Traveling always has a learning curve, especially with 3 kids: phones, destinations, jet lag, weather, budget + free/inexpensive things in Seoul!
Part 1: Learning to Live Here
Getting ready (travel, health, kids, where to stay/the switch, language, food and culture) was intuitive and straightforward as you will read in my post Getting Ready for Our Summer in South Korea. Upon landing and immediately having to think about “living” here, we found some things the hard way that would have been great to know beforehand.
Learn to at least read Korean (see Getting Ready for Our Summer in South Korea for sources)
Exchange money at your bank or airport (know how your bank works with international withdrawals, etc.), or there are money exchange stalls/booths in most neighborhoods, especially touristy ones like Itaewon, Myeongdong, etc. We withdrew money from the ATM in the Palace Museum at Gyeongbokgung and that one didn’t have a fee. Have card and cash on hand just in case, we had someone claim our cards weren’t working to get us to use cash, but we called and they were totally fine, also, you may get a small discount for paying with cash at mom ‘n pop shops.
1. Phone and Wifi setup
Story: Before you do anything, get your phone and WIFI figured out. There are places in the airport to get this figured out and it is the most important thing you do! We left the airport thinking, “let’s just get to our place and figure it out later,” but we got off our bus stop, and when we tried to get a taxi to get us to our flat, no one knew what we were talking about. I had checked two websites for the address of our place, and no one understood it, and Steven even speaks Korean. So there all five of us were after 18+ hours of traveling, half asleep, on the corner of a very busy street, and I’m thinking I just messed everything up by writing down the wrong address. Steven and I were feeling really bad for the babies, helpless, and really stupid. I realized later that our street is a little-known street to being with, and the address would have been better put on the sites as the actual street name and number and not the neighborhood name and number, i.e., 17 Pirunde-ro instead of 90 Pirundong (A Korean thing I guess), or we were just so close that the taxi drivers didn’t want to waste their time with us. Luckily, someone was nice enough to look up our place on their phone and it was just up the street.
Sadly, our lack of WIFI problems didn’t stop there. We got to our flat and it was a locked building with no one waiting for us. It looked like it was just shut down. On the website, it sounded like a traditional hotel with a staff and I pictured a front desk from the way they described it. The restaurant underneath had no idea about our manager or building, so we had to get a taxi, pack all our luggage into it, and go to the nearest hotel, which, of course, was a Hilton ($200+ starting a night). We got there, unpacked our luggage from the taxi, and the only room available was a suite at about $350. So, before, we said, “ok” to the room, Steven jumped on their WIFI to see if he could figure out anything with our original flat, and luckily, our cousin who helped us find the place had messaged us the info about the manager and that our residence was actually divided into two sections and we needed to go to the other section with a manager there waiting for us. So, after the Hilton people were so accommodating, we actually had to say, “oh, sorry but never mind”, and we packed back into a taxi and drive back to our place. We finally got in and met our manager, got unpacked, got some Korean fried chicken delivered, and barely remembered to get our WIFI password before our manager left!
The next couple days, we struggled to find someone to help us get SIM cards for our phones, even with Steven speaking the language. You will need your passport to do it. Basically, we found out from the one nice guy that helped us (after pulling some teeth) that it’s a lot of work for little money, even with someone actually speaking the language, so make sure you have that figured out FIRST THING! Seoulistic.com has some advice for making free calls and getting free WIFI that I suggest you read, just in case.
2. Have your destination pulled up on your phone or on a map, research area, know your options of transportation
Even after that experience, we have gotten into taxis and asked mostly to go to pretty well-known destinations, and the drivers won’t know. Steven has always had the destination pulled up on his phone just in case, and we have had to show the drivers where to go a few times. Look for what is around your destination and about where you destination is in relation to other places. For example, I should have looked to see what streets were around our residence and then I would have known we were only a block down from our street. I also suggest knowing another mode of transportation in case the taxi driver just doesn’t want to deal with it, so know how to get there by bus or metro just in case.
Also know that buses and the Metro shut down around 12:00am, so you can’t use them after that. After 11:00pm, naturally, getting a taxi is almost impossible because they’re in such high demand. So plan your late nights wisely or you’ll get stuck out in Itaewon like Steven did with his work colleagues and didn’t get home till almost 2am. Most people will just stay out all night until the public transportation starts up again! Worst-case scenario is that you look for the public bike rentals an just bike the 10 miles home, if you’re not drunk like most other people, that is!
Get a T-Money card that are sold everywhere, in the airport, metro stations, or in convenience stores. You put money onto the card and then pay for all public transportation that way.
Taxis are almost as cheap as taking the bus, so we mostly take taxis (yes, you can judge me for having no car seats…). The Metro is quick, but it can be tricky with a stroller finding all the elevators. Some buses are stroller friendly, most aren’t, so watch for the buses without steps if you have a stroller!
