Here’s the disclaimer: this isn’t really a post about a proper Korean “homeland tour”, at least not in the sense that it’s marketed by the big agencies. I’m not going to tell you all the cool places you should go. There are too many cool places to list, and anyway if all you need is an itinerary just Google it (or this). This is a post about how to have a good DIY visit to Korea with your family, adoptive or otherwise. Primarily Seoul, but much of the advice will probably apply in other big Korean cities. Some of the generalized advice will probably apply to other countries. Also, just FYI for those readers not based in the U.S., this perspective is skewed toward native English speakers living in the U.S.
Before the specific tips, there are just a couple of overarching philosophies to keep in mind…
Know Your Goal
This seems like one of those pieces of advice that you think you already know, but it is important enough to repeat. Understanding your goal(s) will make the trip so much easier. Decisions that would otherwise be excruciating become simple when contrasted against the goal. In our case, our goal was to go home with “stones unturned”, or things on our ToDo list that weren’t crossed off. In a nutshell, this trip was about mom and dad taking the kids somewhere we loved. We wanted to come home with the kids having some internal drive to return to do/see/learn/experience more of Korea, either as a family or individually. For example, one of the things we wanted to do was take the express train to Busan, since that’s where Amy and I met. It had the side benefits of seeing some of the countryside along the way, and having a beach to hang out at once we were there. But while we were in Seoul the weather in Busan changed and got rainy, so we stayed in Seoul. Knowing our goal made it easier to let go of the Busan side trip and do something else.
Do Your Research
This is probably another no-brainer item, especially considering that you’re reading this post while ostensibly doing your research! A little research goes a long way. The thing is, when you’re in another country, especially one with another language and alphabet, there’s a lot of “psychic overhead”. Psychic overhead is just a shorthand way of describing all the background processing that you’ll be doing both mentally and emotionally. Advance research helps limit the psychic overhead because it helps make things predictable and gives you a sense of control. It seems like no big deal from the comfort of your living room, but when you’re in a crowded subway station and there are people stacking up behind you at the ticket machine because you don’t know how to use it, and you don’t know how to ask for help, you’ll really wish you’d done a little research (true story).
With those bits in mind, here are some quick hits to help with your DIY Korean homeland tour:
- Learn a little language. At least a few basics so you aren’t completely reliant upon English speakers. Books and flash cards are always great, and easily available at big bookstores and Amazon. Also check out TalkToMeInKorean.com for free language lessons via YouTube, KoreanClass101.com for a subscription podcast, or Quizlet for Korean flashcards. And practice by answering your phone in Korean (maybe not at work), or going to Korean restaurants and ordering in Korean, or making a family habit of saying hello, please, and thank you to each other in Korean. Also, if you have a smart phone, be sure and install Google Translate. It’s not perfect and it’s kind of slow (at least in terms of person-to-person interaction), but it can help extricate you from situations where nobody can understand one another.
- Before buying your airline tickets, find the best travel rewards card, acquire it, and use it to buy your airfare. Plan way ahead for this step. At least a month before you plan to buy your tickets. In our case this single tip saved us about $450 on airfare. The “best” card changes pretty regularly, so don’t lean on our research for this one (it was the Barclay card). To figure out the current best pick, troll through this thread on FlyerTalk.com or check this page on FrugalTravelGuy.com. Generally speaking, rewards cards are either going to be through a bank (think Chase, Barclay, etc) or through a provider (airline, hotel, etc). Unless you’re really married to a particular airline mileage program, you’ll probably want to stick with a bank card since it’ll give you the most flexibility in terms of buying your tickets. The big thing to look for in a card is a healthy sign-up bonus (at least 30,000 miles/points). Beyond that, keep an eye out for other niceties like 0% APR for one year, or point multiples in specific categories (ie, triple points per dollar of spending on airfare, or double points per dollar in office supplies, etc).
- For organizing travel, I really like TripIt.com. I’ve used the free version for years, but was pleased to learn that the Pro version upgrade came bundled with the travel card we selected. Sweet. I like how easy it is to forward confirmations (air, hotel, car, whatever) from my email inbox over to TripIt and then the app organizes my travel with all the particulars. Plus you can add notes, etc. Plus it has a nice format for printing out an emergency hardcopy (do it). Plus it’ll ping you with airline delays/changes. I like it.
