04 Jan Seoul Travel 101
Note: This post is part of our full Korea Adoption: Guide to Seoul.
Brian and I are somewhat familiar with traveling internationally, as we had recently planned and experienced trips to Iceland, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Caribbean. However, when it came time to plan for Seoul, we were more than a little overwhelmed! How could we experience as much of our little bud’s culture as possible, while also trying to find our way around a new country, a huge city, a language barrier, public transportation, important meetings with foster families and judges, and an add-on trip to Taiwan?!
However, thanks to some advice we pieced together from other adoptive families, we were able to have two trips of a lifetime and soak up as much of Korea as possible in a short 2.5 weeks. So this guide to Seoul is partly our travel experience, but also the collective experience of many families who went before us!
Dates of trips:
- Trip 1 – February 27 – March 10, 2018
- Trip 2 – March 29 – April 8, 2018
- Trip 1 – Insadong
- Trip 2 – Insadong
Why did you take two trips?
South Korea requires families to meet their children and testify in court as part of the final adoption process. Once a family testifies they have met their child and wish to move forward, the judge will grant Preliminary Approval. At that point, birth parents (if dad is in the picture; otherwise it’s just mom) or birth grandparents (if birth mom and birth dad are minors) get 15 days to contest the adoption. If birth parent(s) signed consent prior to the court date (optional, but Gideon’s mama did) they may or may not be contacted after court, but they still get 15 days to contest. At the end of those 15 days, Final Approval is granted, and a custody day is set. Sometimes custody falls on Final Approval day (which are usually Thursdays or Fridays, based on the court schedule), but generally custody is the Monday or Tuesday after Final Approval, since Visa appointments are required before leaving the country and often fall in the middle of the week.
Some families opt to stay in Korea between court and custody. However, by the time the judge notifies the agency – thus starting the 15-day clock to contest the adoption – and a custody date is set, there are generally 3.5 to 5 weeks between court and custody. Whether you stay in Korea or not, your child continues to live with their foster family until Final Approval. For us, staying in Korea for 5 weeks wasn’t realistic with our jobs, so we made two trips. However, if you can, in any way, make it work to stay in Korea, we highly recommend it! Leaving Gideon was the hardest thing we had ever done, and Seoul is just one of our favorite places in the world. I would have loved to soak up even more of the culture and the city than we were able to do in 2.5 weeks! You can find our Korean Culture 101 post HERE.
What did you pack?
I get this question so much, I’ve got a whole post about packing HERE!
Did you bring gifts for foster family and social workers on the first trip or second?
We took all gifts on the first trip, although we did bring a photo album and a framed photo of all of us to the custody transfer, just so our foster mama didn’t leave empty handed. You can find more about the gifts we brought HERE.
Do you mind sharing your itinerary?
Not at all! You can find our full itinerary and favorite spots in Seoul HERE.
What airline did you fly?
For our first trip, we had a family member graciously donate their Delta miles, which covered – almost to the mile – both of our round-trip tickets from Louisville, KY to Seoul. Compared to the second trip, the Delta plane wasn’t as nice as American Airlines, but the staff were super friendly, and we had everything we needed. Had we had to pay for flights, they would have been about $1100 per person, round-trip.
For our second trip, we were very limited on options, as we happened to take custody during Korea’s exactly-one-week-long cherry blossom season. Tickets were literally double the cost of our first trip, plus Gideon was over 2-years-old and needed his own ticket coming back. Adoption Airfare was able to save us $700 with humanitarian fares (we still spent about $5,000 for all 3 of us) to fly American Airlines, so we took that option! American had super, super nice planes, but their staff were downright rude. We won’t ever fly American again if we can help it.
I have heard unanimously amazing things about Korean Air! They didn’t fly out of Louisville for the dates we needed for custody, but I’ve been told they are well worth any extra cost.
Did you use a travel agent?
No, but we did use Adoption Airfare to help us with flights for custody trip, and they were AMAZING! We contacted Adoption Airfare at 6 p.m. on a Friday, and Matt had our itineraries in our hands by 11 p.m. that night. He was also able to save us $700 by booking humanitarian fares on American Airlines, which wouldn’t have been an option to book ourselves. And the best part? Adoption Airfare offers all of their services for free! Highly, highly recommend. We also used Booking.com to save on Somerset Palace.
