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Driving and Public Transportation

South Korea - Driving and Public Transportation


Driving

An International Driving Permit(IDP) may be used to drive around South Korea. In general, road conditions are good in South Korea and directional signs are in both Korean and English. Car rental rates start from ₩54400 a day for the smallest car for about a week.

However, if traveling in the big cities, especially Seoul, driving is not recommended as the roads are plagued with traffic jams and many drivers tend to get reckless under such conditions, weaving in and out of traffic. Drivers would often try to speed past traffic lights when they are about to turn red, though they would still stop if the light turns red before they reach the junction. Driving habits in Korea, while not the best, are still significantly better than in China. Note that road courtesy is almost non-existent in Korean cities and it is best to read up on Korean road culture before attempting to drive.

South Korea is fairly compact and you can get anywhere very fast if you fly, and reasonably fast even if you don't. Subways are available in most of the cities in metropolitan area including Seoul and other big cities have serviced or been on the way to make its subways. And you can easily get on buses or taxis. But it would be much cheaper and better to ride a bus.

Bus

Buses (버스 beoseu) remain the main mode of national transport, connecting all cities and towns. They're frequent, punctual and fast, sometimes dangerously so, so fasten the belts you'll often find in the seats.

There is a somewhat pointless division of long-distance buses into express buses (고속버스 gosok beoseu) and inter-city buses (시외버스 si-oe beoseu), which often use separate terminals to boot. Express buses are marginally faster on long runs, but inter-city buses go to more places. For additional comfort, look for Udeung buses (우등 버스) which have just three seats across instead of the usual four; these cost about 50% extra.


Train

National train operator Korail connects major cities in South Korea. Neglected for a long time, a large amount of money has been plowed into the network in recent years and trains are now quite competitive with buses on speed and price, and much safer and more comfortable to boot. The main problem is that the network is still a little limited and services in rural areas are limited, with trains only once every few hours.

Particularly useful are the high-speed Korea Train eXpress (KTX) services between Seoul and Busan via Daegu and Daejeon, which use French TGV technology to zip along at up to 300 km/h. The full trip currently takes 160 minutes, a figure which is expected to improve to 116 minutes by 2010 when the second stretch of high-speed track is taken into use. The KTX trains have 18 cars with the first 3 being first class and the rest reserved economy seating except the very last car (number 18) which is open seating. There are drink vending machines on board and an attendant that comes by with a snack cart which includes reasonably priced beer, soda, cookies, candy, sausages, hardboiled eggs, and kimbap (rice rolls).

Non-KTX trains are poetically ranked as Saemaeul (새마을, "New Village"), Mugunghwa (무궁화, "Rose of Sharon") and Tonggeun (통근), corresponding roughly to express, semi-express and local services. Saemaeul trains are a little pricier than buses, while Mugunghwa are about 30% cheaper. However Saemaeul trains are extremely comfortable, having seats that are comparable to business class seats on airplanes. Though with the introduction of the KTX, there are much less Saemaeul and Mugunghwa services, they are worth trying them out. Tonggeun, formerly Tonggil, are cheapest of all, but now limited to short stopping commuter services.

Seoul also has an extensive commuter train network that smoothly interoperates with the massive subway system, and Busan, Daejeon, Daegu and Incheon also have subway services.

KR Pass

The KR Pass is a special rail pass introduced in 2005 for non-resident foreigners only, allowing unlimited travel for a set period on any Korail train (including KTX) and including free seat reservation. The pass is not valid for first class or sleeping cars, but you can upgrade for half price if you wish. The regular pass costs US$76/114/144/168 for 3/5/7/10 days, with additional discounts of 10-20% for youths (age 13-25), students and groups of 2-5 traveling together. Note that the pass must be purchased before arrival in South Korea, either via a travel agent or online, and you'll need to do quite a lot of traveling to make it pay off.


Boat

Boats shuttle out to Korea's many islands, including Jeju.


Plane

South Korea is small enough that flying is more of a luxury than a necessity, with the notable exception of connections to the island of Jeju. The long-standing domestic flight duopoly of Korean Air and Asiana was broken in 2005 by the arrival of low-cost competitors Hansung Airlines and Jeju Air, which offers flights not only to Jeju, but also serves the Seoul-Busan sector with lower fares than the KTX express train.


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