Alternative Lodging in Korea

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.

Love Motels

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.

[ptcPhoto filename=”LibertyLove.jpg” title=”Love Motel Exterior” caption=”Yes, that’s the Statue of Liberty” position=”center”]

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.

[ptcPhoto filename=”MuMotel.jpg” title=”Mu Motel” caption=”This one was a little pink for my tastes” position=”center”]

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.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SweetMotel.jpg” title=”Sweet Motel” caption=”Classy…” position=”center”]

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.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FerryBath.jpg” title=”Ferry baths” caption=”Baths on a Korean ferry” position=”center”]

In addition, some jimjilbangs offer an assortment of other facilities including co-ed pools, saunas, restaurants, arcades, movie rooms, internet, and even karaoke.

[ptcPhoto filename=”jimjilbang.jpg” title=”Jimjilbang pool” caption=”A pretty nice pool at a Seoul jimjilbang” position=”center”]

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.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Hanok.jpg” title=”Hanok” caption=”Dude, Where’s My Bed?” position=”center”]

Couch Surfing

Couch surfing is available in most of the world. For those not in the know, 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.

[ptcPhoto filename=”CouchSurf.jpg” title=”Late night swim” caption=”We may have ended the night by swimming in our skivvies.” position=”center”]

With all of these options, why stay in a boring hotel!

Six Months In: Gear Update

Two hundred days in, and how did we do?

Here was our packing list when we embarked, broken down by “sub-bags”. We’ve added italicized notes throughout and updates at the bottom of some sections. At the end there’s a list of items that have been especially helpful throughout the trip.


Sam’s clothes:

  • 4 dresses
  • 2 skirts (1 long, 1 short)
  • 10 shirts (1 cardigan, 1 long-sleeve tee, 2 short-sleeve tees, 6 tank tops)
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 1 pair of pants
  • 2 jackets (1 hoodie, 1 rain jacket)
  • 2 swimsuits (1 bikini, 1 tankini)
  • Undergarments (3 bras, 7 pairs of underwear, 4 pairs of socks)
  • 3 pairs of shoes (running shoes, flip-flops, flats)
  • 3 scarves
  • 1 belt

Eric brought the following:

  • 2 jackets (1 wool jacket, 1 rain jacket)
  • 7 shirts (1 long-sleeved shirt, 1 button-down long-sleeved shirt, 2 button-down short-sleeved shirts, 3 tee shirts)
  • 2 pairs of shorts
  • Undergarments (6 pairs of boxers, 4 pairs of socks)
  • 1 pair of swim trunks
  • 1 pair of pants
  • 3 pairs of shoes (running shoes, flip-flops, walking shoes) – We both replaced our hiking shoes with running shoes, and Eric added a pair of walking shoes as well.

Six Month Update: Despite all of my efforts to bring the perfect travel wardrobe, I’ve found that it’s probably better to bring a few versatile, high-quality pieces and complement them with clothes that you don’t mind replacing at some point. It’s nice to pick up new clothes that fit in more with the local trends without feeling guilty for setting aside an expensive item that you don’t like anymore. The merino wool clothing we brought has been a worthwhile investment since it’s awesome in all weather. My only complaint would be that it tends to be more prone to small holes and tears than cotton.

After five months all of our shoes needed to be replaced. Large-footed people be warned, finding shoes in Asia is a challenge!

We also purchased hats and gloves for trekking in Nepal and climbing Mt. Fuji, but after China we shouldn’t need them anymore.

First Aid Kit

  • Bandages
  • Gauze
  • Medical tape
  • Alcohol swabs
  • Burt’s Bees Res-Q Ointment for bruises, cuts, and bug bites
  • Ibuprofen
  • Decongestants
  • UTI Medications
  • Rehydration salts
  • Immodium
  • A year’s supply of doxycycline (malaria medication)
  • 6 regimens of Azithromycin for infections
  • Pepto pills
  • TUMS
  • Motion sickness meds
  • Candied ginger (also for motion sickness)
  • Sleeping/anti-anxiety pills
  • Neosporin
  • Allergy medication
  • Oxycodone in case of serious pain emergencies
  • Muscle relaxers
  • Cold medicine
  • Tea tree oil for use as an anti-fungal, antiseptic, for earaches and bug bites
  • Blister cushions
  • Moleskin
  • Hydrocortisone cream for rashes and itches
  • Tissue
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Aloe

Six Month Update: Between blisters, cuts and a few stomach bugs (probably food poisoning), our first aid kit has gotten a lot of use. We added an ace bandage for sprains and found that Tang is great for covering up the taste of oral rehydration salts.


