The three months of Autumn are a magical time in Korea. Unlike the short transition that many other parts of the world experience between the sweltering summer and the frigid winter, fall in Korea is a wonderful long season of mild weather enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. Perfect for a quick one week trip with friends or family. Plus, with the Korean currency trading at its lowest point in decades against the US dollar, it’s a particularly good time for Americans to plan a visit.
This itinerary is for people looking for a frugal luxurious getaway, full of incredibly well-priced meals and high quality values on everything from eyeglasses to hotels booked with reward points. Both the Courtyard by Marriott Hotels and the Sheraton Four Points are great no-frills value accommodations. And if you’re able to book them with points, you can spend the savings on some fun splurges like skincare, shopping, or hiring a professional photographer.
A bullet train to Busan is an excellent short excursion even during a one week trip, and although you won’t see any zombies, the amazingly fresh seafood and stunning sightseeing will not disappoint. You might even spot some celebrities as both Seoul and Busan always seem to have some great festivals and K-Pop concerts going on.
Trains and subways are generally the best way to travel in Korea both from the airport to Seoul, and within Seoul itself. Cabs in Korea are very safe, and remember: no tipping. However, there is a marked decline in the number of cabs that are available these days compared to pre-pandemic days. Also, be aware that although drivers have to go through extensive training, most don’t speak any English so it’s helpful to carry around a picture or a card that has your hotel name and address on it, if your Korean is less than fluent.
Day 1: Arrival Day
Arrival day with various flight times means settling into accommodations and then gathering for dinner, probably not too far from the hotel.
Phone and Internet
Before leaving the airport, rent a portable WIFI (MIFI) that will keep you connected to the internet during the trip. You can get a SIM card for your phone but if you aren’t comfortable with messing with the guts of your phone, the portable WIFI option is a good way to go. Up to three of your travel companions can share your portable WIFI but make sure to charge the unit during the day so you don’t run out of battery when you’re out and about.
The Korean currency is the Korean Won or KRW. You should always have some cash on you in case something goes wrong with your credit cards. Soon after arriving, get some cash from an ATM. It will cost you a convenience fee but it’s generally far cheaper than the terrible exchange rates you get at the Currency Exchange shops. Credit cards are widely accepted but many places do not accept American Express.
If you are staying anywhere near Seoul Station, take the AREX (Airport Express Train) which runs direct from Incheon Airport to Seoul Station. Many hotels are very close to Seoul Station. It’s cheap (less than $8!), plus it’s much faster than a cab.
PRO TIP: On day one, purchase a T-money card for use on subways and cabs. It’s less than $2 from any convenience store. Load it with about 20,000 KRW (about $14) for subways.
Google maps will not work in Korea. You’ll need to use Naver maps, which provide excellent directions.
Seoul Station Airport Railroad → Courtyard By Marriott Entrance (Walking directions) http://naver.me/GD5xAtr5
Hotel: Courtyard Seoul Namdaemun. (Stay with Bonvoy points if possible! )
9 NAMDAEMUN-RO, JUNG-GU, SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA, 04526 +82-2-2211 8000
It’s a well-known secret that you should always get glasses made when you travel to Korea. Not only will the glasses fit well on Asian faces, they cost a fraction what you’d normally pay in the US. Multi-focus lenses will cost more but they will still be much less than what you’d pay in the West. You also don’t need to ask what the anti-glare and UV coatings cost. They will look at you as if you are a barbarian and tell you that all those things we get charged extra for in the US are automatically included in Korea.
There are many great optical store options in Namdaemun, which is an 8-minute walk from the Courtyard Marriott. Idea Namdaemun is a good one but it’s very difficult to find specific stores in the sprawling market. Most reputable-looking stores will have everything from high-end designer to fast fashion frames, with the average all-in price being around $50-$100.
The glasses will take a day or two to make so get your orders in at the front end of your trip.
Have your first dinner at Namdaemun. Find an outdoor galbi place that is crowded and you will get a terrific meal of bbq beef and pork with sides for less than $15 per person including drinks. No frills but excellent nosh.
Day 2: Beauty Day in Gangnam
Morning: Breakfast at Hotel and Skin Care treatments in Gangnam!
