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Travel Notes: Exchanging Money and Renting a Phone

March 26, 2011

Second post in a series of travel notes for adoption trips to Korea

Exchanging Money at the Incheon Airport
The exchange bank at the airport is in the baggage claim area on the far right, just before you exit to the lobby where you’ll meet the driver. Make sure you have some won before you exit the airport. Chain restaurants and department stores accept credit cards, but some of the best places to shop are the markets where each stall is owned by the seller. These only take cash. There are many banks where you can exchange for more won later if you need it. We did, but found we got the best rate at the airport. Exchanging at the airport was also much faster —maybe five minutes compared to the half hour it took us at a bank, even though we chose a bank we have accounts with in the U.S.

Although on my first trip I carried and exchanged travelers’ checks as my agency advised, to me it seemed like an unnecessary extra step. Since then, I have exchanged cash.

If you have a debit card for one of your bank accounts, check to see if and what fees may apply to your making cash withdrawals in Korea. For several families it was less expensive to use their debit card at ATMs in Korea than to purchase and redeem travelers checks. They were also able to withdraw smaller amounts as they needed cash, so didn’t end up losing more money changing left over won back into dollars coming home.

When trying to gauge how much money to exchange, before you leave, check on any foreign transaction fees attached to the credit cards you plan to use. To avoid the fees you can plan to spend cash instead. Or you can look into a foreign-transaction-free card like Capital One.

After you exchange for won, if you’re planning to give your driver a cash gift (if you are being met by an agency driver), get out the envelope you brought for this purpose and put the won inside before you exit into the lobby. Then tuck the envelope away in a place you’ll have easy access to when you get to Seoul. You won’t give him this gift until he drops you off at the guest house or at your hotel.

Renting a cell phone
If you have reserved a cell phone to use in Korea and you’ll be picking it up at the airport, the phone company kiosks are outside the baggage claim area in the lobby to exit the terminal (the same room where the driver will be waiting if you have a driver). Tell him you’re going to go pick up a phone and will be back. Picking up the phone takes less than five minutes if you have reserved it ahead of time.

As of March, 2011, there are three phone-rental vendors operating at the Incheon airport. Their rates and services vary so you’ll want to compare the features of each service to the ways you anticipate using your rented phone:

Why would you want a cell phone in Korea? You may not. You might want to check with your U.S. cell phone carrier and see how much it costs to add global roaming for the length of your trip. Phone cards are also widely available to buy in Korea if you anticipate only calling home to the U.S.

But there are several reasons you may consider renting a cell phone. On one trip, my husband’s employer needed to be able to contact him while we were out of the country and renting a phone cost about $10 for the entire week, while activating global roaming on our phone was $60. On another trip, I travelled alone with my daughter. Even though I felt comfortable getting around Korea on my own, I felt safer knowing that in an emergency I (or she) could call one of the two numbers I carried: one for our agency, the other for a friend in Seoul. That trip I also used the phone to coordinate meetings with other families (who also had rented cell phones) to meet up with for sight-seeing and dinner. For a seven day trip, my bill for the phone including the calls I made (in country only) was $12.00.

While waiting to travel, I selected a phone vendor, then set up an account ahead of time so I could easily reserve a phone after our travel call came. Reserving a phone ahead of time will save you some paperwork at the rental counter in Incheon. And if you reserve a phone more than three days in advance of picking it up, your vendor will email you your phone’s number so you can easily leave it with people at home.

After you’ve selected a vendor, click on the locator map for finding their store front at Incheon, and print it along with your reservation. By the time you arrive, you may have been awake for seventeen hours in transit and you may be very glad you don’t have to rely your memory to find your phone!

By the way, VisitKorea (formerly Tour2Korea; linked in the phone services above) offers some good discounts if you register with them. In addition to the discounted phone rental, our last trip I printed 2-for-1 admission coupon for the Korean Folk Village. You’ll print discount coupons (available for many attractions including Lotte World) at home and carry them with you to use in Korea.

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