A 24-Year-Old's $1,430 Solo Trip To Seoul, South Korea

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This week's travel diary: A 24-year-old former money diarist shares part of a 2-month trip in Asia.
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Age: 24
Occupation: Clinical Research Assistant (I left my job when I started traveling and will begin medical school when I return.)
Salary: $34,000
Hometown: Boston, MA
Trip Location: Seoul, South Korea
Annual # Of Vacation Days: 26, including all holidays
Trip Length: 9 days in Seoul, 45 days total
Travel Companions: 0
Flights: (from Tokyo to Seoul and Seoul to Hanoi): $243.68
Airbnb: $374.76
Pre-vacation spending:
Backpacking bag: $20.00
Mobile WiFi hotspot: $267.03

Day One

7 a.m. – I wake up on my last morning in my Tokyo Airbnb. I have had the hardest time breaking this jet lag, so a “normal” wakeup time for me is a win. I finish up the yogurt, granola, and coffee I stocked the apartment with while scouring every nook and cranny of the place for any of my belongings. Anyone else as neurotic as me about leaving stuff behind when traveling?
8 a.m. – I take the train to Narita Airport. The Tokyo subway hustle is no joke; I lived in New York for a year and thought I had gotten used to the cramped train car, but holy hell the Japanese have this down to a science I do not want to learn. $22.33
10 a.m. – I make it through security and park myself at Starbucks with a nonfat cappuccino and a matcha pound cake. I then board the flight to Seoul. I had asked at check in for "an aisle seat near the front" and the lovely lady gave me a front row seat with all the leg room! Being a 5’11” woman in Asia can be tough size-wise, so I cherish this small win. $7.65
3 p.m. – We land at Incheon right on time. Once I clear customs, I purchase a T-pass, which is a combination cash card and subway pass, and load it with 20,000 KRW. I use it to board the metro and head into the city. $21.78
5 p.m. – After some wandering and Google Maps frustrations, I find my Airbnb. It is compact but brand new, and is actually nicer than most of the places I’ve stayed at so far.
7 p.m. – I change clothes and wash up before heading out to explore my neighborhood by foot and purchase some groceries. One of the reasons I book Airbnb apartments is to be able to eat some of my food at home, which is both a budget saver and allows me to settle into a routine in a new city. Plus, I have this obsession with foreign supermarkets. I pick up yogurt, granola, instant coffee, some weirdly expensive fruit, nuts, dried fruit, and a supermarket version of bibimbap. $29.72
9:30 p.m. – All my toiletries are travel-sized and I am running low on most of the necessities, and ran out of any skincare weeks ago. I make a mental note to sample some of the renowned skincare shops here in Seoul as I pass out way too early.
Daily Total: $81.48

Day Two

7:45 a.m. – Wake up, make some coffee, a yogurt bowl with granola and fruit, and watch some American reality TV to reconnect with my trashy roots. It is my one vice.
9:30 a.m. – I try to add anything active to my breaks. Today, it is a hike in Bukhansan Park to get a nice bird’s eye view of this massive city.
11:30 a.m. – Okay, solo hiking is maybe not a great idea in a country where you do not know the alphabet, let alone the language. I am looking for any sign of life.
1 p.m. – Phew, found a hiking tour group and low-key stalked them up then down the mountain. I am ravenous at this point, and so after hopping on the metro back home, I duck into a random tofu restaurant near my place. I am red as a tomato and drenched in sweat, but the very polite waiter seats me in a quiet corner, and I order the full spread. It is delicious, despite my not knowing what I am eating, and insanely cheap for the eleven plates that arrive at my table. $11.15
4 p.m. – My legs are Jell-O but I generally like to walk through cities, camera in tow, instead of taking the subway. So I walk the 2 miles to Myeongdong to peruse the skincare shops.
5 p.m. – I have a consultation at one of the stores and leave feeling slightly insulted and very confused. I know beauty standards are very different here, and that open criticism is more accepted, but I miss American sales reps who inflate my ego in hope of selling me eye cream.
6:30 p.m. – I scour through the thousands of choices at Innisfree before settling on a cleanser, toner, and serum combo ($107.38). The store also has a green café, and I buy a green juice ($10.58). $117.96
8 p.m. – Three hours of skincare shopping wiped me out, but I made plans with my friend’s cousins for dinner tonight. We go to a barbecue restaurant and they order for the table – everything is amazing, so I am not complaining. We do the check dance, but they insist on paying.
10 p.m. – We end up at a neighboring bar that seems to be popular with expats. I buy two rounds of drinks for the three of us. A guy buys me a third one and leaves his number. $55.71
1:30 a.m. – The cousins walk me home and we make plans for the weekend to brunch. I dump my skincare in the bathroom and fall asleep with my makeup on.
Daily Total: $184.82

