I was tracing my steps back to the gate of a royal palace when I suddenly felt a flurry slushy thing that dropped on my cheeks. I brushed it off at once and carried on with my leisurely saunter. Another droplet fell, and then another one. I stopped for a while, searched for a shelter and then realized that white crystals were falling. It was only after a minute when I fully grasped what was happening, it was snowing. A tropical girl was actually experiencing snow, for the first time! It was my third day in Seoul and I was overjoyed for this great surprise.
I have the lowest tolerance in cold weather that I find the midday 16-degree Celsius weather in Baguio very chilly. I also detest traveling solo ‘coz I believe that experiences are meant to be shared. Plus, if you know me pretty well, I wouldn’t trade my comfy flip flops over a trendy shoes (I don’t wear shoes at all) or drag a heavy suitcase during trips (I super love my cheapo 40-liter backpack). Adding this all up, and probably by some twist of fate, I found myself packing a luggage full of winter clothes on the last week of January while trying on a leather shoes with wool lining for a four-day winter solo trip in Seoul. The joke was on me, apparently.
I never dreamt of snow and winter. Neither do I know any KPop songs nor any Koreanovela shows. I can't imagine myself wearing faux fur, leather boots (I don't even wear shoes at all). I don't use a suitcase, I travel with my backpack. I detest traveling solo. Defying all the comforts I have before, I'm embarking on an epic solo trip to the land of kimchi. I heard it will be minus 10 degrees. But it will surely feel colder than that. Lezdodiz! #BlissfulSeoul Photo by @lakadpilipinas
Four days. It may seem fleeting but four days felt crammed as I struggle between how many layers of clothing should I wear and what to do next. I did a solo trip once to the island of Marinduque in the Philippines, that was six years ago. It was one of those times when you find nobody to join you on your crazy antics of spending four days on a remote island that requires you a bus+ferry+jeepney ride. I almost backed out and would’ve gone somewhere familiar instead but gladly, I veered away from my comfort zone and followed where my heart led me.
A month ago, it came as a surprise when I won a roundtrip international ticket to anywhere and just because it was crunch time, I chose Seoul not realizing that it will be winter during that time, screw me. I had two weeks to prepare for the trip and fortunately, I encountered no misadventures. So to sum it up, here’s a rundown on my first winter solo trip abroad, emphasis on the solo.
KOREAN TRAVEL VISA
The Republic of Korea requires a visa when traveling to the country. For a complete and easy guide on Korean Visa Application in the Philippines check here.
I’ve never been so mindful about the temperature and weather like I did when I came to Seoul. The forecast on the day I arrived was -2 deg. C. and at that time, I have zero knowledge on how a single digit temperature feels like (so much more for a negative one). The moment I touched down at Incheon International Airport, I immediately saw the snow-covered airport and whispered to myself that I’m doomed.
|Snow-covered airport. I'm doomed!|
I scanned from a number of travel forums that the most competitive money exchange rate is available at the Departure Hall of Incheon International Airport, not just among the money exchange counters at the airport but the whole of Seoul. I couldn’t believe that, of course, as the usual rates are lower at the airport compared to anywhere. So I exchanged US$30 (I always bring US Dollars when I go abroad) at the rate of KRW1,220 for US$1 at KEB Currency Exchange between check-in counters C and D.
|The best money exchange rate in the whole of Seoul is right here at Incheon International Airport! :)|
I had excess Korean Won in me when I was about to leave Seoul so I decided to exchange it at the same money changer and surprisingly, the rate was almost the same as before (KRW1,215.90 to US$1). Amazing right?
Before this trip, I checked out the roaming data rates from my local telecom provider and found it too expensive at around US$10 for unlimited use per day. I then checked Klook app on my cellphone for great deals on WiFi services while staying in Seoul. I’ve been using Klook for quite some time now to search for activities and services whenever I travel and found it very convenient and hassle-free.
Moving on, I found a deal on PocketWi-Fi Rental (Korea Airport Pick-Up) which was going for around US$5 for unlimited use per day, almost fifty percent cheaper than what my network service provider offers. I quickly booked a four-day unlimited pocket WiFi rental from the user-friendly interface of the app and in seconds, I received an email for the confirmation of my booking and saved the voucher on my cellphone.
|My trusted buddy for the next four days|
On the day of my departure from Seoul, I went back to the said kiosk and handed them back the device and the security deposit was cancelled in no time.
AREX EXPRESS TRAIN AIRPORT TRANSFER
From Incheon International Airport, there are many ways to reach Seoul City; via all-stop train, AREX express train, airport limousine bus, private chartered car, and taxi. I again checked the airport transport services that was offered via my Klook app and found that they have almost every option mentioned. As my trip coincided with the annual Seollal (Lunar New Year), I specifically wanted to get to the city the fastest and easiest way so I instantly booked for a two-way IncheonAirport to Seoul City Center via AREX Express Train which actually is cheaper on the app. By using its easy navigable app, I got a one-way non-stop train ride to the city for P329 (US$6.58) compared to KRW14,800 (US$12.91) when you book on-site (usually they have promo discounts for KRW8,000 | US$6.98 but my Klook purchase was still cheaper).
|AREX booth at Incheon International Airport|
|Train card plus other freebies|
|It took me only 43 minutes to reach Seoul City|
I’ve read from a blog (yes, I did a little research on this trip as I had nobody to rely on) that T-money card is the easiest way to go around the city via public transportation. The top-up card can be used in public buses, subways, taxis and even convenience stores not only in Seoul but also in other major cities in South Korea.
