Thursday, February 23, 2017

Winter in Seoul: An Overview on my First Solo Trip Abroad


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 (check here for discounted tours, transportation and activities in Seoul).


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.

Seoul Seollal Festival

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.


WEATHER FORECAST

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.

Incheon International Airport
Snow-covered airport. I'm doomed! 
It was sunny and the heating system inside the airport warmed me up as I emerged from the airplane tube. I wanted to check out its real feel so I went outside the arrival hall and immediately felt the sub-zero temperature. I loved it at first, it felt refreshing and cooling as I cocooned on my warm jacket and boots. But then, it only took me a minute to feel the numbness on my fingers. I hurriedly went back inside the terminal while thinking about how many layers of clothing I needed to wear for the next coming days.

Incheon International Airport
Still couldn't feel the cold because of the heating system

FOREX

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.

Incheon International Airport
The best money exchange rate in the whole of Seoul is right here at Incheon International Airport! :)
Arriving in Seoul City, I went around the shopping district of Myeong-dong, that same day, and searched for the best money exchange rate and found out that it wasn’t as good as the one at the airport. During the course of my four-day trip, I found none that would compare to the rate they have at KEB Currency Exchange. I should’ve followed the advices from the forums and exchanged all my money there as I only found KRW1,164 to US$1 the best one in Myeong-dong area.

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?


POCKET WIFI

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.

Seoul Pocket WiFi Rental
My trusted buddy for the next four days
Arriving at Incheon International Airport, I looked for the service provider’s kiosk at the Arrival Hall and handed the gracious lady on the counter my voucher (skipping the long queue). I was asked to fill out a form and asked my credit card for the standard security deposit hold (for incidental charges like damage or loss of device and extended use). I was then given the device with case and charger and from then on, I was connected to the world for the lowest possible price. It was fast and easy.

Incheon International Airport
Redemption kiosks for my rented pocket WiFi via Klook
In those four days, I had no problems at all and relied on my pocket WiFi for almost everything; metro train information, maps and such. It actually saved me from so much hassle of getting lost.

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 Express Train Airport To Seoul
AREX booth at Incheon International Airport
There were signs leading to the train station when I was at the Arrival Hall of Incheon International Airport. Arriving at the AREX Express Train booking area, I showed the voucher I saved from my cellphone to the lady manning the booth. In about one minute, my booking was confirmed. I was then given the train card plus a pack of wet tissues and discount coupons for shopping. It took me a little under two minutes altogether; it was hassle-free and easy.

AREX Express Train Airport To Seoul
Train card plus other freebies
The AREX Express Train operation starts at around 5:23 am to 11:42 pm everyday with interval of 10 minutes. Seats are pre-determined and luggage cabin is provided. I neatly sat on my assigned seat when the train arrived while waiting for the ride to commence. The seat itself was comfy as there’s so much legroom and it’s totally reclinable.

AREX Express Train Airport To Seoul
Uber comfy relining seats
The 43-minute scenic ride was made more convenient by the fact that there was heater, toilets and WiFi connection inside the coaches which prepped me up before I battle the minus something degree weather in Seoul.

It took me only 43 minutes to reach Seoul City
Seoul Station was the terminus and from there, I hopped on to the Seoul Metropolitan Subway and went to my guesthouse with ease. I also had a pre-booked AREX Express Train Airport Transfer from Seoul City to Incheon International Airport via Klook app and just reversed the trip process when it’s time for me to leave the city.


T-MONEY CARD

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


Metro Train Seoul
Seoul Metro is clean, fast and efficient
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.

Source

METRO APP

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.

Metro Train Seoul
Seoul Metro was the only public transportation I used in Seoul
The 40-year old train system is fast and convenient but one of its cons is that not all stations do have lifts and escalators so it’s a bit of a challenge if you’re not really into walking. In my opinion, train systems are better in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taipei. But then, Seoul Metro is definitely better than the train systems in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.

Source
There are a number of cellphone apps that offer an easy way to navigate Seoul Metro. What I used was Kakao Metro which is really great as it shows the nearest station from your location and would automatically compute the fare and arrival time for you. It saved me so much time and effort.


WINTER OUTFIT

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.

Seoul Winter
-7 degree Celsius | 4:00 pm | Seoul
Know your body’s quick-cooling spots. This is easy. Just set your AC to the minimum temperature and you’d know it already. As for me, I have no problems on my head area (including ears and neck part) but my hands and feet felt numb most of the time so I had to wear gloves and boots to address this problem. I was also told that there were heating packs available at convenience stores which I bought on my very first day. I bought a heating pack for KRW1,000 (US$0.87) for two that made my hands warm for six hours (you just have to shake it after opening). There are also some packs designed for the feet but I used the ones I have and put in inside my boots so as to alleviate the numbness on my feet. And it actually worked!

Seoul Heating Packs
My life saver
Layers and layers. Thermal underwear and clothing saved my life as well. You can buy these on some of the leading clothing stores that feature winter clothes. During this four-day trip, my standard layering of clothes went like;

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.

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ACCOMMODATION

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.

Guesthouse Korea Seoul
My humble heated room for four days

FOOD

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.

Korean Bulgogi
Bulgogi Hot Pot

TOURS

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.

Nami Island Winter
Survived my first ever winter trip

KOREAN PEOPLE

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 South Korea
Seoul City is generally safe
There was this one time when I left my key inside the guesthouse (silly me) when I bought something from the convenience store nearby. I was only wearing a fleece jacket at that time and it was freezing at five in the morning when I realized that I couldn’t open the main door as the security code was written somewhere on the keychain. I didn’t panic and stayed calm. It was only after 10 minutes under the harsh weather when I realized that I was doomed. I took refuge from the convenience store and told the young guy manning the counter about my dilemma. He then searched for the contact number of the guesthouse and called them up using his own mobile phone. To cut it short, this guy, whom I failed to get the name, helped me all throughout this ordeal and made sure that I went back to the guesthouse safely. If not for him, I might have missed my flight or die of hypothermia, exaggeration, I know.

Gwanghwamun Square Seoul
Gwanghwamun Square
Perhaps, it can be the language barrier that some people think that Koreans are snobs. They may not be as sunny and friendly as other nations but they are usually dependable when you asked for their help.

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.


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.







2 comments:

  1. Hello, May I ask the airline you used to go from Manila to Incheon? And what time was the arrival? I looked everywhere for good travel times but majority seem to arrive early morning 4am

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    1. I took an AirAsia flight. Okay naman ang schedule :)

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