Day Three

7 a.m. – Despite the late night, I wake up early. I mindlessly swipe through Tinder – it is actually a lot of fun to do when traveling, and I have met fellow travelers and locals alike using the app. I barely touch it at home, but sometimes consider doing so as my brother met his long-term girlfriend there.
8 a.m. – I take the subway to Seongsu-dong, the "Brooklyn" of Seoul (although I hate tagging anything as "Brooklyn", because what does that even mean?). I am on the hunt for Café Onion, and after circling the block three times finally find it. I am not disappointed; this gorgeous industrial café is the perfect spot to laze about this morning. I get a cappuccino and an orange cream puff and get lost in a book (Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Foer). $8.38
10 a.m. – I walk down the main boulevard to Common Ground, a mall made up of what seems to be old shipping containers. It is absolutely gorgeous to look at and stroll through, and I window shop. Highlights: every kind of streetwear, food trucks, and quirky knick-knacks. Maybe this is Brooklyn?
12:30 p.m. – I'm headed over to the Seoul Forest and pop into a 7-Eleven to pick up a kimbap and a bottle of water. I find a shady spot under the tree and continue reading. $4.05
2 p.m. – I top up my subway card and head back to my apartment to take a nap. Spending so much time outside in the sun really wipes me out. $18.62
4 p.m. – So much for a "short" nap, but hey, I am on vacation. I make it out the door and walk to Changdeokgung Palace. I do not know a lot about Korean history – I took some Asian history classes in college, but they seemed to be heavily China and Japan-centric – but am living for this architecture. $2.70
6 p.m. – I head south into Jongno, allowing myself to take some wrong turns down alleyways and get lost in the residential side streets. I find myself at Sanchon for dinner, which is a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant. $41.79
8 p.m. – It is Friday and the throngs are out tonight, but I am not feeling it. Head home and try out my Korean skincare regime. It might be psychosomatic but I am positively glowing.
Daily Total: $83.92

Day Four

8 a.m. – Breakfast and reality TV at my Airbnb. I realize I have spent too much money these past few days, and resolve to be more conservative this weekend.
10 a.m. – I walk a couple miles to Gyeongbokgung Palace and explore the grounds. It is Saturday, and the place is packed with women in traditional hanbok taking photos. I wish someone would educate me more about these gorgeous dresses; I can’t tell if there is an event happening, or if people are simply doing it for the ‘gram. $4.54
12 p.m. – Continue walking through Bukchon Village, filled with traditional homes. Simply gorgeous!
1 p.m. – Find a tteokbokki restaurant and enjoy the heat in the heat. This might be my favorite Korean dish! $3.71
2 p.m. – Walking through Tongin Market, wandering from stall to stall. I wish I were a more adventurous eater sometimes; I got really sick in Hong Kong at the beginning of this trip, and have since been really careful.
4 p.m. – Somehow end up people watching in Myeongdong. I message one of my Tinder matches, a ridiculously cute Australian solo backpacker, and make plans to get some drinks tomorrow around Hongdae, Seoul’s university neighborhood.
6 p.m. – Another early night in. I am not a huge fan of packed bars and night clubs, so I usually keep a low profile on weekend nights. Snacks and skincare and lights out!
Daily Total: $8.25