  • Dive watches
  • Headlamps – We would NOT recommend Black Diamond’s Ion model. It’s extremely compact but doesn’t hold up to extended use, has a weak output, and takes a battery size that we haven’t seen outside the US.
  • SteriPen Freedom for sterilizing water
  • iPod and charger
  • Samsung Nexus phone
  • Cables to charge the Kindle, phone, cameras and SteriPen (all micro USB)
  • Chargers for laptops – We sent one home since they’re so bulky, but haven’t had a problem getting by with one.
  • Hard drives/cables
  • Universal power adapters – We’re finding that the smaller one-country adapters work better in that they don’t fall out of the wall so easily, and they can fit into smaller spaces.
  • External battery for emergency charging
  • Kindles – Between the two of us, we’ve had five Kindles on this trip. They may be too fragile for long-term travel.
  • Cameras (with spare batteries, wall charger, lenses, and filters)
  • SD card readers
  • Laptops
  • Tripod – We replaced our expandable tripod with a GorillaPod, which takes up less space and works surprisingly well though it’s very limited in height.
  • Cleaning cloths
  • Extra memory cards
  • Camera remote
  • Ethernet cable
  • Power strip and USB wall adapters
  • Tiny flash drive for storing important documents and transferring data
  • Headphones
  • Headphone splitter for watching movies together
  • USB to Ethernet adapter
  • Eric’s watch

Six Month Update: Our 11” Macbook Air computers and Sony NEX-6 cameras have been great so far, but we’ve had bad luck with our Kindles and one of the hard drives. We purchased a new macro lens for the cameras so we can photograph food, flowers and other small items in more detail.

Liquids Bags

  • Toothpaste
  • Leave-in conditioner spray
  • Face lotion
  • Insect repellent
  • Sunblock
  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Hair gel
  • Eyedrops
  • Red nail polish
  • Hairspray
  • Deodorant


  • Toothbrushes
  • Floss
  • Dry shampoo, which also works as a talc powder
  • Sam’s makeup (foundation, mascara, blush, bronzer, brush, eyebrow pencil/sharpener, eyelash curler)
  • Glass nail file
  • Travel brush
  • Comb
  • Bobby pins
  • Hair ties
  • Lip balm
  • Razors with spare blades
  • Cotton swabs
  • Nail clippers
  • Tweezers
  • Bar soap
  • Jewelry – 2 necklaces, 3 pairs of earrings


  • Plotting the Course business cards
  • Mini Cards Against Humanity – Sent home.
  • Duct tape
  • Compass
  • Black marker
  • Pens
  • Gaffers tape
  • Sewing kit (needles, thread, safety scissors, safety pins, rubber bands, small measuring tape)
  • Corkscrew
  • Combination lighter and bottle opener
  • Emergency whistle
  • Zip ties
  • Extra plastic bags – all sizes
  • Laundry kit (bar soap, sink plug, small brush for cleaning clothes, clothesline)
  • Sleep sheets
  • Travel towels
  • Collapsible water bottle – We wouldn’t recommend the Nalgene wide-mouth canteen from REI – it began leaking after a couple of months of only moderate use.
  • Bandana/Buffs
  • Wallets
  • Collapsible cup
  • Money belt – Sent home
  • Sunglasses
  • Current guidebook
  • Packable day bags
  • Small purse
  • Rain covers
  • Point-It Book – Very useful in China, where there’s a serious language barrier.
  • Combination locks
  • S-Clips
  • Looped metal cable for securing bags on overnight trains – Discarded after a few months.
  • Notebooks for recording expenses and journaling
  • 2 Lego people with accessories

Six Month Update: We’ve added a few things to this category, including a scrub brush for laundry, packing tape, comfort shoe inserts, bowls, spoons, chopsticks, and a ukulele.


