Although there are payphones in every subway station and all taxi-drivers have one (or two), if you're in Seoul for business or extended for pleasure (and/or plan on going outside of the city) renting a cellphone/mobile at the (Incheon) Airport can be a good idea.
The reasons are many:
(i) Absoutely everyone has a phone and everyone uses textmessaging too (it's more convenient than talking sometimes and Koreans can read/write English better than they can speak it in many cases);
(ii) Plans can change at any time and traffic can be a bother so you may need to get in touch with people or them with you;
(iii) Directions in Seoul can be a challenge and you may even need to call someone who is a few feet away because of the crowds, and;
(iv) It's just more convenient for you (and, more importantly, the people you may meet there) to be in constant communication.
Also, please know that Korea has its own special frequency (CDMA 2000) that is wholly different from all the others...even 3G phones and devices will not get a signal here: only Korean-band ones.
Prices are about 3,000 won/2.7USD a day plus 600 won/0.50USD a minute. Big carriers are LG, KT and SK (going from cheapest to most expensive, no real difference in service, but phones offered may vary).
Fondest memory: Click here for more phone information; but, contrary to its advice, you need not reserve a phone beforehand.
If you rent a phone while in Seoul/Korea (I have a tip on this also) you may find yourself with a run-down battery from time to time (even though the batteries in them are usually quite good). If you do there is an answer.
At many CVSs (Korean name for ConVenience Stores) and some restaurants and theatres there are chargers. A quick-charge (abotu 5-10 minutes, I believe) costs about 1,000won/1USD in a CVS but might be by 'donation' or free in a restaurant or theatre.
The Korean word for them is 핸드폰 충전기 (said as hand-fone choong-jeung-gi) so you can either ask around or do a little mime thing of holding your phone to your ear and acting as if it doesn't work to get someone to point you toward one.
I couldn't understand why my Korean friends would ask where the store was when we were hiking in the woods or at a park or somewhere. Once I got here I understood. Koreans are creatures of comfort (well, so am I) and convenience stores are all over the place.
Within one block of my apartment there are 6 little stores (some right beside each other!) all selling pretty similar products. As well, if you take a stroll down the Han River you'll see many shops like the one pictured on the left. In true Korean/extreme fashion, they are every 50 feet in some areas and non-existant in others. I could never understand how they all stayed afloat financially until I noticed on a hot day that the parks were so packed that you could hardly walk (well, not that packed, but you get the picture).
At these stores there are the usual Korean and some Western snacks and drinks as well as beer, Korean alcohol, toys, kites, ramen noodles and many other goodies (few of which have much nutritive value which makes me wonder why Koreans are so thin).
So you want to visit Korea, meet people, sightsee, but you think that not speaking Korean could be a problem. Well, if you want to really experience Korea (especially Seoul) like a native, try the Goodwill Guide program. The guides are volunteers who through the Korean National Tourism Organization can be assigned/reserved for you when you arrive. These people come from all walks of life, speak your language (mostly English) and love showcasing their country to tourists. There is a minimal cost to use this service. You only have to pay the transportation cost, meals or tickets to shows that that the guide attends with you. They will take you anywhere you want to go and act as your personal guide. In the process you can make a fast friend. Here is the link to arrange for a guide:
Fondest memory: My wife and daughter used the guide program to see a traditional show at the Sejong Cultural Center. They had never been there and the guide gave them directions, met them at the subway stop, and got them seats in the front row of the theater. She even translated the show for them while in progress as well as giving them tips about how and when to see other performances throughout the city.
Before going to Korea, I have made quite a detailed plan; where to go, what to do, what to eat, where to shop, what to bring and all the essentials. But I have found out that the best suggestions and informations come from the locals and from the visitors who have done the same trip as you are.
The picture shows the little note on how to get to the Seoul Bus Station. A Japanese lady offered me this when she found out that I wanted to go to Gyeongju alone. It saved me a lot of time, effort and anxiety in going there. And best of all, I made a new friend!
Favorite thing: One of my favorite things about Seoul is internet access. It is everywhere. Korea is one of the most wired places in the world and Seoul has got to be the most wired city. There are "hotspots" everywhere and if you don't own a computer, you can go to any of the thousands of PC rooms (PC bong) and use one of their computers to access the internet or play your favorite video game for as little as $1 US per hour. Also many of the PC rooms offer sandwiches and beverages for a nominal fee while you use their equipment. If you are into computers this is the place to be.
When I wrote the outline for my Korean Journal, I noticed that 2 words dominate the pages...delicious and yummy ;0) Guess that explains how much I love Korean food.
A friend let me try Bibimbap in one of Insadong's cozy restaurants (unfortunately, I forgot the name of the shop). It is rice with lots of toppings like veggies, pork and noodles. According to him bibim means "mix" and bap means "rice". You need to put some chili paste to complete the mixture. It didn't look appealing at first (imagine kaning baboy!) but it is delicious. I love how the different textures compliment each other. And I love the chili paste though not too much because I couldn't tolerate its spiciness. With it, several complimentary side dishes were served; there is something that looked like "dilis" in spicy chili sauce, monggo sprout, radish, and the traditional cabbage Kimchi.
Fondest memory: I'm not sure if it's called Mak geol li....a kind local rice wine. It is milky white in color and served warm. It is very light and not as intoxicating as Soju. For a non-drinker, I can say this wine is very nice and has a delicate flavor. Very good partner for those hot chili paste.
