For months I have been day-dreaming about and planning for a trip to Seoul, and in February I finally sealed the deal by booking my flights. As a perpetually single person and very happy solo traveller there was not one doubt in my mind whether I could do this by myself, despite the language barrier and all. Because why the hell not. I can read a map, I can print out a few sheets of phrases in Korean to help me get by, and I can learn about etiquette and rules before I go there and without ever needing access to a smartphone.
By the way, if you have developed such an unhealthy bond to your mobile phone that your life’s motto could be “Google first – think later” (someone hire me as a slogan-writer please. Also, this IS my life’s motto.), you won’t have to go without. You can leave that mobile data function turned off once you disembark your plane in Seoul as it will be completely unnecessary there. There is free WiFi access at almost all public spaces – don’t forget that this town is the central hub for Samsung and more in love with technology than any other place. My point is: you can get an “egg”, a nifty little mobile WiFi device, at the airport, but you probably won’t need it. There is, however, no free WiFi on the metro trains, only on the platforms, which is kind of a shame. But then compared to other cities (I’m looking at you, Hong Kong) Seoul will very likely be sharing her WiFi with you if you ask nicely, you might just have to walk a few blocks for access. Some other things you need to know and bring:
- City and Public Transport Maps – these are often provided at hotels and tourist information centres anyway, but I wanted to know where I am going from the moment I exited the airport so I brought a print out of a map I (you guessed it) googled. I ended up always keeping this in my pocket for the occasions where I got on a train and completely forgot where I was going. It saved my behind from going the wrong direction a few times. You can also download a Seoul transport map app, for example from Mapway Seoul
- Important Phrases, even if it’s just “Hello”, “Please” and “Thank You”. Being polite and at least trying to make an effort will get you a long way. A lot of Koreans don’t speak a lot of English so if you need something from them they will appreciate you meeting then half way. Also remember to take a small bow before and after transactions, e.g. when saying thank you and after exchanging money for goods. It’s basic etiquette.
- The names and addresses of your hotel(s) in Korean in case you hop on a taxi whose driver doesn’t speak English, which is a strong possibility, or simply when you find yourself lost and you need to ask a stranger for directions.
- A brief written extract of every video about South Korea Simon and Martina have ever uploaded onto YouTube. They lived in Seoul for a while and have a massive amount of advise to give (often food related) and they helped me a lot in figuring out what to expect. And they’re funny and generally nice humans and definitely worth following (they currently reside in and make videos about Japan in case that interests you as well.
- Cash. This might be obvious but bring plenty of Won with you. My UK and Austrian bank cards were not accepted at most ATM’S, and it got me into a lot of awkward situations. Only Citibank and KEB are reliable to give out cash to foreign cards, and they are few and far between. I ran out of money and then I had to find WiFi and Google the locations of friendly cash machines, and that took a lot of time away from my day and made me feel really anxious for a while, so don’t do that to yourself.
- Deodorant. If it’s hot and you’re sweating and you need deodorant, you will have to pay a fortune for it in Seoul. It’s like a luxury item. Like 10000 Won for one spray can. You could save that money and spend it on Tteokkbokki and other delicious Korean food (and you should).
When you’re going on a solo trip to Seoul and you’re worried about being out in the streets by yourself, especially after dark, don’t worry too much. As long as you keep in mind standard safety precautions which you probably already have in place in your day to day life you should be very safe in Seoul. This city basically never sleeps so there are always a good few people in the streets that make you feel like somebody would come to your aid if you were approached by a shifty figure. And judging by my own experience of the kindness of a Seoulite stranger I’m convinced they would.
Speaking of shifty people: if a man who looks like a monk dressed in grey or olive coloured clothes walks up to you smiling and saying the word “Peace” a lot, politely shake your head and say no. Sounds rude, but what he’s going to do next is put a gold coloured piece of paper in your hand which looks a bit like Buddha’s official business card. If at this point you still haven’t caught on to the fact that he’s scamming you he’ll put a bracelet on your arm and then ask for ‘little money’, but don’t expect him to be happy with 5000 Won. He won’t leave you alone until you hand him over 20000 won, which is more than I spent on food for myself per day unless I had too many coffees. I fell for it on my first day and then resentfully ignored every other ‘monk’ who tried this with me as well. The only good thing that came out if this is that I am now using the wooden bead bracelet as a hair bauble.
If you’re anywhere near the shopping streets beware of the cosmetic houses. Yes, I myself went and bought a few beauty products you can’t get anywhere else, but sometimes when you walk past their door (especially in places like the busy Myeongdong market) they will actively try and get you to come in and buy stuff you don’t need. They achieve this by handing out free samples or – which is what happened to me – simply grabbing you, linking arms with you like you’re BFF’s and drag you inside, showing you some of the products they want to sell. This was a very awkward situation for me, a person who doesn’t know how to say no sometimes. I ended up buying the cheapest thing she could show me and I don’t think she was pleased, but I really didn’t want 200 face masks for the price of 100000 Won, thanks very much Holika Holika. You didn’t know you grabbed the one tourist on the he street travelling on a budget.
Seoul is very respectful to its elders as well, so when you’re on the train you’ll see special assigned seats for elderly people and mothers/mothets-to-be. If these seats are all taken, and during peak hours they will be, and you see an older person boarding the train, you are expected to give up your seat for them immediately. It’s just common courtesy. Look at it this way: they have worked hard all their lives to build this city so you are able to enjoy its sights, technology and food, and now it’s your turn to give back and their turn to relax. Simple.
All in all Seoul has a lot to explore for a solo adventurer, from the sights to the food markets to the off-the-beaten-track areas. The Koreans might be shy with you at first but if you’re polite and maybe say a few phrases in their languages they will be very welcoming and helpful, in case you ever get lost. One week might be not enough time to explore it though, so if you’re luckier than me with more free holidays to spend you should probably look more like at 10 – 14 days. Living costs attre not very expensive, and if you find attre nice place to stay somewhere less central you might get cheaper rates than if you stay in Myeongdong. Train rides at tree not expensive, just get a T-Money card in a CU convience store in the airport arrivals hall and top it up with around 5000 Won per day you plan to use the metro. And you probably will cause Seoul is massive and the metro is very quick and easy to use.
I’d love to jear your own experiences once you’ve been there yourself!