Traffic jams are all too common in Seoul, so be careful on the streets and head underground when possible. Street and subway signage is usually written in English as well as Korean.
In Seoul, you can visit most places by using the vast subway network. There are currently nine numbered lines plus a smattering of named suburban lines, all distinguished by different colors. All signs in the subway system are in Korean (both hangeul and if applicable, hanja) and English. The signs leading to the platform for a particular direction of travel on a given subway line typically list the names of a number of stations in that direction. Stations each have a 3 digit number, but locals rarely make use of these numbers, and they're not on most subway maps, so don't rely on them. A subway map can be found here.
Subway fares are based on the distance traveled, but the shortest ride costs ₩1,150 (base charge) plus card deposit ₩500 (refundable if you return the card at designated machines at each station). The base charge roughly covers up to 10 km of the journey and ₩100 is added for every 5 km beyond that. Cards can be purchased from vending machines only. All vending machines accept coins and bills, up to ₩10,000 notes (and some ₩50,000 notes, but cash exchange machines are at each station). Hang onto your card until the end of your trip, as you'll need it to get out. Most of Seoul's automated card machines are equipped with touchscreen and full English support (along with Chinese and Japanese). Since ticket machines may be crowded, buying two cards (one for each way) is recommended.
If planning on using the Metro extensively or staying for more than a few weeks, you should consider purchasing a T-money stored value contactless smart card. You can buy this card at most subway stations and many newspaper kiosks near subway entrances, as well as convenience stores. The card itself costs ₩3000 and cash can be charged onto the card as often as you like. When entering and leaving a subway turnstile, place the card on the reader (leaving it inside your purse or wallet is fine) and it will deduct the appropriate fare from the card. Using this card will allow you to save ₩100 on all transfers (these are common with Seoul's extensive subway system) and you can get all but ₩500 back if you have unused credit.
Typically for most travellers staying less than 2 weeks in Seoul, purchasing this card may not be cheaper but other factors should be considered: it can also be used for taxi fares, buses, storage lockers, pay phones, etc. However, using a transportation card is highly recommended if you wish to use it for buses as well simply for its ability to transfer between them since you will not have to pay for the basic 900 fare twice for a single journey when using two modes of transport. It also saves the hassle from figuring out how much you need to pay or waiting in line to buy a single-use ticket. The subway is not open 24 hours, so you may be stranded late at night.
Seoul also has an extensive bus service. There are four different kinds of buses: yellow, green, blue, and red. Yellow buses have a short circuit usually around tourist areas. Green buses travel around neighborhoods and connect with the subway. Blue buses go across town, while red buses are intercity buses. Buses will only stop at designated bus stops and will not wait for indecisive travelers.
Adult fare is as follows:
Cash – ₩1,150
T-Money Card – ₩1,050
Note that by using a T-Money card, you can transfer between the bus and the subway for free up to 30 minutes after your last scan. That is to say, the base charge of ₩1,050 won't be charged twice. If, for example, you are travel 10 km by subway, transfer to a bus and travel a further 5 km, ₩1,050 will be deducted once you leave the subway, nothing will be deducted when you enter a bus, but you will be deducted ₩100 for the extra 5 km journey you made on the bus. Note that if you do not tag the machine as you leave the bus, you will be charged the maximum fare possible by the route.
Deluxe taxis are black with a yellow sign and are more expensive than regular taxis but provide better and more comfortable service. Regular taxis are silver. For the most part, regular taxi cabs have leather interiors and the drivers are nice—so, for many people, "regular" in Seoul might be "deluxe" in their hometown. It is easy to hail a taxi any time of the day or night along any relatively major Seoul street.
You can call a deluxe taxi wherever you are by calling 3431-5100. Sometimes, you can find a visitor's guide taxi, a kind of deluxe taxi, the drivers of which know English and Japanese and can guide you around Seoul.
The basic fare for regular taxis is ₩3,000 (₩3,600 at night), with a surcharge of ₩100 applied according to time and distance. (The basic fare is up to 2 km, plus ₩100 per 142 m.) In deluxe taxis, the basic fare is ₩4500 and the additional fare increases in increments of ₩200. (₩4500 basic fare for up to 3 km, plus ₩200 per 164 m). International taxi drivers speak at least one foreign language (generally English) fluently. International taxis use the same basic fare as regular taxis, plus an additional 20%.
If there is more than one passenger, and you are traveling only a short distance (like 1-2 metro stops) it is usually cheaper to catch a taxi than to take a bus or subway.
In general, taxi drivers do not speak English or any other foreign language, so have your destination written in Korean to show to the taxi driver. It is also wise to get your hotel's business card in case you get lost. Some may even reject looking at a map so whenever possible, have the location written in Korean.
All taxis advertise a free interpretation service that can be called if you need help. The phone number for the interpretation is on the window sticker of the back seats. Taxis that have an "On Base Authorized" sticker on the side, or a green sticker on their front bumper, are capable of entering US military bases in Seoul. These drivers are required to speak better English as part of their contract and may thus be easier for any English speaking tourists.
Most taxis accept credit cards and T-money cards and thus have a V-shaped orange card sign on the roof of the taxi by the front passenger seat window. However, drivers generally prefer that you pay cash, especially for short rides.
You can also ask for your receipt ("Yeong-su-jeung" 영수증).
As in any other city, there are some bad apples, and some drivers may take you the long way. Although the drivers often have a GPS device on the dashboard of their car, this is relatively meaningless if you do not know the area or cannot speak sufficient Korean to argue the point.
In general, make sure the driver turns on the meter, get an idea of the cardinal direction of your destination (north, south, east, west), and use the interpretation service if you want to agree to a fare beforehand.
However, keep in mind that there is often road construction or protests around Seoul, so sometimes a long route is necessary. If you suspect you are being ripped off, the most a non-Korean speaker can do is write down or take a picture of the driver's ID (located above the glove box) and report the details to the company.
Internationally known car rental companies like Hertz are in Seoul, just be prepared for a driving challenge and long rush hours. In addition, parking spaces are hard, if not close to impossible to find, especially during peak hours. Therefore, unless you are planning to head out of the city, it is not advisable to rent a car and you are better off relying on the excellent public transport system instead.
Getting around in Seoul without a local escort (be it friend or cab driver) can be tricky, since this is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. While Seoul occupies less land than New York City, it can be more confusing. The major roads twist and turn, the various rail lines, rivers and mountains are obstacles and the smaller roads turn into a labyrinth of alleys. Most people will try to help you find your way around but often won't know themselves; best to familiarize yourself with some landmarks and the nearest subway stations. Learn the landmarks closest to where you are staying. The better-known landmarks in Seoul (such as the N Seoul Tower located in the center of town)can prove helpful at times. A compass will still work when a GPS fails.
Once you know your immediate surroundings, you'll find that Seoul isn't such a huge place and the pedestrian approach can be an enriching experience.
There's usually a subway stop within a ten-minute walk in any direction.
Whether on bicycle or foot, the best way to escape traffic is to learn the rivers and streams. Most of these waterways empty into the Han River or another tributary to the Han, so look to the direction of water flow at any creek; chances are, it's headed for the Han. The Han runs right through town, generally moving West (sometimes Southwest; sometimes Northwest), so knowing where you are in relation to the Han is helpful.
The Han River as well as most streams are lined with massive parks that feature outdoor gymnasiums, multiple-lane bicycle paths, and 24-hour restrooms. Cars are generally not allowed. Pedestrian bridges on the smaller waterways are common.
Numerous mountains with hiking trails can be found in the city.
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