More and more tourists have been traveling to South Korea since the country opened its doors to all visa types on June 1, 2022. Though tourism is back on track, it has yet to reach its peak. If you've traveled to the Land of the Morning Calm before the pandemic, you'll notice that the current travel scene differs from the country's pre-pandemic glory days. BUT don't get me wrong—though times have changed, a SoKor travel experience in the new normal is just as remarkable.
Here's a list of changes and tips to keep in mind to make your Korea vacation glitch-free:
1. There are no more visa stickers.
If you're renewing your South Korea visa or applying for one, a major change you'll notice is the Korean Visa Grant Notice printed on an A4 sheet that gets stapled onto your passport in lieu of a visa sticker. Since July 2020, visa labels stuck on passports were discontinued by the Korean Embassy in the Philippines. If you're not sure how to begin securing your K-Visa, backtrack to our easy-to-follow guide here.
2. Don't forget your travel insurance.
To avoid delays in passing through immigration in the Philippines, it's super important to purchase travel insurance ahead of time. When I booked my trip in October, I was not aware that travel insurance was a must. It was a good thing I was early at the airport when I found out about this requirement (the immigration officer would not less us pass without proof of travel insurance). I had to panic-buy travel insurance online at the last minute using the airport's public wifi (since the wifi on my phone was super weak). OMG~ It was such a stressful experience, which I do not wish on anyone else.
3. Secure a Q-Code.
It's a must to check the Korea Tourism Organization's (KTO's) Korea Travel Safety Guidelines page for the latest news on travel requirements. To zip through the airport's quarantine checkpoint, be sure to secure your Q-Code three days before your departure date. Upon arrival at Incheon airport, flash the Q-Code photo saved on your phone (you can also print it out) to the quarantine officials who will greet you before you proceed to the immigration counter.
4. Masks on.
South Korea's pandemic response can be tagged as risk-averse. In April 2022, the country eased its social distancing measures by lifting the limit to the number of people restaurants and shops can accommodate indoors. A month after, it removed its outdoor mask mandate, allowing people to remove their masks when attending outdoor gatherings not exceeding 50 people. This mandate was fully lifted in September. In October (to the delight of foreigners), testing and quarantine requirements were removed for visitors traveling to Korea. The country's indoor mask mandate is still in place as one of the last measures to safeguard the country from COVID-19 outbreaks. Around Seoul, you'll see shops with signs reminding you to wear your mask before entering. If you happen to remove your mask for photo ops while inside spaces like museums, you'll be reminded to put it back on by staff members on patrol.
P.S.: The mask mandate in South Korea will be lifted starting January 30!
Tip: Even before COVID-19, face masks were an on-trend fashion staple in Korea. Koreans use masks to protect themselves from pollution and fine dust levels. If you're a mask advocate you'll fit right in because locals are really diligent in wearing masks when out and about. You'll even see mask shops dedicated to custom masks with unique designs that go with any outfit.
5. Check the bus schedules.
If you plan on taking the airport bus to and from Seoul (it's still the cheapest option), be sure to check the latest published bus schedules to make sure you don't miss your ride. The most common buses from Incheon Airport to Seoul (bus numbers: 6001-Dongdaemun, 6002-Cheongnyangi Station, 6015-Myeondong, and 6030-Crown Ho Telephone) serve passengers from 5:30 a.m to 10:40 p.m.The ride back to the airport can be a bit tricky as the last rides offered end by 8:00-8:20 p.m. It's key to wait for the bus early because if you wait till the last minute for the last ride to the airport, you might not be able to score a seat if the bus hits its full capacity (the bus driver will not let you in no matter how much you plead to be accommodated). If you do miss your bus, you can use other transportation options like taking the Airport Railroad Express (AREX), availing of private car transfers, or taking a taxi (the latter two are the most expensive options since you'll be charged toll fees on top of the car/taxi fee).
6. Plan your out-of-Seoul train rides ahead of time.
To avoid any form of inconvenience, it's super important to plan your KTX (Korea Train Express) or ITX (Inter-City Train Express) train rides to provinces or cities outside of Seoul ahead of time. Scheduled trains leave on the dot so if you miss your train and take the next one you won't be guaranteed a seat. It's also key to note that as of this date, only major train stations have ticket-selling booths with staff selling tickets. When purchasing train tickets at smaller stations, you will have to rely on the ticket vending machines which can be tricky as not all of them have English translation options and some only accept local Korean credit cards. You can also book your train tickets online ahead of time by visiting the Korail website. Travel experiences service providers like Klook, Trazy, or KKDay also offer Korail tickets which you can book online.
7. T-Money cards exclusively sold at convenience stores.
Before the pandemic, you could easily cop a T-Money card at any subway station via T-Money vending machines. This has changed as T-Money cards are now exclusively sold at convenience stores. Though there are a lot of designs to choose from (they even have exclusive BTS T-Money card releases), T-Money cards are often sold in card form and not anymore in keychain token form, which is now a rare find compared to pre-pandemic years.
8. Shops at Incheon Airport close earlier.
Since tourism is still racing to its peak, shops at Terminal 2 in Incheon Airport are not open 'round the clock. That being said, if you have a red-eye flight, don't count on last-minute shopping at the airport if you get there past 8:00 p.m. It's also a great idea to eat your dinner before your flight because the only food options are limited to convenience stores and a few restaurants in the airport's Terminal 1 (arrivals) area. Once you're past immigration and in Terminal 2 the only source of sustenance are the water fountains peppered around the airport. It's sad to see that there aren't any shops open or vending machines for late-night travelers waiting for their planes.
Tip: If you're taking a budget airline, invest in pre-booked meals and stock up on snacks to fill your carry-on. Food options and stock in some airlines run out quickly (especially if you're seated towards the tail end of the plane).
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