There is no shortage of skincare clinics in Gangnam and there are lots of options for men as well as women to level up their skin game. Whatever treatment you are looking for whether it’s mole removal, laser resurfacing, or Botox, you can expect to pay about 1/3 to 1/2 of what you’d pay in the States. For example, removing small moles on your face will cost about $5 for each spot. If you’re unsure what to get, just ask what they recommend.
These treatments can be done either at the beginning or end of your trip depending on when you prefer to ‘recover’. You will be able to go out and about after most skincare treatments but many procedures will be followed by at least a few days of redness and sensitivity.
Plan Me Clinic is well known for their excellent treatments, cost, and follow-up care. 플랜미의원 Gangnam-gu, Yeoksam-dong, 705-25
For lunch try GangGangSeolla Yuksamjung (강강술래 역삼점). You can walk or take cab/subway. It’s all very close. The restaurant is not fancy, but has great traditional Korean food.
513 Seolleung-ro, Yeoksam-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
서울 강남구 논현로 325 강강술래역삼점 https://naver.me/xpParhjK
Afternoon/Evening: Semi-Permanent Makeup and Lotte World
Semi permanent eyebrow/eyeliner/lashes cost about $125 for each area which is at least half the cost compared to the US and Misun Lee is an excellent technician for these services.
Ms. Misun Lee, Kallia Salon: 강남구역삼동732-27 칼리아미용실 Directions: http://naver.me/5hENIDjE (5 minute cab, 15 min by subway)
Go to Lotte World Tower for unbeatable views and dinner. If the weather is good and the sky is clear, check out the Lotte World Observatory: https://seoulsky.lotteworld.com/en/intro/intro.do
There are lots of great places to eat around Lotte World and it’s fun to ask a local where they recommend.
A cab back to the hotel in non-rush hour will cost about $20.
Hotel: Courtyard Seoul Namdaemun
9 Namdaemun-ro, Jung-gu Seoul 04526 South Korea +82-2-2211 8000
Day 3: Head to Busan!
Morning: Breakfast at your hotel then off to Busan
Go for an early departure on the KTX Train for Busan. We took the 7:52am. It’s a 2.5 hour train ride so rest up! No need to try to store luggage in Seoul and add complexity to your trip. Just take your bags to Busan and you’ll have everything you need.
PRO TIP: Consider hiring a private driver who can take you around to all the sites and store luggage in the minivan. It will be 250k KRW for the whole day ($174). Remember: there’s no tipping in Korea. Book the driver a week in advance and you won’t need to take subways or figure out how to hail cabs at various locations. This will save a lot of time and hassle!
Afternoon / Evening: Seafood and Sightseeing
Sites to see this day: Jagalchi Market, Busan Tower, Gamcheon Village, Eulsukdo Island, Nampo-dong.
Have your driver take you (or take a subway) to Jagalchi Fish Market which is close to the train station.
For lunch try Wonjo Hwe (raw fish) and other great seafood near the fish market. Warning: you might eat so much that you may want to skip dinner.
A good place to stay with a group is the LCT Residence Hotel which has a kitchen and 3 bedrooms similar to an Airbnb. The units even have a washer and dryer but they might not be stocked with detergent. Your trip will be easier if you request certain things in advance like detergent, conditioner, and a hairdryer.
Day 4: Lovely Busan
Morning: Cafe for Breakfast and a Buddhist Temple
Have breakfast near your hotel which has lots of great shopping, restaurants and nice cafes.
Visit Haedong Yonggungsa Buddhist Temple if you have time, but don’t miss Haeundae Beach.
Afternoon / Evening: Beach, Bamboo Forest and a Famous Bulgogi Restaurant
Lunch: Try a local grilled eel restaurant! Ask your driver or other locals for recommendations.
Head to Haeundae Beach area and take a yacht ride. A great way to see the coastline.
If you have time, squeeze in a walk through the amazing bamboo forest.
Have dinner at Jinmi Eonyang Bulgogi, one of the best places for Korean BBQ in Busan.
