For our recent holiday to South Korea, driving is our only option. Contrary to our usual travels, we had a group of five comprising elderly and teens (that makes a total of 7) tagging along. Most importantly, driving in South Korea allows us to experience the real South Korea and not be restricted to just tourist attractions.
Most visitors enter South Korea via Seoul, the capital city. Beyond Seoul, South Korea has much more to offer. There are many attractions that are within one to two hours’ drive from Seoul. These attractions can be reached by buses and trains. However, the journey is time consuming and largely inconvenient. Our best advice would be to take up the many day tours offered. If you are travelling in a group, hiring a private car with driver will be more economical.
Our journey started in mid November and ends in mid December in the following sequence:
Seoul => Yongin => Gapyeong (Nami Island) => Sokcho (Mount Seorak) => Taebak => Jeongson => Busan
From Busan, we continued our journey to Jeju. Coming soon: Our driving experience in Jeju.
Now, back to our driving in South Korea’s mainland.
Documents required to drive in South Korea
Besides a valid driving licence, it is a must to have with you an international driving permit (IDP).
To rent a car in South Korea, you will need to present your passport, valid driving licence, international driving permit and credit card. Car rental companies in South Korea DO NOT accept cash payment.
We rented the new 9-seater Kia Carnival. Without luggage, it is a very comfortable car with two rows of individual seats. If you intend to bring many large luggage, then be prepared to squeeze (no joke!).
Of the many car rental companies, we rented ours from Lotte Rent-a-car (their tied up is with Hertz). They are the largest car rental company in South Korea with many offices country wide. Through our years of experience, having many offices is one of our key determining factor when choosing a car rental company. After all, you don’t know when the car might fail you, or due to unforeseen circumstances, you might need urgent assistance. Sign up as their member and you will enjoy 30% to 35% discount. The freebies that come with your rental – second driver is free, snow-chain (during winter months), and English GPS (request for it when you make reservation).
Driving in South Korea
Do You Need A GPS?
In our article on Driving Holiday in Spain, we mentioned that we drove without GPS or map. What about South Korea? Hmm….a very good GPS is highly recommended. Inter-city roads are not difficult. But once in a city, the number of split roads are enough to drive even local cab drivers crazy! Another important reason is that it will save you lots of possible traffic fines….read on.
Besides using the in-vehicle GPS, we also make use of two other GPS that we installed on our mobile phone. Check out which is the best performing GPS to have for driving in South Korea.
Which side does South Korea drives on?
South Korean drives on the left. If this is your first time driving in a left-hand drive country, then read our tips on Left Hand Drive versus Right Hand Drive. This should allay much of your fear or doubts, and you are good to go explore and have fun.
Road Conditions in South Korea
South Korean roads are generally in good condition. However, lines painted on road tend to be fade. At times, we can’t even make out if the stop or dividing lines are there! The width of the lanes are a little on the narrow side. To help you visualise, the lanes barely fit our Kia Carnival. Snow clearing was efficient.
Toll or Non-Toll Road?
Well, we normally prefer the country roads (non-toll) versus highways/motorways (tolled) simply because we loved the country side. But, for our recent trip, we took the toll highway as far as possible. Reason being most part of central South Korea is mountainous, while the west and east part are coastal drive. This pretty much explains itself.
You will need to take a toll ticket upon entering the highway. BLUE lane (always marked) are for Hi-Pass holders. GREEN lanes are what you should go for. If you don’t see any green marking, then look for the faint green light on the top of the lane. Occasionally, you may encounter highway with blue and orange lane only. Go for the orange lane. These lanes don’t dispense toll ticket. At payment, just tell the cashier you don’t have a ticket and they will still be able to figure out your toll amount albeit a little displeasure from the cashier.
Road signs to major cities and tourist attractions are not plentiful, but reasonably sufficient for drivers not to get lost. Occasionally, they may be written in Hanguk only. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t pose much of a problem as long as you keep to your general direction towards the destination. In cities, road names can be small and thus tricky for drivers.
Again, our Kia Carnival can barely fit into a parking lot. At tourist attractions, surface parking are provided. Pay to the cashier at the exit when you are ready to leave. Most charges a flat fee.
Road side parking is free after 8 pm. According to the locals, the traffic police will “close both eyes” to such parking as long as the vehicle does not obstruct traffic. Parking in supermarkets are free.
For lady drivers, you will be delighted to know that some private garage provides “Women Parking Lots” marked in pink. These parking lots are wider and longer.
South Korean Drivers
Comparing to our previous experience, the South Korean drivers are not that ready to give in to drivers trying to move into their lane. You have to be a little aggressive or be stuck. In addition, the Korean drivers can be impatient. So, don’t panic when you are in doubt. Just ignore their persistent honing, angry glare and maybe some scolding (which you can’t understand anyway…hahahaha!!).
Traffic Rules in South Korea
Right Turn on Red
At a traffic junction, cars are allowed to Right Turn on red. If there is a pedestrian crossing on the right, then give way to them before crossing.
* If you drive around 10pm to 11pm, you may encounter cars ignoring the red light even when they are going straight or turning left. Is this legal? Urhmm….don’t think so. In smaller cities, the roads are extremely empty and traffic police can hardly be seen at that hour. So…I guess you get it.
Lanes with blue lines are reserved for buses, and is effective from 9am to 11pm daily. We are not sure if there is hidden camera (seriously we don’t think so else our GPS would have warned us), but won’t want to take the risk.
The most memorable of our driving in South Korea is the unimaginably excessive speed camera on its highways. Expect speed camera placed at intervals of 2 km to 3 km of each other. City roads are fitted with traffic light camera and speed camera (much lesser though). In suburban country roads, in addition to speed camera, the sheer number of speed bums are enough to drive any driver insane!!!
This is when the use of GPS comes in handy and save the day (urhmm save traffic fines…I mean). The in-vehicle GPS will send an alert when the car is 2 km away from upcoming camera including the speed limits. Read more about it in my upcoming post on GPS.
No Overtaking In Tunnels
Given South Korea’s mountainous geographic, it is inevitable to drive through numerous long tunnels. Most tunnels have the same speed limit as the highway, while some requires drivers to slow down. But, one rule is definite. Overtaking or changing of lane is not allowed in a tunnel. After all, accidents in a tunnel can be disastrous.
If you intend to drive to Mount Seorak, then have your front passenger gets his/her camera ready. The first tunnel (3.5km long) is the most beautiful tunnel we had ever driven. A little hint: the LED rainbows (there are two) are gorgeous. Unfortunately, we didn’t had time to video any of them 🙁 .
Through your research, you would often come across this advice “avoid driving in Seoul”. How true! Seoul practically had traffic congestion throughout the day everyday except for Sunday. And congestion starts on highways that directly or indirectly crosses path with Seoul.
The other city that suffer from massive traffic congestion is Busan, though the situation is very much better. Traffic during the morning rush hours were bearable. But, it is especially important to AVOID entering Busan between 5pm to 8pm. We were caught in a 12 km traffic congestion on the highway on our first day to Busan at 7pm. On our way back to Busan from Tongyeong, we were caught in a 10 km traffic congestion on the highway at 5:30pm. On both occasions, since time is too precious to be wasted, we left the highway at the nearest exit and ventured to wherever the road led us. Coming soon: Our most memorable drive in Busan.
We hoped these information will help you better prepare for your upcoming or intended driving holiday to South Korea. Enjoy and stay safe 🙂