I got mine for KRW2,500 (US$2.18) from a convenience store at
Seoul Subway Station. I recharged it just once for KRW10,000 (US$8.72) which
sufficed during the course of my four-day trip as KRW100 (US$0.09) is
automatically deducted off from the original subway fare when you use it. It
also serves as a discount pass to some of the major tourist destinations around.
You may want to refund the excess money when you leave the city but I opted to
keep mine as I can use it on my future visits to Seoul.
|Seoul Metro is clean, fast and efficient|
Seoul is a huge bustling city with a population of more than 50 million so imagine how complex the Seoul Metro Subway is. The usual metro fare is KRW1,250 (US$1.09) on almost all short rides and there’s a discount of KRW100 (US$0.09) every time I used my T-money card on the metro. The subway itself is a complex railway system consisting of 20 rapid lines around Seoul Metropolitan Area. It’s actually the easiest way to go around the city as the color-coded lines almost have a station on key areas in the city.
|Seoul Metro was the only public transportation I used in Seoul|
I was struggling when I think about what a sub-zero weather would feel like and my friends who’ve had winter trips in the past could attest on how extreme and harsh it was. Well, coming from a 30-degree weather all-year round, I couldn’t fathom how I could survive a -11 degree Celsius (the weather forecast a day before my trip).
I searched online for some tips on the right gear to battle the cold weather and found a number of important things that I now consider as my life saver.
|-7 degree Celsius | 4:00 pm | Seoul|
TOP – Thermal underwear, another layer of thermal underwear, fleece pullover or turtle neck, and overcoat.
BOTTOM – Thermal underwear, another layer of thermal underwear, and jeans.
FOOTWEAR – Thermal socks, another layer of socks, and leather boots with wool lining.
ACCESSORIES – Wool or fleece scarf, beanie, and gloves.
It was totally a challenge every morning as I struggle to put on the layers but this would definitely be the key to your lovely winter holiday if you’re a tropical girl like me, believe me.
You may splurge and spend all your money on a luxury hotel which you would only probably be enjoying during your sleeping hours or you may opt to go for a cheaper alternative and stay in a guesthouse. I searched for a nice guesthouse with the good location and found Guesthouse Korea in Jongro Area to be the best one as it is literally surrounded with the great royal palaces that all you have to do is to walk a few hundred meters to explore those. I will dedicate a separate post on this.
Food is definitely one of the highlights for some on their Seoul adventure. As for me, my Korean food knowledge is limited to Bibimbap which I haven’t tried yet before the trip. To make things worse, I haven’t tried any Korean food ever in the Philippines or elsewhere, unless you count Korean Soju as food. Haha. Safe to say, all of my food endeavors in Seoul were definitely novel to my taste buds. A decent meal would cost around KRW6,000 (US$5.23), and that’s just a rice meal. It can go higher if you really want to sample more which I couldn’t do so as that would be such a waste (downside of solo traveling). And also, I find it fascinating how people would drink hot water straight up during winter. I did it once and relieved the coolness I felt and followed everyone’s suit afterwards. I will, again, dedicate a separate post on my great Korean food adventure.
Yes, you could do walking tours around Seoul. And yes, you could do a DIY trip to the famous Nami Island. But if you have four days to explore while battling the cold weather, all you wanna do is to join a shared tour to these places which is perfect for solo travelers.
I was left with nothing to rely on in terms of trip itinerary but myself (my travel buddy usually does this nitty gritty part). I didn’t wanna stress much so I, again, checked Klook app on my cellphone and searched for the tours they have in Seoul for my chosen dates. I was given so many options; attractions and shows, tours and sightseeing, activities and experiences, and food and wellness. I was flooded with great deals each time I smoothly swipe on the offered treats
I dedicated one full day to walk around the city and another day for a tour outside Seoul which I booked via Klook app. I chose the famous Nami Island + Petite France + Garden of Morning Calm Trip for US$66 (KRW75,705.30) which is a great deal for visiting three famous landmarks in one day. Booking was easy via Klook app and all I needed to do was to show up on the designated pick-up point and show my voucher. It was as easy as sending an email to a friend. Haha. I will, again, dedicate a separate post for this lovely trip.
Generally, Seoul is a friendly city with a safe environment. I went to the royal palaces and other famous landmarks and never encountered any bad experiences from the people even if I usually go home at midnight, alone.
|Seoul City is generally safe|
And yes, I’m back now to my lovely sunny and warm country and not struggling with four layers of clothing anymore. I’ve done my defrosting for two consecutive weekends on some quick beach getaways but still, I haven’t unpacked my winter clothes yet. Maybe I still don’t know where to store them, or maybe there’s this part in me that’s still hanging on that one great solo winter adventure that I achieved that’s why I’m sticking with these stuff until I could do so.
I did it! I conquered South Korea on my own. Woohoo! ☃ My first ever winter and solo trip abroad. Thanks to my friends and family who cheered for me. No more four layers of clothing and struggling with my hands getting numb with minus something degree weather plus the challenge of setting up a cellphone tripod for a nice selfie shot. And while I'm defrosting, me thinking about a beach trip this weekend for I really miss the Philippine heat. Tara?! On that note, I challenge you to try traveling solo. It feels, uhmm, very liberating 😀 #BlissfulSeoul
Seoul is really beautiful. There’s this part of me wishing that I was with someone when I first experienced snow but there’s also a victorious feat inside of me that I wouldn’t feel when I’m at the comforts of a travel buddy. I have so many great things to tell you so please stay tuned for the next episode of this winter saga of mine.
Check here for discounted hotels in Seoul