Flying to Korea on my first international trip. Advice?
August 8, 2011 6:54 PM   Subscribe

I'm flying to South Korea (JFK to PEK to ICN) in two weeks for my first international trip in years. I need some advice on preparation, the flight, and the subsequent two months I'll spend in Korea.

I'm flying (alone) to South Korea via Air China in two weeks. I would rather use a different airline, but the tickets were cheap. Being cheap tickets, there's an overnight layover in Beijing, for which the airline has already offered me a hotel room (though I won't find out which hotel it is until I get to the airport). Once in Korea, I'll be staying there for two months.

1. First of all, is there any basic information anyone would like to share about flying internationally? I know I need to whip out my passport frequently and I've flown domestically, but I'm a little nervous about flying to a different country.

2. Is there anything specific I should try to pack? And is there a brand of luggage that you can vouch for? I'll also note that I'm taking a big tub (5 lbs.) of protein powder in my checked luggage, which research tells me should be alright with the TSA. I also considered taking my guitar with me, but I've decided it'll be easier to just buy one in Korea and sell it before I leave (or give it to someone, etc.).

3. Once I'm in Beijing, is there anything close to the airport I might enjoy? I'm a laid back guy. I don't mind sitting or walking around aimlessly so long as the atmosphere is interesting (and I don't want to spend much money). I've also heard some bad things from my Chinese friends, including one anecdote about taxi drivers stealing your organs, and a recommendation to stay away from the water. I'm not worried about anything, but if there's something I should be aware of please let me know.

4. Any general advice on staying in Korea? I'll be staying with some family and close friends all over the country (though I'll probably spend the majority of my time around Seoul), and I can read and speak Korean moderately well. This is a vacation so I'll be completely free for the entire two months, unless someone wants to take me somewhere. I can drink legally there, but I don't plan on partying much. I might go to some clubs and similar venues to see what they're like, but that's not really my style.

5. I'd like to go to a gym in maybe twice a week. I can find out about this when I get there, but if someone has firsthand experience that'd be great.

6. One of my major concerns is being able to play music. I'll check out Hongdae, but is it possible to find people to jam with? Koreans, expats, doesn't matter. I play guitar and I can also play bass and some drums. I'm just interested in feeding my musical needs while I'm there.

7. How can I get a phone there? I asked someone about this and they said it's difficult for a non-resident. Would a pre-paid phone be the best option?

8. Where are the good shopping districts (for clothes)? If I want to get a suit, what's a good direction to go?

9. Is there anything in Korea that's substantially cheaper than in the US? Electronics? I already plan on taking advantage of the incredibly fast internet speeds there.

10. Anything I should be aware of, culturally? I don't look Korean, for starters.

If you can answer any of these questions I'd be very grateful. I don't mind going in blind, but this is my first big trip alone and I'm feeling nervous. If you can give me any advice I'd feel much more at ease.

As always, thanks for your time.
posted by jykmf to Travel & Transportation around South Korea (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Don't assume that your protein powder won't be an issue.
posted by k8t at 9:33 PM on August 8, 2011

Best answer: You can easily get a cheap prepaid phone. The major cell phone companies have booths in Incheon Airport where you can rent them. I didn't do it, but my family did and they said it was quick and easy. I'm pretty sure it's the only way for a non-resident to get a phone.

I've read many people recommend brining your own supply of deodorant.

If you don't look Korean be prepared to be stared at. A lot. Especially by older folks. Generally though, I found Koreans to be super friendly and helpful even if they can't really speak English.

While you're in Seoul, I recommend checking out Gyeongbukgung which is the royal palace. It's a beautiful, sprawling complex where you can easily spend a couple hours walking around.

If you have any other questions or want more recommendations, feel free to Memail me. I miss Korea a lot, I'm jealous you get to hang out there for two months. Don't be nervous, you'll have a great time!
posted by Shesthefastest at 9:57 PM on August 8, 2011

Assuming you're a US citizen, then if you intend to leave the airport in Beijing to go to a hotel, you will need to get a Chinese visa.
posted by cowtown at 10:10 PM on August 8, 2011

Best answer: Seconding the comment about the Chinese visa. If they plan to put you up in a hotel, then you will need to enter China, and for that you need a visa. Contact your travel agent/airline ASAP. There are a number of hotels of varying quality near the airport.

However, depending on the length of your layover, you may not want to leave the airport (which is quite new and quite nice) as there's not a whole lot that's very interesting near the airport. It's a solid 45-55 minutes to get to anything of real interest. The cab drivers won't steal your organs (at least they haven't stolen any of mine yet), but they sure as heck don't speak English. If you do go into the city, I suggest taking the monorail train which connects to the subway in the city. The station signs have English translations. You can take public transportation (probably an hour+) down to Tian'anmen Square, the Forbidden City, etc. for a look. Not great if you're hauling a lot of luggage.

Visa issues aside, flying internationally is no different from flying domesticlaly, except a a lot longer. Bring a neck pillow, books/movies for the plane. Air China isn't horrible, and it's certianly no worse than most U.S. airlines in terms of service, food quality, etc.

