Chuseok, Korean Thanksgiving, is just around the corner and it’s one of the biggest Korean holidays of the year. Unfortunately this can cause travel mayhem for the unsuspecting visitor. During Chuseok people travel en masse, usually out of Seoul to their hometown to visit parents, loaded with gift-boxes of practical household goods like coffee, spam, cooking oil, fruit or toiletries. Everyone dresses in their best outfits and many wear hanbok, colourful traditional clothing.
Travel in South Korea during Chuseok can be challenging. Expect fully booked and overloaded public transport as well as gridlocked traffic on almost every main road in the country. Many expats plan ahead and book tickets to leave the country while other less organized souls – usually us – are stuck in Korea wondering what to do. If you don’t want to spend the entire three to five days stuck inside twiddling your thumbs, use these tips to not just survive, but thrive during Chuseok.
1. Avoid Intercity Travel During Chuseok
To be frank, Chuseok is the worst time of year to travel around in South Korea – road trips on the motorways will take up to 5 times longer than usual; the buses and trains will be crowded to bursting with people standing in the aisles; and many smaller shops are closed. If you can, schedule your visit to Korea for another time but if you can’t….thankfully there are some options. If you’re in Korea, the main thing is to avoid intercity travel on the 1st or last day of the holidays – particularly going from Seoul on the first day and then coming back into Seoul on the last day of the holiday.
2. Book Train Tickets Ahead of Time
If you absolutely have to travel intercity during Chuseok, take the train and book your tickets as early as possible. In regular conditions you can book train tickets up to a month in advance, but during Chuseok you have to wait until around 3 weeks before Chuseok until the tickets are released. Needless to say they’re hot property and you can’t be too choosy on your days or times to leave and arrive. Don’t forget to buy your return tickets or you may have a longer stay than you expected! ;) The KTX high-speed train is awesomely fast – it cuts the travel time in half but it will be pretty hard to get tickets. You can book KTX and other train tickets online around 3 weeks ahead of time at http://www.letskorail.com or try calling 082-1544-7788+7.
3. Head to the Beach or Islands
South Korea has some gorgeous beaches and Chuseok falls outside the official “swimming season.” This means the beaches will be practically abandoned. The weather during Chuseok is usually mild with warm sunny days and cool dry nights – perfect for frolicking at the seaside. The majority of the hotels near beaches are still open though many restaurants will be closed for a day or two– but don’t worry – you’re rarely far from a well-stocked convenience store in South Korea! Try getting there before Chuseok holiday starts so you miss the traffic.
4. Skip the Folk Villages
Don’t necessarily believe the Korean Tourism Organisation – in our opinion, Korean folk villages are not a good place to visit during Chuseok. That is unless you enjoy standing in line for several hours to buy tickets, then being pushed, shoved and jostled in the crowd like cattle!
Folk villages are tourist attractions showing a traditional style Korean village with a variety of “hanok,” (traditional Korean houses). Our favorite hanok is a teahouse near Songnisan Mountain. You can often try out old Korean traditional children’s games or see traditional dancing and singing. Great places to visit, but maybe not during Chuseok.
For many Koreans, Chuseok is a time for reminiscing about old times and traditional ways, so naturally an outing to a traditional folk village is on the agenda. We tried to visit the Yongin Folk Village near Seoul during Chuseok several years ago, thinking it would be great because everyone would be at home spending time with their families… No way. What we found instead were vast traffic jams, seething crowds and a queue so long it seemed to disappeared over the horizon.
One exception to this may be the Namsangol Hanok Village located in the middle of Seoul or the National Folk Museum which runs different craft activities like these. If you’re staying in Seoul the Namsangol Hanok village is conveniently located near Namsan and Myeongdong, and runs a lot of different activities during Chuseok.
5. Ride a Bike
Our last but best tip is to go out for a bike ride. It’s also almost always perfect weather for bike camping at Chuseok and Korea’s countryside is exemplary – with beautiful mountains, forests and burbling mountains streams in abundance once you get away from the cities.
Take a trip along Korea’s numerous dedicated bike paths – if you’re in Seoul, the river bike-paths along the Han or Bukhan Rivers are lovely. The paths can be busy still – but not so busy that there are traffic jams – and it’s often perfect autumn weather. Better yet, pack your tent and sleeping bag and ride somewhere further afield and do some bike camping. If you like to take your time, the Chuncheon to Seoul route can include camping along the river or if you’re a pretty fast cyclist you might make it all the way from Seoul to Busan at the other end of the country (just make sure you’ve booked you tickets back though of you might be pedalling home again!). Getting on your bike and out of town, you’ll avoid all the stress of travel during Chuseok and enjoy some of the most beautiful countryside you’ll ever see.
Bonus tip: Chuseok in Seoul
Seoul itself can be a fairly quiet and easy-going place during Chuseok because a good chunk of the population have abandoned it and headed to the countryside. Apart from some shops being closed (one or two of the days) Seoul can be surprisingly pleasant and empty of people. It can be a great time to check out this usually crowded city at a relaxed and soothing pace. For tips on travelling in Jeju Island, check out our new book Jeju – A Slow Travel Adventure Guidebook.