Day Five

8 a.m. – I make coffee and map out my route to Hongdae to meet my friend’s cousins for brunch. We are going to The Famous Lamb, which is a Westernized brunch spot. While I want to sample more Korean food, I also know that Western food tends to be trendy with young Koreans, and am looking forward to seeing their take on American cuisine.
10:30 a.m. – Wow, this brunch is amazing. As a breakfast lover, the variety of food was overwhelming, and the food was actually more British than American and so was still fun and different from what I’d have in the U.S. We do the check dance again but they absolutely refuse to let me pay.
12 p.m. – We go to the nearby Trickeye Museum, which is a hilarious Instagram spot. $13.84
1:30 p.m. – None of us are hungry but there is a great nearby café called Mint Heim, where everything is mint-flavored. I get a mint latte and the three of us split a mint chocolate layer cake. My sweet tooth is satisfied. Again, they do not let me pay. I start brainstorming ways to pay them back – I harbor so much guilt when people cover me for some reason.
2:30 p.m. – We walk through the nearby university, where one of the cousins used to go. As I will be going back to school for the first time since graduating 3 years ago, the tour gives me butterflies. But it is so cool to see how similar a college campus all the way across the world is!
4 p.m. – We part ways, and I drop into Sukkara, a nearby vegan restaurant. I get a veggie curry with brown rice. The weird late afternoon time means I am the only person in the restaurant, and the hostess chats me up about life in the U.S. She will be studying abroad in Michigan in the fall, and I enjoy the genuine cross-cultural exchange. $12.46
7 p.m. – As I am meeting my Tinder match at 7, I walk around the neighborhood and find a spot to sit and read to wait until evening rather than trek back to my Airbnb. I duck into a Starbucks and sneak into the restroom to touch up/actually do my makeup. I then head to the main pedestrian square of Hongdae to meet my Tinderella.
11:30 p.m. – Maybe it’s the accent but this guy is even cuter in person, and has done so many interesting things in his 26 years! We bar hop while waxing poetic about life on the road. I pick up the tab at the second bar we go to. We end the night with a smooch or two before parting ways. $7.21
Daily Total: $33.51

Day Six

9:30 a.m. – I wake up with that post-date giddiness and have breakfast at my apartment. I am feeling a little worse for the ware and decide to head to the jjimjilbang (Korean spa) a day earlier than planned.
10:30 a.m. – I hop on the subway and arrive in a neighborhood just west of Gangnam, where the spa is. I pay the entrance fee and change into the generic spa clothes they give guests, which are about 5” too short on all fronts. Korean grandmas giggle at me without even trying to hide it, and I smile and laugh along. The ajummas of Seoul seem to get a real kick out of my size – knocking my head on handholds in the subway, practically having my knees at my chest sitting in any chair, and certainly the crop top situation happening here. $12.62
4 p.m. – I sit in the sauna, take a dip, sample some food from the free buffet, and read/nap in the quiet room. I really wanted to sample some of the spa treatments – specifically the skin-rubbing thing Conan O’Brien had done on his remote filming at a jjimjilbang in LA – but they cost more than I am willing to spend. I hop on the subway and head home.
6 p.m – I spend two hours finishing my book, which brings me to tears; both because it was so good, and because it made me emotional. I Google English-language bookstores to buy another book. As I do that, last night’s Tinder date texts me, asking what I’m up to tomorrow. I am usually one to answer right away, but my friends have told me that can seem thirsty, so I wait and pretend my life is so fabulous that I can’t answer right away.
8 p.m. – There is a ramen place right next door to my apartment (which makes sense, given that I am in a university district). I used to really hate eating alone, but it’s bar-seating only, and solo dining in general in Asia is not so uncommon, and so I enjoy myself a big soul-satisfying bowl. $6.76
Daily Total: $19.38