If you want to drive here or rent a car, you have to get an International Driving Permit, so get it before you get here!
Apps to get: KakaoBus Bus Route App, Ulmon CityMaps2Go, Speak and Translate
3. Always take the nap/Sleep schedule!
Story: The time change for us wasn’t that bad, just headaches for a few days. We got to sleep our first night about 11pm, but then woke up at 5am. We stayed out most of the day, just exploring our neighborhood, then took a “nap” at 4pm and we woke up at 2am. That day, I made sure we stopped in the middle of the day, took a nap then woke up at a normal time, and went to sleep at a normal time. It worked really well! However, our fourth day here, we decided to go to Dongdaemun, which is a highly recommended area. We were ready to go about 2 hours before our nap time that we had been doing, so it was just easier to go instead of wait 2 hours, take naps, then go. The first hour after getting there was fine, then after that, it was just meltdowns. Walking for everyone was an irritation, the boys were just tired, and it just was frustrating the whole time. So, especially in a place with a time change, take the nap no matter what or just figure out a sleep schedule and be consistent!
4. Know the Weather + Air quality:
It will start to rain at the drop of a hat here, and it will POUR! The taxis, buses, and Metro will fill up completely! The 3 babies and I were out exploring Bukchon when it started to pour, so we walked in the pouring rain back over to our bus stop and no one would let us on! So make sure you check the weather for the day and keeping a small purse umbrella is smart! Luckily, I’ve noticed it lets up in about 20-30 minutes most of the time. May-June is pretty good weather, July hits and it just rains or is miserably humid, so you might want to consider planning your outdoor activities in May and June, and indoor ones in July.
Here, emissions aren’t regulated like the rest of the world, so here the air can get really bad. Get the AirVisual app to check hourly air quality and to see what pollutants are in the air. Green is good, yellow, ok, orange sketchy, red stay inside, purple is the worst, usually due to Asian Yellow Dust. Most days here are yellow-orange, so to compare, LA’s worst days are still green! Just get yourself a face mask if you’re sensitive and are going to be out on a bad day.
5. Plan a daily budget
Story: We always keep a weekly grocery budget, so we decided to keep it here too, then added a no-more-than-$50-a-day limit on our spending. That was great, because we would plan things we wanted to do, then we could “save” our money for big days and then have low-key days. With this grand budget, we are able to also go to Busan and not have to worry about the large costs going down there, and also having money for when we return home, so this is a nice way to keep stress down. I always check the prices of everything from a home website just in case, because suggestions and prices from blogs can be out-of-date, like the possibility of info changing on this list I’m about to give you right now:
Inexpensive/Free things in Seoul:
**The last Wednesday of every month is a cultural appreciation day, so lots of museums and attractions have free admission!**
Children’s Grand Park + Zoo (free)
Dream World/Seoul Children’s Museum ($4 per person, 3 and under free)
Gwanghamun Plaza + Statues and splash pad fountain (there are markets and events every weekend!)
Walking around Bukchon Hanok Village
Cheongwadae Sarangchae (Korean Presidents and Korean Culture Museum) (free)
Gyeonbokgung Palace ($3 per adult, $1.50 children 7+ yrs), National Folk Museum of Korea (free), Children’s Museum of Korea (free), Palace Museum (free) and Changing of the Guard ceremony at 10:00am and 2:00pm
Changdeokgung Palace ($3 adult, $1.50 children 7+ yrs, secret garden tour then it’s $8 and $4)
Rent a Hanbok from local shops all over (pay on an hourly basis) and get free admission/discounts at palaces and restaurants
Seoul Animation Center (free)
Ihwa Mural Village (FYI: This was tricky to get to, and tricky with a stroller, the little neighborhood is on a steep hill at the base of Naksan mountain, so lots of steps, it does have a longer, stroller-friendly path, but you will most likely have to use steps sometime while you’re there. Here are some direction and etiquette tips: Think of Seoul, The Soul of Seoul, Zannah in Korea)
DDP- Dongdaemun Design Plaza (some areas open 24 hrs)
My Guide Seoul‘s list
Time Out Seoul‘s list
10 Magazine Korea‘s list
Cheap Eats scattered all over Seoul:
BonGousse Bap Burger ($1.50+)
Kimbap houses ($2+)
Mandu houses ($2+)
Isaac Toast ($2+)
Pizza School ($5+)
Noodle dishes: mul nangmyeon, japchae, udon, ramyeon, jjanjangmyeon, etc. ($5+)
Finding the Seoul‘s Seoul Cheap Eats list
Convenience Store instant Ramen bowls ($2-3) and Triangle (Samgak) Kimbap ($1)
Let me know what else you all find in Seoul!