A Long Layover in Seoul

The Newest South Korean King & Queen

The Newest South Korean King & Queen

There’s nothing I dread more than a really long layover.  Everyone, at some point in their lives, has had the scour-the-airport-for-an-electrical-outlet try-to-sleep-on-the-floor wish-you-could-get-some-fresh-air experience of being in an airport for too long.  So when we were faced with a 12-hour layover in Seoul at the Incheon International Airport, I was a little bit worried.  Fortunately for us, Seoul’s Airport is ridiculously awesome!  Read on for the reasons why it’s so wonderful.

Free City Tours

ICN Airport offers seven different types of tours for passengers with long layovers, varying from 1 to 5 hours in length.  SEVEN TYPES OF TOURS!  They have something for everyone – everything from a Seoul Shopping Tour to an Incheon Temple Tour.  Heck, they will even help you plan your own self-guided tour in the city.  The kicker?  It’s 100% free of charge!  Thank you, South Korean taxpayers, for making my stay so awesome.

Free Transit Tours!  YES!

Free Transit Tours! YES!

We chose to go on the Incheon City Tour – we originally wanted to do the Seoul City Tour, but the immigration lines were SO DARN LONG that we missed it.  Lucky for us, the Incheon City Tour is considered “second best” according to the gal at the tour desk, and we think she was right.

Our guide, Mr. Bae, was great.  His first name was “Sang Beom”, which he told us is essentially the Korean equivalent of “Bob”.  Here he is telling us to hurry up and get on the bus:

Our ICN Transit Tour Bus

Our ICN Transit Tour Bus

First stop was Wolmi Park, which has a nice cultural center we visited.  That’s where we took the photo at the top of this post with us dressed up like Korean Royalty.  We also snapped this gem:

Hopefully we can blame this one on jet lag?

Hopefully we can blame this one on jet lag?

We were SO EXCITED to see evergreen bushes and trees in South Korea:

OMG EVERGREENS!

OMG EVERGREENS!

Wolmi Park is pretty fabulous:

At Wolmi Park, they have great photo opportunities

At Wolmi Park, they have great photo opportunities.

They have beautiful ponds and pagodas and bonsai trees.

They have beautiful ponds and pagodas and bonsai trees.

Wolmi Park has butterfly-shaped flower exhibits.

Wolmi Park has butterfly-shaped flower exhibits.

They also have dinosaur-shaped flower exhibits.

They also have dinosaur-shaped flower exhibits.

One thing I thought was really amazing was the pumpkin and squash vines hanging from a trellis.

One thing I thought was really amazing was the pumpkin and squash vines hanging from a trellis.

There were beautiful cosmos fields.

There were beautiful cosmos fields.

At Wolmi park, Mr. Bae even busted out his hacky sack skills!

At Wolmi park, Mr. Bae even busted out his hacky sack skills!

There were also replicas of traditional Korean houses.

There were also replicas of traditional Korean houses.

Next stop on our Incheon City Tour was Sinpo Market!  Anything involving street food always gets us hyped up, so we were super excited.  We read up a little bit using the free wifi at Incheon Airport before leaving, and knew we had to try the spicy fried chicken Sinpo market is known for.

Sinpo Market in Incheon, South Korea

Sinpo Market in Incheon, South Korea

Pro tip: take some South Koreon Won out of an ATM before leaving the airport!  Otherwise you’ll just have to look at all the good food and won’t get to taste any of it. So sad.

Spicy Fried Chicken.  You won't believe how much you get for 8,000 Won, or $8.

Spicy Fried Chicken.  You won’t believe how much you get for 8,000 Won, or $8.

The chicken was DELICIOUS.

The chicken was DELICIOUS.

We also got a monster sushi roll for 2,000 Won, or $2.  It had ham, shrimp, AND egg!

We also got a monster sushi roll for 2,000 Won, or $2.  It had ham, shrimp, AND egg!

The transit tour verdict?  A MUST DO!  I might even schedule in a super long layover next time we travel through South Korea solely for the purpose of taking another tour.

Free Showers

There are lots of travelers I dread sitting next to on an airplane.  There’s the guy with the cold, who is coughing, sneezing and blowing his nose the entire flight.  There’s the lady who wants to be your new bestie and won’t stop quizzing you on all your life details.  There’s also the guy on his way to a bachelor party, who is determined to single-handedly drink all the beer stocked on the entire airplane.  But there’s probably nothing worse than sitting next to the smelly person, who somehow doesn’t realize they need a shower and also prefers to fly with their shoes and socks taken off.  Fun times.

The only thing worse than sitting next to the smelly person is being the smelly person.  No one wants that.  Lucky for all of us, there are free showers at ICN airport!  And let me tell you, after a warm taxi ride to Chiang Mai Airport, followed by a red-eye flight, followed by a long transit tour, we needed a hot shower.  I would’ve settled for a garden hose at this point.

