Decoding Korean Accommodation
Looking for a hotel in Korea can be confusing – minbak, yogwan, hotel, motel guesthouse and resort are just a few of the commonly used terms for different types of hotels in South Korea and all mean something a little different. This is a guide to the 12 main types of hotels found in Korea- and they’re probably not what you expect.
Korean accommodation originally included just “yogwan” and “minbak” – both being low-price range hotels, having just a thin mattress on the floor. In the early 1900’s the first “hotels” were built in Korea. Lately, hanok guesthouses (traditional Korean houses), B & B’s and hostels have become more popular.
Before we get into all that, there are two different types of rooms you need to choose – an “ondol” or “standard” room. In an ondol room, you sleep on the floor on a thin mattress, with little or no furniture in the room. Koreans favor these when they’re travelling in large groups or with families so you can fit more people comfortably in one room. “Standard rooms” have a western style bed, and often some basic furniture. A standard bed is usually very firm, not the usual soft mattress found in western hotels. So either way, the bed in an ondol or standard room will be very firm.
These are the 12 main types of Korean accommodation in the rough order of cheapest to most expensive:
1. Sauna 사우나
A sauna, or jimjilbang, has a steaming circle symbol on the outside of the building. They’re the cheapest kind of accommodation option, (about W7,000-W10,000) and are open 24 hrs. You will be given a pair of shorts and t shirt and sleep on the ground in a shared sleeping area. I’ve never dared to stay in one since a male friend said he woke up to a strange man rubbing his back! I’m sure this isn’t common though, and plenty of friends have had no problems staying there, although they mostly say it’s a little noisy and not very comfortable. They’re also popular with older Koreans because of the warm floor and include access to hot baths and saunas that adjoin the rooms.
2. Yeogwan 여관
Yeogwans have a reputation for being dirtier and older than other types of accommodation so are decreasing in popularity. Some yeogwans are changing their accommodation name to “motel” to renew their image. We’ve never had much success in booking one – our last attempt was in Mokpo, on our way to Jeju Island. The several places we inquired couldn’t be bothered to show us a room so we gave up and finally found a hotel.
3. Hostel 호스텔
A hostel (also known as a “backpackers” in Australia) is pretty much the same idea as anywhere else – budget accommodation with a shared dormitory room, bathroom and sometimes kitchen facilities and are standard style rooms with a bed. Private rooms can also be booked. Hostels are a good place to meet new people and are popular with overseas backpackers. The staff speak English, which is unusual in Korea, and help organize tours and transport. You won’t find many hostels besides in Seoul and Jeju Island.
4. Minbak 민박
Minbak are often cheaper than hotels and motels and we usually find them more laid back and comfortable. Owners can run a minbak in their spare bedrooms or in a basic hotel-style setup. In a minbak you will often have kitchen facilities and a private bathroom and are almost always an ondol style room. We found some great minbak accommodation in Jeju Island while we were filming Jeju: A Bicycle Adventure you can check out.
They are great places to stay when you are on a budget, ranging from W20,000 to W60,000 a night, usually somewhere around W40,000 (approx. US$38). The rule of thumb is – you get what you pay for. A cheaper minbak may be dirty, noisy and very basic while a W60,000 minbak will probably be more like a holiday cottage. Minbak are not always cheap though! We’ve come across minbak that are W80,000 per night and seem more like a pension (more on this later).
5. Motel 모텔
Not of the innocent roadside motel variety – motels in Korea are usually a pseudonym for “love motels”. A love motel is a place where couples go for a romantic rendezvous, and rooms can be rented by the hour. Though they are not brothels, prostitutes often use them for clients. On the outside they appear similar to hotels but can have darkened windows and a strange “curtain” over the driveway entrance. Rooms have “romantic” colored lighting, garish wallpaper and the odd picture of a scantily clad lady on the wall.
Even so, a lot of travelers recommend motels as being cheap and clean and exceedingly good value; the room often comes with a large, flat-screen TV, computer and/or Wi-Fi and a nice bathroom. Other travellers have had bad experiences –loud noises coming from other rooms and a strong smell of stale cigarettes.
