doing the most. I recommend “A Geek in Korea” as it is a fun and insightful introduction to Korea. You can get a good sense of the local culture in modern Korea as well as the history of its people. Basic speaking booklets with basic phrases are very helpful. Buy one in advance to make your life easier.
Remember to print your hotel booking details printed out with the address in Korean characters. It is very important to know that map apps of the phones are not 100% reliable in Korea (or Japan). You are better off by having the address in Korean printed on a piece of paper.
Before coming to Korea, definitely check if you can use your credit/debit cards in Korea. You are advised to call your bank to pre-advice them for your trip. Otherwise your card may get blocked after the first use. (This tips is not limited to Korea, it is a recommended step for any overseas trip *.) Despite all your preparations if your card is blocked, you can call your bank at home to unblock it.
Choose/note the address of at least one proper traditional restaurant and café/pub to each day; you may not discover a nice place to dine/drink by chance. Make sure you have the name and address in Korean language printed as usual.
I recommend you to use KTX (speed trains) when you are travelling. It is fast, punctual and very comfortable. You do not need to book it earlier as the trains are very frequent. If you will take the KTX more than 4-5 times during your trip, then buying an unlimited KTX pass before coming to Korea will be cheaper than buying the tickets separately.
Exchange your money in the airport is not recommended as exchange rates are not good. Use ATMs in the city to get cash for better exchange rates. If this is not an option, you can exchange in the city. If you are using Citibank cards, Citibank ATMs are everywhere. I hear that they do not charge separate commission fee for withdrawals.
When you come to Korea, directly buy T-money card from a convenient store and top-up. You can pay by this card when you take the train, bus and taxi all over the country. Besides, you can use it in convenient stores. It is very convenient. Just top up and use it everywhere.
You can buy unlimited wi-fi or use your own phone’s wifi if it is not very expensive. Many café shops, restaurants and hotels provide free wi-fi in Korea but when you are on the road you may need roaming internet.
IN THE CITY/COUNTRYSIDE
Go to tourist information centre when in the airport/train station and collect English maps/guides. Plan your trip accordingly. Leave some room for discovery.
If you cannot check in to your hotel immediately, you can store your luggage in lockers which are found in department stores and train stations. We used Lotte department store’s lockers in Seoul station free. You can also use the lockers and then pay when you return. It is not expensive. Then, you will be free to discover the area.
If you have a credit card that collects miles/rewards, use it as frequently as possible. You may accumulate enough miles to earn some freebies very quickly.
Have your lunch/dinner in the city as opposed to the airport. There are lots of selections even in the train station of major cities but downtown is always better. Try street foods, they are safe enough and delicious. Please remember that they will only accept cash so be prepared.
Go to markets and buy fresh fruits/vegetables as snacks. They are better and healthier than processed foods. Strawberries and tomatoes we had in Korea were very tasty.
Where you do not have a bus option or if it is late in the day, you may wish to take a taxi. Taxis are not expensive. It is better to show the address in Korean characters to the taxi driver. They may not speak English or any other language except Korean. If you have wi-fi you can use online dictionary to have some basic conversation.
Lastly, no matter where you go and what you do, please remember to be open minded and vigilant at the same time. Enjoy your trip. :)