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First, we will start with local transportation around your city. The city bus is an easy and very cheap way to get to where you need to go, and is very efficient. There are three types of city buses. There are smaller buses that go to areas that are a little out of the way. There are regular sized buses which have both seats and standing room, and which generally go around city routes. The next type is the “seat bus,” which is a little more expensive but has less standing room and more seats. City buses in Korea generally don’t run on a set schedule, unless you are in a very remote area.
To catch a bus, you just go to the bus stop and wait. Most buses come every ten minutes at the longest. When you see your bus coming, you should make a sign to indicate that you plan to get on the bus. Often, bus drivers are in a hurry and will pass a stop. To be sure to avoid missing a bus, signal with a wave of your arm with your palm to the ground, as though you are waving goodbye. This will get the driver’s attention and indicates that you would like to get on the bus.
When getting on the bus, you put your change in the change collector and grab a seat. If, for example, the bus is 700 won and you have a 1000 won bill, you can put in the 1000 won, and the driver will give you change. There is usually a change machine that the driver pushes, and your coins will come jingling down.
Don’t expect the driver to wait for you to sit down before going. He will likely indicate to you that he is in a hurry by stepping on the accelerator and aiding you in your trip to the back of the bus. Do not be disturbed by this, it is typical of Korean drivers. You will notice that both bus drivers and taxi drivers have an aggressive style of driving. This is the norm throughout the country. Red lights do not always gain the same respect as they do in North America. With that being said, the best thing is to accept it as part of the culture, and hang on for the ride. When you are riding the bus and it is busy, you may have to stand. It goes without saying that it is a kind thing to do to give up your seat for the elderly should they not have a seat. You may find yourself standing on a bus only to have someone sitting down attempt to take your bag. Do not be worried. It is within Korean etiquette when riding to lighten the load of the person standing by having the person with the seat hold on to their bags. This is natural for even strangers to do. If you feel like partaking in the culture, feel free to offer to take the bag of someone who doesn’t have a seat when you do have one.
There is an extensive subway system in Seoul. Busan, Daegu, and a few other cities also have a subway as well. More are being built across the country. Particularly if you are in Seoul, you will find the subway to be a very cheap and easy way to get around. There are two ways to buy tickets. The first is with the automatic ticket vending machine, and the second is by going up to the ticket booth and buying it from the person working there. You then take your ticket and insert it in the stall as you go in. Be sure to take your ticket with you, as you will need it to get out later. When you exit the subway, you must have your ticket to insert into the stall again. This confirms that you indeed did have a ticket, and it was of the proper value. If you go outside a certain limit, the ticket price goes from 700 won to 800 won, so you must be sure to have the proper ticket. You can transfer without exiting and having to pay again. So, if you have to take multiple lines to get to your destination, just follow the transfer signs. All stops are announced in English; therefore it is easy to know where you are, and where you are going next. The subway can also get very busy and the same etiquette applies as the bus. The subway can offer you a great chance to catch up on some reading, or to observe Korean culture, so take advantage of it.
In Seoul and some other cities, there are transportation cards available which work for both the subway and the bus. These cards can be bought at many of the small booths you will find near bus stops. If you use public transportation often, this may be a good option, as you don’t have to carry around change all the time. You can just use the card and charge it up with as much money as you like when you need it. When going into the subway or getting on the bus, you just have to scan the card, and it also shows you how much you have remaining. To recharge the card, you just go to one of the booths near the bus stop and give them your money and your card, and a minute later, you will be ready to go.
Taxis are a great way to get around as well. They are very affordable and accessible. To wave down a taxi, use the same method as described with the bus. Place your arm out with your palm facing downward, then wave your arm as though you were waving goodbye. This, incidentally, is the way to go about calling anyone over. It is considered rude to wave your arm like in North American culture to call someone over. Once you get in the taxi, tell the driver where you want to go. If you have difficulty communicating, say “English translation”, and they will call for translation. All taxis have access to a number to call in order to communicate properly with foreign customers. You will see it written in the taxi. Taxi drivers are often curious, and will usually ask a lot of questions if you can speak a little Korean, or if they can speak a little English. Also, if you are trying to study Korean, a taxi ride gives you a great opportunity to try out your new material. Even if you have to pay five or six dollars for a cab ride, you feel like you’ve come out even because you’ve just spent the last twenty minutes in a Korean class!
As was mentioned elsewhere, tipping is not part of the Korean culture, so taxi drivers will give you your change, even if it is the equivalent to twenty cents. If it is this small, and you really don’t want to be bothered with having change in your pocket, they will keep it. But, they are expecting to give you all of your change. It should be noted that in many cities, although not all, there are two types of taxis. There are the regular taxis, and the “excellent” (모범) taxis. The excellent taxis are slightly more expensive. They are usually black in color, and are somewhat larger, fancier cars. When it is quite busy and difficult to catch a taxi, these can be a good option. There are also “call taxis”, which, as the name implies, are taxis that you would call. There is also a premium to pay for this convenience. Rarely have we ever taken a call taxi. It is easy enough to just walk out on to the street and be in a taxi in a matter of minutes, or even seconds sometimes. We estimate that taxis would constitute nearly half of the traffic in Korean cities.
Of course, you can also choose to buy a car when in Korea. If you enjoy the idea of having your own car, it is easily possible and affordable. If this is something you are considering, you should certainly make sure to get your International Driver’s License before leaving. For more information on doing this, call your local CAA, AAA, Ministry of Transportation, or License Bureau. It is quite simple and only requires that you have your local license. You then have a picture taken, and are issued an International Driver’s License. There is no test or even questions asked.
Buying a car in Korea is a little bit of a chore if you do not speak Korean. The best method is to have a Korean co-worker or friend walk you through the process. There are also some English speaking used car dealers who can be of help to you as well. However, you should again include a Korean person on your side to make sure you are not paying more than you should for a certain make and model of a car. There is also the option of buying a scooter or motorcycle. This is quite cheap as well. Our main area of concern here is safety. As was mentioned, Korean drivers tend to be more aggressive and less safety oriented than their Western counterparts. Because of this, there is a fairly high rate of traffic accidents. Therefore, if you do decide that you want to take transporting yourself into your own hands, do so with caution, and drive carefully.
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