Very…but it need not be
“After the opening ceremony, my friends had a nightmare journey going back to their motel. They rode a shuttle bus that dropped them at one of the interchanges outside of town, but since it was late, there was no connecting service back to Gangneung and they had to find a taxi. The nightmare journey lasted until 3 a.m.” — Everen Brown, my traveling companion, Salt Lake City businessman, Olympic superfan
To experience the travel myself, I accompanied Brown – Pyeongchang being his fifteenth Olympics — from Incheon Airport all the way to the Olympics venues in Gangwon Province. Brown doesn’t speak Korean. Spoiler alert: Traveling wasn’t easy. Here’s our guide on how to navigate the Pyeongchang Olympics.
- Transportation to the Olympics: highway buses, free shuttle bus departing from Seoul, KTX bullet train (read the article to get tips on how to book those oh-so-difficult KTX tickets)
- Transportation in Pyeongchang, etc: book KakaoTaxi (English version now available; Android / Apple), good luck with the free shuttle services (map and tips in the article)
- Translation services: GenieTalk is a great app (Android / Apple), call the government service at 1330 (toll-free) within South Korea, or +82 2 1330 from abroad
- Cheap accommodation: Motels are usually the best bet, but services like Expedia don’t always have the best local information. The Gangneung Accommodation Facility Vacancy Information is more comprehensive, but you have to call the motel directly, which means you most likely need to speak Korean.
- What to eat: Most likely Korean food. It’s not easy to find non-Korean options. Pyeongchang is famous for its high-quality beef, so have fun with the BBQs. Naver Maps (Android / Apple, app available in English) will be handier than Google, which doesn’t have the same level of access to navigation data that Naver does. For restaurant recommendations in English, try MangoPlate, the Korean equivalent of Yelp (Android or Apple).
Transportation to the Olympics: those elusive KTX tickets
The new KTX bullet train line from Seoul to Gangneung, one of the Winter Olympics host cities, opened in December 2017, connecting the two cities in just 86 minutes. The journey traditionally took at least 3 hours by bus. The caveat:
The Olympics overlaps with one of South Korea’s biggest holidays, the lunar new year period between Feb. 15-18.
When trying to make reservations in early February, I noticed that the easiest route for foreign visitors — Incheon Airport to Gangneung — was completely booked during the week prior to the opening ceremony, between Feb.1 to Feb. 10, as well as during the lunar new year and closing ceremony weekend.
The only choice my travel companion Brown had, like many others, was to take the airport express train to Seoul Station and transfer to the Gangneung-bound KTX.
On Feb. 8, the date of our departure to the Pyeongchang Olympics, I checked the KTX app to find that all trains on that day were suddenly available. All of them. I told Brown; we decided to spontaneously book those tickets to avoid transferring with four suitcases within Seoul Station. He told me in surprise, “Last week, these tickets were sold out. How would I have otherwise known they would become available?”
We boarded the brand-new KTX train at Incheon Airport, to find that no one was on board in our compartment. In fact, the train was approximately half empty, despite being, again, fully-booked days earlier.
I asked the train manager. She told me that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had block-booked carriages 4 to 7 on every train on the Incheon Airport-Gangneung route during the entire Olympic season. She said, “This route was originally designed to transport IOC members, athletes, and other accredited members to and from the games. When they don’t require the seats, they are released to the public. These are circumstances beyond our control.”
For anyone planning to board one of these sold-out KTX trains, a few words of advice:
- Check daily to see whether tickets become free. They do appear from time to time.
- If that fails, go to a railway station (Incheon Airport/Seoul/Gangneung) and check availability there: a portion of seats are only available in person. Standing tickets can be purchased at a station.
- Do also check the Korail website frequently. The operator is adding extra services, like additional trains between Feb. 19-21 and 24, and four extra trains on Feb 25 (Closing Ceremony).
- Do not limit yourself to one route only: Train to and from Seoul Station are more readily available: If you want to travel from Incheon Airport, consider taking the express AREX train to Seoul Station, then connecting to KTX from there.
- A trickier option for foreigners is to sign up on the waiting list of a given train. But this is only reserved for app users of the Korean language service. Users must also reside in South Korea to use this service.
If taking the train is not an option, there are other services, including taking a highway bus. These run very frequently from the inter-city bus terminals (they run between East Seoul, Gangneung, and Daekwallyeong for the Olympic Plaza). Tickets can be purchased on the spot or in advance, in English, here.
Finally, there is a free shuttle bus service running between Seoul (near City Hall) and Pyeongchang. Book tickets by opening this website on your mobile browser (Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese available).
Navigating around the Olympics venues
When we arrived in Gangneung, one of the host cities in Gangwon Province, we were greeted by a swarm of volunteers in the traditional garb hanbok, who pointed us to the taxi stands.
In all fairness, the app was very accurate and we were able to communicate about our destination. The driver also said that many foreigners resorted to using the government’s free interpretation service when language became an issue. Just dial 1330 (toll-free) within South Korea, or +82 2 1330 from abroad.
Navigation around Gangneung and the Olympic venues was probably the most difficult part of our trip.
