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Travel Notes: Taking the Train in Korea

March 29, 2011

I don’t know about you, but I need a mental break from the research on prenatal exposure to alcohol in Korean adoption. How about some escapism? Maybe we should hop a train and go somewhere?


The notes I’ll share here are rooted in my first adventure on the above ground train, on my my fourth trip, a mommy-daughter trip I made with Faith in 2006 when she was six years old. I updated the notes and took these photos in October 2010.

There are obvious reasons to take the train in Korea: like you want to cross the country and the subway doesn’t go there. Your first stop will be the KORAIL website to figure out if a train will take you where you want to go. Chances are, one will.

After I got over my first-time  “How do I do this?!” jitters, I concluded the train is a better way to get to some places like Suwon from Seoul, even though the subway also goes there.  The train will take you there faster, with fewer stops, less crowding, and in more comfort.

Although writing that makes me realize that taking the train means you’ll miss out on subway sub-culture like the vegetable-peeler seller who plastered his face with paper-thin cucumber slices while making a carnival-barker sales pitch in Korean in our car on the way to Suwon. Dorothy will remember :). But I digress…

If you decide to take the KTX (“the Fast Train”) to a distant part of Korea, especially if you plan to travel on a weekend day or near a holiday, you’ll want to purchase your tickets ahead of time. This is easy to do since Seoul Station is a central subway transfer hub. For short trips, like going to Suwon to visit the Fortress or to visit the Folk Village, you can usually get tickets the same day for the next train.

If you go to Seoul Station by subway, take the escalators up two floors and cross the glass-domed courtyard, following the signs to Seoul Station.  Go  inside and peruse the sign boards hanging above the ticket counter, which will be on your left. Sometimes the boards direct you to certain lines for “Today Travel Tickets” (in English). Choose one of those lines if you want to get on the next available train. If the boards don’t direct so direct, choose either a KTX line if you are buying KTX tickets, or a KoRail line for a shorter trip.

Every ticket agent I have met in Seoul spoke sufficient English to easily sell me tickets even though I speak little Korean. The same was true for my return trips from Suwon Station to Seoul. But for my first trip to Busan on the KTX, I was very glad that before I left Seoul I had a friend write out in Hangul, “Two tickets on the next KTX to Seoul Station, please” because the clerk in Busan didn’t understand my English/broken Korean. You can use a credit card to buy tickets at all train stations so don’t need to budget cash for tickets.

The ticket agent will tell you the time of the train on which you are ticketed. You may be given a choice of trains. Unless you know the layout of the train station because you’ve been there before, I would not accept tickets leaving any sooner than 15 minutes from the time you are standing at the counter. Once you have done it, you’ll realize that navigating the station is pretty easy. But you may have to walk a few blocks to your train platform so give yourself a little extra time to read signs your first time out.


This is the gateway to the tracks at Seoul Station. When you are standing in line for tickets, you may see it off on your far right; it is on the same side of the station as the ticket counter. There may be an attendant here who may ask to see your tickets and instruct you to wait in the lobby until 15 minutes before your train is scheduled to depart. If not, you are free to go down and find your departure platform and wait there.

Look at your tickets to find the track number for your train. Ask an attendent for help if you are not sure. Then use the stairway or elevator corresponding to your track number. The signs look like this:



The stairways/escalators are intuitively labeled. The correct elevator, however, often isn’t where you expect it to be. (You’ll need the elevator if you are using a wheelchair or a stroller. If you are, you may want to read my post on Accessibility in Seoul before you go.) Descend to the platform where you’ll see signs like this:



This means  “Car Number One on this train boards here.” Unlike the subway, you are sold a specific seat on a specific car on the train.



Here, car number one (labeled on the door and also, behind the door on the side of the train) has stopped  for boarding.



Inside the train, you’ll find the seats numbered on the overhead luggage racks very much like they are on an airplane. There will be room on the overhead rack or on the floor in front of you for carry-ons the size of a backpack or smaller. If you need to stow something larger, like a box or a stroller, there will be luggage space either at the front or the back of your car.

Announcements on the train are made in Korean first, then in English. Unlike the subway, however, you can’t count on glancing out the window to verify your stop on a sign unless you can read Hangul. So I’ve found it helpful to ask an attendant how many stops there are before my destination as a double-check. (I learned that the hard way my first trip with Faith. Going to Suwon the train had made only one stop between Suwon and Seoul. Coming back, it made two stops so we got off one station too early at a station that had “Seoul” in the name but was south of the river, not Seoul Station, and had to come the rest of the way home by subway.)

If you’ve taken the train to Suwon to visit the Fortress or to catch the shuttle to the Folk Village, your next job is to find the Tourist Information Center where you’ll buy tickets. Follow signs from the track level up and out of the building. At the exit, go back down to street level and turn left. About a block down the street on your left you’ll see this white building with a black tile roof.


Go  inside and buy admission tickets for your destination. The tickets will come with free shuttle bus passes for the next available shuttle. It is another 20 minute ride on the shuttle to the Folk Village parking lot. Make sure to keep your shuttle tickets for the free ride back to the train station coming home.

Now that you’ve successfully made it all the way to Suwon on this virtual escape, in the next post in this travel notes series I’ll take you inside the Folk Village.

A P.S. for those who have been there. Can you believe I’ve never taken a picture of the inside of the shuttle bus? You know: the valances with fringe and tassels by decorator who was inspired by Liberace and Elvis?!

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