Question from a reader: travel via a rental car?
A reader writes in asking about rental cars:
I was wondering if I could get your advice. My husband and I will be in South Korea next week for a total of three days. We live in Japan right now.... [We] will be arriving at Busan port and would really like to explore the natural sites of the country. We do have to make one stop in Seoul to meet my husband's sister for dinner but other than that, we're not much interested in the city.
Do you think it is practical to rent a car for the three days? Is this something you would recommend? Would love to hear your take as someone who is clearly familiar with the country. Much thanks,
After having made it across the country in mere hours using public transportation booked on the day of the trip, renting a car seems to be rather extraneous. 99.8% of the country is accessible via public transportation - how many countries can you say that about? - although the buses / systems in the more rural areas can be a little harder to navigate if you don't know how to read Korean. If you have specific destinations you're looking to check out, a bit of internet searching and planning can make your trip happen. Start here if you're interested in trains, or over here if you're interested in buses.
If you're planning on sticking to the 'natural sites of the country', renting a car will likely make your time in Korea better spent. The road signs are generally in English, and in the rural areas the roads are far less crazy than in giant cities. While not always the most helpful, the locals can steer you in the right direction if you get lost. Be sure to pick up a good map of Korea - it'll help you get around and understand where the road signs are sending you.
While I've never rented a car in Korea, I'd presume the process is similar to elsewhere in the world. You will need an international drivers license, or one issued in Korea, and your passport for identification purposes. Look over the car for damages and what's in the fuel tank, sign a contract, pay, and drive off. At smaller places, the selection is likely to be limited, though advance reservations are not required outside of the prime summer months. Some rent-a-car places are located near airports, ship's ports of call, bus terminals, and train stations, so ask around once you arrive where to rent a car. You are unlikely to find 'hawkers' or 'steerers', so ask at an Information or Tourism counter. Two rental car companies are recommended by visitkorea.or.kr, the country's official tourism website (see this page on Visit Korea for more information):
AVIS: Call them at 1544-1600 or visit their website at www.avis.co.kr
Kumho: Call them at 1588-1230 or visit their website at www.kumhorent.com
Another option is to use a travel agent to help with the booking. You may pay a premium for the service, but a bit extra for the peace of mind may well be worth it. One travel agent listed on the excellent korea4expats.com is Fides Travel (http://www.fidestravel.co.kr), and offer English service. E-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org Call at 02-755-5470 once you're in Korea; add the +82 country code from outside Korea.
For the part of your trip into Seoul, park the car and take public transportation. I say that not because you're likely to be a bad driver, but driving in Seoul is hard enough for even the locals. Unless you're accustomed to crazy traffic, three cars in two lanes, and unpredictable bus / taxi drivers, take the public transportation and save yourself a lot of hassle.
--UPDATE: her response --
The advice proved most helpful. I ended up getting a car at Avis in Busan and basically circling the entire country in three days. It was great. Managed to get to Seoraksan, the DMZ, Andond, Seoul and some other great places. We had the most basic of maps but got by just fine because the signs in Korea are fantastic. Oh and you were right about driving in Seoul :S[S.D.B.]
© Chris Backe - 2010
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