  • Copies of passports
  • Passports – Sam’s was full, so we had more pages added at the Shanghai consulate.
  • Money
  • Credit and debit cards- Our Charles Schwab card has been great for withdrawing local currency since all ATM fees are waived with the account. Also, the Chase Sapphire card is perfect for international travel since they don’t charge foreign transaction fees, and if you need to call them you get a real person right away.
  • Vaccine records
  • International driver’s licenses
  • PADI certification cards
  • Extra passport photos
  • Dive Logs

And the Most Valuable Gear (MVG) Awards Go To:

Cocoon Mesh Bags

We use these mesh bags to keep everything in our packs organized, from clothing to electronics. They’ve made living out of two backpacks much easier, and the bags themselves are remarkably strong considering how lightweight they are. We’ve not had one tear even though we stuff things in until it looks like they’ll burst.

Our Packs

The same is true for our backpacks, the Gregory Jade 38 and Arc’Teryx Axios 35. Our only complaint with these is that maybe we should have brought slightly larger bags so that everything isn’t so crammed in all the time. But then, if the packs were bigger we’d just fill them with more stuff. So it’s probably good that we went with the smallest size that would fit the essentials.

External Battery

When international converters, outlets in hotel rooms, and time are all limited, it can be hard to keep all of our electronics charged. This small battery pack really comes in handy since it will charge our smartphone, cameras, e-books and water filter on the go. The caveat with this is that if we don’t remember to charge the battery itself, it’s just dead weight.

SteriPen Freedom

Our SteriPen water purifier has gotten a lot of use given the countries we’ve visited so far. It only takes a minute to sterilize tap water, and it saves us money and countless plastic bottles. At first we were hesitant to use it because there’s no way to really be sure that the water is clean. But we haven’t gotten sick from water once when we’ve purified it with the SteriPen.

Samsung Nexus phone

With a local SIM card this phone is capable of providing internet and phone service. But even if you don’t have internet outside of your hotel room, a smartphone really comes in handy when you’re traveling because you can load maps, hotel emails, and directions before heading out. It’s indispensable on travel days for these reasons, and also for games, music and audiobooks on long train rides. This little thing can multitask more than any other piece of gear we brought.

And so, overall I don’t think we did too badly with our packing. Did we miss anything? What’s your favorite piece of travel gear?

Seoul on a Shoestring

With efficient and inexpensive public transportation, countless sights and excellent food, Seoul was our favorite city in South Korea. Compared to other world cities it has a lot to offer for a small price, and it’s the kind of place where you can spend a month and still have more to explore.

Planning a visit? Here are some things that kept us entertained on a small budget.


Keep an eye on the calendar for festivals in Seoul, and you may find opportunities to really mix in with the locals. We were fortunate enough to be in town for the Queer Culture Festival, an annual event that draws attention to gay rights in a country that doesn’t have any legislation concerning the GLBT community. We usually attend Pride Fest in Denver, so it was nice to show our support in Seoul.

There were some differences, though: Denver’s PRIDE is notably more flamboyant, and in Seoul you have to sign up for a photo pass in order to photograph the event. Many people don’t want to be photographed at all, which is understandable considering they can still be fired from jobs for being gay.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SeoulFest.jpg” title=”Seoul QCF” caption=”I was glad to have permission to take this photo.” position=”center”]

This site is a good resource for information on festivals in the city.

Cost: Free

A Day Trip to Suwon

The city of Suwon is a short distance from Seoul and can be reached by metro. There you’ll find the Hwaseong Fortress, an impressive eighteenth century structure with tall brick walls and and commanding gates. If you visit during the heat of summer, hop on the dragon-headed trolley to get out of the sun.

The fortress in itself is worth the trip, but we visited because it’s a good place to try your hand at archery. With more Olympic medals than any other country, the South Koreans can teach us a thing or two about the bow and arrow. And considering how often I missed that target, I need all the help I can get.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Archery.jpg” title=”Suwon Archery” caption=”They should move the target closer.” position=”center”]

Cost: The entry fee for Hwaseong Fortress is ₩1,000 ($1), and the trolley costs ₩1,500 ($1.50). The cost to participate in archery is ₩2,000 ($2) for ten arrows.