How did you get to/from the airport?
For trip one, we took the airport limo bus from Seoul Incheon airport to downtown Seoul. We bought tickets in the airport in Terminal 1, right in front of the bus stop. The limo bus was about $10 per person and ended up being about an hour long ride. Though the bus driver helps you get your luggage on and off, we found the bus to be stressful, as we couldn’t hear the stops and didn’t really know where we were going. It was the cheapest way to get to Seoul, though!
For the ride back to the airport trip one, we took a taxi to Seoul Station (about $5) and then took the AREX express train to the airport (about $12-14 per person). You’ll only need to know to get off at Terminal 1 or Terminal 2. When we traveled to Seoul in early 2018, Terminal 2 was only Air France, Delta Air Lines, KLM and Korean Air; Terminal 1 was everyone else. Most transportation options we needed departed from Terminal 1, but there is a free shuttle between airport terminals if needed.
From the airport to Seoul for trip two, we took the AREX express train from the airport to Seoul Station, and then a taxi from Seoul Station to Somerset Palace. Leaving Seoul with Gideon, we took a taxi from Somerset Palace all the way back to the airport so we didn’t have to deal with luggage (plus stroller, plus toddler) getting on and off the express train! It was about $75, but it was worth it going home. Somerset Palace will arrange the taxi for you at no cost. Just ask them to book the taxi the day before you plan to leave.
No matter how you travel, assume you’ll need a solid hour between the airport and Seoul. Also be sure to leave plenty of time for check-in at Seoul Incheon airport before your flight. Most airline services shut down check-in one hour prior to take-off, plus you’ll need to actually see a gate agent once you have your child, as the passport scanners won’t accept a Korean passport with an American address.
Where did you stay?
We chose to stay in Insadong, and we are SO glad we did! We, by far, spent the majority of our time in or around Insadong, so it was the perfect “basecamp” for us. It’s within walking distance of the palaces, Myeongdong, Gwangjang Market, Namdaemun Market, Bukchon Hanok Village, and an abundance of shops and restaurants. We even walked from Namsan Seoul Tower, though that was on the edge of not being within walking distance, even for us. 🙂 Lots of SWS families choose to stay in Gangnam, where the SWS office is located, but we found almost nothing to do in Gangnam, and we only needed to be there two days the first visit and one day (custody) the second visit. Plus, Gangnam was an easy 45-minute subway ride from Insadong.
AirBNB vs. Hotel
For the first trip, we chose an AirBNB near Insadong (right outside of Jonggak station in Jongno, separated from Insadong by one main road called Jong-ro). Location wise, the AirBNB was perfect! It felt safe (though basically everywhere in Korea felt safe), and it was almost on top of the subway station we frequented. What we didn’t account for were the neighbors! Unfortunately, the neighbor in the apartment next to our AirBNB smoked, and my allergies/asthma just couldn’t hang. So we moved to Top Hotel & Residence in Insadong for the second half of the week. Our room was no-frills and tiny, to the point we had to stuff our suitcases under the desk in order to close the door. But it was clean, smoke-free, and exactly what we needed for two people!
For the second trip, we settled on Somerset Palace, which was PERFECT for custody! The hotel is about a 5-minute walk from Gyeongbokgung Palace in one direction and a 5-minute walk from Insadong in the other direction. And we ended up being SO thankful we were only about 3 blocks from the US Embassy, because Gideon did not want to go anywhere once he was in our arms. This allowed us to totally avoid the subway and all but one taxi (back to the airport) after custody.
Somerset also has a nice playroom, a rooftop deck (with a pool, but it was too cold and closed in April), and the best dang breakfast we’ve ever had! We got our use out of the playroom, particularly as Gideon struggled with leaving the hotel, and our actual room was a generous size for being stuck all week. We had a kitchenette, a living room with a couch, and a dedicated sleeping area. They also provided a crib with crib bedding at no cost and accommodated our request for a bathtub. And bonus – it was about 1/3 of the cost of Orakai Suites the week we traveled!