This is the only photo of the showers I got!  I assure you, they were really nice.

This is the only photo of the showers I got!  I assure you, they were really nice.

I expected a shower room that would evoke thoughts of prison; you know, the sterile white tile, the stained grout lines, the crappy shower head. Fortunately, I was way off.  The shower rooms were each more like a nice hotel bathroom than a prison.  They even had rainwater shower heads!  When we walked in, we were greeted by the guy at the desk who cleans the rooms after each use.  He handed us a towel along with organic shampoo and soap. Nice work, Seoul!

Free Cultural Experiences

ICN Airport scores high for being rich in cultural experiences.  I don’t think I’ve ever been to an airport before where they have craft areas set up where you can make traditional Korean handiworks.  There are also musical performances with traditional Korean musical instruments:

Traditional Musical Instrument performance at ICN Airport.

Traditional Musical Instrument performance at ICN Airport.

There was also a String Quartet performing with a piano accompanist!  These were some talented ladies:

String Quartet in ICN Airport.

String Quartet in ICN Airport.

There is even a Royal Parade several times per day!  A parade!  In the airport!  If that’s not enough for you, they also have “Traditional Cult Rehabilitation”:

Traditional Cult Rehabilitation?

Traditional Cult Rehabilitation?  (See the last line on the sign.)

Ok, only kidding on that last one.  Some smart ass scraped some letters off the sign so instead of saying “Traditional Culture Exhibition” I read it like “Traditional Cult Rehabilitation.”  We can blame that one on jet lag!

Restaurants, Cafes and Duty Free Shopping, Oh My!

If the tours, showers, and cult rehabilitation doesn’t keep you busy, there are tons of places where you can spend some of that extra Won you’ve got in your pockets.  ICN Airport is packed with duty free shopping for everything from rice cookers to liquor to fancy jewelry.  If that doesn’t strike your fancy, there is no shortage of restaurants and cafes.  There is even a Guinness cafe with Guinness on tap (for something like $14/pint)!

I liked the Charlie Brown Cafe:

ICN Airport's Charlie Brown Cafe

ICN Airport’s Charlie Brown Cafe

I also got a kick out of the Hello Kitty Cafe.

Here I am, striking a pose at the Hello Kitty Cafe.

Here I am, striking a pose at the Hello Kitty Cafe.  Can you find me?

There are trees.  INSIDE.

Someone at ICN Airport has a green thumb.  The airport is absolutely filled with nature – there are huge beautiful trees, tons of Orchids, there’s even a huge plant wall inside the smoker’s room.

Trees.  Inside!

Trees.  Inside!

Look at these gorgeous orchids.

Look at these gorgeous orchids.

We snagged some really comfortable leather lounge chairs in the relaxation area and napped.  Nothing makes a nap better than being surrounded by beautiful orchids:

Napping at ICN Airport, surrounded by Orchids.

Napping at ICN Airport, surrounded by Orchids.

Transit Hotel

If you just want to hole up in a nice room and shut the world out, it’s easy to do!  Rooms at the slightly pricey but luxurious Transit Hotel allow travelers to escape the airport madness and get some much needed rest.

We Want to Hear From You!

After having such a great time during our long layover in Seoul, I think it’d be nearly impossible to convince me to fly through Tokyo or Beijing ever again.  (Especially after officials in Beijing almost put me into quarantine.  That was fun.)  Have you had any notable, absurd, or just plain awesome airport experiences?  Please share ‘em – I could use a good laugh!

38 thoughts on “A Long Layover in Seoul

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  3. This sounds really lovely! I was just looking at the guided tours online and then searching for an answer as to whether or not I could leave the airport. Not sure if you could help, but if I buy a ticket with Air Asiana I would have a ten hour layover. Can I leave? This post makes me want to stay in Korea a bit instead of transferring right away! :D Looks fun!

    • Hi! YES, you can definitely leave the airport with a layover that long. :) You’ll have to go out through Immigration, and they’ll stamp your passport on the way out. It took us about an hour to get through immigration when we were there because the lines were pretty long, but other than that it was super easy – you’ll just want to write “transit tour” on your immigration form as your reason for visiting.

      We flew Korean Air, and we didn’t have to worry at all about our checked bags while we were out on our long layover – they checked clear through to our destination so there’s no picking them up and messing with them. (But you should double check with the Asiana folks to be sure!)

      Just remember, if you DO go on a transit tour where you think you might want to buy anything, take some Korean Won out of the ATM in the terminal before going on the tour – ask the transit tour desk person and they can point you to a nearby ATM. A lot of people in our group were super disappointed they couldn’t buy food in the Incheon market because they didn’t take money out!

