Travel in Seoul

A first hand guide to Korean public transport.

There are four main ways to get around in Seoul :-


Probably the least practical for any distance over 100m (well if you're fat & 40 like me).
It is also important to remember that if a vehicle has less than 4 wheels it is allowed to drive on the pavement (sidewalk), this means that you must dodge motorcycles, bicycles, handcarts (some of which are complete cafes on wheels) and peculiar tricycle contraptions which serve as delivery vehicles. Cars, buses and trucks also use the pavement if there are no policemen in the area.

There is a pedestrian crossing in there somewhere! Note the family transport (Honda 50).

Pedestrian crossings are clearly marked (black and white stripes) and many are controlled by traffic lights, that is the good news, the bad news is that they are largely ignored by drivers even if there is a red light and pedestrians on the crossing. Look in all directions before crossing and do not cross until some locals are in front of you. Generally the stripes on the road are there to show the ambulance where to collect its next passenger.
Outside the centre of town most pavements are very uneven with holes in assorted sizes and locations, there are also unmarked (and unguarded) stairways to basements and the like waiting to trap the unwary or drunk.


Assuming you can persuade the driver to go where you want to be, either with a note from the hotel or by sign language etc (maps are completely incomprehensible to a Korean taxi driver) this is the most practical way for the newcomer.

Taxis come in three flavours:-

Black (deluxe) Cab.
The most expensive (W3000 ($3.50) minimum fare), however the driver will stop when you hail and is required to take you where you want to go.
Blue (ordinary) Taxi.
Less expensive (W1000 ($1.25) minimum fare), but there are certain disadvantages in that the driver MIGHT stop when you hail, and he MIGHT deign to take you where you want to be (if it is near where HE wants to be that is). Blue taxis will also stop to pick up other fares during the journey and will often divert to drop these passengers off. If you are picked up by a cab with passengers already resident the general rule is that you pay what the meter says when you get out, less what it said when you got in rounded to the nearest W1000 with a minimum of W1000.
White (company) Taxi.
Same price as blue cabs with the same problems added to by the fact that these drivers are even less willing to stop for foreigners (or for that matter Koreans).

Generally using blue and white cabs consists of yelling your destination through the open passenger window, if the driver wants you as a fare he will bip the horn or even say "OK", if he doesn't want you he will simply drive on (watch your feet).
Make a list of landmarks (large hotels are a good bet) and learn to pronounce the name in "Konglish", when you arrive at the landmark you can direct your driver.


Once you have located a station and obtained a ticket (easy) this is the quickest way around, the system is extensive and station names and some train announcements are in English. Subway maps in English are available at Kimpo Airport but get one in Korean as well (it will be useful to get a taxi to the subway station). Plan your journey and be prepared to stand with millions of others on the train. The subway uses a sliding fare scale and the safest way to get the correct fare is to buy a "stored value" ticket (W5000, W10000 or W20000) although the newer stations have large annotated maps showing the fare from the current station to every other (these maps are updated by hand each time the fare structure is reviewed).

Oops! a minor derailment at Shindaebang (Line 2) [c. Korea Times].

There is a knack to riding the subway, the older lines (1-4) have some sudden direction changes which tend to dump the unwary squarely on their backside, hold on to something at all times. At peak times avoid standing by the doors or you may find that you are forced off the train at a station other than the one you want (Tongdaemun Stadium is renowned for this problem being a major transfer point between lines 2, 4 and 5), conversely when your stop is approaching work your way to the door (make sure you are at the correct side) or you may not get off in time.

A quiet time at Wangshimni station (Line 2)


This is real "Life in your hands" stuff, Korean buses are driven by failed Formula 1 drivers and are quite capable of leaving a Ferrari standing at the lights. An extensive study of the system showed that the LOWER the number of the bus, the crazier the driver (No. 1 is better than any Theme Park ride). Korean bus stops are steel poles with the word "BUS" written at the top (obvious really), do not however, expect the bus to stop within 50 yards of the stop or for that matter at the edge of the road, it is not uncommon to find the bus stopped 3 lanes out from the kerb with cars, trucks, motorcycles etc. between you and the bus. Watch for motorcycles when you get off the bus.

Nigel Mansell demonstrates how to negotiate Hannam Junction!

The buses use a fixed fare system (W430), payment is by cash (don't expect to get change), token or smart card. Tokens are obtainable from various kiosks and small shops but as a regular bus user the best way is the smartcard, this wonderful piece of technology stores your money on a microchip in the card and deducts the fare automatically when you board the bus, you don't even need to take the card out of your wallet!
A problem with using the bus is that there is NO English anywhere apart from the number on the bus, I sussed the system by simply getting on a hopeful looking bus and seeing where it went, if you end up going the wrong way get off and get the same number going in the opposite direction, easy eh? This technique also gets you into parts of town where you probably wouldn't normally go, get off the bus and explore.

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