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Did you know that many airports around the world (from Istanbul to Singapore) offer free city tours for travelers in transit on long layovers? On a recent trip from Singapore to Washington, D.C., we added a free award segment to Seoul, South Korea to take advantage of the Seoul Airport free transit tours. Was it worth it? Here’s how it went:
On the blog, I have discussed our do-it-yourself, self-guided transit tour in San Francisco while on a layover en route to Australia. What I haven’t mentioned so far is the slightly nuttier choice I made on our return trip from Singapore.
Adding a layover
While award flights were available from Singapore directly to Los Angeles and San Francisco (SFO) then on to our home city of Washington, D.C. (IAD), I opted for an award ticket that routed us through Seoul’s Incheon airport (ICN) and gave us a 10-hour layover there.
Why, you may ask, in the name of all things holy would I take an already long trip (17 hours) and make it even longer? The answer, my friend, is the Seoul Airport FREE TRANSIT TOURS.
As soon as I saw a Seoul layover as an option, a little bell went off in my head. I had heard about the airport’s free tours into Seoul—a sprawling metropolis of over 10 million people. So, I went online to check out the details. Under the oddly named “Course Information” tab on the transit tour website, you will find all the potential tour options, ranging from one to five hours.
Incheon airport free transit tours
We opted for the longest tour (the Tradition tour), which takes you from the airport into the heart of Seoul to visit Gyeongbokgung Palace, then for lunch and souvenir shopping in the lively Insa-dong neighborhood. Other tour options include visits to the Seoul World Cup Stadium, Gwangmyeong Cave, and nearby temples.
Gyeongbokung Palace is the largest of the city’s five royal palaces and was the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty. It was built in 1395 when the capital of Korea was moved from Kaesong to Seoul. The palace was destroyed by fire during the Japanese invasion in the 1590s, then abandoned for nearly three centuries. Gyeongbokung Palace was ultimately reconstructed in 1867.
Tours can (and should) be reserved online in advance, but limited walk-up slots are also available.
Know before you go
Here are a few things to know about the Tradition tour (and applicable to the other tours) that you may not find in their online information:
- The tour is free (bus, guide, etc.), but … there is a small fee for entry into the Palace and for the lunch provided (US$10 per person total, paid at the transit tour desk). The fee can be paid by credit card, so there is no need to get Korean currency for your short stay.
- You will need to depart well BEFORE the listed departure time. For our 8:00 a.m. tour from Terminal 1, we were told to be back at the tour desk at 7:35 a.m. We were on the bus and rolling by 7:40 a.m. The reason for the mandatory early departure is that the bus will pick up guests from both Terminal 1 and Terminal 2. It so happens that these two terminals are a 15-minute drive apart. The 8:00 a.m. departure time turned out to be when the bus headed out after picking up passengers at the second terminal.
- You must be on time. These tours run like clockwork. At each stop, if you are not back in time, the bus will leave without you. The bus cannot risk being late, because people must be back at the airport on time to make their flights.
- You can’t cover more on your own in the same amount of time. If you are thinking you would rather Uber by yourself to one of these destinations, bear in mind that the airport is about an hour outside the city and traffic in Seoul is HEAVY. The tour bus travels in dedicated bus lanes, but Ubers and taxis will enjoy no such benefit, so your travel time in a personal vehicle is likely to mushroom.
- Timing is everything. For this particular tour, if you have the flexibility, choose the 8:00 a.m. option over the 10:00 a.m., as that will allow you to see the changing of the guard ceremony at the Palace.
Guards arriving at Gwanghwamun Gate. The colorful changing of the guard ceremony takes place twice a day: at 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.
- The tours are short. Remember I said earlier that the airport is one hour outside the city? That means your five-hour tour into Seoul includes two hours of driving, giving you only three hours of actual touring. During the drive, however, the guide shares information about the tour and Korean culture and points out any landmarks you pass, such as the “Blue House” (home of the President).
- Check the visa requirements! With a U.S. passport at the time of our travel we were not required to have an entry visa or show proof of vaccinations. But do check the latest visa and vaccination requirements before you go! You will, however, need to show proof that you are on a connecting flight (so, you are not eligible for the Seoul airport transit tours if Seoul is your final destination).
- Lunch may be very early. If you take the 8:00 a.m. tour, you will likely be sitting down for lunch just after 10:00 a.m. (which was great for us, as we didn’t have much of a breakfast at the airport).
Was it worth it?
So, was it worth it to add a seven-hour overnight flight to our itinerary just to spend part of the day in Seoul? For us, yes!
We have not yet traveled in much of Asia and had no immediate plans to visit Korea, so this at least gave us the opportunity to get a quick glimpse of Seoul while we were “in the neighborhood”. Apart from the Seoul city tour, Incheon airport is a bit of a destination in itself (boy do these major airports in Asia put their U.S. counterparts to shame!). We enjoyed walking around to explore the food options and watching the various cultural demonstrations staged throughout the airport (dancers, concerts with traditional Korean instruments, etc.). And honestly, watching my 13-year old use Google to try to figure out the Korean characters on the massage chair buttons in the airport lounge was priceless.
This somewhat ambitious itinerary probably doesn’t make sense for families with young children, but if you have teenagers who are game for exploring and love to travel, this is a great add-on.
Check out our Instagram feed for more travel photos and information.
If a Seoul Airport free transit tour is not in your future, don’t worry, other major international airports offer free or reduced-cost transit tours during layovers:
More free city tours from airports around the world:
Singapore (SIN) Changi Airport is considered the world’s finest airport and a destination unto itself.
Tokyo (NRT) Be aware there are two Tokyo airports. Tours are offered from Narita. The other airport, Haneda, does not have a tour program but is accessible to the city via metro.
Doha, Qatar (DOH)
Reduced cost city tours from the airport: