What to expect when riding the Seoul metro

Getting around in Seoul is pretty easy, just in case you were wondering.

Names of the stations and metro lines are all very clearly marked in both Korean and English, and the different lines are also colour coded, so there is no need to worry about not knowing where you’re going. It is pretty much the same as using a metro system in any other major city in Europe or North America. No biggie.

But what should you expect on the train and on the platforms? There are certain rules on Korean public transport that you’re supposed to follow or else you could find yourself in very awkward situations without even realising. You will have identified yourself as a tourist who hasn’t prepared for the different cultural settings before leaving (and nobody wants to be THAT person).

Things you need to be aware of:

  • There are very clear marks and arrows on the floor of the platforms indicating where the train doors will open once the train has stopped, and will show you where to queue to get on. The queuing is not to be taken lightly, everybody will queue up in neat rows of two on each side of every train door so that the passengers leaving the train can get off first. Trying to get on before other passengers are able to get off the train happens, but it is usually looked at by others as a major nuisance. You will understand this without knowing a word of Korean, you can see it in their faces. They have a penchant for the side-eye and it is ruthless.
  • Once you’re on the train and you sit down in a seat, don’t be surprised if some stranger is going to stand right in front of you, literally inches from you, when all the other seats are taken. That happens because even the standing on a metro train is governed by neatness and order. You can’t just stand around anywhere, you line up to the rows of seats on each side of the train and you face the person sitting down. This seems to be the most economic use of space I’ve ever seen on a train. At rush hour, when people are starting to shove themselves into an already full train this will prevent blockage in front of the doors and you won’t have to get intimate with as many people.
  • The fanfares! Pretty much every station platform will blast a little fanfare just before a train is arriving. There are two different sounds, one for each direction.
  • The T-Money card. Even if you’re just staying a few days, this little piece of plastic will save you money and trouble. Swiping through the gates at the metro station isn’t the only thing you can do with it either, you can pay with it in shops, restaurants, and taxis and you also get discounts at tourist attractions. It is easy to top up in case you run out of credit; there are machines everywhere in every station and they can be switched to English for ease of use. Also: the card looks adorable, thanks to Korea’s obsession with cute cartoon characters.tmoney
  • Last but not least, and maybe slightly obvious, is the major rule that you always give up your seat for elderly people, families with kids or pregnant women. They have their allocated seating areas which you should if at all possible not use at all (unless you count yourself to one of the above three categories), but when these seats are all taken and there are still people in need of a seat, you should offer it to them at least. In case of doubt, always get up and offer. If they don’t want it or they don’t feel they need it they will let you know, but they will appreciate your kindness.
  • The cost of public transport is super affordable. I had a tendency to use the metro at least 6 times a day, often taking long journeys to opposite ends of the city, and I used around 5000 Won (around $5USD) per day. I couldn’t get away with that little money in the UK.

The one main thing to know about public transport in Seoul is that it is a lot less intimidating than it looks from the outside. You might get lost once or twice, get on the train in the wrong direction, but the mistakes are easily ironed out. Public transport really is the best way to get around in this city as well, considering that taxi drivers often don’t speak English that well and traffic can get crazy in Seoul. To the point where nobody has even the slightest ounce of chill left and all you hear is screeching tyres, loud car horns and animated swearing. The metro might get crowded sometimes, but at least the people riding it are super relaxed and in the summer months the A/C of the trains keeps heads cool.

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