Day Seven

8 a.m. – I wake up and do my compulsory morning Instagram scrolling when I am stopped in my tracks by all the tributes to Anthony Bourdain. I hadn’t heard the news until this moment, and after reading the news reports, I have a long cry. I am generally not one to get emotional over celebrity deaths, but so much of my passion for travel and curiosity for the world was bred over episodes of his show that I would watch with my dad. And as someone who battles depression (because it never really goes away, just goes through phases), I have really found such light and hope in my travels, and it devastates me to see he was not able to find enough of that in his.
11 a.m. – I can’t stop myself from crying, so I try to go out into the world in an attempt to force the waterworks to stop via societal pressures to keep my shit together. I find a bakery and eat my feelings in the form of an iced green latte and fig tart. I sit outside so I can wear my sunglasses to shield my still watery eyes. $10.37
1 p.m. – Get it together, girl! I text the Aussie back in another attempt to push myself out of this funk the morning’s news has gotten me in. I then go to the Museum of Contemporary History, which has free entry, to educate myself a little about Korean history, which I admittedly know nothing about. Plus, the AC will be a nice break from this beautiful and sunny but very hot weather.
3:00 p.m. – The museum was quite interesting and distracted me for a few hours. I hop on the subway trying to keep the good vibes moving to Itaewon, where I find the Plant Café and have myself the biggest bowl of salad I have ever seen. $11.27
4:30 p.m. – Walk a bit around Itaewon, but I am not feeling it. Instead I go on the subway again and go to the Ewha University neighborhood.
6:30 p.m. – I did not plan on doing as much shopping as I did, but I got sucked into souvenir t-shirt buying. My siblings and I, as children of immigrants, have an inside joke about “almost correct” English, and literally every t-shirt I see has very well-intentioned and satisfyingly imperfect phrases emblazoned across the front. $22.52
9 p.m. – I find a packed Korean restaurant and order a bubbling tteokbokki and a kimbap roll. I ordered the medium heat and both love it and hate it as my lips begin to tingle. $4.95
10 p.m. – I head back to my Airbnb via subway. Tinder texts me back about going to Gangnam tomorrow, which is perfect, because I haven't gotten the chance to go yet. We make plans to meet for lunch.
Daily Total: $49.11

Day Eight

8:00 a.m. – I realize I haven’t really worked out past the 20,000+ steps I am logging every day, so after breakfast at the apartment, I throw on my sneakers and go for a jog along the Cheonggyecheon riverway. I make it about 3 miles before my knees start screaming for me to stop, and so I walk back to my apartment.
11:00 a.m. – Shower, change, try to get cute, and head over to Gangnam. Meet my date at Le Alaska, a boulangerie just off the main shopping street. The obsession with French baked goods has followed me from Japan to Korea, it seems, and I am not complaining. I get a sandwich and green tea latte, and I sneak a few bites from his grapefruit torte as well. $13.29
2:30 p.m. – Neither one of us is particularly impressed with Gangnam. We find a shady spot to people-watch and are both overwhelmed with the number of plastic surgery clinics around us, and the seemingly endless parade of women with different levels of facial bruising from their procedures. I have conflicting opinions about the plastic surgery culture – on the one hand, it is disappointing that an industry built on preying on the insecurities of and societal pressures on women is thriving so easily. On the other, it is refreshing to see the de-stigmatization of plastic surgery, which can give people a sense of power over their bodies.
4 p.m. – We cross the river into Seongsu, the hipster neighborhood I visited earlier in my trip, and go to the Seoul Forest. I love this part of town and I enjoy just laying out in the sun and talking to this guy. It is unlikely we will see each other again after today, which is bittersweet, but makes opening up to him easy because there is literally nothing at stake. As someone with social anxiety, this is a definite plus.
6 p.m. – We take the subway to the Dongdaemun Design Plaza. He has a really nice camera and wants to take my picture under the Zaha Hadid-designed structure, but I opt out. I absolutely hate having my photo taken. So instead he teaches me how to use a DSLR, and we have what I would liken to a Demi Moore-Patrick Dempsey Ghost moment with his camera.
8 p.m. – Trying to look cool, I relent to grabbing dinner at the Dongdaemun Night Market despite my apprehension about market foods. $2.70
12 a.m. – Bar hopping again around the university neighborhood near my Airbnb, and Tinder pays for everything. I think he thinks he is coming with me to my apartment, but despite spending the day together, he is still very much a stranger, and I am not about that life. I kiss him good night and we part ways.
Daily Total: $15.99