Day 5: Art and Return to Seoul
Morning: Still Lots to Explore
Have breakfast at a cafe near Haeundae – still lots to explore! If you are interested in art, visit the local galleries such as MAC Art Gallery for some great contemporary art.
Afternoon / Evening: Return to Seoul and Myeongdong
Return to Seoul on the 1:10pm train, arriving around 4pm. Check into Sheraton Four Points Myeongdong, and explore this area. This is a beauty/cosmetics/fast fashion paradise. Check out the ultra-chic Shilla Hotel which is not far.
There’s always lots happening in Itaewon, so have dinner there and explore. Make sure to watch Itaewon Class, a tailor-made K-Drama, for a refresher! 🙂
Day 6: Explore Gangbuk
Morning: Namsan Tower and Insadong
The Sheraton Four Points Myeongdong has a great breakfast (complimentary for Platinum status members) so enjoy your first meal of the day at the hotel or check out a nearby cafe. Try to get up early and go up Namsan Tower which is near the hotel.
The Blue House tour is an optional activity unless you are super curious about the home of the Korean president which has been closed to the public for many years and just recently opened back up.
Historic Insadong has a wonderful cluster of traditional arts and crafts vendors where you can browse and make purchases. It’s a great place to explore and have lunch.
For lunch try beautiful organic bibimbap at A Flower Blossom on the Rice (Kkot Bob). It’s a lovely farm-to-table restaurant in Insadong that is recognized in the Michelin guide as a Bib Gourmand.
Afternoon / Evening: Hongdae, Gwangjang Market, and Dongdaemun
Check out the Hongdae area – this is the area near Hong Ik University with lots of shops, musicians and artists – touristy but fun to see.
Head to Gwangjang Market for an afternoon snack and then eat dinner at Byeokjae Galbi in Shinchon.
Go night market shopping at Dongdaemun which is open all night for the sake of wholesale shoppers buying stock for their retail stores. The hustle and bustle of this historic market must be experienced at least once in your life, but beware that you will be tempted to buy a lot of stuff you probably don’t need! Some favorite things to buy here are socks, underwear, and quilted long underwear that you can’t get in the States. You’ll also find hair accessories galore and well-priced clothes that you can haggle for.
Day 7: Last trip to Gangnam
Morning: Beauty Touch Ups
Have breakfast at your hotel then go back to the Gangnam area for any beauty touchups. Some treatments require a follow-up visit and semi-permanent makeup often requires several touch-ups.
Afternoon / Evening: Pictures & Korean Traditional Medicine
Taking pictures with a professional photographer is highly recommended. The prices are very reasonable and you’ll have amazing photos to remember your awesome trip.
Some great locations are Olympic Park, Gyeongbokgung and Bukchon Village. Rent costumes for even more fun. Traditional Korean hanboks are a classic choice but another favorite is renting old-school Korean high school or college uniforms.
We hired Martin Kim, a photographer who took us to the best locations and gave us hundreds of beautiful photos that were professionally retouched. Well worth the $200 he charged us for the session.
Martin Kim, Professional Photographer
070.9014.0273 or email@example.com
PRO TIP: Costume rentals will cost $15-20 but renting them the night before for a nominal additional charge will save a lot of hassle and you’ll have more time for picture-taking.
Korean Traditional Medicine is an ancient practice that works to put your body back into balance thus healing many ailments at the source instead of treating the effects or symptoms of a disease. Getting a wellness check-up by a KTM doctor is a favorite activity of many Korean Americans who end up bringing home bags of Hanyak (Korean Herbal Medicine) to drink over the next several months.
Have dinner at Duru, a casual Korean restaurant that is a favorite of the K-Pop group EXO. Try the nakji-bokkeum (stir-fried octopus) and jumeok-bap (riceballs).
Day 8: Last Chance to Shop + Departure
Departure day and last-minute Myeongdong shopping.
If there’s something you forgot to buy, go to nearby Namdaemun or Myeongdong and explore these areas before leaving for the airport.
PRO TIP: Order a K-Van a week in advance and it will pick up your group and take you to Incheon International Airport.
Grace Yang resides in California and is a busy mom of two opinionated teenagers. When not moonlighting as her kids’ uber driver, she works as a financial consultant.