- For airfare comparisons, check out Google’s Matrix site. You can’t buy your airfare there, so don’t worry about that yet. This site helps you get a handle on the cheapest days to fly, and which airlines suit your needs best. The calendar view is pretty sweet, and I think the graphical implementation of the mobile version is even better. The overarching idea here is that if you’ve got a travel card that rewards you no matter what airline you choose, then you can either choose the cheapest pick, or you can set yourself up with a schedule that suits your needs a little better, all without wrestling with a particular airline’s logistics. The matrix site will let you set up an itinerary and print it out for your travel agent with all their special codes. I’ve never found this to be necessary; I’ve always been able to recreate itineraries online using either Hipmunk.com (personal preference) or airline websites.
- For lodging, assuming you don’t have friends in the country who are willing to lend you some floor space, you’ve got a few options: vacation rental (AirBnB.com, FlipKey.com, VRBO.com, etc), smaller hostel-type hotels (more difficult to find and book without help), and straight up hotels (from local to Western brands). If you have a family bigger than about 5 people, you will have difficulty finding a straight up hotel room to fit everyone, which limits you to one of the two other options. Of those, the Western internet sites are easier to book. But if you have in-country help (or at least someone fluent in reading Korean on the Internet), you could probably find a hostel-type hotel for your size family. We went with a small apartment through AirBnB.com because it fit our goals (less expensive than a hotel, and provided a more realistic perspective on daily living). There were a couple of times, though, when we almost wished we were in a hotel so that we could avail ourselves of a concierge service for booking tours, etc. Our AirBnB host was awesome, but concierge isn’t in her job description so we didn’t bother her (plus, we do have friends in the city who did help us out). Judging from reviews on her listings, it sounds like others have leaned on her for concierge-type stuff and she has been gracious. YMMV.
- Expect crowds. There will always be crowds, but some times and some places will have fewer crowds. But expect crowds. Seoul is larger than any city in the U.S. To put that in context, Seoul has roughly 6 million more residents than Los Angeles, all crammed into half of the land mass. So expect crowds wherever you go. Crowds can be a time-sink, an energy-sink, and even a money-sink. The first two are obvious, but the third comes into play with taxis. Taxi fares are a combo of time and distance, so it’s costing you money to sit in a traffic jam for 30 minutes. And speaking of taxis…
- Taxis are everywhere. Since we have four people in our family, we fit pretty easily in a normal sized taxi (there are a few Sprinter-type taxis around, but they are rare). You could squeeze a fourth person in the back seat, but it better be a relatively small human. FYI, in Korea, seat belts are required up front, but only recommended in the back. As of this writing, taxi fares start at ₩3,000—that’s just for opening the door and getting in the car. After that the toll grows based on distance and time, as noted above. These days pretty much all the taxis have GPS in the car, so if you have a specific address the driver will punch it in and the GPS will reassure you that you aren’t taking the driver’s “special route” (read: long way). If you’re going to well known locations, you’ll just have to trust that the driver is going to get you there as quickly as he can. If you need reassurance, and have the language skills (or patience with Google Translate), you can use Naver maps to see how much a fare should cost. Good luck with that. I’d rather just trust the driver, or give a specific address. If you give a specific address, have it written in Korean, not in English. For most of us that means printing it out in advance (Research!).
- Expect a lot of walking. Taxis are just one of a few ways of getting around the city. For a single person, a taxi will pretty much always be more comfortable and more expensive than any other transportation option (the others being subway, busses, and walking). For a family, a taxi can often be as cheap as the subway, unless there’s a lot of traffic. Aside from special city tour busses, my advice is to avoid the bus. It is difficult to figure out the schedule, and it’s really more of a localized option. The subway is easier to navigate and reasonably inexpensive. Walking limits you to some extent, but is what you should expect for marketplaces and tourist spots. The general routine will be: figure out how to use the subway to get as close as possible (there are some great subway maps for your smartphone), then walk the remaining distance which usually isn’t terribly far. When walking, remember that you can use subway underpasses to cross large intersections rather than trying to figure out how to get across on the street. Also, sometimes you will be tired of walking, and tired of crowds, and tired of the strain of an unfamiliar language. You might even have grumpy kids (gasp). This is a great time to hail a taxi and beat a retreat back to your lodging (have that written address ready to go).