Our first destination was the Olympic Park, located in the so-called Coastal Cluster, approximately 3.5 kilometers from Gangneung City Hall. We visited both the tourist office and Pyeongchang help booth at Gangneung intercity bus station. While English was spoken, staff were unable to produce any maps or timetables, and we had to ask several people before getting answers.
Finally, we were told what bus to board, except that the specific bus hadn’t arrived in over an hour, and staff had no idea why it was not coming. We ended up taking a taxi.
When were at at the Coastal Cluster, there was definitely no shortage of volunteers. But the problem is, they don’t always know much. When asking basic questions such as, “What bus do I take to go back to Gangneung,” we were greeted by clueless faces. At one point, we were sent back and forth three times between different gates before we found out where to be.
We bumped into many foreign journalists on the way carrying camera equipment and the likes. They were all equally frustrated, and we’d often hear the words, “Good luck finding your way.”
One volunteer apologized and told us, “I haven’t been given any education, please understand.”
Of course, it’s likely that the volunteers were still getting used to the job: Andrew Salmon, a Seoul-based journalist, wrote for the Korea Times that the volunteers were more helpful, a couple of days after the Olympics began.
Gangwon Province is huge; luckily, there are free shuttle buses connecting different Olympics venues.
But upon deciphering the shuttle bus routes, we discovered that there was no direct route between Gangneung — the host city where many spectators are staying — and the main Olympic Stadium in the town of Daegwallyeong, Pyeongchang. In fact, the journey involves three transfers and four shuttles.
Everen Brown, being the seasoned Olympic-goer, didn’t want to risk being a minute late for opening ceremony on Feb. 9, so we resorted to taking a taxi. Traffic was unbearable, and the thirty-minute ride lasted over an hour. Thank heaven we didn’t take the four shuttles.
Our advice? Plan in advance. Way in advance. Shuttle services do work, but are inconvenient since they do not run direct services between Gangneung and other key Olympic venues. If you really don’t want to take the free buses, grab an inter-city bus (regular paid service), especially if wanting to go to the Olympic Plaza (buses run frequently between Gangneung and Hoenggye — the bus stop for the Olympic Plaza). Finally, taxi might be an option too: download Kakao Taxi (English version now available; Android / Apple) or even Uber Black (regular Uber is illegal).
Accommodation: find a Korean-speaker for help (or call 1330)
As previously reported, it was difficult enough getting a reservation confirmation: Brown flew in from the U.S. to South Korea to specifically find rooms for his party of six, having failed to find anything remotely. Tourist information directed him to hotels and temple stays that were far from Gangneung; motels quoted extortionate prices, or made unreasonable demands, such as having to block-book dozens of rooms or even entire properties.
Often, the biggest inconvenience was the language barrier. I was able to help him by discussing the pricing on the phone, in Korean, to a motel owner. I was not provided with any official, well-documented confirmation, so after much persistence, the motel owner wrote a confirmation by hand, took a photo of it with his phone and sent it as a text message attachment.
At long last, we arrived at the motel. The owner didn’t speak English, as expected.
Since things were being lost in translation, I had no choice but to step in and interpret.
Brown had booked several rooms for his party, people arriving and leaving on different dates. The total price was calculated, again, on a hand-written paper. Several errors in calculation later, we finally figured out how much to pay.
At first there were concerns that there would be no room available for foreign visitors. But in reality I found that this was not the case: almost every time I called to check availability, there was a room. I even found space on the night of the opening ceremony at the motel closest to the Olympic Plaza.
The only issue is that these hotels/motels are not listed on popular booking sites like Expedia. Instead, one must locate the hotel (e.g. by using the Gangneung Accommodation Facility Vacancy Information website) and then calling the motel directly. If you’re lucky, they might speak English. Otherwise, get the 1330 government interpretation service to do it for you.
At long last — a full 30 minutes after walking into the motel, check-in was sorted out and we were able to proceed to our rooms. The stench of cigarette smoke seeped out of the corridor carpet (many motels in South Korea are smoker-friendly), but the smell was more bearable inside the actual rooms, which were very well-heated.
What to eat: lots of Korean food
Having put the bags down in the rooms, we decided it was time to venture out to grab a bite to eat. Thankfully, all the restaurants we saw had multi-language panels hung outside describing the main two to three dishes on offer. Inside the restaurants, full menus were also multilingual.
We resorted to eating marinated pork stew. I asked the restaurant owner how business was since the arrival of the Olympics. She said things hadn’t changed much. “Gangneung City Government kindly paid for the English panels and menus, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to communicate with foreign clients, but to be honest, we haven’t seen many Westerners coming in here.”
One tip on finding restaurants: Download the Naver Maps app (Android or Apple) which has recently created an English version. Naver Maps is far more accurate than Google, and it is easy to locate restaurants, hotels, and even ATM machines with this neat app. For recommended restaurants, try MangoPlate, the Korean equivalent of Yelp (English version available, Android or Apple).
My travel companion Everen Brown is looking forward his fifteenth Olympiad. He said, “I’ve seen it all before, let’s see what Pyeongchang has in store.”
Wait up for our interview with Brown on what it means to be an Olympics superfan, coming later this month.
In the meantime, happy traveling!
Cover image: Flags at the Olympic Plaza, the main stadium, Pyeongchang. (Raphael Rashid/Korea Exposé)
Read more of our Olympics coverage: