Frequently Asked Questions
"Do people speak English in Korea?"
In Seoul, most people (especially young) can speak at least a small amount of English. If you are not used to an Asian accent, however, you may have difficulty understanding. In small towns and rural areas, people do not speak English. Koreans never expect outsiders to speak Korean, though, so they are good at communicating non-verbally. If you can shirk shyness and remain patient, sincere and kind, you will be surprised at the level of interaction you can have. A good phrase book never hurt anyone, either. At the very least, you can point to the Korean phrase.
"Do I have to barter in Korea?"
Personally, I hate bartering. When I go to shopping markets like Namdaemun or Insadong, everyone tells me that I got ripped off because I paid "full price". If you are only buying one thing, there is no point in trying to barter because the seller won't budge on price. The more items you buy, the greater leverage you have when asking for a discount. Be reasonable, though. You aren't going to get a $20 item for $2. Korea is not a third world country. Expect to get three $20 items for $50 (instead of $60). Oh, and bartering only happens in traditional shops...don't try bartering at the mall.
"What is the currency exchange rate? Are prices cheap in Korea?"
Exchange rates fluctuate daily, but Korean prices are pretty easy to translate these days. 1,000 won = ~$1.00 (give or take five or ten cents plus or minus). So if an item is 15,500 won, that would be about $15.50. 150,500 won is about $150.50. Pretty simple. Prices in Seoul are equivalent to prices in New York City -- everything is expensive, especially imported concepts like coffee, bakery items, and wine. If you eat at small local neighborhood restaurants, though, you can leave full and satisfied for about $5 (even in Seoul, where small shop competition keeps prices down). In the small towns and countryside, prices are much lower, just like in rural America.
"What is the food like in Korea? I heard the food is too spicy. Can I find American food?"
In my humble opinion, there is no point traveling to Korea if you are not going to savor the rich, flavorful tastes of Korea. Really! Food is an enormous part of Korean culture, which you will completely miss if you spend your vacation eating at McDonald's. People describe (some) Korean food as "spicy", but I call it "flavorful" because it's not hot-spicy like habanero peppers or Tabasco sauce. Most kimchi and red-colored stews have a strong flavor, but there are tons of other food choices. Just ask the waitress to suggest something that is not spicy (simply say "mwa an-may-wa-yo?"..."what is not spicy?") The flavors of Korea will be like nothing you have ever tasted, but isn't that the point of traveling? To experience something new? But to answer the question -- Yes, Korea has dutifully imported crappy, fried, gross American food like McD's, Pizza Hut, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. There are also many bakeries with American-style sandwiches.
"What is the weather like in Korea? When is the best time to travel to Korea?”
Korea is located along a similar latitude as Washington D.C. and the weather is about the same. The country has four seasons, with blazing colors in the Spring and Fall, heat and humidity in the Summer, and snow or wintery mix in the Winter. Any time of the year is a good time to travel to Korea! The country has plenty of all-season resorts offering skiing, hiking, cycling, fishing and more. Beaches are lovely all year long and certainly less crowed in the cooler seasons.
"I heard Jeju-Do is like Hawaii. Is this true?"
Jeju Island is not "tropical" in the way you may think of Hawaii. Jeju is south of the mainland, but is still far north of the equator. It is near-parallel with Turkey, Greece, and other Mediterranean countries and has similar type of weather. The island does have palm trees, but I'm not sure they are native! Jeju has its own unique beauty, so there is no point in comparing it to this or that. Just go! Experience it for yourself! It remains one of my favorite places in the world.