When my friend invited me to go on a 2-week trip to Seoul for $500, I did NOT hesitate on the offer!
I hadn’t been on a plane since I was 3! So not only would I get to go on a plane, I’d get to go out of the country to a place I’d been wanting to go to for a couple of years with two other friends!
What better way could there be to dip your toes into traveling when you’ve never really done it before?!
Once I got my mom calmed down from her constant fear of North Korean attacks, I was able to buy my ticket and start planning. But with her being the worried soul that she is, she wanted to spend ALL the money to make sure I was safely equipped to travel without a hiccup:
- New debit card plans.
- Travelers’ checks.
- A possible new phone and phone plan.
Just ridiculous and unnecessary expenses! I mean, not only did I have 5 months to plan my trip, but I had planned to seriously live and teach in South Korea a year or two beforehand (it fell through, obviously). So I had already done a TON of research.
And now I’d like to share how I was able to get a bang for my buck during my trip of a lifetime to Seoul, South Korea!
The Cost Of Prepping For International Travel
Disclaimer: Since I had never really traveled before, I had to get a few things many of you may already have. Things like a passport, luggage, a wristlet… over on my blog I talk about tips, tricks, and things I consider essential that minimized the stress that can come with oversea travels.
Here? I’m adding up expenses that are directly related to the general trip. I will be transparent about any other privileges and/or fortunate happenings that helped keep the price of my trip to Korea low!
Now get your pen and paper ready, there are notes to take and tea to spill!
As soon as I got the confirmation email telling me my ticket was successfully purchased, I was ready to refresh my past research on international travel to Korea. I was also ready to make sensible purchases and use hacks galore.
Using Your Cellphone In Korea
My mom was ready to pay for service that 100% made sure I could be called, but I let out a patronizing chuckle and said, “there’s an app for that.”
Literally. There is. It’s WhatsApp!
I was able to successfully make phone calls and send texts with this app as long as the person I wished to contact had the app as well. So make sure they do!
They may forget, so seriously… you may have to check their phone and make sure they install it before your trip.
But there’s no use in having the app if you don’t have WiFi! Luckily, Korea has WiFi EVERYWHERE. When you go places, there will be WiFi passwords on walls, on receipts… just ask and get the hookup.
Trust me, you don’t want to rack up your cellphone bill by using your data while traveling internationally. To be absolutely sure to prevent this, you can take out your SIM card.
Don’t have a SIM card slot (this is usually the case with newer iPhones)? Go to Settings > Cellular > (turn off) Cellular Data > (turn off) Voice Only Roaming. YOU SHALL RELY SOLELY ON WIFI.
Despite Korea having WiFi everywhere, it can be kinda scary to solely rely on it in certain areas like the subway (your cheapest, most efficient form of transportation) if you’re just a visitor.
That’s because it’ll assume you have a phone carrier in Korea where you can easily login to the more public WiFi on the streets (which you won’t if you’re, again, just visiting).
This never became an issue for our group because of one MAJOR game-changing component that I talk about in my post. And we didn’t even have to pay for it! There’s even a few other helpful navigation tools I mention that could be useful for your trip!
But so far, this is everything you need to know about using your cell phone to its fullest capacity while in Korea. 🙂
I give all the props of finding our $500 roundtrip tickets to Korea to my friends Lindsay and Ann. As I’ve said before, I didn’t know NOTHIN’ about flying on a plane, so they taught me a lot which then helped me find even more ways to save for any travel I plan to do in the future.
- Open up an incognito tab for your flight searches. Website cookies can raise the prices of plane tickets, hotel rooms, and more when they find out you use things like a Mac to search on and Lord knows what else. So why not play it safe regardless?
- Use Skyscanner to possibly find the cheapest month to fly. If you don’t have certain dates set in stone to travel, check Skyscanner for the cheapest months to travel a certain place.
But if you’re traveling this summer, it’s best to start plane ticket-hunting ASAP for the best prices. The more months out the better, and you can use an app like Hopper to alert you when prices drop, and whether or not they’ll go any lower before the time you need to fly.
Skyscanner also has a notification system you can sign up for, but it doesn’t predict when/if prices will be any better.
And if you wanna really get down and dirty with cheap flight research, check out this post by a seasoned Black woman traveler. She’s obviously way more well-versed than me.
