We would encourage you to explore South Korea by car.
There’s nothing wrong with the public transit system in cities like Seoul, it’s actually much better than what we’re used at home.
Korea Train Express ( KTX) operated by Korail, offers reasonably good connections across South Korea. But still, there’s nothing that can beat the freedom of having your own car.
You’re the master of your own schedule and you just need to load your bags in your trunk.
Taking the train often means that you will be dragging your bags up and down several flights of stairs. Yes, there’re elevators but they’re not always very easy to find.
So here we will share what you need to know about driving in Korea and how to do the perfect South Korean road trip.
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South Korea travel tips
Here we will share some more South Korea travel tips.
What’s the best time to visit South Korea?
May, September, and October are the best months to visit South Korea.
June, July, and August are rainier and hotter with temperatures reaching 25 to 30 degrees. Moreover, the risk of typhoons is also greater.
In May everything starts to bloom and in September and October, the autumn colors make the landscapes very photogenic.
We visited South Korea in April and had 2 rainy days over the course of 2 weeks and a half.
Money in South Korea
Cash is king for visitors. Koreans can swipe their cards everywhere but foreign cards are not always accepted.
There’re many ATM’s at Incheon airport and it took us at least an hour to find one where we could withdraw cash.
Most tourists were helping each other pointing out other ATM’s to their fellow-tourists. It seems all foreigners were having the same problems.
Read also: The perfect Korea itinerary.
Once we had left the airport things didn’t get better. It was always a hit or miss with the ATM’s we tried.
Most wouldn’t accept our cards, some did. Usually, we never suggest to bring cash but it looks like it may be a good idea to bring some cash to South Korea.
And once you have found an ATM that gives you cash make sure to withdraw enough! We couldn’t use our credit cards for toll fees. We had better luck in restaurants and gas stations were our cards were usually accepted.
Book attractions online
It’s almost always cheaper to book your tickets for attractions online in South Korea. Most attractions offer discounts from 10% to 50% for tickets that have been bought online.
Here is an overview of the best-organized tours in Korea. An organized tour saves you time and, moreover, the tour guide will enlighten you about the different sights you visit.
We partnered up with GetYourGuide for these activities. We love GetYourGuide because they’re flexible. Sometimes your plans change last minute and then you want to be able to cancel your tickets and get your money back. It’s also good to know that GetYourGuide has your back when the local tour operator doesn’t show up or cancels your trip.
GetYourGuide is a reliable platform where you can book thousands of tours anywhere in the world.
Safety in South Korea
We didn’t encounter any problems whatsoever (except getting cash :-)) during our 7 days in Korea but if you would you can call the travel hotline in 4 languages (Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese) 24/7.
Do I need travel insurance for Korea
Travel Insurance is something that can be overlooked when you prepare for your vacation. Certainly when you’re traveling to a safe and civilized country. We didn’t get travel insurance for our first vacations. A few years later we both took out new credit cards that came with travel insurance and relied on those. We know better now…
Overall, chances are slim that you will encounter any problems while traveling through a civilized country such as Korea. But when things go wrong in civilized countries, the medical costs can be high. We learned it the hard way when we once had to visit the hospital in the United States. The medical care was excellent but we had high out-of-pocket expenses as it turned out the insurance that came without credit cards didn’t cover these costs. It turned out we were underinsured.
Drawing up a travel insurance policy may seem expensive at first but it can potentially save you a significant sum, significantly more than the small insurance fee. Good travel insurance, such as the one from World Nomads, covers things like medical expenses, trip cancellation, overseas medical costs, evacuation, baggage damage or loss, and theft.
Our road trip in Korea
Driving in South Korea
Driving in South Korea may look like quite a challenge for foreigners but it’s actually a lot easier than we had expected.
South Korean roads are well maintained, often better than in Belgium.
The language may seem an obstacle at first but knowledge of Korean is not required to do a self-drive around South Korea.
Read more about our South Korea self-drive itinerary here.
Car rental South Korea
Renting a car in South Korea won’t be a problem for most tourists but there are some restrictions.
The most important thing to take care of before you leave for South Korea is your driving permit.
South Korean car companies
Many international brands are present in the Korean market but there’re some local players as well. Hertz, which in South Korea is affiliated with Lotte rent-a-car, has the most locations.
We rented our car with Avis which is affiliated with AJ Rent-a-car.
Jeju has only one location on Jeju Island and as their website is in Korean only it’s best to book with them through Rentalcars.com.
It’s easy to compare rates and car models on rentalcars.com.
You’re often able to find some good deals and all bookings come with instant confirmation and free cancellation.
You don’t need a car in Seoul, because it’s much easier and cheaper to use public transport. We recommend you to pick up your car once you leave Seoul.
We picked up our car in a location in the center of Seoul and the language barrier turned to be challenging when we got offered a rate which was more than 10% of the rate that we had booked.
We finally resolved this by calling the Avis location at the airport who mastered English better and acted as an intermediary.
We used Google Translate a lot during our South Korean road trip. Make sure you have the app installed on your phone.
International drivers license Korea
An International Driving Permit is required if you want to rent a car in South Korea. The permit shouldn’t be older than 1 year and needs to be issued by a country that has signed either the Geneva or the Vienna Convention (or both).
You need to present your driving license together with your international driving permit and your passport when you pick up your car and the driving license and international driving permit need to be issued by the same country.
