South Korea is one of my favourite countries, but there are a number of things I wish I knew before backpacking Korea alone.
And for simplicity’s sake, I may use South Korea and Korea interchangeably. Obviously, I’ve never been to North Korea and do not support anybody paying to visit North Korea. There are horrendous human rights abuses, and all the money you pay ends up going into the pockets of the few elites.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand.
South Korea is the second country I visited in Asia. The first time I visited I only spent a week in Seoul.
I thought I had learned a lot about the country during my time in Seoul.
But, when I went back in 2018 and did a more extensive Korea backpacking trip, I realized I didn’t know as much as I thought I did.
I definitely made a number of faux pas both times I visited South Korea.
I want to share all my knowledge with you, so you hopefully don’t make the same mistakes while backpacking Korea alone that I did.
South Korea is an amazing country, and I encourage everybody to visit it. There are a few things you should know before arriving in Korea though.
Especially if you’re backpacking South Korea alone!
1. You May Not Get Served When Eating Alone
Eating is a very social activity in Korea, and not many people eat alone at restaurants.
That is changing as the years go by, but there are still some instances where you find you won’t be served if you’re dining alone.
This has only happened to me once, and it was at a small, local restaurant in a small town.
From my experience (and from talking with other solo travellers), if you aren’t served as a solo diner, it won’t be explicit or rude. It’ll come in the form of someone not seating you or not taking your order if you seat yourself.
If you notice you’ve been seated and ignored for an overly long time, politely get up, walk out, and find somewhere else to eat.
Not being served when eating alone used to be a bigger issue than it is now.
Nowadays, you likely won’t run into this issue unless you’re in a rural area. If you’re sticking to the major cities like Seoul and Busan, you won’t have any issue eating alone.
While it isn’t something you’re likely to face on your solo trip to Korea, I wanted to bring it to your attention just in case it does.
It is definitely something I wish I knew before backpacking Korea!
It can be a bit uncomfortable to not be served at a restaurant, and I wanted to let you know that there is a small chance this may happen to you on your trip.
The odds are slim that it will happen, but at least you’re aware of it now and know to simply leave if this happens to you.
There are lots of places that will serve you, lots of yummy street food, and don’t underestimate the cafés in South Korea.
There is a huge coffee culture in the country, and you can find surprisingly delicious food at cafés.
2. Google Maps Isn’t Your Best Friend
I’m in a very dependant relationship with Google Maps. I adore it and rely on it heavily whenever I travel.
Unfortunately, Google Maps in South Korea doesn’t work as well as it does in most other countries. This is one of the biggest things I wish I knew before backpacking Korea alone!
Google Maps works great if you want to use public transportation. I’ll give it that.
However, if you’re like me and walk everywhere when you travel, Google Maps falls short of expectations in South Korea.
My Korean friend recommended I use Naver Map the first time I visited Seoul. The app is entirely in Korean, which made it difficult for me to not only read but also input where I wanted to go.
But just because Google Maps doesn’t think you want to walk around Korea doesn’t mean there isn’t a way you can still use Google Maps to walk around.
I’ve found the best way to use Google Maps in South Korea is to input where I want to go. It’ll find your route via public transportation even if you’re in the walking section of the app.
I simply use the public transportation route as a guide on how to walk to wherever I’m going.
Obviously, this involves some common sense.
You’re not going to want to walk the exact same route as the public transportation. That’s often inefficient and takes a lot more time.
Instead, use it as a guide.
See what direction you need to go and then follow the public transportation path until you see you need to turn in a different direction to get where you want to go.
It may sounds a bit annoying, but it is actually pretty intuitive.
Most cities in South Korea (especially Seoul) are really easy to navigate by food. You just need to find the main roads you need to be walking down.
Most tourist attractions are close to main roads, so it won’t be much of a hassle to figure out where you need to be going even though Google Maps isn’t your best friend in South Korea.
I know that’s a fairly large chunk of text talking about Google Maps, and you may think I’m being ridiculous. But, I always feel slightly betrayed when Google Maps doesn’t work flawlessly, and I want you to be prepared for the disappointment.
3. Renting Pocket Wifi is Cheap and a Must
One of the biggest things I wish I knew before backpacking Korea is that pocket wifi is super affordable and is a great addition to any trip.
Pocket wifi is a small device you can put in your purse or pocket that gives you access to the internet as long as you’re connected to the pocket wifi.
You can access the internet anywhere you are even if there is no public wifi available in that location.
I love pocket wifi. I even purchased my own Solis device, so I can have access to the internet anywhere I am and not have to worry about renting pocket wifi in every location.
But, because pocket wifi is so affordable in South Korea, it’s actually cheaper to rent pocket wifi at the airport than it is for me to use my Solis.
I recommend you pick your pocket wifi up at the airport rather than have it delivered to your hotel or picking it up in the city.
It’s super easy and quick to get your pocket wifi device at the airport.
I rent my pocket wifi in Korea through Klook.
Just beware that you need a credit card with you to rent pocket wifi in Korea. If you don’t have a credit card, they, sadly, won’t be able to rent you a pocket wifi device.
This is a brief overview of pocket wifi. For a more detailed explanation of how pocket wifi in Korea works, how to rent it, and whether it is the right choice for you, read my detailed guided here.
The Important of Being Internet Safe
While we’re on the topic of accessing the internet in Korea, now is probably a good time to tell talk to you about the importance of being internet safe whenever you travel.
When you travel, you rely on public wifi networks a lot. While they’re very helpful, they can also put you at high risk of having your online data and information stolen.
Everybody and anybody can access public wifi networks, and all it takes is for one person with bad intentions to access your device and steal your personal, private online information.
Including your banking details!
The only way you can be safe while using a public wifi network is by installing a VPN on your devices.
It essentially puts a forcefield around your devices that makes it impossible for anybody wanting to access your information to do so.
It makes using a public wifi network as safe as using your home wifi where you’re the only person who knows the password.
Installing a VPN on your devices is a small, easy step you can take to protect your online information and keep prying eyes away.
I use, love, and recommend NordVPN.
It is the fastest VPN service on the market, and that’s why I love it. It doesn’t slow your internet speed to a snail’s pace like every other VPN does, which is important when you’re travelling.
The cost of a two-year subscription is less per month than a single Starbuck’s latte. It’s a small price to pay for the safety and peace of mind a VPN brings you.
I always say that if you can afford to travel, you can afford to protect your online data and privacy with a VPN.
4. ATMs Don’t Like Foreign Cards
I definitely learnt this the hard way my first trip to Seoul and is probably the number one thing I wish I knew before backpacking South Korea.
Most ATMs in Korea don’t accept foreign debit cards.
The only ones I’ve found that do are the ones at airports. I randomly stumbled on a few ATMs that would accept foreign credit cards. That’s not very desirable though since you’ll be paying cash advance fees on the money you withdraw.
The fact that Korean ATMs don’t like foreign cards can be very stressful.
Like panic-inducing stressful. Or at least it was for me.
The first time I went to Seoul, it was the last stop on a four month backpacking trip, and I showed up in the country with no local currency.
That isn’t uncommon for many long-term backpackers, and I never had an issue with showing up without money before.
Luckily, I had to take money out at the airport, and the ATM took my money.
I know that oftentimes the ATMs at airports charge a higher fee, so I only took out a little bit of money thinking I would find another ATM in Seoul and take out more cash.
Well, you’re probably not surprised to learn that I didn’t find another ATM that accepted my Canadian debit card.
I spent hours walking around central Seoul trying every single ATM I could find. Inserting my debit card and then my credit card until one finally accepted my Mastercard.
I could have cried I was so happy and thankful.
How to Not Get into the Same Situation
Okay. Now that you know that you can’t count on a Korean ATM to accept your debit card, there are a few things you can do to prepare.
- The first thing you can do is to get some Korean Won in your home country and have cash on hand before you arrive in Korea. It’s the easiest way around the ATM issue.
- If that isn’t an option, the next best thing you can do is to take as much cash as you think you’ll need out of an ATM at the airpot.
- Finally, you can find an in-person currency exchange location or a local bank and exchange your money there. This is a bit of a hassle in my opinion, and I see it as a last resort.
The Good News
The good news is that you can use your foreign credit card pretty much anywhere in South Korea without any issue.
You won’t need to rely on cash in the country and can get away with only having the bare minimum amount of cash on hand.
You can pay for any restaurant meal, souvenirs (unless it is a small rolling stand), transportation, and attraction entrance fees with your credit card.
You’ll want to make sure you have enough cash on hand to pay for street food, street vendors, and for super small purchases that are only a few dollars.
I would suggest that 15, 000 to 20,000 Won per day is the minimum amount of cash you should have on hand.
I prefer to have about 25,000 Won per day on hand, but I’m a bit of a worry wart.
5. Korea is Super Affordable
When I told people that I was visiting Korea, everybody told me oh gosh that’s expensive. You’ll break the budget.
I think it has something to do with its modern technology and proximity to Japan that gives South Korea the reputation of being expensive.
And while it is certainly more expensive that countries in Southeast Asia, South Korea is way more affordable than you may think.