What REALLY Made The Flight So Cheap
A few months ago, I looked into the cheapest flight to Japan and it was during cherry blossom season for a little over $350! And it was with the same airline I flew with when traveling to South Korea!
We flew with China Eastern located in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, which had just become available in O’Hare as an airline to fly with around a month before we took off.
I say this because maybe China Eastern’s newness at that airport is why it was a better experience than what I read about in other locations. From what I can tell, Chicago’s and the California location are the two with the best reviews about China Eastern.
But China Eastern is one of the cheapest flights I’ve seen around for travel to places like Japan and Korea.
In my own personal experience, we were not allowed to have the window cover open during all four flights for that trip and the seats may be narrow for those with fuller figures, making the hours of flying a bit uncomfortable.
Oh, and there were times right before landing when we were told to put away electronics (???).
Even so… the staff was very friendly, we were served decent food during all our flights, there was movies/music/etc. for all the flights… I would fly with them again!
They have in-flight tai chi on the TVs toward the end of your flight; I thought that was interesting!
If You Have A Layover In Shanghai And/Or Pudong Airport…
Protip: If they set you up with a long stay at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport… BRING ALL THE NON-WIFI BASED ENTERTAINMENT YOU CAN OH MY GOSH.
China is a county that blocks a lot of social media like Facebook, YouTube, and more. I heard a VPN can pass the block but when I was at Pudong Airport I couldn’t access the internet period.
So the 14 hours I spent in that airport, on the uncomfortable, curved, metal bench I died slept/sat on was pure hell. 🙂
Be aware, bring a comfy pillow and a warm blanket, and BRING ENTERTAINMENT. LOTS OF IT.
Just remember… you’ll soon be in a country that offers raccoon cafes!
UPDATE: After writing this post, Tima of Tima Loves Lemons uploaded a video about her flying experience via China Eastern, and going through a Shanghai airport. She was alone, and it wasn’t the best experience.
I want to be transparent with you and let you know I went with a white friend and an Asian-American friend. I don’t know if they made any difference in my travels , but we did get through all the flights SMOOTHLY and were even upgraded to first class for our flight from Shanghai to Seoul. But reading other solo-traveling, Brown women’s experiences in Tima’s comments to that video says it’s possible to experience some rudeness.
This is just a head’s up and something to think about whether or not you can handle IF a similar situation were to arise.
Of course, not everyone in that area is like that, but it’s unfortunately not uncommon based on what I’ve heard, so just be aware of possibilities!
Cheap And Cozy Transit To Seoul From The Airport
When coming in from the Incheon Airport, I’d HIGHLY recommend taking the limousine bus! After being cramped up in airplanes and airports for over half a day, relaxing in a comfy, clean, and affordable bus for over an hour nap will be welcomed!
Just talk to someone inside and you’ll pay at a booth near the exit. You should wait near an information pole like this with the destination at the top.
Using Your Currency And Debit Cards In Korea
Please, learn from my mistakes when you yourself travel internationally: do not put all your money in one place.
I mean, nothing bad happened… but I missed out on things and wasted money and gained a TON of stress doing things the way I did financially.
I didn’t think I needed American currency so I put EVERY. PENNY. into my new Capital One debit card I got specifically for the trip (because it has no transaction fees unless the ATM itself isn’t compatible). Do not do this.
What if I lost my ONLY card with ALL my money on it? What if I actually couldn’t use my Capital One card in Korea? What if something happened and I NEEDED money??
Thanks to my experience, I have some confident action plans for your money while you travel to Korea (specifically Seoul):
- Get a FREE Capital One 360 debit card. And be sure to notify them of/update your travel info. If you still have the option to call to notify them, do that too. It says right here that you don’t have to anymore though!
- Keep most of your money in your Capital One 360 account, if you have another card, be sure to have $100 or so distributed there for the trip in case something happens to your other money, and keep no more than $150 American cash on your body during the trip. I’ll tell you why in a second.
- Travel! If you end up in a layover, research exchange rates beforehand and find the best place to exchange your cash for some food or whatever you need for a long layover stay.
- Once you’re in the Incheon Airport in Korea, exchange about $30 of your cash to Korean Won. As mentioned above, you’ll need around $16 for the limousine bus to take you and your luggage an hour or so into the heart of Seoul.
- From there, have fun! You’ll pretty much want any additional cash you pull out to (re)fill your T-Money card (aka your subway card, which you can only “fill” with cash), for the street food, and some vendors and restaurants will only take cash. Here’s a list of places in Myeongdong with great exchange rates so you can go toward the beginning of your trip.
