When it comes to trip planning, I am usually in charge of the research and planning phase and Sly is in charge of execution + logistics. This arrangement suits us — I like the tedious work of scouring obscure websites to find interesting places to visit, Sly enjoys chatting with people..
For weeks we mulled over ideas of what to do over Memorial Day weekend. Time passed and we were uncharacteristically nonchalant about the whole thing, as if it would somehow magically plan itself or as if the holiday weren’t fast approaching. The planning for this trip — because we both dragged our feet, because I had to do the planning and calling, because all the websites were in Korean, because none of the travel numbers for ferries/local airlines/travel sites were staffed by people that spoke English, and because we wanted to leave the next day — was a disaster. Thursday morning, right before Sly left for work, Sly informed me that he had to travel to Seoul last-minute so he couldn’t help with any of the booking/reserving/calling like he normally did. Great.
At 6:30 am I was online trying to figure out ferry times to get to one of two nearby islands I had bookmarked as options. One JP/KOR website led me to an English site that was for a completely different ferry. Another Korean ferry website led me to an English site that wouldn’t let me select the port closest to us. I looked up all the ports, all the ferries and tried to make sense of it, then finally gave up and called the Korean travel hotline (ingenious). For those that don’t know, if you have a travel related question — and boy did I have them — you can call this hotline and they will help you through the process. Unfortunately, they cannot help you book reservations…But we’ll get to that part later.
I called the 24 hr hotline and explained that I could not find any information about a ferries leaving from the port nearest to us. The hotline lady looked online and said, “Huh, that’s strange, I can’t find this information either.” Validation that I wasn’t a complete moron. She called the ferry and confirmed that there were no ferries leaving the dates/times we wanted. I asked about the other ports and the same was true. So much for Plan A.
Plan B was more or less the same concept, different island, same results. No availability on the ferries.
I called Sly in the middle of his commute to Seoul, frustrated out of my mind. He suggested we try Jeju Island, perhaps the most popular of Korea’s islands, and the one we had been avoiding because we knew that the holiday weekend (Memorial Day for us, Buddha’s Bday for Koreans) meant that we would have a harder time finding flights and lodging. Not to mention it would be more expensive to plan so last minute.
Thus begun Plan C — more websites that led to “English” sites that led to either broken links, links with non applicable information, and links with outdated information. Sly found some tickets on Kayak for $260 pp but when I looked up regional flights, I found them to be MUCH cheaper — about $150 or so pp. The problem with the regional flights was that I couldn’t find two seats on a Monday return flight. I discovered Jeju.com (all in Korean) and found a flight out on one airline and a return flight — literally the last two seats — on a different airline. I added them to my cart and tried to check out.
When I checked out (on Google Chrome) I was told I didn’t have an IE patch. My order was voided and I was kicked back to the site’s homepage. When I tried to purchase the tickets again, there were no seats available.
Thirty minutes and many swear words later, I found the seats (this time using IE), added them to my cart, entered my information, clicked “SUBMIT” aaaannnnnnddddd….. an alert popped up. I was not allowed to continue unless all my information was entered in Hangul. EVEN MY NAME. WTF. What if I spelled my name incorrectly in Hangul and the ticket didn’t match my passport? Panic. Panic. Panic. Ok. Breathe. I had just done this in Korean class. Think. Think. Think. I entered all our information in Hangul, clicked submit….aaannnnddd…no seats. I waited. Checked again. Found tickets. Repeated the process. Clicked submit. And then I received a notice via email that I had successfully booked our outgoing flight to Jeju.
Wait, what? What happened to the final payment step? More importantly, WHY DID IT ONLY CONFIRM THE OUTGOING FLIGHT BUT NOT THE RETURN FLIGHT?
More panic. More frantic calls and tense exchanges with Sly (who was still driving). Sly said that a confirmation number just confirmed the tickets were on hold, not that we bought them (we hoped) so once more I plugged in all my information, got to the final payment step, and then was asked to choose a Korean credit card. What? Finally I summoned my last resort: I contacted my Korean friend to see if she could help me navigate the website. I gave her all the details but I think a lot was lost in translation. She consulted a different website and said there were no tickets whereas i wanted her to help me buy the tickets I had sitting in my cart. There was a lot of back and forth and confusion on both sides. I called the Korean hotline yet again (same girl, she knew it was me calling her all this time too) to see if they could tell me if the website travel agency had anyone there that could help me in English. The helpful hotline girl tried calling but they were busy. She told me she would contact me if she could get through. About 45 minutes later I received a text confirming what I already knew, “sorry, nobody there speaks English.”
It was now past noon and I had been playing travel agent for nearly seven hours. At this point I gave up, resigning myself to either spending the weekend in town or taking a day trip somewhere local.
Out of curiosity I looked up the flight that Sly had sent earlier in the morning — the $250 one — only one seat was available. After that all flights were over $700 pp.
Onto Plan F.
The F stood for Fail.
Just before Sly came home I decided to torture myself by checking the airlines again. This time I skipped over the stupid portal website and went straight to the local airlines’ (ENGLISH) sites. Then, miracle of miracles: I found two seats on a return flight — but out of Busan, 50 miles away/45min-1hr away by rail. It wasn’t ideal but it was a flight — and they had two seats left! By the time Sly came home, two seats had dwindled to one and I was ready to throw the computer out the window.