Open Spaces

Seoul Forest

Seoul Forest is the perfect place to get outside and go for a run or bike ride. Aside from a ton of green space, it also has an ecological forest, butterfly garden, and waterside park. There’s an insect pavilion, but the majority of its inhabitants have been stuck with pins which makes for a somewhat macabre visit.

One section of the Forest is fenced off for a small population of deer. If you’d like to bring them a treat, there’s a vending machine near the entrance that sells deer biscuits.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SeoulDeer.jpg” title=”Seoul Deer” caption=”They also like dandelions, which you can pick for free.” position=”center”]

Namsan Park

If you’re sightseeing in Seoul, the Tower will probably be near the top of your list. Since you’ll be in the area, be sure to check out Namsan Park as well. It’s a popular spot for panoramic views of downtown and it offers hills of green forest, hiking trails, and a shady walking path edged by a babbling brook.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Namsan.jpg” title=”Namsan” caption=”An afternoon walk in Namsan” position=”center”]

Cost: Free

Folk Villages

Koreans love to share their heritage with visitors, and many of their cultural attractions are offered free of charge. A good example is the Namsangol Hanok Village where you’ll find five traditional Korean homes called hanok. The homes are furnished and show how people from different walks of life would have lived during the Joseon era.

Depending on the day you visit, you can catch moving musical performances, play traditional games, and work on craft projects. We happened to be there during an enactment of a traditional Korean wedding. Given that it was in Korean we didn’t understand most of it, but we got the idea.

[ptcPhoto filename=”KoreaBride.jpg” title=”Korean Bride” caption=”The beautiful bride” position=”center”]

Cost: Free

The Markets

We usually make a beeline for the markets when we arrive to a new city. They always provide some insight into the daily life of a city’s people – from what they wear and eat, to what sorts of products they buy for their homes, to the process of buying and selling itself. Asia’s cities have some of the liveliest, most fascinating markets around, and Seoul is no exception. As a bonus, most marketplaces have street food stalls with cheap, tasty food on the go.

Here are a few we really enjoyed.

Myeongdong Market

Myeongdong, meaning “bright town”, is one of Seoul’s most popular shopping and tourism districts. There are some pricey designer stores there, but you can also find more affordable options for clothing and shoes. Like everywhere else in South Korea, there are skincare stores galore. The area is packed with a younger crowd, and it’s a great place to sip some boba tea and people-watch.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Myeongdong.jpg” title=”Thumbs Up” caption=”The Happy Police” position=”center”]

Namdaemun Market

Only ten minutes’ walk from Myeongdong is what many consider to be the largest traditional market in Korea: Namdaemun. It’s also one of the oldest continuously operating markets, dating back to 1414. The place is huge, so stop in to one of the information booths for a map showing what they sell in each section. Namdaemun may not have the glitz of Myeongdong, but the traditional ambiance more than makes up for its lack of neon lights.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Namdaemun.jpg” title=”Namdaemun” caption=”The main road through Namdaemun Market” position=”center”]

Noryangjin Fish Market

When you smell the fish upon exiting Noryangjin Station, you’ll know you’re in the right place. This market sells over eight hundred types of sea creatures including blue crabs, snapper, clams, octopus, and sea cucumber. Feeling hungry? Pick anything that looks tasty and ask the fishmonger to slice it up into sashimi, or take it upstairs to the row of restaurants where they’ll cook it for you. It shouldn’t be a problem to find English menus so you can see how they prepare each item.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Noryangjin.jpg” title=”Seafood” caption=”You’re sure to find something new.” position=”center”]

Gwangjang Market

Gwangjang is a smaller market where you can see rich silks and traditional Korean clothing on display. It’s also full of food stalls – make sure to try the pajeon (green onion pancake) for a cheap, delicious snack.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Gwangjang.jpg” title=”Pajeon” caption=”Spring onion pancake” position=”center”]

Cost: It’s free to visit all of the markets (as long as you don’t give in and buy souvenirs!).

