The trip almost ended before it began when our initial direct MCI-LAX flight was delayed over 4 hours. Thanks to a bit of planning I wrote about here: Having a Backup Plan… , we ended up just fine (and even earned a few extra Delta MQM’s along the way!)
The flights from MCI-MSP-LAX were uneventful. Service was good as usual on Delta, our (new) flights were on time or early, and the meal on the MSP-LAX leg was edible closing in on tasty. Delta gets a bad rap for its rather poor frequent flyer program, but they are darn good at getting you from point A-B safely, on time, and with a touch of class.
We landed at LAX, and after a quick walk over to the TBIT and a breeze through the first class check-in, had just enough time to pop into the Korean Air lounge and check it out. Disappointing, to say the least. While certainly nicer than having no lounge at all (and who doesn’t love a self-service bar area), the food options are slim and there is minimal seating. Honestly, the business class side looked better. Thankfully we only had about an hour to kill before boarding.
Helpful LAX tip: Walking from your arrival terminal over to TBIT will almost always be faster than catching the transfer buses. Plus, a little walk before a long flight is never a bad idea. Head up to the arrivals level if it’s a nice day and do the walk up there.
Our flight from LAX to ICN (Seoul) was on Korean Air’s A380-800. It was certainly the nicest flight we have ever been on at this point, not to mention just how well the A380 flies, it was hard to notice you were on a plane for much of the flight.
Upon boarding, the flight attendants handed us pajamas to change into, but unfortunately there were no pre-flight drinks allowed (Only happened at LAX, not sure why?). The pajamas were quite comfortable, though with the cabin temperature being a bit warm and no air vents on this A380, shorts and short sleeves would have been more appreciated.
The seat was great, room for baggage storage under the ottoman, plus an overhead compartment for larger items. There was a small self serve food/bar area at the front of the first class cabin, as well as a little odd duty free station. Additionally there was a bar available in business class upstairs, but since our flight took off around midnight PDT, we didn’t get much of a chance to take advantage of it. There was also a smaller bar/sitting area at the front of the business class section. If travelling with friends, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly on this plane in business.
Overall the flight was very smooth (except some rough air over Japan) and meal service was fantastic. There was a slight disconnect in service as the attendants only knew a little English, but it was still a wonderful experience. However, they were able to catch on to our excitement and be a little less shy. We were thankfully able to get plenty of sleep during the 12 hours in the air for the busy day in Seoul ahead.
Overall, Korean Air was great. Not as polished as Emirates later on, but they are seriously under-rated if you read any of the big travel blogs.
As soon as we landed in Seoul, we exchanged our cash after having to run around a bit to find somewhere open (Tip: Use the money exchange INSIDE security before 6am, the ones outside are closed!) and then jumped on the Airport Express into Seoul.
The Airport Express was incredibly easy to use (once we had cash.. our credit card required a pin which we didn’t have, rookie mistake bringing the wrong card!). For 8,000 won ($7 USD) it is about a 45 minute ride into the city and fairly scenic if you are riding during daylight hours.
Since we arrived so early (around 5am), by the time we took the 5:20 train into the city, we had PLENTY of time to explore before our first stop of the day (Gyeongbokgung Palace) opened at 9am.
I’ll admit, the area around Seoul Station, wasn’t too pretty at 6am. Lots of older (possibly homeless) men were congregated around drinking and we felt fairly uncomfortable. We took a taxi over to the Gyeongbokgung Palace area instead to start exploring.
Gyeongbokgung Palace was a bit of shock. We’re driving along the city, office buildings and neon signs galore, until BAM! A 700 year old (reconstructed many times) palace.
It is beautiful though. Especially with the mountains in the background, you can get a good idea of what this area used to be like.
Since the grounds didn’t open until 9 am, we have about 2 hours to kill at this point. This area of Seoul was MUCH nicer than around the train station, so we felt comfortable walking around and exploring.
We eventually ended up at a 7-11. our favorite stop in any country, and scoped out the local snacks and drinks.
We made it back to Gyeongbokgung Palace around 8:30 when the front gates open up allowing you to explore the main courtyard. The Palace finally opens its doors at 9 am sharp. Bonus: during the month of July, all admittance into the Palace is free!
The largest of the Five Grand Palaces, Gyeongbokgung Palace at one point had over 7,000 rooms! We spent a good 45 minutes wandering between the dozens and dozens of buildings and soaking up the beautiful colors. Unfortunately most of the palace was destroyed in the past, but it is gradually being reconstructed. We could easily have spent a few more hours here.
After our time at the Palace, we grabbed a taxi and headed over to the Namsan Cable Car. The tram takes you up to the peak of Mt. Namsan where the N Seoul Tower is located. As a sucker for paying money to stand on tall things, the cable car and N Seoul Tower were a must for us.
And despite being a sucker for it, we can’t recommend the N Seoul Tower enough. We had NO idea how sprawling Seoul was. Thousands of buildings in every direction. We knew we were only seeing a small piece of Seoul during our layover, but we had no idea how HUGE the city really was. The views from the tower were absolutely incredible. Also, while we took the cable car to save some time, the walk to the top is fairly short and full of artwork and small stops along the way. When we go back, we will check that out for sure.
A bonus was that the tower was really affordable as well. For 25,000 won ($22 USD), we got 2 tickets to the top of the tower, a bucket of popcorn, and 2 beers.
By now we were pretty hungry and ready to try some Korean food. We were starting to run low on time, so we decided to skip the market we were planning on going to and picked Food O’ Clock which was located near the tower on Mt. Namsan. The name sounds ridiculous, but the food was SO good and offered a great view of the city as well.
After we finished eating, we took a taxi back to Seoul Station (which is much nicer during the middle of the day), and then the train back to ICN. We checked into our flight and spent some time in the Korean Air lounge. This one was MUCH nicer than the LAX chapter and while we were stuffed from Food O’ Clock, we still managed to try some cat wine (obviously) and green tea ice cream. Self-serve ice-cream should be a lounge requirement. The rest of the food spread looked okay, though not enough to make a meal out of, but why would you want to? Self serve bar was similarly lacking in selection, but they had diet soda, so we survived!
Recommendations for a Layover in Seoul:
The Airport Express is extremely convenient and affordable! But it only runs about once an hour and takes 45 minutes.. I wouldn’t considering trying to get to downtown Seoul on anything shorter than a 4 hour layover (and if you take a taxi instead beware of rush hour!!)
Taxis are incredibly cheap in Seoul!
Gyeongbokgung Palace: The perfect layover stop. A 10 minute cab ride from Seoul Station with tons of restaurants nearby. I’d say you could explore the palace with 1 hour total (including transportation) from Seoul Station.
ICN airport offers free tours, but it seemed most started at around 8 am, and the ones that went into the city got done a little too late for us. It is worth checking out if you are headed there, however.
Everyone in the tourist locations we went to spoke great English, and thanks to the tip below, taxi’s weren’t a problem either.
What I LOVED:
The food! The view from N Seoul Tower! The colors of Gyeongbokgung Palace and the mix of old and new within downtown Seoul.
What I’m looking forward to next time:
Changdeokgung Palace: Not as large as Gyeongbokgung, but encompasses more gardens.
Resources We Used:
Tripadvisor.com offers the best travel feature I’ve yet to find EVER.
It isn’t available in every country, but it is available in Seoul. This handy button will provide you a small map and description for the places you want to go and will print it out in English AND the local language. When we hopped in a taxi, we simply handed the page of where we wanted to go to the driver and off we went!
Curious on how we were able to make a layover in Seoul work? Check our How-To in Part 1!