In general, Korea is an extremely easy country to navigate, but there were a few times when we were awfully lucky to have kids living there to help. In particular, when you are using airbnb there is no concierge or English-adept staff to clarify those details which can make life miserable when you are not in the know.
1. Getting in and out of your apartment
We had paid for 2 weeks of an efficiency apartment, meaning we were completely on our own. In advance, the host was to send us the lock code which theoretically is all one needs to enter. Ha. We would have been stranded because the system of house locks is completely different from the US but consistent everywhere we went in the country.
Getting into your apartment: A small box about the size of a cigarette pack is mounted on the door. To use your key code you slide up the cover, enter the code on the numeric pad, slide the cover down, wait for the musical tone, and then open the door.
Getting out of your apartment: In order to leave your apartment, which will lock automatically again when the door is closed, you push the button on the inside of the lock mechanism, watch the little dial turn, and then the door can be opened. If for some reason the dial doesn’t turn you can turn it manually. But for both ingress and egress, take your time and wait for the lock to do its thing. Trying to open the door from the inside before it’s ready screws things up and you must take a breath, wait for tones and automatic things to happen, and start over if necessary. DO NOT PANIC!
Without our kids showing us, we would have been locked out, and then locked in! It’s a great system once you know how it works and though there are different versions in different apartments (and the exterior door of our guest house in Jeonju worked the same way) they all look and work the same.
2. Communicating With Your Airbnb Host
I had booked our Seoul apartment on my desktop. Emailing back and forth via the host’s airbnb address worked great in the US. In Korea, when I tried to email from my phone airbnb responded that I had to authenticate myself via the airbnb app because I was using an unknown device. I downloaded the app, entered all the info, but it never linked up to my original account. USE THE APP while in the US. Our kids came to our rescue, as they had gotten his phone number when I sent them the airbnb booking, but I was never able to get in touch with him on my own. It didn’t occur to me that the way I had communicated from the US would not work when all I had was a smartphone in Korea.
3. Use the “Egg”
Wifi is all over the place in Korea, and with few exceptions we were able to use various free services all over the city. Sometimes when it appeared no service was on where we happened to be, walking a half block usually revealed another we could use. However, most Koreans carry an “egg” which is the small personal hotspot and super handy. While the egg does lose connection depending on where you are, it almost always comes back. However, our phones always appeared from the wifi icons to be connected even when they were not, so you might not realize you aren’t connected until you try and do something other than GPS.
Many of the accommodations I looked at said “free egg” but ours didn’t so I didn’t know there was such a thing pretty much universally and didn’t ask for the password (which our kids were able to get from the host when we found the device and realized how handy it would be).
4. GPS-enabled Maps Are a LifeSaver
I am a fan of Maplets, even more so now. This little app downloads digitized maps (tourist maps, subway maps, trail maps, etc.) worldwide and more and more of them are GPS enabled. When no wifi was available we were able to figure out where we were by using these–and they worked even when Google and Apple maps seemed baffled (e.g., the blue spot would appear, but no map behind it). Get Maplets and download subway and other maps (you can search by location)–they are also great because you can zoom in to details.
In general, Apple and Google maps were useless for routes and distances. We could never get a walking route, for example, even when the map seemed accurate and visible.
5. Electronic Kiosks at Restaurants
If you walk up to a restaurant and see an iPad-sized thing mounted in front, this is how you register that you’re there and want a table. While you won’t have a Korean phone number, you can enter your name, in which case do find a human and tell them what you have done. Otherwise you will never get a table.
6. Spoken English is Rare
It seems strange that with every street sign, subway stop and most informational signs having an English translation, so few Koreans speak English. They are extremely friendly, will try to help, and of course as in many countries people will strike a conversation when they hear you talking and they want to practice English. Hand gestures, pointing, and all the other things one does in a foreign country work just fine–but do not assume because the menu is translated that anyone in the place can read or explain it.
7. Use a Native or Foreign-Enabled Texting and Calling App
We use KakaoTalk to communicate with our kids living in Korea. It is highly functional–probably similar to WhatsApp which we also use. These work with wifi and enable crystal clear phone calls as well as texting. While they only work with other people who have the same app, we had told friends and family to download and use KakaoTalk and that was our primary communication mode.
We did not get a SIM card, and we turned off data services for our phones (which seems to annoy Verizon no end as we were bombarded with offers and warnings when we sent data via KakaoTalk or WhatsApp) by making sure airplane mode was always on. We used texting and KakaoTalk phone calls on wifi and it was entirely free.
8. If in Seoul and Hungry for Home Food, Head to Itaewon
Itaewon is for foreigners, and so there is a wonderfully mixed population and an incredible array of restaurants. American style food, halal restaurants, Mexican restaurants (a current fad so it might be something different in a few years) abound, mixed with every kind of Korean food you can imagine. There is also a reasonable choice of American food in the grocery stores–we bought a box of cornflakes so we could eat breakfast before setting out, both to save money and to have something familiar. Itaewon also has several of the best bakeries I’ve been to anywhere.
However, with a few exceptions the coffee places open late–we finally found one that opened at 8am (Bread Show–excellent!) but many do not open until 10. If you must have a caffeine fix before heading out there is ample instant (comes in little paper tubes that have both sugar and creamer, ugh) and the convenience stores (7-11, CU, etc.) all sell about 20 kinds of cold canned and cartoned coffee.