These ideas will get you started, but there are many free museums and affordable palaces around Seoul as well. Enjoy the Special City!

RTW Basics: Getting a Haircut Overseas

There are so many things we take for granted when we live in one place, like buying liquids in quantities larger than three ounces, being able to wield sharp objects, and finding authentic nacho cheese. Another one is going to the same salon every eight weeks for a haircut and knowing with some certainty that you won’t walk out looking like Garth from Wayne’s World. (Unless, of course, that’s what you’re going for. Party on.)

Having more courage and less hair than I, Eric jumped in to overseas haircuts a little sooner. At a barbershop without electricity in Nepal, he got a cut the old-fashioned way. The barber had a pair of very long, very sharp scissors and a straight razor, and that was all. Toward the end of the beard trim and haircut, the guy was down to cutting individual hairs to make it all even.

On the other side of the spectrum, he also had a haircut in Japan where he had to pay a vending machine and was vacuumed clean afterwards. To draw another example from a classic, it was a little like this:

Ok, so it wasn’t that traumatic. Actually I had to stifle giggles when I heard the familiar whoosh of the vacuum cleaner and saw the barber skimming it over Eric’s head and shoulders like he was a sofa cushion.

But I was hesitant to see a hairdresser for fear that I wouldn’t be able to communicate what I needed. I can just see it: I say, “Please just take a tiny bit off – a trim,” and they hear, “I’d like a pixie. The shorter the better”. I know it’s irrational, but thinking of how wrong this could go makes me wince.

I feared so much that my hair would be lost in translation that I tried several times to trim it on my own. This meant standing in front of a tiny hotel room mirror under dim yellow lighting and contorting my arms to hack away at my mane with a comb and a pair of those safety scissors you use in kindergarten. It wasn’t pretty. So it had been over eight months since I had a proper haircut.

Then one day in China I decide that enough is enough. I find the shiniest, busiest salon nearby and go in, determined to gesticulate clearly even if I don’t speak Mandarin. Most communication is nonverbal anyways, right?

Upon entering the salon, the ten people who work there all take notice. Six of them stand near the doors welcoming me as a young man tucks my purse away in a locker and walks me to a back room to start with a wash. Instead of the torture chamber chair/sink combo at my old salon in the States, this washing basin has a long elevated cushion attached so I can basically lay down with my head in the sink.

Some hot water and shampoo, and I’m all sudsy getting a scalp massage. It’s intermittently relaxing but the experience is disrupted as my washer guy occasionally stops, picks up chunks of wet hair and shows them to the people congregating behind me. They chat about it and snicker for a minute before he resumes that blissful mini-massage, moving down to draw circles on my temples. Helpless, all I can do is crane my neck to see what they’re doing and grin back at them. Are they inquiring as to why my hair is so wispy and thin, or noting its auburn hue? Am I host to a colony of well-behaved head lice? I guess I’ll never know.

Twenty minutes later and they put me up front with the stylist, a young Chinese woman wearing a bleached denim mini skirt and long, sparkling fingernails. Here’s the big moment. I take a small lock of hair, hold just the very ends out and make a cutting motion. Then I motion to the rest of the length and shake my hand, open palm towards her, saying, “No – I don’t want the rest cut”. She steps back and studies my reflection in the mirror, points to my hair and makes a motion down her body like she’s saying, “Looong hair”. Yes, I nod. I want it to stay long.

Aside from some rough combing she turns out to be a really good and thorough stylist, going through my whole head of hair three times over to fix all the damage I’ve done with my DIY haircuts. To my relief it all goes off without a hitch, and that shouldn’t be surprising – people here get haircuts too.

With my locks properly tamed, I emerge from the salon with a spring in my step. A massage and a great haircut for $11? I feel silly for having waited so long.

Snapshot Sunday: The Shanghai Skyline

[ptcPhoto filename=”Pudong640.jpg” title=”Pudong” caption=”The Pudong skyline – Shanghai, China” position=”center”]

With more than eighty buildings exceeding 500 feet in height, the Pudong skyline in Shanghai is as new as it is distinctive. All of the skyscrapers were built over the last twenty years, and the development continues with at least twenty more in the works.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.