- Money stuff. Korean money is called “Won” (₩). The smallest paper currency is ₩1,000. The exchange rate varies daily, but is generally pretty darn close to $1 = ₩1,000. All proper retailers (shops, restaurants, etc) are required by law to take credit cards, so bring that new travel card with you. You can even use your card for cabs and subways (FYI, Korea is a no-tip culture). Smaller street vendors probably don’t take cards, and that’s when it’s handy to have a bit of cash on hand. You can exchange your cash at the airport on either side, but it’ll be the most expensive option. Though if you aren’t taking much cash, even the most expensive option doesn’t cost much. If a benchmark is helpful, we spent 7 days in Seoul and used about $500 in cash, and could certainly have gotten by on less by using the card more. If you really need the best exchange rate, change your USD into KRW at your local international bank (HSBC, Chase, Citibank, BofA, etc). At the other end, exchange your KRW to USD at a Korean bank. Remember that the bank option might take a couple of days, especially on the US side, so plan ahead.
- Divide duties. If you have the benefit of a household with two adults, plus kids, then by all means plan ahead to figure out who will do what. In our case, Amy has the best language skills so she took the lead in the places where that was more important, while I kept the kids busy and out of her way. I can handle the less critical language scenarios (aka, buying soda and snacks at the corner store), so she was off the hook in those instances and could hang out at the apartment with the kids. We even let the kids take a swing at some of this stuff—the older one was confident enough to hit the corner store for his own snacks, and the younger one even stepped up in a restaurant to ask for more water please (in Korean, and with a little coaching from mom).
- Bring your passports. It’s probably always a good idea to have your passport on you in a foreign country. If you’re reading this from the perspective of being part of an adoptive family, and the grown ups in your family aren’t of Asian descent, then having your passport can help make some potential conversations less awkward and drawn out. Google Translate can help too. Here’s putting it bluntly: we are two White American adults traveling with two Korean American kids. We got lots of double and triple takes, and once we had an extended “conversation” in a subway stop with with an older man who had lots of questions for us, and no English language skills. We didn’t have our passports on us at that time, but I imagine it would’ve made things a little easier on him if we could’ve shown him that we were a family. Thanks to Amy’s efforts he eventually understood, and was incredibly gracious toward us and genuinely affectionate toward the boys. The above scenario freaked out the boys a little bit, and helped drive home the point that roughhousing in public spaces in Korea is a bad idea. It’s impolite for starters, but it also draws attention to your unconventional family and begs questions from curious onlookers. After the encounter with the older gentleman, we learned better how to fly under the radar in public and limit the roughhousing to places where it’s expected (parks, apartment, etc).
- Speaking of unusual scenarios, since Seoul is a big city you will see beggars on the street. Sometimes they’ll be drunk and sloppy. Sometimes scary. Sometimes they’ll be missing body parts. Since Seoul is a big city, the beggars don’t get much attention from Seoulites. Depending on your background, they may not warrant much attention from you or your kids either, but regardless it’s a good opportunity to have a conversation with your kids about homelessness in the US vs abroad, and the general human condition.
Figure out where to stay. Seoul has lots of neighborhoods. Check the Wikitravel page to get a handle on what suits your family.
So that’s all great advice, but you’re still left wondering what are you going to do while in Seoul? Well, remember the size of the city. There are a lot of options, and I think that what you end up doing should tie back into your goal for visiting in the first place. Seoul has theme parks, historical sites, marketplaces, galleries, museums, theaters, and on and on. Realize now that you will go back home having missed out on so many awesome things to do, and that’s ok! There’s always next time! 🙂 There are plenty of guidebooks to help you figure out what to do, but my suggestion is to make sure you don’t overbook yourself. Give yourself time to recuperate and refresh back at your lodging. Back to back non-stop days will take a toll on the kids (mine at least), and make them less fun to travel with. We had fun just walking to Namdaemun market from our apartment, buying a few toys and walking back to the apartment to play for a while. We got a good feel for the neighborhood, learned shortcuts to the market, and learned how to haggle a bit with vendors. Again, I think the activities tie back to your goals for the trip. I hope your trip is as fun as our was!