Thirty minutes later I refreshed the site and there were two seats again. Sly quickly bought them. By 7pm, less than 12 hours before we needed to leave for our flight left the next day, we had finally bought tickets. But now where would we stay?
This was a little easier in part because by this point I didn’t really care where we stayed. Evenso I spent the next couple hours doing due diligence: scouring websites like booking.com and airbnb (though I suspect there are many in Korean that had even more options that I was unable to pull up because I conducted my search in English). Initially I had hoped to stay in a cabin or caravan. I found a tent on the beach that was for rent — bedding, a table, chairs, tent set up, etc were included in the nightly rate — but then I read the part about having to share the public beach toilet and sorry but for $47, when camping in Korea is so cheap (like $10 or less) there was no way. I broadened my search a bit and found a cute little Italian (?!) style guest house with only one review. Under different circumstances I might have passed over it, but the pension was $65/night, had availability, looked really clean, was by the water, and was close-ish to the airport which was important because our lack of planning meant that all the cars on Jeju had been rented and we would be relying on public transportation and cabs during our stay. I emailed the owner to inquire if the rooms included en suite bathrooms. He confirmed they did. We booked the hotel, heated up some leftovers, and called it a day.
After a frustrating day of planning, calling every number I had available to me, becoming BFF with the girl at the Korea travel hotline, we finally had tickets — and a place to stay. Now we just needed to get up early, catch a bus to catch a train to catch a flight that would take us to Jeju.
But first…I needed to pack.
+ Book shit at least two weeks in advance to popular destinations over holiday weekends. Ferries, the KTX to Seoul, and flights to Jeju all fall under this warning.
+ Use regional airlines to book regional flights == it’s usually MUCH cheaper, even at times cheaper (and faster) than traveling by ferry.
+ Try skyscanner.com — it will find flights operated by regional airlines (Peach, Air Busan, Air Jeju, T’way, etc) that other flight portals will not. The only downside is that the information on availability is not up-to-date — so you can find the flight, but still will need to click through to check for seats.
+ Jeju.com is a great flight portal that allows you to search all outgoing and incoming flights meaning you can choose one carrier for outgoing and another for return. Understandably this site is in Korean and the help hotline is not operated by English speakers.
+ Instead of flying to Jeju you can take a Ferry. Some are slow, some are fast, some allow you to bring your cars, some are overnighters. After the whole Sewol distaster this option makes me more nervous than flying. As an aside, if you want to read a fascinating, insightful, and tragic article on Sewol and all the politics and social/media involvement surrounding the disaster, click here.
+ To book a ferry, do yourself a favor and visit the UK-based aferry. EVERYTHING IS IN ENGLISH AND THE PRICES ARE SUPPOSEDLY THE SAME. This was not an option for me, however, as I did not allow myself at least 10 days advance purchase. Prices are in Euros or Pounds but seriously whatever charge you have to pay to convert to dollars or KRW or whatever IS WORTH IT. Never will make that mistake again. And for those that may read this and think, “I can just figure out the Korean website,” just know that a lot of ferries cannot be found or booked online. You have to call them. Hopefully your Korean is better than mine.
+ If you can’t find a seat, keep trying, though this applies mostly to planes and trains. A lot of times seats have opened up when we checked later in the day/at different times — even when we were at the rail ticket kiosk looking for an earlier train we found seats that opened up when they didn’t exist when we looked five minutes earlier.
+ The Korean hotline is great although they can only help you navigate the process, not make actual reservations.
+ The info on the Korean travel website (English version) is not the most up-to-date. Don’t rely on this as your sole source of information for things like times, schedules, and links to English websites.
+ For optimal viewing, use IE when browsing Korean sites. As another aside/rant: Korean sites are also Flash heavy which drives me loco. Not only is a lot of the info unsearchable, but it also means that Bing/Google page translators won’t work on the stupid page. I know, I know, stupid American comes to Korea and wants everything to be in English. That would be great and all, but I’d settle for just being able to translate the page.
+ Plan early! I know I already mentioned this, but it’s worth repeating. The great thing I’ve noticed about traveling in Korea is that you can always change your seat/time if there is availability. For the trains, there is no penalty. For regional planes, I think the fee is quite small — not like the $150 I’m used to seeing when traveling in the states. It’s better to have a seat at a not so optimal time than no seat at all.
+ For lodging I like using booking.com, agoda.com. hostels.com, and of course airbnb**. What I love about Korea is that you can find so many different options for unique, local, family-run, non-chain hotel lodging. Pensions, homestays, cabins, caravans, tents, hostels, guest houses, b&bs — you can find it all. A lot of people are turned off by staying at a hostel or guest house because they envision bunk beds and shared bathrooms — but not all are like this! Our favorite places to stay are pensions — they are usually smaller, family-owned and operated, unique, have private rooms/bathrooms, and are much cheaper. Plus you get to meet and interact with locals which, even for an introverted soul like myself, is one of the best reasons to travel.
**Shameless plug and because I am not above begging: If you have not yet signed up as a user on AirBNB and you plan on signing up now or in the near future, would you please consider using my referral link?Click here. You get $25 AirBNB credit, and I get $25 if/when you book through them. It’s win/win. Much appreciated.**