Sneak away from the crowds with different accommodationsEveryone has a story about the hassle of finding a room during Korea’s narrow vacation season. The majority of Koreans go on vacation at the end of July and early August. But don’t fret if you haven’t made reservations yet, as there are plenty of alternative accommodations throughout the country. Below are a few different suggestions on hotel alternatives.
Home stays shed icky reputation
It’s not difficult to find a horror story about a miserable home stay. Many have relayed terrifying experiences of being dragged to a house by a home stay operator only to find a tiny, filthy room at an exorbitant price.
Operators have also been known to come up to guest rooms after they have deposited their bags, saying there is an extra charge of 10,000 won ($9.50) per person on top of the quoted price.
The service often turns out to be unsatisfying. But home stays have changed over the years, and an increasing number of home owners in the countryside are stepping up quality and service as competition in the industry has become fierce. Host families are more professional now because of the growing number of pensions and cabins.
I experienced the difference at Minbaksan, a quiet home stay in Gapyeong County, Gyeonggi province, about 15 minutes away from Nami island, where the famous TV drama “Winter Sonata” was filmed.
Minbaksan ― which literally means “home stay mountain” ― has four rooms, each of which is named after a plant that grows in the mountains. Owner Lee Sang-gyun is a fond admirer of wild plants.
The biggest room at Minbaksan can accommodate 10 people for 130,000 won. The other rooms can hold about four or five people, and the cost is around 70,000 won. The cost is fixed all year long.
The facilities here are as clean as any condominium in a major resort in Korea.
In the past, guests at home stays had to share a bathroom with other guests with no shower facilities. At Minbaksan, guests can shower, and there’s a separate kitchen with cooking utensils. If you hadn’t expected luxury at a home stay, you might also be surprised to find a refrigerator, cable TV and an electric fan.
Mr. Lee, who built a cabin in the mountains in 2000 is an aspiring voyager who traveled around for 20 years. He built a separate house for home stay guests last year.
Mr. Lee hands out tourist guides for visitors detailing major sites around the area including Nami island, ceramic kilns and Cheongpyeong Lake, where hundreds of tourists swim every summer and play water sports.
Mr. Lee picks up guests from the train station for free and takes them to their rooms. He brings out a huge grill with free bags of charcoal if guests want to barbecue. If he’s in the mood, he will install speakers in the front yard so guests can play music.
The good word on the place is spreading online. In less than a year since it opened, Minbaksan even has an online fan club.
“If you put little effort in searching, you can find home stays just as comfortable as ours,” he advises. “Don’t give up your traveling plan just because hotels and condos are filled. Find a good home stay.”
Tip: Local government Web sites often have lists of home stay facilities. South Jeolla province (www.namdominbak.go.kr) lists the best 50 home stays in the region. Gangwon Province (www.provin.gangwon.kr) also provides information on local home stays. To prevent businesses from overcharging guests, Gangwon has a regulation where hosts need to announce their fixed cost on the government’s Web page every season. For the Yeongdong region, check out Minbak mania at www.minbakm.com. E-Purun Jeju (www.jejump.net) also shows a long list of home stays on Jeju island. Online reservation sites for home stays are also an option. Web tour (www.webtour.com) lists 2,200 home stays throughout the country.
Camp sites abundant in country
According to the Korea Forest Service, there are 112 camping areas in Korea. Thirty-six are state-run, 56 are run by local governments and 20 by private individuals. Most state-owned facilities allow outdoor camping. The rest allow partially outdoor camping in wooden cabins. With the case of cabins, check out is usually 10 a.m.
Cabins, however, are often hard to book in the high season. At major camp sites, cabins are booked through a lottery system. For cabins near renowned tourist sites, there can be as many as 11 customers vying for one vacancy.
But auto camping parks don’t take reservations, and guests are accepted on a first-come-first-served basis. So those who arrive early have a higher chance of getting in.
The cost to use a camping sites averages about 2,000 won ($1.90). For an extra 4,000 won, you can put up a tent on an outdoor deck. Auto parks are slightly more expensive, with an admission cost of around 8,000 won. When cabins are full, most guests rent a four-person tent for 100,000 won.
So where are the best camping sites? The easiest way to see is to check www.huyang.go.kr, which lists camp sites near major tourist areas around the country.
To camp more than two nights, it’s better to rent a spacious tent. For a four-member family, it’s better to rent a tent for seven or eight people so you have extra space to move around with the bags inside.
To buy a tent, try online shopping malls or auction sites. They tend to be cheaper and have a wider range of brands. A tent for four or five people costs around 30,000 to 50,000 won. Discount stores carry special brands at costs ranging from 118,000 to 250,000 won depending on size.
Hostels cater to families and youths
If you are in your thirties or forties, you’ve probably stayed at youth hostels on high school trips. But you don’t have to have a group of 10 to 20 people to rent a youth hostel.
It’s true that many youth hostels have dormitory-style rooms. But there are also rooms for individuals and families. The facilities are often just as good as many condos. Yet guests at youth hostels would pay only half of the cost one would pay for condos or hotels rooms with great views.
The downside of it, though, is that the cost is only available for members. Memberships can cost 40,000 won for a family of four.
For non-members, the Korean Youth Hostel Association selects three or four hostels every year to offer rooms. This year, four hostels in Busan, Buan, Geoje and Mount Seorak have been picked for guests between July 1 and August 31.
If all else fails and every place is full, another option is to buy a condo package at a travel agency or at reservation sites for local accommodations. Hodo Tour (02-753-8243) offers last-minute booking for travelers who plan to quickly escape the city.
Seorak Youth Hostel: Located at the foot of Mount Seorak, rooms are Internet equipped, and there’s a separate space for pets. For individuals, a room costs 20,000 won; for families, 50,000 won. For more information, call 033-636-7115, www.sorakyhostel.com.
Busan Youth Hostel Arpina: Opened last summer, the place overlooks a great view of Haeundae Beach and Gwangan Bridge. Arpina accommodates about 470 people. Some floors have kitchens. Rooms cost 20,000 won for individuals including breakfast, 60,000 won for families. For information, call 051-731-9800 or visit www.busanyouthhostel.co.kr.
Gyeokpo Chaeseok River Youth Hostel: Located within Gyeokpo Beach in Buan, North Jeolla province, individual rooms are 20,000 won. Call 063-583-1234 or visit www.chaesukgang.co.kr for more information.
Geoje Youth Hostel: This hostel is a great base camp for sightseeing in a nearby forest, the Haegeum River and a former prison. Opened in 2001, facilities are new and clean. Rooms cost 15,000 won for individuals, 65,000 won for families. There are no kitchen facilities. For more, contact 055-632-9423 or see www.geojejoy.com.
by Nam Gung-wook, Sung Si-yoon