Day Nine

8 a.m. – Last day in Seoul! My flight doesn’t leave for Hanoi until 8:30 p.m., so I take my sweet time packing and cleaning the studio before I have to leave at 11 a.m.
11 a.m. – I leave my bags in a locked closet in the hallway of the building before heading out to soak up the last of this unbelievably nice weather Seoul has been having this past week. Stop into O’Sulloc Teahouse, which specializes in green tea everything, and have an iced green tea latte and green tea roll cake. I have only recently discovered green tea lattes, and I am overwhelmed by how I have been missing out on this delicious drink all my life. $11.71
2 p.m. – I head back to Ewha University and do some more last minute shopping, because the fashions here are just too much to miss out on. Plus, I am running low on clean socks, and there are some really cheap options here. $18.02
4 p.m. – Head back to the apartment, grab my things, and get on the subway to Seoul Station. There I buy a ticket for the express train ($8.95) and buy a bottle of water and some almonds for the ride ($2.31). $11.26
8 p.m. – I eat a salad at Starbucks before boarding my flight to Hanoi. I look over the lit-up early-evening skyline of Seoul and make a promise to come back! $7.21
Daily Total: $48.20
How did you prepare for this trip?
I definitely start following influencers from the cities on Instagram as soon as I know I am going somewhere, and start compiling a locale list on Google Maps. I also get suggestions from friends, especially ones with friends and family in these places. My best friend is Korean, and she had some great suggestions!
Do you think you got a good deal on your flight?
Booked two months in advance with a budget airline. I think it was an overall good deal, given that it is an international flight.
Did you use credit card points or miles to pay for parts of this trip?
I have the Barclaycard, which gives you 2x points on all purchases. I had 30,000 points, which covered $300 of this trip, and which I applied towards the flight tickets.
Do you have credit card debt as a result of booking this vacation?
No credit card debt; I put everything on my credit card to accumulate more points, but I pay my bill in full every month. I saved up over two years, first to pay off my undergrad loans and then for this trip before I go to med school!
What was your favorite part of the trip?
I really loved the Seongsu neighborhood; it is a little out of the tourist circuit, and is generally slower pace than the rush of Seoul. Plus the fashion here is awesome – I wish I had the confidence to pull off some of the looks I saw. Café Onion and Warehouse Café are both gorgeous places to linger over a latte and people-watch.
What was the best meal or food you ate while you were there?
I am now a fan of tteokbokki! It is super simple spicy chili fish broth with rice cakes, but something about the spice and texture of the rice cakes makes me crave more.
Is there a tourist trap you wish you had avoided?
I think the Gyeongbokgung Palace is gorgeous, but it is not actually a historical monument – the original palace was destroyed by the Japanese in the early 20th century, and so this is a recreation of what it once was. While I think that history is very interesting, I think it is really meant for Westerners looking for traditional Korean architecture rather than true preservation efforts. This happens a lot in Eastern Europe as well, where a lot of the old towns are reconstructions of what was destroyed during World War II.
What advice would you give someone who is traveling to the same location?
Don’t be afraid to get lost and wander aimlessly! I didn’t get to do as much research about Seoul as I would have liked to before coming here, but on the flipside, I didn’t have any preconceptions about what to do or where to go, and ended up loving every moment.
Is there anything about your trip you would do differently in retrospect?
I wish I did more cultural research, just to put certain things in context. I think understanding the history of a country can really put into perspective the differences we encounter and is the best way to strip away prejudice. Especially in a place like Korea, where so much has happened in the past 50 years alone.
Would you stay at your Airbnb again?
I would! It was in a great location, was new and clean, and was super cheap.
Is there anything you wished you had time to do, but didn’t?
I wish I had planned to travel through South Korea more in general, because I imagine Seoul is not representative of the entirety of the country.
Do you feel like you were there for the right length of time? Would you have come home sooner or stayed longer given the chance?
I wish I had more time, just because I loved it so much, but I’ve been on the road for a long time and had to make some concessions for my own sanity (and wallet), like only staying in the capital. I definitely plan on coming back though.
Away Game is meant to reflect individual women's experiences and does not necessarily reflect Refinery29's point of view. Refinery29 in no way encourages illegal activity or harmful behavior.

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