And way more affordable than Japan!
I spent significantly less when backpacking Korea than I thought I would.
You can find a delicious meal for less than $10USD, hotels are a decent price, and I was shocked at how affordable the entrance fees for attractions (especially Gyeongbokgung Palace) are.
All things considered, I would say that South Korea is the cheapest country in eastern Asia (excluding China). And even then South Korea isn’t that much more expensive than China.
6. There are Rules and Customs You Should Follow
South Korea is a culture built on rituals, customs, and respect.
I think it’s important for tourists to know a few of the local customs. And to respect them and engage in them as much as possible.
As someone backpacking Korea alone, you probably won’t run into many of the social customs since you’re alone, but there are two in particular I think you should be aware of.
The first is how to properly exchange cash or your card when purchasing goods. And how to properly receive your goods from the person helping you.
You should give and receive things with both hands.
This means if you’re giving a 5,000 Won note to a store teller, you should hold one side of the note with each hand and give it to the teller with both hands.
They will receive it with both hands and return any change with both hands.
They will then give you your package with both hands. You should receive the package with both hands.
It can be a little bit difficult to get used to at first if you come from a culture like I do where everything is done with one hand. It doesn’t take long though, and the locals will really appreciate the effort.
The other custom you should know is there is a deep respect for older people.
If you’re on a bus or train and see an older person standing, offer then your seat.
If you find yourself at a group dinner, you shouldn’t eat or drink until the oldest person at the table has taken the first bite.
It’s all about respect.
Nobody will get upset with you or even point it out if you don’t navigate these local norms. However, they will notice and be appreciative.
7. South Korea is Extremely Safe
South Korea is one of the safest countries in the world and tourists don’t have to worry about their safety while exploring the country.
Even solo female travellers don’t have to worry about their safety! Even at night.
There is barely any crime in the country, and you can feel safe walking around at night alone.
And that’s coming from me someone who hates walking alone at night even at the best of times. I felt extremely safe walking alone at night in Korea when coming home from evening events.
Just like in Japan, you can leave your bag unattended at a café table while you use the washroom and not have to worry about someone stealing it.
There also isn’t much petty crime.
Pickpocketing isn’t common, so you don’t have to keep a close eye on your bags like you have to in lots of European cities like Paris.
If you’re new to travelling alone or are a bit nervous about travelling alone, South Korea is a great country to visit.
It’s extremely safe and will help you get your solo travel skills up to speed before you go to a different destination.
8. There is an Unspoken Dress Code
This is one of the things I really wish I knew before backpacking Korea.
The first time I visited Seoul was in mid-June, and it was extremely hot. I wore my normal clothing I had packed and didn’t think anything of it.
Until I realized after my trip that I was breaking an unspoken dress code for women in Korea.
I didn’t realize that it was taboo for women to show their shoulders, and I was wearing tank tops most days. They had thicker sleeves, but my shoulders were still showing.
Nobody said anything to me, but I felt really bad when I found out that shoulders weren’t normally showed by women in South Korea.
I like to respect local dress codes and customs as much as I can when I travel.
Short skirts and shorts are okay. Showing shoulders or too much cleavage is not.
That’s basically what you need to know when packing for your trip to Korea as a woman.
9. Don’t Buy the First Thing You See
This is definitely something i knew before backpacking Korea, but it is easier said than done.
There are so many goods screaming for your attention in Korea, and it is hard to say no to any of them.
I had no interest in skincare before I arrived in Seoul the first time and came home with basically an entire suitcase filled with skincare products.
Temptation is everywhere, and everything is super cute.
Whether you like skincare, socks, stationary, or local crafts or souvenirs, it is extremely hard to say no.
Even though it is difficult, you need to walk past and not purchase the first thing you see. There are tons of stores selling the same thing, and you can often find a better price at a different store.
For example, there are many different Etude House stores in Myeong-dong. One may not be offering a sale and another may have 10% off.
It is worth it to resist, have patience, and shop around before you make any purcahses.
The same advice goes for anything you’re looking to buy while in Korea. Take a look around first and then go back to wherever you decide to make your purchase from.
You may think this is odd advice to be including in an article about backpacking Korea but just wait until you land and see all the lights and sounds and excitement.
Whew. That was a longer article than I was planning. But there is just so much I wish I knew before backpacking South Korea.
I want to share as much as I can for you, so you can have the best trip to Korea as possible.
South Korea is an amazing country. It’s so special and deserves to be explored by more people.
I hope this article helps you decide if backpacking Korea is right for you and helps you plan your trip.
You’ll have an amazing time in South Korea and want to keep going back.
I sure can’t wait until my next trip!