Orakai Suites is where most families from all agencies seem to stay, and again I’ve heard unanimously good things, but it was well outside our budget. That said, we consistently used Orakai as the standard for location when looking for lodging, and we personally always recommend other families do the same.
Did you need an international phone plan? What about a WiFi egg?
Brian and I both have AT&T, and we opted out of international coverage. Every person we needed to talk to back home had either an iPhone or an iPad to use FaceTime, so we chose to rent a “WiFi egg” instead of purchasing limited international phone data. There are a few different companies offering WiFi eggs at Seoul Incheon airport, and we chose LG, only because they had the best deals both weeks we traveled. We did not book in advance; however, if you are going during peak season, I’m told it’s not a bad idea! SWS, our Korean agency, gave us their email address to use while we were in Korea, and our social worker was responsive enough that we had no reason to call. The one time we needed to call our hotel shuttle, we just used the phone at the info desk at the airport, and we gave our American agency our hotel phone number to call if needed. For us, the WiFi egg was all we needed, and it was only about $5 per day for unlimited data!
Regardless of whether or not you decide to go the WiFi egg route, you’ll want to make sure you have power for your phone and/or the egg. Our WiFi egg actually came with a battery pack, but it would only last about half the day without a recharge. So we ultimately had 3 battery packs at all times!
Did you learn Korean before you traveled?
English was not nearly as common in Korea as we expected. Brian and I tried to practice Korean on the plane, but we learned approximately 5 words – hello, goodbye, thank you, no thank you/that’s okay, and sorry – and we tried to use them as much as possible so people knew we were trying. That said, most restaurants have their menus posted outside, so we looked for English words and did a lot of pointing! The subway (see below) was also super easy to navigate, even without knowing Korean. Believe it or not, Starbucks was the most challenging place to order if no one spoke English, as they generally did not have a menu posted on the counter for pointing. The menus on the board were in English, but not the menus on the counter, so we did a lot of pointing at the sign on the wall and then gesturing “one, two, three, four” to say we wanted the fourth option down. Most of the street vendors and all the hotel staff we encountered (at both hotels) spoke at least basic English. We rode in taxis twice without our social worker, and once we had a driver who knew English and once we did not, so I would recommend translating a few common addresses (your hotel, your agency, the airport, the subway station you plan to frequent…) into Korean before you leave.
We also ran into a lot of “tourist volunteers.” They are easy to spot in their bright red coats, and they go around touristy areas like Insadong to help people who are clearly foreigners find where they need to go. Since we didn’t run into a lot of other white people, we were easy for the “tourist volunteers” to spot. 😉 All of the “tourist volunteers” spoke fluent English and were so sweet!
There is also a tourist information desk in the subway station in Itaewon that helped us find an international clinic (see below).
Did you feel safe in Seoul? Was it clean?
Brian and I generally aren’t city people, but we found Seoul to be beautiful, clean, safe, and exciting! Seriously, even the trash cans are clean, though they are extremely uncommon, so I’d recommend a small backpack and a clear plastic bag to carry your trash around Seoul. We walked around frequently at night, and we didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. We felt entirely safe, which is saying something, as I’m generally scared of my own shadow, haha.
Did you stand out in Seoul? What is the feeling toward adoption?
We definitely stood out in Seoul, particularly once we had Gideon with us. We found most people were helpful when asked, but not necessarily forthcoming otherwise. We had one fellow – a sweet, excitable man from North Korea – come up and talk to us on the street, but we had to quickly get used to not making small talk (which, to be fair, is pretty typical in most areas of the US too, but we’re Kentuckians through and through). Adoption is generally something most Koreans aren’t particularly proud of, so we were openly stared at once Gideon was in the picture. Only two older people – a woman and a man, on different occasions – smiled as they stared away. A few commented how cute he was and then continued to stare. I’m assuming it’s not considered rude to stare in Korea, but it was still disconcerting for us Kentuckians to have people staring constantly but not talking to us!
Why are so many people wearing masks in Seoul?