Word of advice:
Eat with a friend and share. Koreans serve big servings of everything! Look at how big the bowl of Bibimbap was. My friends got bored waiting for me to finish it all up ;0)
One look at these street special and I said to myself "I want those yummy-looking sausages with tomato sauce"...so a friend bought me a serving. Imagine my surprise when I learned that those were not sausages…and definitely not tomato sauce! Those were rice cakes with chili sauce… sooooooo spicy!
Try it while in Seoul (or maybe in any part of Korea...I'm not sure)...you'll be craving for it once you went home to your country.
Be sure to have water at hand...the cakes are so spicy and it would surely bring tears to your eyes.
Favorite thing: One of the more surprising aspects of Seoul is the number of Christian churches, often located in prominent places. With the exception of the Philippines, there are more Christians in South Korea than any other East Asian nation. I believe about 20% of the Korean population claims to belong to one of the Christian religions.
Favorite thing: I am pleasantly surprised with the pride Koreans take in their traditions and history, despite years of being invaded by China or Japan. this is obvious in how well-maintained their cultural landmarks are despite years of abuse at the hands of occupiers.
Favorite thing: The government seems to be making a concerted effort to promote Seoul as a tourist destination -- especially since South Korea co-hosted the 2002 World Cup. There seems to have been a marked increase in tourism-related construction and an outlay in tourist-related won. The refurbishment of the palaces and the number of changinng of the guard ceremonies everywhere are evidence of thais. THe newest manifestation of this apparent movement (I only know of it from what I observe) is the relandscaping of Namdeamun (Great South Gate). It used to be in the center of a traffic circle (see the picture I posted under Things to Do) but in between January and July 2005 they eliminated one quarter of the roadway so now you can walk in a park like setting right up to the gate. Even more surprising, they have posted 15th Century guards! Do they have a changing of the guard ceremony here, too? Let me know if you find out.
Fondest memory: When looking for accomodation facilities, make shure that your acomodation is located along subway line No. 5! Nearly every main sights are located along this line ... or they are very close so that you have to change the trains only once ... My host Jinih told me that.
No matter where you go in Seoul, you will continually be reminded of the U.S. military presence in Korea. Because of the large role the United States played un the U.N. defense of South Korea in the 1950's and over the last 50 years, this is unavoidable.
For the most part, the South Korean people realize that U.S. presence has had a positive influence. Without the U.S. presence, the present prosperity and democracy probably wouldn't exist. However, polls show that Koreans under the age of 35, brought up with the sunshine policy in a successsful nation worth being proud of, are less positively disposed toward the American presence. While they don't remember the Korean War, they do recall several accidents and crimes for which they believe American servicemen have received light or no punishment. While older Koreans support a continued US presence on peninsula, many younger Koreans would like to see it reduced.
Still, relations between individual Americans and Koreans are usually good. Lots of soldiers end up meeting Koreans and marrying them -- creating a strong and permanent link between the countries. No matter what the political situation, I have always been treated graciously by Koreans everywhere in Seoul.
Favorite thing: Korean is a hard language for native English speakers to learn, but there's no reason why visitors to Seoul shouldn't learn the alphabet. Like Russian and English, Korean script is made up in letters, though the letters are combined into blocks of syllables tat may look like characters to the inattentive. Once you learn the simple rules for what sounds these symbols represent (rules with many fewer exceptions than English) you can read (but not comprehend) any Korean word. This is useful when finding subway or bus stops and may allow you to pick up a few Korean words that you see written everywhere (hajinshil == toilet is one equation I learned from reading). Furthermore, there are many Korean words that come from English (banana, ice cream) that you'll be able to read. So take the time to learn! Literacy is a great tool!
1) Money (listed in KRW - won) to bring if you are traveling on a budget:
accommodation could be 15000 ~ 50000 won per day depending on where you book
-food will run you about 5000~10000 won per meal (remember no need to tip)
-shopping is per your own choices and tastes:
--cheap clothing can be found 5000 won and higher
--cheap backpacks and bags can be found 25000 won and higher
--electronics vary greatly and may need to be researched because foreign markets may be cheaper
-transportation - subway tickets can be bought on multi-passes for average cost of less than 1000 won per ticket
2) How to Get around: transportation is easy in Seoul, but if you don't speak Korean, I would stick to the metro since it is the simplest to understand and still gets you everywhere. With that in mind, you are never more than a couple metro stops from any neighborhood or destination.
3) where to Stay: Depending on how tight your budget is, you may be able to stay just about anywhere. Single cheap rooms can be 15000KRW. Cheap rooms large enough for a family may be 60000KRW. With a tighter budget, you will most likely have to stay just outside of the main tourist areas. Your best chance will be to stay at the more economic motels, often referred to as 'love motels'. Don't let the monicker scare you, they are clean and offer good services. There are hundreds, if not thousands of them everywhere. The main problem there is that most do not have websites or anything that you can book in advance, and if they have a website, it will be in Korean. If you want to be assured a roof over your head, I recommend you book something over the internet for the first 1~2 nights and when you are walking around, stop in and look at several of the love motels.
Look at the Seoul travel guide for reasonable discount accommodation. There are lots of guesthouses, hostels and cheap hotels.
4) Renting room as foreigner. There is absolutely nothing in regards to safety that you will have problem with by renting a room by yourself as a foreigner. However Korea does not commonly have short term rentals. The system in which Korea does key/deposit money and then monthly contracts does not usually make it worth while for short stays. And typically unless you find a lucky connection, most temporary apartments may not be furnished.