Your rental agency may mention that the International Driving Permit needs to be issued by an embassy or consulate.
We read that in the confirmation mail we got from Avis and this confused us initially. Don’t worry too much about this and just follow the steps that are valid in your home country.
In Belgium, you will be able to get the international driving permit at your local town hall.
Other qualifications for renting a car in Korea
Most car rental agencies will require that the driver is 21 years or older and has at least 1 full year of driving experience.
This is not required by law and by comparing various rental agencies you may find some that are not as strict about age.
Picking up your car
South Korea is officially still at war with North Korea.
Don’t worry, you won’t notice anything about this, but as a consequence, Google Maps and Waze are mostly useless.
Some people report that Waze works for them, we tested this and it worked smoothly initially until about halfway when Waze urged us to turn around and started guiding us back where we came from.
The Naver maps website is available in Korean only but the app is available in English and works perfectly (we used the Android version).
It looks very similar to any other GPS app you’re familiar with.
Local SIM card
A local SIM card comes in handy when you want to use the Naver app.
We initially taught this was the only reason we needed it but once we got the SIM we discovered other useful apps like the Seoul Metro app ( Android and iPhone) and Mangoplate to find delicious restaurants.
You can order your sim cards upfront online or you can buy them upon arrival at the airport.
The possibilities to buy SIM cards once you have left the airport are limited. KT has a SIM card office nearby Hongik University Station Exit 2 and you should be able to buy them in the 7-eleven stores in Myeoung-dong, Hongdae, Dongdaemun, Jongno or Haeundae.
Rates are lower online so we would recommend buying your SIM card upfront online.
All major highways are turnpikes.
The good news is that the rates are on the low side. We took local roads in some instances where we only had to cover small distances but for long trips, like Seoul to Busan, it is much faster to take the turnpikes.
South Korea is mountainous. Highways sometimes seem like an endless chain of tunnels and bridges while the local roads meander around every hill.
Toll fees can be paid using credit cards, cash or the hi-pass system. We initially tried to pay with our credit card but both our American Express and our Mastercard were denied.
Make sure to bring cash if your credit card is not issued in South Korea.
How it works
You could verify if your rental car comes with a hi-pass device.
Don’t just trust the hi-pass logo on eg. your rearview mirror.
There needs to be a card in the device for it to work. We had driven through several hi-pass lanes before we finally discovered that there was no card in the device.
We didn’t think of it when we picked up our car but I would suggest that you ask them if you can use the hi-pass lanes or not.
If you can use the hi-pass lanes all you need to do is follow the blue lanes and slow down near the toll gates. Your toll will be registered and your car rental agency will send you the bill for the toll afterward.
If you don’t have the hi-pass device you should avoid the blue lanes and pick any of the other toll booths where you will either get a card that shows where you entered the highway or will have to pay using cash or credit card.
Make sure you have cash as foreign credit cards will most often not work.
What can go wrong
What they fail to notice is that your hi-pass system does not contain a card.
That’s how we once ended up without a card to prove where we entered the highway.
What you can do in this case is to write down the name of the entry gate together with the amount you should have to pay that you can find on your GPS.
We were getting ready to provide this information on exit but we didn’t even need to do so as we were automatically charged the correct price.
Not sure how this works so I suggest taking note of the entry gate just in case.
If you accidentally used the blue lane on entry you can correct your fault on exit and just provide them the name of the entry-gate you used.
If you accidentally used the blue lane on exit and missed a payment you shouldn’t worry too much.
3 days in a row we were using the blue lane convinced as we were that we had the hi-pass device.
We contacted Avis about this and they advised to use the other lanes from now on.
We didn’t need to take any action to correct our error, they would just send the bill for these fees afterward.
And so it happened that a few weeks after our holiday we got a bill for € 9 in our mailbox.
This was the exact toll amount we had to pay, no additional fines and no extra handling fee from Avis.
The quality of the highways is excellent but don’t think about speeding because speed limits in Korea are usually 100 km/h or less and all roads in Korea are literally littered with speed cameras and CCTV.
Luckily most GPS systems will inform you of upcoming cameras and even if you don’t have a GPS of your own you can follow the Koreans who seem to make a sport of driving too fast to hit the break last-minute at every speed camera.
In addition to the camera’s you will also come across average speed zones, the only highway sections where nobody speeds.
Overall, I found the Korean driving style to be courteous and relaxed.
Based on older articles I read when I was preparing for my Korean road trip this used to be different but has improved significantly over the last years due to the strict enforcement and omnipresent CCTV coverage.
Still, there’re some things you should be aware of.
We often noticed how red lights are ignored, certainly after dark and especially by buses and trucks. Make sure to slow down at intersections even if the lights are on green.
What I disliked most was driving on the two-lane roads. I mentioned earlier how Koreans are always speeding and speeding limits are absurdly low, certainly on these types of roads.
If you stick to the speed limit, like I tried to do most of the time, you will have a long line of vehicles behind you.
Not fun at all and certainly not as some Koreans tend to be impatient.
Don’t let this scare you. Most of the time you will be driving on highways with little traffic that have 4-lanes.
Some important traffic rules
So we hope these tips will encourage you to do a road trip in South Korea. Don’t be scared by the stories you find on the internet. Renting a car and driving in South Korea is fun and easy with these tips.
Did you ever drive in South Korea and do you have other tips? Please share them in the comments.
Here are some travel guides to get you started.
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