People often wear masks in Seoul because of the air quality. The lights on Namsan Seoul Tower aren’t just for looks; they actually indicate the air quality that day, and when the lights turn yellow or red, you’ll see an increased number of people wearing masks. I’m assuming people in South Korea also wear masks to prevent illness, because I coughed a lot in the subway on our way to the international clinic (see below), and the space around me cleared out really quickly! Once I bought and used a mask at the next subway stop, people stopped moving away from me!
What was the weather like?
The weather in Seoul was almost identical to Kentucky weather, right down to the highs-and-lows for the day and the constantly shifting temperatures! For our first trip, we traveled the first week of March, and we were glad to have winter coats, wool socks, and boots (30-50 degrees). For our second trip, we traveled the first week in April, and we alternated between winter coats and no jackets (40-70 degrees). I basically always wore the outfits below, which included dark jeans, tall boots, and a long-sleeved t-shirt or sweater, with some combination of a thin black North Face fleece, white medium-weight North Face fleece, a thin outer wind-proof shell or my North Face raincoat. Plus a scarf, wool socks, and gloves, of course!
We would recommend packing lots of layers rather than bulky clothes, as Koreans tend to like it HOT inside in the winter. It’s not unusual to step into a coffee shop on a 35-degree day and have 80-degree air greet you inside. You’ll want to be able to easily slip off outer layers. Most often I wore my white zip-up, medium-weight North Face fleece; plus a relatively thin, puffy, wind-proof shell I could take off easily. I bought the scarf and the wool socks I wore everywhere once we got to Korea – in Insadong to be specific – as we were told Korea is proud of their wool products. The socks were $3 per pair and super soft, and my scarf was also less than $10.
Gideon did not like gloves or hats while we walked around Seoul, so that was another reason we got stared at. If your kids can stand to be bundled up, put as many layers on them as possible, as it’s culturally appropriate (even culturally expected for children)!
How was the subway? What if I’ve never used public transportation?
The subway in Korea is incredibly easy to use, and that’s saying something, seeing as Brian and I are from Kentucky and have used public transportation only a handful of times! There is a TV screen and very visible signs on the ceiling of each car that tell you the next step in Korean, English, and Chinese, as well as what side of the car the doors will open at that stop. In most cars, there is also an announcement that tells you what stop is coming up, again in Korean, English, and Chinese. However, occasionally we got in a car that didn’t have announcements. If you use the Citymapper app (see below), it will also show you in real time which stop you’re on and how many stops until you need to get off.
If you plan to use the subway, get a T-money card. You can find them inside the metro stations or at any convenience store (7-11 or C25 store), which are all over Seoul! Each person – adult or child older than 5 – needs their own T-Money card. Children 5-years-old and under are free. Children above 5 get a discounted rate, about half the cost of the adult rate. Each one-way subway trip is generally $1.00 – $1.50, with the cost varying based on how many stops you go and if/how often you change lines (which are denoted by colors).
Did you use a map or an app to get around Seoul?
We are directionally challenged and tried several different apps for subway/walking directions while in Seoul, and Citymapper was by far our favorite! It shows you in real-time (even in the underground Subway) where you are and which direction you’re heading. It shows you a bulleted list of the exact subway stops between you and your destination, tells you when to get off and transfer lines, and then seamlessly gives you walking directions without having to switch to a different “mode” on the map (though you can switch between buses and subways if you choose). It also accepts desired destinations in Korean and English, though I would highly recommend getting a friend who knows Korean to translate common addresses for you. Our friend Yun translated addresses for our hotel, SWS (our agency), the airport, and a few common destinations we knew we’d want to visit. We didn’t need them for the app, but they were awesome to have in case we needed a taxi.
Again, we rented a WiFi egg, so we had no issues using our phones (or the Citymapper app) in Korea! The only place the WiFi egg struggled was in Gangnam, on the one road our agency was located. Since Gangnam is a business district, our phones struggled to stay connected, as they kept trying to connect to the hundreds of other WiFi signals around us.
Do I need cash? Do most places take international credit cards?
You will need cash in Seoul. We don’t use a lot of cash at home, but we were thankful to have a few hundred dollars in cash, and a debit card that worked internationally. You’ll need cash to reload your T-Money cards (for the subway and taxis), for taxis (if you don’t use your T-Money card), for street vendors, in the markets, and even in some stores and restaurants. Both of our hotels took credit, as did the AREX express train from the airport and most brick-and-mortar restaurants and shops. But we used more cash than we anticipated.