Affordable Souvenir Stops
If you’re wanting to grab gifts for friends and family back home, I’d recommend Diaso, Butter, Art Box, and all the vendors in the Namdaemun shopping area. Warning: Namdaemun is OVERWHELMINGLY FILLED with all sorts of food and items for sale, but it’s so worth visiting!
The More The Merrier
South Korea is a sharing culture, so a lot of places you go for food will have serving sizes for 2, 3, or more people. That also means prices can be a little high if you were trying to eat for one.
When eating out, places tend to not offer doggie bags. Even so, Seoul is changing and accommodating by having more and more solo eateries, the convenient stores have full and delicious meals for solo eating, and plenty of food is around $15 and you WILL get full. Everything comes with banchan, which are several unlimited small side dishes.
But if you go with 3 people like me, you can be paying $7-$9 for full, hearty meals. Regardless though, you’ll be eating well! And I highly recommend staying at an Air BnB, or keep your eye out for spaces on Innclusive.
I personally stayed at this Air BnB and he was super helpful with everything! Including helping you order (!!!) and find affordable and delicious food (you WILL order Korean fried chicken several times if you stay here, as you should!).
And the host was not only very helpful and knowledgeable, he was kind enough to let us borrow something that I considered a necessity when traveling around Seoul! Don’t worry… I talk about it, and everything else you NEED when traveling Seoul here.
Oh and something I wish I took advantage of more? The Black In Korea Facebook Group. You could find people to eat and do activities with there! I really wish I would’ve thought to utilize it while I was there. I really wanted to go to the Trick Eye Museum but you need someone to take pictures of/with you, and I didn’t toward the end of our trip (everyone was splitting up to visit friends and other parts of Korea).
Please keep in mind there are coupons available too! Trazy is like Korea’s Groupon. 😉
TL;DR: Splitting your costs between more people will make whatever you pay even lower (duh!). But things are essentially affordable in Korea, so you’re golden no matter what you do!
More than anything, have a blast on your trip! Korea is culturally rich, aesthetically pleasing, delicious, affordable, and amazing! Make sure you bring enough cash in case of emergencies and you’re Gucci. For somewhat of a guideline of what I spent my money on:
- Pens and stationary
- A few pieces of clothing and jewelry
- Some skincare and a tiny bit of makeup
If you’re wanting to shop for trendy and affordable clothes, you’ll find TONS when shopping underground in Gangnam’s subway station and around Hongdae. They also have cool airbrush tattoos, henna tattoo artists, and actual tattooists all around Hongdae since it’s a college area.
TL;DR The Money Breakdown To The Best Of My Knowledge
Here’s the money breakdown of what I spent from what I remember:
- Around $560 for the plane ticket (convincing my family to let me go meant I missed out on the original price of $500 and some change).
- Our Air BnB split 3-ways was $209 each for at least two weeks.
- We stayed at an Air BnB near the airport on the last day (cause our return flight was extended an extra day) for about $30 or $40 for one night.
- I took out $300 from the ATM at the airport, and it took $30-$50 of that as a fee cause of the ATM I used.
- $16 was used for the bus limo ride that was an hour 45 minutes.
- Around $70 was used for transportation, most being for the subway because it’s cash only to refill your T-Money card. So it came mostly from that $300.
- I spent in the double digits for food in one sitting maybe two or three times I was there, and it was still under $20. But I only ate alone twice (got delivery that was about $17 and had leftovers I saved in containers at the Air BnB, and got a hearty lunch with a free drink at the convenience store for about $5).
- Most of my souvenirs were generic because there wasn’t much that I knew anyone would like specifically (socks for $1, chopsticks for $2), but even with some more thoughtful gifts like makeup and snacks, you could spend anything. Really depends on how many people you’re buying for, and how many thoughtful gifts you plan on getting. Souvenirs can be quite affordable, though!
- Got some clothes and accessories in Gangnam station for around $40.
- Most the rest of my money was spent on FOOD!
Enjoy your stay! You’ll be aching to return and at these prices? I know you’ll be back. 😉
Don’t forget to share this article with other travelers, and bookmark it and this one on necessities to bring to Korea!
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A mindset coach, foodie, writer, and creative coder that never "grew up" from her punk phase... or anime... or anything else epic like that.