Korea is a pleasant country. You won't get too many stares in the main areas of Seoul, but you will get more attention outside of Seoul.

Your U.S. phone likely won't work in Korea (different system), but it will work in China. When you get to Korea, you can rent one at the airport, but I suspect it will be cheaper to buy prepaid.

Speaking/reading Korean is a huge plus. You will get so much more out of the experience, and people will respond so much better to you than if you didn't, especially outside any major metropolitan areas.

In Seoul, have dinner at the fish market (buy your fish live from a vendor, and take it to a restaurant in the back where they'll cook it).

Good luck and have a great time.
posted by hawkeye at 3:56 AM on August 9, 2011

Best answer: I personally think Air China has intensely bad service.
For example, they regularly keep their seatbelt signs on for the entire trip, apparently to avoid having to provide service. I've seen toilets where the doors don't close, seats where the seat pocket and table are completely broken, and more. I also personally hate their food (even more than the US airline companies), so I would bring food.

Beijing airport has free wifi, but they will copy your password to give you a (free) access code. Also remember that internet is censored in China, so unless you have a VPN, you will not be able to access Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and others.

Memail me if you want to know more about getting out of the airport in Beijing.

Enjoy your trip!
posted by xmts at 7:39 AM on August 9, 2011

Best answer: What hawkeye said about the fish market? It has to be visited. One of the more amazing food experiences I've ever had. We went at around 3 or 4 am and it was wild, wild, wild. Also, in Seoul at night a lot of little stalls pop up in the Insadong arts district. They'll offer some fantastic snacks and booze. It's a very cool atmosphere to eat in.

I put up a couple of asks from my last trip there that are still relevant and answer your questions about phones and music. I got a pre-paid at Incheon and had no problems.
posted by artof.mulata at 11:53 PM on August 9, 2011

Best answer: 4. Your Korean language skills will make your time there very different from most foreigners who go there. Be respectful and don't worry about the occasional weird interaction and you'll have a fascinating time. Read as much as you can about Korean culture and history before you go to fully enhance the experience. Despite the title, this book is very useful for all visitors.

6. I am MeFi mailing you the email address of someone I used to know in Seoul who is very involved with the indie music scene there.

7. Renting at the airport is one option. A cheaper one will be to buy a used phone, but AFAIK, you need an alien registration card to do so. Since you're staying with family and close friends, perhaps one of them could pick you up a cheap pre-paid from Yongsan in advance?

8. Korea is not a fantastic place to buy a suit. There are some tailors in Itaewon who cater to the ex-pat market, though I don't know anyone who has used them. Most ex-pats (including me) bought suits as part of a holiday in Thailand, Hong Kong etc. Dongdaemun Market is a good place for Korean-style clothes shopping.

9. There isn't a lot that's much cheaper in Korea, apart from Korean food. You might find the occasional bargain in electronics, but it won't be anything spectacular. I believe cosmetic surgery is good value!
posted by Busy Old Fool at 10:27 AM on August 11, 2011

Best answer: I'll weigh in on the Korea-related questions :)

No need to bring deoderant - that's an old myth of sorts (though it was mostly true when I arrived in March 2008). Go to any health and beauty or department store for an ample selection.

4. In general, traveling around Korea requires no reservations - but be sure to get your train tickets soon if traveling for the Chuseok weekend (Sept 10-13 is one nice holiday). Avoid traveling back to Seoul on a Sunday night unless you like being a sardine on the train.

5. The jimjilbang (Korean spa / sauna) often have a gym / workout area inside. Sometimes admission is included in the price you pay, sometimes it's a couple bucks extra. Either way, that's easier than figuring out some sort of monthly arrangement.

6. If there's a better place to jam than Hongdae Park, I have no idea where that might be. Friday or Saturday afternoons and evenings are best.

7. Nthing the airport rental.

8. Dongdaemun and Namdaemun are the standbys for clothes. For clothes you'll want to wear more than twice, stick around the Gangnam or Apgujeong areas.

9. Eating out is typically quite cheap.
posted by chrisinseoul at 11:00 PM on August 11, 2011

Response by poster: I am prepared to lose my protein. I've heard it should be alright.

Regarding the visa, I've researched this pretty extensively and it turns out I don't need a visa to exit the airport (you get a stamp on your passport allowing you to roam around for 24 hours before your next flight). This information is from several frequent flyers so I'm sure it's correct.

artof.mulata, I read your art question a while ago in my research but forgot about it. I'll take note of it.

Busy Old Fool, that's really helpful! I guess if I buy clothing in Korea it will be Korean and not western. I'm rather annoyed by all the cosmetic surgery, but I guess I'll be seeing a lot of prime examples.

Chris, thanks for the info. From reading other threads I've figured out that deodorant will be easily attainable. The jimjilbang idea is new to me and if the facilities are adequate it might work out.

It's good to know I can just get a phone at the airport. I think what I'll do first is ask someone in Korea to get a prepaid for me (since that appears to be cheaper).

Thanks again to everyone. You've really helped me a lot.
posted by jykmf at 8:05 AM on August 12, 2011

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