The conversion rate changes frequently, but when we traveled to Seoul, one USD was worth about 1,000 Korean won, so it was pretty easy to drop the zeroes when calculating costs!
We used our bank debit card to withdraw money at ATMs without issue, though we were charged a $3 fee, which wasn’t a big deal. We have the Chase Sapphire credit card we use when we travel, and we just made sure to let Chase know when and where we were going before we left for Korea. We had no issues with either card.
If you plan to use the subway, taxis, or buses, get a T-money card. You can find them inside the metro stations or at any convenience store (7-11 or C25 store), which are all over Seoul!
Any specific tips for navigating around Seoul?
We recommend a small backpack and a clear plastic bag to carry your trash around Seoul, as trash cans are quite uncommon. We also carried a water bottle (easy to refill, as South Korea is quite aware of the environmental impact of plastic) and two battery packs with cords to keep our phones and the WiFi egg charged. Our WiFi egg actually came with a battery pack, but it would only last about half the day without a recharge. So we ultimately had 3 battery packs at all times!
Did your straightener or curling iron work in Seoul?
I get this question surprisingly frequently! I had been told Korean outlets can fry your curling iron or straightener, but we had an outlet adapter (some cheap, universal thing from Amazon), so I took my chances and used my straightener without any issues. I didn’t take a curling iron, but I assume it would be the same.
What is food like in Seoul?
Western food isn’t particularly common in Korea, though we did find some well-known restaurants: McDonald’s, Subway, KFC, and Starbucks, to name a few. In fact, there is a Subway about a block away from Somerset Palace, and we frequently chose to eat there once we had custody and didn’t feel like searching for food. Paris Baguette is another great option if you aren’t an adventurous eater. It’s expensive, but there are plenty of sandwich and salad options to choose from, and there is literally one on just about every corner in Seoul. Of note, there is one just across the “big hill” up to SWS, so we grabbed coffee and grapefruit tea before each visit with Gideon!
Speaking of coffee, coffee shops are EVERYWHERE. I’m talking 3-4 per block. Sometimes we even saw two Starbucks on the same block, haha. That said, you won’t find many coffee shops open before 8 or 9 in the morning, as we were told coffee is culturally an evening treat in Korea.
I really like Korean food, and Brian likes to try new things, so we ate Korean food as much as possible up until custody (when we were so tired and anxious we rarely ate at all). That said, we didn’t often eat in restaurants, preferring instead to frequent food vendors throughout Myeongdong and Insadong.
A few common Korean foods worth trying, in no particular order (pictured left to right below each description)…
Bulgogi beef (typical of Korean barbecue places) + Japchae (glass noodles with bulgogi beef and vegetables)
Egg bread (or gyerranppang, which is a sweet, cornbread-like bread with an egg on top) + Sweet potatoes (from a street vendor, particularly if they are being cooked in a large clay pot)
Korean fried chicken (you may have to find a restaurant for this one) + Mandu (Korean dumplings and our very, very favorite Korean food!)
Wonton soup (our favorite was in Gwangjang Market) + Bulgogi Beef Soup
“Poop pancakes” from the Poop Cafe in Insadong + Grapefruit Tea from Paris Baguette
“Cheese” Ice Cream (Bukchon Hanok Village) + Korean coffee (our favorite was a latte from Super Coffee in Jong-no)
Bingsu (Korean shaved “ice,” but it’s creamy, like ice cream) + “Fish” Ice Cream (which is a fish-shaped pastry known as bungeoppang, filled with ice cream, honeycomb, and an Oreo)
Also worth noting, but not pictured: Gimbap (or Kimbap, which looks and tastes much like a California roll), Korean ramen (found at street vendors all over Seoul), Bibimbap (best from the markets!), Bungeoppang (fish-shaped pastry with Nutella in the middle), and “soup dumplings” (which are dumplings with soup inside and probably have a better name than “soup dumplings,” haha).
In Insadong, you’ll also find 2-3 street vendors selling “pulled honey” candy, also known as Dragon’s beard candy, and it’s worth a try! We weren’t a huge fan of the taste, but the texture is AWESOME, as the honey is “pulled” into 16,000 strands! It’s also just really, really fun to watch Dragon’s beard candy being made. Most street vendors sell only one or two foods they have perfected, so you can almost guarantee the food will be delicious! Except maybe fish. We found the seafood in all of Asia to be very…fishy. Not suspicious fishy. Ocean fishy. But Americans are probably weird in that we prefer fish most when it doesn’t actually taste like fish!
A couple of actual brick-and-mortar restaurants worth noting: We enjoyed an all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue place in Hongdae for around $10 per person! It was called “The Meating.” Nearby was a dessert place called Sulbing, which is famous for bingsu (Korean shaved ice, except instead of frozen water, the “ice” is frozen milk). Bingsu is not the cheapest and comes in enormous portions, but it was delicious and the perfect treat to share with friends.
Anything different about the restaurants in Seoul?
Most restaurants in Seoul have menus posted outside, which was so nice! We were able to check prices – and whether or not the restaurant had an English menu – without even going inside. You don’t tip in Seoul, and it can be perceived as rude to do so.
Though we found wait staff would check on us – likely because we were obviously not locals – most of the time waitresses don’t come back to your table unless you push the button on the table. I actually preferred this, as people didn’t constantly ask how we were while we were trying to eat, haha. Also, most tables have their own water pitchers, utensils, and napkins you get yourself. Don’t be afraid to open the drawers under the table!
If you plan to get food “to go,” use the term “take away” instead. Though restaurant staff generally figured out what we meant, they didn’t often immediately understand the term “to go.”
What is medical care like in Seoul?
As much as I would love to not know about medical care in Asia, I have been to a clinic or hospital in 3 of the 5 countries we’ve traveled to in Asia! I got sick one of my last days in Seoul, and I was nervous airport security wouldn’t let me back on the plane to go home (when we went through Hong Kong for a layover previously, they literally took the temperatures of everyone getting on the plane!). So we set out to find an international clinic. I knew I remembered Kelli telling me that Itaewon was a big international center in Seoul, so I literally typed “international clinic” into our Citymapper app and selected the first one in Itaewon. You can find it here: https://citymapper.com/go/icjjh2jvmz.
The doctor at the South Korean clinic spoke very fluent English (I had flashbacks to drawing pictures with the almost-non-English-speaking doctor in Indonesia though), and their office was insanely efficient. From walking in the door to walking out the door with prescriptions in hand, it took 22 minutes. And that included two throat swab tests and waiting for the results: An unspecified bacterial infection. The total cost for seeing the doctor and the two tests was 100,000 Korean won (or about $92 USD). That’s way cheaper than our high-deductible plan back home!
The nurses explained what and how to take the medications we were to pick up from the pharmacy a few blocks away, which was great because the pharmacist spoke only a few words of English. The three medications the doctor prescribed cost just $26 total.
Did you get any specific vaccines before traveling to Korea?
You can find the CDC recommendations HERE. Brian and I traveled to Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia about 9 months before we left for Korea, so we had already received Hepatitis A and Typhoid for that trip. If you plan to eat street food in any country, it’s not a bad idea to at least get Hep A, and most insurance plans will cover it if you haven’t already received it. Japanese Encephalitis seems to be a routine vaccine in South Korea, as Gideon came home with it on his immunization report. We opted out of this vaccine – even before we went to Bali, where it is much more highly recommended – because it was several hundred dollars per person. Talk to your doctor about what vaccines you might need, as recommendations typically depend on length of time in country, time of year, and what parts of Korea you’ll be visiting. Our doctor also took cost into effect, per our request, based on the incidence of certain diseases.
Did you travel outside of Korea?
We did! If you’ve been following our blog for a while, you know we had initially planned to adopt from Taiwan, where two of our best friends (and their babies!) currently live as missionaries. Even though God had different plans for our adoption, we still traveled to Taiwan to experience the culture and to spend time with Josh, Jessica, and Hosanna. You can find more about our Taiwan travels HERE.