South Korea is often overlooked by backpackers who are either drawn to the cheap Southeast Asia or the more popular Japan. But this country offers so much for a great value. Below I will provide you my budget breakdown so that you can go backpacking South Korea on the cheap.
Currency Info: In August 2019, the exchange of the Korean Won to the Canadian Dollar was around 900.9 KRW to $1 CAD.
After our trip to Japan, we hopped over to Busan, where our Korean journey began. There is an overnight ferry available from Fukuoka to Busan, but we decided to take the cheaper and faster flight with Jeju Air for 56,730 KRW ($62.97 CAD).
To book the flight, I use Skyscanner. They price check with over 1,200 travel companies, and usually give the best prices. They also have Price Alerts where they can notify you as soon as fares change on the flight you’re looking at.
Food & Drinks
If you love strong flavours and spicy foods, then you either already like Korean food or you should give it a go!
Eating out in South Korea is very affordable. There are so many little hole-in-the-wall eateries that cater to locals and offer meals for around 5000 KRW ($5.50 CAD). You might have to get around the language barrier (try Google Translate or pointing to photos).
Be aware that eating is a very social activity in Korea. A lot of meals are meant to be shared (with at least one other person) which can be an obstacle for solo travellers.
Here are some notable Korean eats we ate:
- Korean BBQ lunch special 8000 KRW ($8.88 CAD)
- Sundubu jjigae – a spicy stew made with soft tofu and seafood 9000 KRW ($10)
- Whole box of Korean fried chicken 17,000 KRW ($18.87 CAD)
- Cheese ribs at James Cheese Back Ribs 34,000 KRW ($37.74 CAD) for two
- Expensive but satisfying New York style pizza from Monster Pizza for 4000 KRW ($4.44 CAD)
- Dwaeji-gukbap (pork and rice soup) from Michelin guide restaurant, Okdongsik for 8000 KRW ($8.88 CAD)
- Bingsu (Korean shaved ice) from Sulbing 8900 KRW ($9.88 CAD)
Like Japan, Korea’s convenience stores offer a great deal of cheap and good food–from gimbabs, sausage-on-sticks, fish cakes, and a wide array of instant noodles. We often went here for our breakfast! One thing that Korea has over Japan is the abundance of street food markets. Lots of yummy eats are available for cheap!
Here are some examples:
- Gimbab from convenience stores (e.g. E-mart, GS25, CU) starting at 2100 KRW ($2.33 CAD). Gimbabs looks like a big sushi roll, but they are more than that. Inside are sauteed vegetables, sweet pickled radish, your choice of meat and rice, rolled and tightly wrapped in a sheet of seaweed.
- A bottle of soju, Korea’s national drink that’s usually about 20%, from convenience stores. 1700 KRW ($1.88 CAD)
- A plate of kimchi mandus and baos from Hyojason King dumpling for 4000 KRW ($4.44 CAD)
- Hoettok. Usually found as street food, these are fried pancake containing brown sugar, honey, chopped peanuts, and cinnamon. 1300 KRW ($1.44 CAD)
- Eomuk (fish cakes in broth) – 5000 KRW ($5.55 CAD) for two skewers
- Dopotki or tteokbokki and tempura. Another popular street food snack, it consist of rice cakes, fish cakes, vegetables doused in a sweet red chili sauce. 6600 KRW ($7.33 CAD) for two portions
Be sure to check out my Top 5 Eats in South Korea for more delectable Korean dishes!
As a small and dense country, South Korea’s public transportation is top notch. If you want to save money (who doesnt?), avoid taking the KTX high-speed train. Instead take the slower trains or better yet, the buses. Korea’s buses are pretty comfortable and a lot cheaper than taking the train. For example, travelling from Busan to Seoul on the 2.5 hour KTX ride would cost around 59,800 KRW ($66.38 CAD). We took a 4 hour bus ride and it was only 24,200 KRW ($26.86 CAD). That’s more than half the price!
There are many buses between Sokcho and Seoul, running every 30 minutes from the Dong Seoul Bus Terminal. There are also different kinds of buses. To Sokcho, we took a more premium bus (more leg room, more comfortable seating) costing 19,700 KRW ($21.87 CAD). We took the normal one back costing 15,100 KRW ($16.76 CAD). The bus journey which took from the west coast to the east coast of the country took only 2.5 hours (may depend on traffic).