      Have fun!!

  4. i read on line that the tours cost money. what’s the difference between the free tours and the tours that cost money?

  5. So I’ve got a 20hr layover in Seoul and was googling some ideas as to what to do and your blog came up. First, fantastic advice! I’ll definitely do the airport sponsored tour. That’s perfect. Also fantastic to know there is a hotel in the airport. Great info.

    Secondly, I quit my job in April of this year to travel around the world as well! So far have been to Norway, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Egypt, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Thailand, Tokyo, Thailand, and next South Korea! A very difficult decision, but best I’ve ever made. Sounds like you share the same sentiments. Your blog is awesome. Thanks for putting dorth the effort. If you’re interested, I’ve got a ‘blog’ type of thing at the website below. Thanks again!

    https://www.storehouse.co/rob_leslie

    Best,
    Rob

    • Hi Rob!

      I’m so glad to hear that my Incheon post was helpful to you. :-) I LOVED that airport, so I hope you also have a great experience there.

      YAY for you that you made the choice to quit your job and travel! It’s definitely a difficult and bold decision to make, but I have no regrets. My husband and I are back home now in Seattle and we both easily found work as software developers once we got back. (Collective sigh of relief goes here…)

      I’ll check out your blog!

      Safe and Happy travels to you,
      -Melanie

  6. I’m glad that I came across your blog, Melanie! I have a 10-hour layover at Incheon as part of my Kuala Lumpur-Eugene trip this September. I thought of getting a room at the airport’s transit hotel but it is way too pricey! I just made a reservation for a 5-hour Seoul City Tour, although I was contemplating whether I should choose Seoul Shopping Tour instead.

    Anyway, do you mind to share a little bit on how did you get to the transit tour desk (or counter, gate, whatever) after disembarkation? What time did you arrive Incheon? I will arrive around 6:30 am and the city tour leaves at 8; I wonder if I could make it on time. Is it possible to switch to a later tour if we missed the one that we reserved for?

    Sorry for asking too many questions!

    Best,

    Rudy

    • Hey Rudy!

      Awesome! Layovers in Seoul are the best. :) We looked into the transit hotels too, but rooms cost an arm and a leg.

      To get to the transit tour desk, you have to go out through customs/immigration. You’ll get a stamp in your passport and everything. That line can take up to an hour. We actually were signed up to go on the Seoul City Tour – I think we were on your exact same time frame. The day we went, though, lines at immigration were especially long, so we missed the tour by just five minutes! I was really worried because we had made reservations online, but the gal at the transit tour desk was very happy to accommodate us on a different tour. It’s really not a biggie if you miss the tour you reserve – by all means, try to make it, but if immigration is slow and you miss it, don’t sweat it at all. I’d recommend reserving the 8am tour you want to go on, and just know that if you miss it you’ll go on a different one.

      I seem to recall that there were plenty of signs pointing to the transit tour desk – if there aren’t, almost any airport employee should be able to point you in the right direction. :) I can’t seem to find directions to it on the Incheon airport website – it’s terribly frustrating to navigate!

      Don’t forget to take out some Korean money from an ATM before your tour departs if you are going to any of the markets – they’ll be cash only and it’s a bummer to see all the tasty food without being able to buy any!

      Take care and safe travels!
      -Melanie

      • Hi! I’m from the Philippines and i’ll be flying via JinAir from Clark to Incheon then Korean Airlines to Las Vegas with 16 hours layover in between. I already made a reservation for the 5 hour Seoul City Tour. Do you think my baggage will also be checked-in like yours while I’m on Transit Tour?

        Also, upon registration for the tour I noticed that they now charge $10 which you need to pay at the Tour Desk. Does this include entrance fees or lunch? How much Korean Won would you recommend I should have with me while on transit tour. I’ll be travelling alone and i’ll be in Incheon from 5am-9pm. I was really dreading for this looong layover but got inspired when I read your blog.

        Hope my experience in ICN will also be such a breeze like yours! Thanks for sharing this helpful blog! :)

        • Hi Ira. I’m sad to hear that it’s no longer 100% FREE! I’d be surprised if your bags weren’t checked clear through to your final destination like ours were. I’m sorry, but I’m not sure if the $10 includes entrance fees or lunch. If you find out, please visit us again and leave a comment so I can update the post!

  7. Hey, I have a 5 Hour layover in Seoul on my Way to Jakarta. Is the Time to Short to go out and see a bit of Seoul ? I would Love to – but not sure if thats enough Time…

    Greetings from Germany, Volker

    • Hi Justine,

      No previous preparation is required to get a Korean Visa – they stamp an approved entry right into your passport when you arrive and go through immigration. If I remember correctly, they allow you to stay for a couple of months! Though we were only there for half a day. :)

  8. I have been to Seoul before but I never done a long +12 hrs worth of layovers. Do you have any idea where I can or should store my luggage? I would like to spend a few hours in Seoul rather than at the airport. Thank.

    • Hi there!

      I hope I’m not too late in responding to your comment. We’re back home working now, so the blog has taken a back seat to actual work. :) I tried looking up luggage storage on the Incheon website, but it appears that their website is currently down! I would be very very surprised if there wasn’t some sort of luggage storage available in the airport. I did find one forum discussing this that might be of some help.

      Cheers!
      -Melanie

  9. Hi Guys!!!! Thanks so much for this!!! Was worried what i would do, i love to plan way ahead before i do anything. So i have a super long layover, From 12(13 December) to the next day 8pm. So at-least now i can chop some hours away from the delay and hopefully i will get a room that doesn’t ‘chop my leg and arm’

    Just wanted to show some appreciation for your priceless information!!!!!

  10. Hi, i just want to ask if we get a 12 hours or so of layover can we do like a 2 five-hour tour? or is it that you can only do one free tour of your selection? thanks. So glad i found this blogpost btw! :)

    • Hi June!

      I think doing 2 5-hour tours would definitely be pushing it. I’d either pick 2 shorter tours, or just select one 5-hour tour and spend the rest of your time relaxing on the recliner chairs near the showers. :)

      -Melanie

  11. I have a question. What did you do with your carry on luggage while on the tour or lounging around in the airport? No sleeping rooms in the airport?

    • Hi Katie!

      We left our luggage in the locked van that drove us out onto the transit tour. We didn’t have any problems with it (most of our things weren’t valuable at that point anyway!).

      Cheers!
      -Melanie

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  13. Hi,

    Glad I ran into your site! We will be transiting in Seoul for about 12 hours and plan to do one of the tours but my wife and I will have a 3 yr old and a 5 yr old with us. In your opinion, do you think the tour you took would be suitable for young children?

    Thanks,
    -Marl

    • Hi Marl!

      I don’t have kids yet myself, so I’m not sure I can speak for how enjoyable the tour we went on would be for them, but I certainly think it would be fine to bring your kids along. They might actually enjoy the noise and colors of the Incheon Market, and would probably benefit form running around outside at the cultural center. :) My husband and I both vaguely remember there being a couple of kids on our tour (who were a little bit bored, perhaps?), so it’s definitely not unprecedented!

      Anything beats sitting around in an airport though, right?! Just don’t forget to grab some Korean currency from an ATM at the airport before leaving so you can pick up a few souvenirs and snacks from the market.

      Cheers!
      -Melanie

  14. This blog is amazing and helpful.
    Now im excited to arrived in Icheon and gottcha the korean culture in my stopover instead of sad to wait 20 hours to return to my country.
    Thanks Melanie!!!

  15. HI THERE!, Thanks for such a fabulous account of the free transit tours in ICN. I will be there myself in April 2016.
    If i may ask your opinion ….my flight departs ICN at 3pm, I like to know if you think I have enough time to take the 5 hour transit tour that runs from 8am to 1pm?
    I’d love to hear what you have to say.
    super like that I found your page.

    • Hi there!

      I think you’d be fine with the tour ending at 1pm! Your luggage will stay checked in, so you don’t have to worry at all about re-checking it in Korea, so you don’t need a TON of time to get back through airport security. Double check with the transit tour desk when you check into your tour, and be sure your guide is aware, but I don’t foresee an issue. Happy travels!

      -M

  16. Hi. I have an 11-hour layover in Seoul ICN. I have to Korea before, but it’s my first time venturing out on my own. Can I buy cosmetics in Seoul for my gilrs and not have problems through security? They want the whole enchilada of make up, toners, moisturizers, etc.

  17. Hello, Melanie. Your blog is so interesting! I intentionally booked a flight for March which has a long layover in Korea since I have heard of this free transit tour before. Now my concern is time. I want to get the 8am-1pm tour and our flight out of Korea s at 2:40pm. Did you really get back to the airport on time? I’m afraid I might miss my 2:40pm flight. Thanks and I hope to hear from you.

    • Hi Elaine!

      I think you’ll be fine on the 8am-1pm tour! We had a family on our tour who was rushing to get back to a flight, and the guide made sure that we were back in time. You should double check with the transit desk, though!

      Also, I’ve heard that these tours may now cost $10. If you learn that there’s a price now, please let me know and I’ll update my post.

      Cheers!
      -M

  18. Hi Melanie! Our flight is in two weeks and I’m so excited to see Korea even for just 5 hours :)
    I’ve inquired about the fee and yes they do collect $10 which will cover the cost of lunch ($7), and temple entrance ($3). Still, it really isn’t much. Can’t wait to share my experience with you and your followers! You’ll hear from me again next month.

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