Erik the Hungry Traveller revealing the secret to exploring South Korea on a budget !
South Korea has always been part of my bucket list ever since I discovered my passion for traveling.
And yes, I am one of those who love me some Samgyupsal, Kimchi and who binge watch KDrama series on Netflix.
Getting to see the beauty of South Korea through Kdrama series has been a factor as to why I have dream of exploring the country.
Aside from that, a lot of my friends have visited Korea and they cannot stop raving about it.
This got me more curious and interested in someday exploring the land of Kimchi and KPOP.
When Opportunity Knocks: You Say Annyeong!
The opportunity of visiting Korea did not happen up until I got an opportunity to visit America last August 2019.
You may wonder how that connects to exploring South Korea on a budget.
Well my dear readers, being that I am from the Philippines most airlines that fly to USA usually does a layover in South Korea.
Layover from the Philippines to America
There are other route options if you plan on visiting the States from the Philippines. Japan, Taipei and Hong Kong to name a few.
Since I had to consider the cost of going there plus where I can optimize my layover hours I decided to take the South Korea route.
Which is perfect since I have always wanted to visit the country in the first place.
I flew ASEANA but there is also Korean Air that takes you from the Philippine to America with a layover in Seoul South Korea.
So What’s The Secret of Exploring South Korea on a Budget?
I just mentioned it to you, if you plan on exploring South Korea on a budget then visit the country while on a layover.
Huh? That does not make any sense?
Secret No 1: Explore South Korea as a Layover to Another Destination
While being on a layover does not necessarily mean you can explore all the famous spots in the country. It at least gives you the opportunity to have a taste of what the country can offer in terms of tourist destinations and food.
Visiting a country to be specific South Korea while on a layover is like hitting 2 birds or should I say 2 countries in one stone.
You will eventually arrive at your final destination which is USA plus you get to explore South Korea even just for a few hours.
But what about the 20 USD Budget?
Feel like I’m in a discussion with myself here Lol.
But don’t worry my dear readers will get to that 20 USD budget soon. But first let me set your expectation on what you will experience upon arriving in South Korea.
As you may have already known from reading this post my country of origin is in the Philippines particularly the beautiful island of Cebu city.
My flight to Korea would start with me departing at Mactan Cebu International Airport at 2am and eventually arriving at Incheon International airport at around 7am.
On Board Plane Experience: Unforgettable!
I got an aisle seat on my flight to South Korea and the flight was jam packed. Upon entering the plane the first seats were business class sets, then first class accommodation then the economy seats.
Damn those business class seats were nice especially for a 5 hour flight.
The leg room for this flight was similar to the leg room of Philippine based airlines. Meaning there was little leg room to wiggle on. Good thing my flight from Korea to USA was a different story.
You had your standard blanket, pillow and earphones. And seat have screens if you want to view a movie while in flight.
Sleepless in Korea
I did not have any sleep since the flight was 2am and I intend on sleeping the whole time.
However, since the aisle was so small and I was actually located at the rear end of the plane I was wide awake the whole time.
Flight attendants and passengers heading to the restrooms would hit my elbow or a part of their shirt would hit my face.
The moment I was about to sleep another person would pass in front of me. Well part of the experience right.
Furthermore, the rear end of the plane was also where the stewardess prepared meals.
Thus throughout the time we were on flight I could hear dishes rattling and so much activity going on for meal preparation.
This was the only awful but bearable experience I had throughout my travel.
Hey this is an adventure in itself if you plan on exploring South Korea on a budget you have to expect a few things not to go your way.
TRAVEL TIP: NEVER BE AT THE REAR END OF THE PLANE!
Thus on my next travel and as a travel tip to all of you always request to not be at the back end of the plane. While it is sometimes unavoidable but best to raise it up. Well as they say let’s charge this to experience.
And with that I now know better on what to expect and what to avoid when flying to South Korea.
Arrival at Incheon International Airport. What Now?
After a long sleepless flight and a few minutes delay due to airport traffic. I finally arrived in Incheon International airport.
Upon my exit to the plane one of the first thing you will notice is a Korean lady beside a layover tour standee.
With my experience you can see her as soon as you enter Incheon International airport facility.
This brings me to the 2nd part of the secret to exploring South Korea on a budget
Explore the city through FREE Transit Tours
This is your ticket to touring Korea – well a portion of Korea without paying a single dime.
The Korean lady is very noticeable as soon as you embark off the plane. She is also nice so you would not hesitate to approach her.
What she required from me was my connecting flight details from Korea to America. This will be her basis as to what type and duration of tour will I be joining.
Different Types of Tour
All the information is in Korean thus I had no idea what tour or what time will the tour start until she spoke in English and instructed me to head to the layover tour booth at the arrival area of Incheon Airport.
She initially booked me for a 1hour tour. She said I can go gambling and shop there.
I guess she felt that I was a bit disappointed with my free tour as she again looked at my ticket itinerary and erased what she initially scribbled down and wrote down something else which was also in Korean.
She then instructed me to proceed to the layover booth at the arrival gate.
Thinking about it now, I operated on blind trust there (LOL). I had no idea what she wrote down nor did I asked. It was only until the tour started that I learned that she booked me for a 4 hour tour instead of 1 hour.
30 Days Entry to South Korea on a Layover Trip
Filipinos need to secure a Korean visa if they wish to visit Korea. However, an exception to the rule is when Korea is a layover for your final destination.
Based on the stamp that I got at Korean immigration. I was given 30 days to stay in Korea as a “layover tourist”.
Much to Do in Incheon Airport
Even if you do not plan on going on a layover tour in Korea.
There is a lot you can do while at Incheon International Airport. And you can still sort of achieve exploring South Korea on a budget while inside the airport.
Incheon airport is perhaps the nicest and most organized airport I have ever visited.
I have not visited Singapore which I heard also is a beautiful and a very functional airport similar to Incheon International airport.
A Mall at the Airport- well Sorta!
They have branded stores within the airport and also small shops along the arrival zone where you can buy Korean trinkets and food. Similar to 7/11 stores.
Dine in their multiple restaurants that caters both to Korean and International cuisines.
Food courts are available for the budget conscious traveler as well as high end restaurants if you want to spend a few bucks on food.
Airport lounges, massage areas and gym areas are also available at the airport.
There is also a walk in museum within Incheon International airport.
I did not have any time to visit all of them due to how huge the airport is.
However, navigating through the airport is not challenging as signs are written in English aside from the Korean language.
The 4 Hour Layover Tour
I had to choose between exploring Incheon International airport or going outside the airport and exploring South Korea through a free layover tour.
This was an easy decision for me.
Thus after getting the instructions from the friendly Korean lady I proceeded to exit the gate of the airport.
Passed through immigration which was a breeze, no questions asked. They just checked my ticket and boom I was outside the immigration gates.
As instructed I searched for the Layover Tour Kiosk. Upon arrival the person in charge asked for the pamphlet that the Korean lady handed to me with the Korean writing scribbled onto it and told me come back at exactly 9 am for my tour.
At this point I still had the expectation that I was doing the 1 hour tour. It was still 8:20 am so I decided to roam around the airport a bit. I decided not to go far since I did not want to miss my free tour.
This was when I decided to exchange my USD to Korean money.
The Last part of the Secret: the 20 USD budget
Yes, I exchange my 20 USD for Korean money. I anticipated while on tour that there will be restaurants that I plan on trying and souvenirs to bring back home.
From my 20 USD I got roughly around 22,000 South Korean Won.
The Start of the Tour: The Destination
After meeting the other tourists for the 9am tour we immediately proceeded to the bus stop outside the airport where we were greeted by our very friendly, bubbly and accommodating tourist guide.
While on the bus this was the time that I learned that I was not going to the casino but I was heading to a 4 hour cave tour.
My initial thought was oh crap! I would be going spelunking in a cave and I might have my clothes wet and dirty. I did not prepare for this.
Our tour guide casually informed us that the ride from the airport to Gwangmyeong cave would approximately be 1 hour.
Thus our trip to the cave would be 2 hours.
At that time I thought, okay 2 hours of cave exploration would possibly mean just hopping on a vehicle- boat and just explore the cave similar to that the Underground Cave of Puerto Princesa Philippines.
Related Post: Underground River in Puerto Princesa Palawan
South Korea 101 while on the Bus Ride:
While on our way to Gwangmyeong cave (don’t worry I also have trouble pronouncing it) our tour guided discussed about Korean culture and talked about the history of Korea. Which I absolutely enjoyed.
She also shared some common Korean phrases which I aced by the way all thanks to watching Korean series on Netflix.
Words like An-nyeong-ha-se-yo (hello); Kam-sa-ham-ni-da and sa-rang-hae (I love you) were some of the words that our tour guide taught us.
Plus I got to do the Korean heart which up until this trip I was to ashamed to do.
Sidenote: she was fairly impressed with how many Korean words I know although she was not surprised upon knowing I was Filipino.
Cultural immersion on a Bus Tour
Learning the culture of the country through a local for free was just awesome for me.
I enjoyed the quick history of South Korea and even fell even more in love with the country. And oh despite that great culture immersion experience that most tourist usually pay for. I still had my 22,000 South Korean Won intact!
Arriving at Gwangmyeong: A Cave Like No Other
The entrance to Gwangmyeong Cave was comparable to that of Ocean Park Hong Kong. It was a vast stretch of parking space with trees covering the area.
To get to the cave we needed to hike a bit in an elevated terrain. The temperature was cool thus walking uphill was no problem.
As soon as we arrived on top I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw.
Inside the Cave of Gwangmyeong
Gwangmyeong cave felt like a park rather than a caving expedition. With multiple food stalls, souvenir shops and tourist of all ages going in and out of the cave.
As soon as we entered the cave all my pre conceived notions about cave exploring was debunked.
The cave itself has been converted to a tourist friendly attraction. Pathways have been created and turned into a friendly tourist exploration.
The temperature in the cave further dipped to chilling conditions. Good thing I brought a jacket with me as the temperature gradually decreased as we went further to the cave.
El Dorado of Asia
Prior to the cave becoming a tourist attraction it was the largest gold mine in the city.
Aside from gold the cave also produced silver, bronze and other minerals. The mines opened for 60 years and even became the shelter for Koreans during the Korean war.
Starting 1972 the mine was closed for 40 years due to environment contamination and was later on used as a storage space for salted shrimps. They also used the mines as a wine cellar (I asked the tour guide myself) .
In 2011, Gwangmyeong city reopened the cave and converted it to a theme park preserving the cave itself but making it more accessible for tourist to visit its inside.
Touring Gwangmyeong Cave
The cave had a lot to offer. From old artifacts, to an aquarium, to statues of Korean folklore and even Gollum was in the mix. – One of the groups who reconstructed the cave were from New Zealand thus they wanted to leave a legacy there. Thus Gollum was in that cave.
Aside from the artifacts and tradition. You will also get to see the history of the cave along with the message of taking care of the environment in a cave amphitheater.
It’s a wide empty space in one area of the cave where a light show is held in the walls of the cave. Definitely a different kind of experience.
Guess where I spent my 20 USD/ 22,000 South Korea Won?
Okay so I just shared with you the highlight of the free layover tour in Korea which is Gwangmyeong cave.
And still I have not spent single dollar throughout my trip in Korea.
Well this is now the part that I reveal where I spent my 22,000 South Korea Won on….
Food Trip at Gwangmyeong !
After the cave tour our tour guide gave us 20 minutes to explore the theme park that had multiple food stalls which sell variety of Korean street food.
Related Post: All American Food Trip in Wisconsin
Imagine American food trucks – only Korean. I wanted to try authentic Korean street food thus I got a combo meal of Korean sausage and sticky rice and takoyaki – a ball of battered vegetables with squid tentacles.
I bought this delicious combo for 6,000 won.
The rest of my money I spent at the airport buying souvenirs and packed Korean food. I did not buy a lot as this was just a layover stop.
As I hopped on a plane heading to San Francisco USA I still have 2000 Korean won on my pouch. Tired but satisfied with my trip in Korea.
Despite my short stay in Korea and only getting the opportunity to visit Incheon and Gwangmyeong I have absolutely fallen in love with the country.
Seoul was a few kilometers from the airport thus I did not get the opportunity to visit it’s capital. Perhaps if I did I would have married South Korea!
As my plane headed to San Francisco, I made a promise to myself that someday I shall visit South Korea again and this time it not just going to be another layover trip.
And there we have it, the secret to exploring South Korea on a budget has been revealed.
I am still day dreaming as to when I can return to South Korea for a couple of days or even a week’s worth travel to the different parts of the country.
But for the meantime I shall hold my experience of 8 hours in Korea dear to my heart. Knowing that I enjoyed every hour I spent in that country.