Compared to much of Asia, Korea can be an expensive destination. Staying in western-style hotels is a sure way to kill your budget. Luckily they have a number of alternative lodging options that will not only save you a few won, but also provide a more interesting experience than traditional hotels.
In the States motels are inexpensive, small hotels with basic facilities, but often lack the “new car smell” of other lodging options. In Korea, there isn’t really a concept of an American-style motel; instead, they have what are known as “love motels”.
The love motel experience begins before you enter; many have ridiculous, gaudy, exteriors. Upon entering you’ll find a reception desk that shrouds the face of the receptionist along with a display of the different room types available. Some motels have themes or lavishly decorated rooms with mirrors on the ceilings, round waterbeds and jacuzzis.
We were a bit taken aback when we were first asked if we wanted the room for sleeping. It took a moment but I realized we were being asked if we wanted the room for the night, or just for an hour, which is available at a lower rate. A typical night in a love motel will cost in the range of $20 to $35, making this one of the more affordable options in Korea. Almost all of the rooms have a refrigerator, water dispenser, bathrobes, clean towels and sheets, along with other basics like shampoo, conditioner, hair dryer, toothbrush, toothpaste, razors, instant coffee and tea.
The motels can be a little seedy, offering complementary condoms (sometimes expired, check the dates!) and at least one channel of free porn or a collection of DVDs to borrow.
The topic of love motels is controversial in Korea. An article published in a western travel magazine concerning love motels created a strong backlash as some Koreans see them as the dark underbelly of the country, only used by adulterers and prostitutes. We completely disagreed! We thought they were cheap, clean, and quirky – just our style.
Koreans love public bathing. Public baths called jimjilbangs are available in every Korean city and even on their long distance ferries. Jimjilbangs offer gender-segregated showers and bathing areas with numerous hot tubs at varying temperatures; these areas are strictly sans-clothing so anyone afraid of nudity will probably need to skip this option.
In addition, some jimjilbangs offer an assortment of other facilities including co-ed pools, saunas, restaurants, arcades, movie rooms, internet, and even karaoke.
Some westerners we met didn’t realize that you can also sleep at most jimjilbangs. The sleeping area is very basic (just mats on a floor and hard block pillows), but you can’t beat the price, $8 to $15 for 12 hours of access!
Hanoks are Korea’s traditional-style homes. There are no beds in the rooms; instead, you receive mats and blankets to lay down on heated wood flooring called ondol. Hanoks may not be much less expensive than other lodging options, but they’re interesting for a night and in smaller towns they may be the only option.
Couch surfing is available in most of the world. For those not in the know, couchsurfing.com is a website that connects travelers with locals and expats that want to share a couch or spare bedroom. There is no fee for this service and it’s a great way to get tips from someone that actually lives in the city you’re visiting. It’s appropriate to bring a small gift as thanks for their hospitality.
We had our first couch surfing experience in Busan, South Korea where Cynthia and Jon hosted us. Not only did they lend us a spare room, their washing machine, kitchen, and adorable dog, but they took us out for a fun evening with other expats. It’s nice to crash for free, but even better to meet such great people.
With all of these options, why stay in a boring hotel!