If it has no signs of being a love motel – darkened windows and a dirty string curtain over the driveway – it may not actually be a “Love Motel.” Some motels are just like a cheap hotel.
6. Guesthouse – 게스트 하우스
Guesthouses can either be like B&B’s in western countries or hostels (shared rooms) with a more casual setup in someone’s house. Breakfast is often included! If you’re using TripAdvisor, you can find Guesthouses and minbak listed under “B&B.” In Korea, they usually cost around the same as a cheap hotel (W60,000).
7. Hotel – 호텔
Hotels are usually the standard hotel-style accommodation, as you would expect anywhere in the world. However, the quality and price vary greatly and don’t often correlate. A reasonably priced hotel double room for W60,000 can be lovely and new, while in the same city a W80,000 room could be old and crummy. Beware of hotels labelled “business hotel” or “tourist hotel” – the few we’ve stayed in were overpriced, dirty and poorly ventilated – go figure. Most were recommended in well known travel guidebooks! You can see more in our story about our worst hotels experiences in Korea. As always it pays to ask to see the room first before laying down your money.
Bed and breakfasts are one of the newer terms springing up in Korea over the last few years. They are an addition to the minbak and Guesthouse, but are trendier and a bit more expensive. There are a lot of great reviews (as with guesthouses) for lovely hosts and good hospitality in B&B’s.
9. Hanok Guesthouse – 한옥 게스트하우스
These are the same as guesthouses but in a traditional Korean house, called a hanok. Most are genuine old houses, over 80-100 years old, but some recently built, less charming hanok guesthouses are also around.
Hanok are built with natural materials and have beautiful sliding paper doors. The rooms surround around a courtyard garden. The old hanok guesthouses we’ve stayed in have been nicely renovated with a clean, shared bathroom. You sleep on a “yo” – a soft mattresses on the floor. Sometimes breakfast is included, (average price is W90,00-150,000 for a double room, and half the price for a single room.)
Hanok guesthouses are our favorite type of accommodation for the relaxing atmosphere. If you stay in a hanok guesthouse in the Bukcheon area (the centre of Seoul) you can’t hear a single car. Amazing! There’s also no TV, Internet or Wi-Fi so you can truly “unplug” and relax.
10. Pension – 펜션
All the pensions we’ve stayed in have very bright spacious rooms with private bathroom and kitchen facilities. Pensions are in quiet towns or in the countryside. The majority of the time they are ondol style rooms geared towards families or groups of friends on vacation. They may be pricier (W80,000-130,000) than the average hotel room, but are cleaner and don’t stink of cigarette smoke. Plus with a kitchen you can easily cook healthy and cheap meals. Occasionally pensions include breakfast or you can pay to have a BBQ meal.
11. Resort 리조트
Resorts are quite expensive in Korea, so we’ve never bothered with them much. They’re usually in the countryside or quieter areas. Average prices for resorts in Jeju Island can range from W100,000 up to W600,000. Ouch. The more expensive ones usually include your own kitchen facilities, an indoor or outside pool and a buffet breakfast. If you can find a cheaper resort with off-peak rates like we did this summer, you can pay just w70,000 for a swanky 2 room condo, instead of the usual W100k+ price tag. Most however are way more expensive. After riding our bikes around Jeju Island for most of the day, we were having trouble finding a hotel or minbak that wasn’t full (the only time this happened). So we stopped at a resort in desperation to inquire about a room for a night. After being given the W320,000 price tag (approx. US$300) we kept riding.
12. Luxury Hotels
Luxury hotels will set you back several hundred dollars a night and are very nice and clean, often with gym facilities, a swimming pool and fancy buffet breakfast. Among the most expensive luxury hotels is the Shilla Hotel – to book a room in one of their Presidential Suites is a cool $8,000 per night.
This concludes the confusing and hard to pin down “12 types of Korean accommodation”! There are other types of accommodation, like home-stays and WWOOFing– but – we’ll save that for another post.
Questions or comments? Leave a message in the comments below.
Photos by Jarrod Hall. Additional reporting by Migyoung Kim.