Getting Around the Cities
Similar to Japan, South Korea has a re-loadable transit card called the T-Money card. They work across the major cities of the country. You can get these cards at most subway stations as well as convenience stores. The card itself costs around 2000 KRW to 4000 KRW ($2 – $4 CAD) depending on the design you get. However, there will some savings using this card. You are able to transfer without paying more and the card provides a 100 KRW discount per trip.
While not exactly the cheapest accommodation in Asia, hostels in South Korea are nice and very good value. Like Japan, we decided to stay in a combinations of dorms and private rooms. We even found a sweet deal for a hotel (more below)! Here are some accommodations I recommend for your stay in Korea.
Busan Backpackers for 15,315 KRW ($17 CAD) per night for a dorm bed
The owner Jay (and his cat Pickles) was one of the highlights of this hostel. He was welcoming and friendly as he provided us with many tips for Busan. He was also able to arrange logistics when we forgot some stuff in the hostel after we checked out. The hostel has a great common area with a full kitchen. It was also a social hostel, as we got to meet lots of other backpackers through the events. The only downside is that our room got quite stuffy as the AC didn’t quite reach our room.
The House Hostel for 72,000 KRW ($79.92 CAD) per night for a private room with an ensuite
As the town is not big, this hostel is minutes walk from the Intercity bus terminal, the main shopping street and the ocean. The bus to Soeraksan National Park is just around the corner. Rooms are spacious, clean well maintained. It’s very homey and perfect after a long day of hiking. Breakfast is also included (toast and cereal). It is on the pricey side of hostels, but this is among the best prices for hostels in Sokcho.
Benikea Premier Hotel Dongdaemun for 57,162 KRW ($63.45 CAD) per night for a hotel room
I found this hotel for such a great price that I had to book it. Their rooms were in great conditions and were kept clean. The hotel also has a great location, perfect for exploring the east side of Seoul (Dongdaemun, Gangnam, Lotte World). We also took advantage of the gym they had. Overall, it was a nice break from hostel life without breaking the bank.
Zzzip Guesthouse for 26,000 KRW ($28.86 CAD) per night for a dorm bed
Rated 9.8 on HostelWorld and 9.5 on Booking.com, this highly rated hostel is family run by Brian and Jina. They were helpful during our stay in Seoul, letting us know where to go and eat. Location is great if you are looking to stay in the Hongdae area (known for nightlife and great restaurants). The hostel was clean, cosy, and felt like a second home. It was a social hostel (without being a party hostel) so it was easy to meet other people. Breakfast was also included (toast and cereal). One downside that it’s cash only.
For those looking to spend a bit more on accommodation, you can find good quality private rooms in a lot of hotels and guesthouses in South Korea starting at 20,000 KRW ($23 CAD) per night! Check them out yourself at below!
You don’t have to spend a lot in South Korea to see its most famous sights. Most of the activities are either free or very cheap to visit.
Hiking is probably the most popular pastime among Koreans. You can see locals of all ages decked out in full hiking attire in the subways on the way or back from hiking. As the country is very mountainous, you are not too far from a hiking spot. The best thing is that this will be either free or very cheap.
- We watched the new Lion King movie in a Lotte Cinema 10,000 KRW ($11.10 CAD)
- One of the most unique things about Korea is how easily you can get fireworks. We bought fireworks from GS25 and shot them over Gwangli Beach! 3750 KRW ($4.16 CAD)
- Relax and pamper at Spaland Centum City. This gigantic and modern jjimjilbang (Korean-style sauna/spa) consists of 22 hot tubs and 13 themed saunas. The best thing about here is that children under 13 aren’t allowed inside! Keep in mind that in Korean style spas, most of the amenities are segregated by gender. 17,000 KRW ($18.87 CAD) for four hours.
