Oct 222012

by Melissa Tait

So, trains are a great way to travel. Just rock up, no security, as much luggage as you want and a gentle swaying motion as you travel. And I have a ‘thing’ for trains. I like to keep an eye on them…make sure they are running to schedule…maybe even ‘spot’ some interesting ones..and my little interest got a severe workout when I lived across from a train station in Busan. As a Busanite I’m sure you’re aware of the KTX Busan to Seoul express, 300 kms/hour, 2 hours 18 minutes. But here are a few insights which might help you use the train for shorter trips or save a few won.

Types of Trains

Busan to Seoul
KTX, 2 1/2 hours, W57,000
Mugunghwa, 5 hours, W28,000
Saemaul, 5 hours, W43,000

The best, newest and fastest trains in Korea are the KTX. They are very fast, very expensive and only leave from a few stations. KTX seats are very similar to plane seats. Even in first class (yep,
that’s how I roll) the seats are very upright and built for speed, not comfort. The advantage of first class is a free Korean newspaper if you can read it and free bottles of KORAIL branded water. For the rest of you economy shmoes, a lady with a trolley comes around with a selection of snacks. There aren’t any dining cars.

In Busan they leave from Busan Station near Nampo and Gupo which is past Sasang. If you’re trying to get the most out of your Seoul weekend trip, I’m sure you’ll want to leave early and get there quickly. While the KTX is the fastest, sometimes it’s not so easy to get to a station from your apartment. Also, if you live around Haeundae, you might actually find that commuting to Gupo might be quicker than Busan Station, because you cut across the city, and you have to change metro lines anyway.

The cheapest trains are the Mugunghwa (the national flower of Korea). I’m not going to lie, these trains aren’t pretty. The seats are fairly comfortable but the floors are made of linoleum, a pet hate of mine. When you buy a ticket you’re generally given an allocated seat, but if it’s crowded you won’t be with your friends or you may be standing in the dining car. Best to take a pillow for long journeys.

The dining cars are the crowning glory of the Mugungwha. They include a counter that serves slightly expensive coffee and snacks, seats against the windows to look out, arcade games and also norebangbooths! Karaoke on a train! That’s pretty special. Given that unseated tickets are cheaper than seated tickets, this dining car gets pretty crowded with people from all walks of life. It’s an interesting place, but if you have a ticketed seat, you’re generally pretty happy to go back to it.

Saemaul trains travel this route less often, but if you catch one you will be pretty happy about it. This is the REAL first class. Enough leg room for a giant, you are almost swallowed up by the beautiful
padded seat. I slept like a baby on this train, so I can’t remember too much except it was my best train experience to date.

Choosing and booking trains

So, you’re planning an exciting weekend away from Busan. Time to head onto http://www.korail.com/ and check out your options. At the top of the page click on ‘Bookings’ and ‘Book Online’. Then pop in the
details of TO and FROM and the train times will appear on the bottom of the page. It shows what type of train, the time it departs and arrives and then you click on the magnifying glass under ‘Fare’ to
check the cost. No problem for Busan –> Seoul, but you might want to see the other options out there.

Time to get creative! Do you really live close to Busan Station? Maybe you live closer to Haeundae, Bujeon, Sasang, Hwamyeong or Gupo. And you’re not going to Seoul, you’re going to Degu, Suwon or whatever other great place your friends live and you want to explore. When you’re putting in your TO and FROM details, make sure to choose the ‘Transfer’ option to see if you can get an easier or cheaper fare if
you’re willing to transfer between trains.

Don’t forget about the train system for your inter-Busan travels either. I personally preferred the 14 minute Hwamyeong to Busan Station train journey compared to the one hour metro journey.

You can book your tickets through the website, but you need to use a credit card. An overseas card is fine. When you get to the station you have to print out the tickets at the counter, the machines never worked for me. Just have your reservation number written down and the lovely lady at the counter will sort out the rest. Most of the time, they’ll speak some English.

I tended to buy tickets in advance from a train station. You can put the details into one of the ticket machine and print out the tickets a week before you travel as long as you put in the correct date of your travel. They’re so cute and credit card sized. It’s a good idea to grab a return ticket when you arrive at your destination rather than wait until you’re about to head out. You’ll find a lot of tickets are sold out.

Enjoy the journey

You have to admit it, the trains are pretty darn good in Korea. And it’s a real cultural experience to have your seat stolen by a loud group of ajamas, hang out in the dining car like a beatnik and then take your return journey first class. It’s one of those times the journey can be as fun as the trip. There is always food for sale and beer is allowed on the trains. Just generally try to be respectful of those around you and take it all with a grain of salt. Happy train-ing!