Monday, October 18, 2010

Travelling to Seoul for the G20 Summit? Travel tips for foreigners. READ THIS or be stuck in traffic.

The population of greater Seoul is approaching 25mm.  Manhattan's population is approximately 15mm.  Get the idea?  Seoul is bigger, and busier than NY.  I have lived in both, and if you believe that Seoul is still a war-torn, emerging market capitol, then you need to THINK AGAIN.

One excellent thing about Seoul:  the transportation system is very organized and quite rational, given the size of the city and the density of the population.  Here is what you absolutely, positively, need to know.

a.  If you are coming from Incheon International Airport, you need to determine whether you are going north or south of the Han River.  The Han River essentially divides the two halves of Seoul, and where you are going will affect the mode of transportation to take from the airport.

b.  If you are going north of the Han River (call Gang-Buk pronounced Gang-boooook), then taking the Express Train to Seoul Station is the best, unless you are going to a very specific hotel like the Shilla, Westin, or Hyatt Grand.  It is my opinion that taking the Express Train is the fastest and easiest to Seoul Station (pronounced Seoul-yuck).  From there, you can take a taxi.

c.  If you are going south of the Han River , then best way is to take an Express Bus to COEX (otherwise known as World Trade Center) Express Bus Terminal.  It is direct, and will take from 50-65 minutes (with almost no variance from that).  It costs about 11,000 KRW (10 USD).   There are many, many buses going to every corner of Seoul, if you are very experienced in travelling in Korea, then you can find a bus that takes you closer to your exact destination.  That said, it can be quite confusing given the number of buses.  If you take the wrong bus, well, you will be lost in the 5th largest city in the world.  From COEX,  you can again take a taxi.

d.  I do not recommend a taxi.  Why?  One word.  traffic.  It is a total crapshoot getting into Seoul if you are stuck on the wrong road entering Seoul from the main expressway (called 88).  One wrong selection by your cab driver means 30-60 extra minutes.  The train and the bus are relaible, and clean.  Forget comparing them to Amtrak and Greyhound.  They are not comparable.  Not even close. 

e.  Once in Seoul, take taxis but leave yourself a LOT of time.  If you are travelling within any business district, such as Gangnam, or near City Hall, traffic can increase your travel time by an hour greater than expectation.  AN HOUR.  If you are going from one of those two areas to the other (Gangnam, City Hall), then you should assume that it will take 60 minutes to cross the Han River and then it can take another 20-40 minutes to get to your destination. 

f.  You can take the subway as a foreigner because all of the signs are now translated to English.  However, you need to know that there is no concept of "express" stops as there are in Manhattan.  They are ALL "local" lines.  They will be very crowded during rush hour (think Penn Station subways at rush hour).  That said, it will take 50 minutes with almost no variance in timing to get from Gangnam to the City Hall area.  The prices are incompable:  at most, a one-way ticket on the subway is at most USD 1.75.  Here is a link to the official subway map of Seoul:

Well, those are the broad strokes.  You can read some other posts here on this blog in order to get some more pointers, which will be aimed at foreigners visiting Seoul, an amazing, vibrant city.  My favorite megapolis in the world.  Not even close, and that includes New York, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.  Seoul is the best.  I may be biased, but there it is.


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