As one of the world’s megacities, those with a population of more than 10 million people, it may come as a surprise that Seoul also has one of the world’s most efficient, clean, and easy to understand public transportation systems. Road and transportation signs are posted in Korean and English (and often Chinese or Japanese), and dozens of tourist information booths are sprinkled around the city with English-speaking guides ready to assist the bewildered traveler.
From taxis to buses, and the subway to the high-speed KTX train, here’s how to navigate your way around Seoul.
Transportation from Incheon International Airport to Downtown Seoul
The main international airport serving the Seoul National Capital Area is Incheon International Airport (IATA: ICN, ICAO: RKSI). Despite being one of the largest and busiest airports in the world, it’s also one of the easiest to navigate and boasts signs stating the average time it takes visitors to get through customs is a mere 15 minutes. (It’s true!)
Once you’ve collected your bags, you’ll need to make your way from Incheon to downtown Seoul, which is about 30 miles from the airport. Taxis and private cars are available but expensive, and most visitors opt for one of two choices; the AREX Airport Railroad or the Airport Limousine Bus.
The AREX Airport Railroad offers both all-stop and express trains, the latter of which delivers passengers to Seoul Station in the city center in approximately 40 minutes.
There are both standard and deluxe limousine buses, the main difference being the price and the number of stops, and each drops passengers at one of several popular destinations, including Myeongdong, City Hall, and Dongdaemun.
How to Ride the Seoul Metro
The subway in Seoul is fast, reliable, and safe. Here’s what you need to know.
- The Seoul Metro is incredibly easy to navigate, and maps can be found either on a handful of smartphone apps or the old-fashioned paper variety at the information desks of larger stations. Another bonus is that all station stops are announced in Korean, English, and Chinese.
- You’ll need to start by purchasing a ticket, which for a single journey costs 1,350 won ($1.14), plus a 500 won deposit, which is refunded when you return the ticket in a refund machine at any station. The price goes down to 1,250 won if you use your own refillable card such as a T-Money, Cashbee or Korea Tour Card, which can be purchased at convenience stores, and topped up at any subway ticket machine. These rechargeable cards can be used on taxis, subways, and buses, and must be topped up with cash only.
- The Seoul Metro operates from approximately 5:30 a.m. to midnight and is considered an extremely safe option any time of the day or night.
- Peak times can be very crowded, but fortunately, the trains are air-conditioned during the hot summer months.
- It’s considered very impolite in Korean culture if you don’t give up your seat to a person older than you who is standing.
- Many stations are stair-access only, so check the Seoul Metro website for accessible travel options if necessary.
Navigating through bus systems in a foreign city always seems daunting at first, but figuring out Seoul city buses is relatively simple. For one, they’re color-coded by the type of destination. For example, blue buses travel on major roads for long distances; green buses go between major transfer points like subway stations. Each stop has a screen that displays the bus numbers and the minutes until the next bus arrives, and information is generally written in English and Korean.
Bus fares can be paid in cash or with a transportation card. If you do use the transportation card, be sure to tap it both when you board and exit the bus.
Taxis are prevalent, and though convenient and relatively well priced, can be a time-consuming choice, as they must navigate traffic and the sheer size of the sprawling city. While some taxi drivers speak English, be prepared with your destination typed out in Korean on your smartphone; unless the destination is a famous tourist attraction, there’s a good chance the driver will need to enter the address in their GPS system.
Regular and Black/Deluxe are the two main types of taxis in Seoul, and both use meters. The starting fare for regular taxis is 3,800 won ($3.20) and covers the first two kilometers of the trip, with 100 won being added for each additional 132 meters. Black/Deluxe taxi fares start at 6,500 won ($5.48) for the first three kilometers and an additional 200 won every 151 meters. The main difference other than the price is that Black/Deluxe taxis are generally just a nicer model of car than regular taxis.
A few more helpful hints when navigating Seoul’s taxis:
- A late-night surcharge of 20 percent applies to all rides between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m.
- Tipping is not customary in Korea.
- Taxis can be hailed on the street or in various taxi stands across the city.
- Taxis accept cash and most also accept credit cards or T-Money cards.
- A red light atop the taxi means it’s available.
- It’s not uncommon for Seoul taxi drivers to refuse passengers for any number of reasons, including that your destination is in the wrong direction from where the driver wants to go, the place you’re going is too close or far away, or the driver doesn’t want to deal with a language barrier. Although it’s illegal for taxi drivers to refuse passengers, it still happens, but a more amenable cabbie will usually appear shortly.
Seoul Bikes is an excellent and easy to use bike rental system that operates throughout the city. The bold green and white bicycles can be found at docking stations near many subway exits and popular tourist attractions, and users can rent or return the bikes at any station. Different pricing plans are available, depending on how often you plan to use the bike service. Rentals average around 1,000 won (84 cents) per hour, which you’ll need to pay with a T-Money card or through the bike rental app (no cash). Helmets aren’t provided, so plan accordingly.
Most visitors to Seoul use public transportation, as parking, navigating, and traffic in Seoul can be problematic for those unfamiliar to the city. If you do want your own set of wheels, you must have a valid International Driving Permit along with your regular driver’s license, and cars can be rented at Incheon International Airport.
Tips for Getting Around Seoul
- If you’re staying in Seoul for more than a few days and planning to visit multiple areas, you’ll save time and money by purchasing a T-Money card, which can be used for taxis, buses, and subways.
- Subways shut down at midnight and reopen at 5:30 a.m. During this time, taxis are the best choice, though some night bus routes operate between 11:30 p.m. and 6 a.m.
- Pedestrians beware! In Korea, it’s common for cars to park on the sidewalk and even for motorcycles to drive on footpaths during high traffic times.
Getting Out of Seoul
Seoul is the only city most foreigners can name in South Korea, and visitors often overlook the rest of the country. But travel outside the capital, and it’s a whole different world filled with forested mountains, extensive farmland, and white-sand beaches, not to mention a handful of other bustling significant cities.
A ride on the high-speed (190 mph) KTX train from Seoul Station in the north to Busan Station on the southeast coast takes approximately two hours and 45 minutes and costs 56,000 won. The KTX also stops at many major cities in between, including Daejeon and Daegu, and the important port cities of Ulsan and Mokpo.
Express and intercity buses are also an option to most areas of the country, and are a cheaper yet more time-consuming choice than the KTX, weighing in at 23,000–34,000 won ($19.40-$28.67), and four and a half hours. Express buses usually stop at a rest area so passengers can stretch their legs and use the facilities, but there are no other stops. Intercity buses stop at different bus stations along the way.