- Yonggungsa Temple. One of the most beautiful temples in South Korea due to its picturesque seaside location. Go in the morning or towards end of the opening hours to escape the crowds. FREE
- Gamcheon Cultural Village. Nicknamed the Santorini of the East, pastel coloured houses are nestled into the side of a mountain. Get lost in its labyrinth of alleys, take in the views, admire the street art or go shopping in the many boutique shops. FREE
- Pay our respects at the UN Memorial Cemetery. This is the only cemetery in the world managed by the United Nations. Along with their graves, there is a memorial for the soldiers that sacrificed their lives during the Korean War. FREE
- Visit the many beaches. Busan is famous for its beaches. There are so many within the city like Haeundae, Gwangalli or Songdo Beach. Go to Haeundae and Gwangalli at night for street food and buskers. FREE
- Seoul is filled with themed cafes specializing in different animals and different cartoon characters. We went to a raccoon cafe called Blind Alley. 15,000 KRW ($16.65 CAD)
- Gyeongbok-gung Palace. Seoul has five main palaces and this one is the largest and most important of them all. FREE due to the Korean Holiday
- Namsan Mountain. Go up to the peak (walk or take the bus) to catch the best panoramic views of Seoul. FREE
- Bukchon Hanok Village. This picturesque village features over 400 traditional Korean houses, called hanok and is synonymous with Instagram photoshoots. FREE
- National War Memorial. A grand museum about Korean military history and of course the Korean War. One of the best museums I’ve ever been too. I was there for half a day; could have been there longer! FREE
- Cheonggyecheon Stream. This is a great escape from the bustling metropolis of Seoul. You can find lots of locals jogging, hanging out and cooling their feet in the stream. There are also light shows and art pieces. FREE
- Similar to Kyoto, Shelly rented a hanbok (traditional Korean dress) for 10,000 KRW ($11.06 CAD) which will then grant you free access to the palaces and the shrine
The main reason to visit Sokcho is to go to the Seoraksan National Park which is famous for its many hiking trails, ranging a few hours to a few days. We hiked to Ulsanbawi Peak, one of the more popular day hikes which was about two hours from bottom to the peak (first hour is 2.2km and pretty easy while the second hour is 1.1km and pretty gruelling). Check the weather and see if you can visit on a clear day because when we went it was really foggy and when we climbed to the peaks there, we couldn’t see anything. However there are other great hikes you can do. Entrance to the park is 3500 KRW ($3.89 CAD)
Here are my other expenses while backpacking South Korea:
- ATM fee 36,000 KRW ($4 CAD). Make sure you use a debit card that doesn’t charge you for any foreign transaction fees. If you are from Canada, I recommend getting STACK!
- Pocket Wifi 49,500 KRW ($54.95 CAD)
- Laundry 2000 KRW ($2.22 CAD)
- Visa FREE! I want to point out that Canadians, like many nationalities, don’t need a visa to get in Korea. But only Canadians can stay there for up to 180 days (6 months)!
The Sum of Backpacking South Korea on the Cheap
South Korea is not the cheapest destination in Asia (especially compared to Southeast Asia), however it is not going to break the bank either. It is a great alternative to Japan as I found it more budget friendly. In total, I spent 895,349 KRW or $993.35 CAD for the two weeks we were there. That equates to 63,954 KRW or $70.99 CAD per day. I have chosen not to include my flights in and out of Korea as that might vary depending where you are coming from.
As Korean cuisine is one of my favourites, our food budget was the highest category. We wanted to try as much Korean food as possible. You can easily spent less on food than we did, but as we were big foodies, we did not want to cheap out. Prices are quite affordable. However, eating with other people will keep costs low as a lot of Korean dishes are meant to be shared. Nightlife is pretty big here so watch out on how much you spend on drinks and cover to bars and clubs.
Transportation is pretty affordable. The distances between cities are not big and buses can get you there pretty cheap. Those metro and city bus rides do add up.
Most of South Korea’s cultural attractions are either free or really cheap. Most of the places that we went to won’t be the reason you can’t afford to visit South Korea.
Tips on Saving ₩₩₩
- The nightlife and drinking culture is pretty big in Korea. Koreans are among the heaviest drinkers in the world and if you want to join in the party, consider pre-drinking by buying drinks (especially soju) at the convenience stores. It is legal to drink on the streets.
- If you want to do some karaoke, I recommend the karaoke booths as opposed to a typical karaoke bar. You can typically find them in arcades and these booths can fill up to four people. I found it costs 1000 KRW ($1.11 CAD) for four songs. That is already so cheap, and if you have other people to sing with, you can sing ’til the morning!
Here is a short vlog shot by me and edited by Shelly: