Destination: Seoul! – Flight Reservation, Hotel Reservation, Visa Application for Filipinos, and Creating an Itinerary

NOTE: There may have been changes for the South Korean Visa Application process for Filipinos since this blog entry has been posted. Please go to South Korean Embassy’s website for up-to-date information.

FLIGHT RESERVATION

It was around July or August 2011 when my friends and I suddenly decided to go on a trip to Seoul, South Korea. The original plan was for me, my bestfriend (Beng), and two other friends (Jennie and Mei) to go there in Fall 2012 (October). The four of us met one weekend and got each other to commit to this trip. Not that I needed any urging, mind you. Beng invited a friend of his, Emz, to join us that weekend. Emz has been to Seoul a couple of times before and she shared her experience with us. We were able to get useful tips on applying for a Visa and creating an itinerary. After dinner and coffee, the four of us were confident getting this trip to materialize that we already had our minds set on finding the cheapest flight to Seoul.
From that point onwards, CebuPacific’s website has been a common on-line haunt for me and Jennie. We took it upon ourselves to monitor the promos being released by this budget airline because we both work on a night shift (callcenter). This gave us the advantage of being able to avail of CebuPacific’s promos the moment they get released on the website; which, if I’m not mistaken, happens after 12MN. The four of us followed CebuPacific both on Facebook and Twitter to make sure that we don’t miss out on any notifications. It was an agonizing five months-worth of waiting before we hit the jackpot. It was around the second week of January 2012 when Jennie barged into my office, hysterical over finding out that CebuPacific has released their ever-famous “Piso Fare Promo”.
We immediately went to CebuPacific’s website, and started calling Beng and Mei to get their passport information. As luck would have it, I have not taken note of my passport number either and had to call my brother so he can look it up for me. We had trouble getting touch with Beng and Mei, basically because they weren’t answering their phones. For a good reason, of course; it was 1 in the morning and they were sleeping very soundly. We were able to finally to talk them but it was a couple of hours after the promo was released. It was much later that Beng and Mei informed us that they both had around 75 missed calls on their phones that morning.

 

The Piso Fare Promo is the Holy Grail in budget airfare hunting and people went all Indiana Jones on us in the first critical hours. We had to move our travel dates a couple of times. We originally planned our trip on the third week of October but ended up with flight reservations for the second week instead. We paid extra to get seat reservations and baggage allowance, but overall, we each had to cough up around 4,830PHP each for roundtrip tickets. We paid for our tickets on the same day at BDO and heaved a sigh of relief when we finally received our Itinerary Receipt in the e-mail. It was a nerve-wracking experience. It was critical for us to get the cheapest flights we can find so the rest of our funds can be reserved for the trip itself. Of course the rest of the world had the same mind-set at that time and they forced us to push our travel dates from late October to early November, and back down to early October.

 

Nevertheless, we were happy with the dates we were able to get. We were lucky because we were able to get the first flight out of Manila (1:15 AM October 8) and the second-to-the-last flight departing Seoul (9:35 PM October 12).

 

HOTEL RESERVATION

 

Around March 2012, another friend of mine asked if she can join our trip to Seoul (her name’s Marie). It took me a while to respond to her because I had to inform Beng and Mei. They were more than happy to have her join the trip! It was just our luck that Marie’s younger brother went to Seoul the previous year. It was then that we agreed to stay at the same guesthouse he and his friends stayed in during their trip. The name of the place is Dalkom Guesthouse and we made our reservation through HostelWorld.com. We made hotel reservations as early as May 2012. The overall cost of two rooms for a 5-day/4-night stay at Dalkom was 540,000KRW (489USD/20,235PHP). We used my credit card to pay for the 10% downpayment plus the service charge of 2.00USD, amounting to 52.14USD. This left us with 486,000KRW (439USD/18,166PHP), which will be paid upon arrival. On top of that, there’s a 10,000KRW (9 or 10USD/414PHP) key deposit, which will be refunded upon check out.

 

With roundtrip tickets and hotel reservations paid for, we readied ourselves for the Visa application.

 

VISA APPLICATION

 

Jennie was the one who researched (a lot) about Visa application. She was worried because she has never taken a trip out of the country before, and has read and heard of stories about people getting denied a Single-Entry Korean Visa. Jennie has scoured the web for blogs and official websites about Visa application, and pretty much has the whole process cemented in her mind. We wanted to go to the Korean Embassy last August 20th or August 27th; however, we had to move it all the way to September 3rd because of the holidays that fell on those dates.

 

Below are the requirements we brought along with to apply for a Single-Entry Korean Visa (Tourists planning to stay up to a maximum of 59 days):

1. Completed Korean Visa Application Form – Obviously.
2. Certificate of Employment – This is very critical for your application, in my opinion. The Korean Embassy needs proof that you have more than enough reasons to want (need) to go back to the Philippines. It’s proof that you have: a) a stable job that provides a steady-income, and b) a need to go back to the Philippines and report back to work.
3. Bank Certificate – This is proof that you have enough money to fund your stay in South Korea. Earlier on, we were told that 30,000PHP to 50,000PHP is a safe amount to have reflected in your certificate. I was able to save exactly 50,000PHP but my Mom, God bless her, decided to help me. She gave me little extra to put into my account as ‘show money’ so I ended up with 375,000PHP. Moms are really awesome, aren’t they? 
4. Income Tax Return – Our Human Resources Department made our ITRs available on-line, so all we had to do was print a copy.
5. Passport-size Photo – Based on our research, the Embassy requires two photos; however, we only really needed one. This is the photo that you will put on the Visa Application Form.
6. Passport – Of course! 🙂 Make sure that your passport has atleast six months of remaining validity from the time of your planned trip.
7. Photocopy of the First Page of your Passport – You just need one.
8. Optional/Alternative Documents – I cannot stress this enough: you NEED the aforementioned requirements when applying for a Korean Visa; however, you may also include other documents as proof of income (i.e. Land Titles). I personally do not know the other ‘alternative documents’ but I was so nervous and paranoid that I included a couple of land titles with my application.

NOTE: You do not need copies of your Itinerary Receipt from the airline or even copies of your hotel reservations. The Embassy personnel will ask you to remove them. Believe me when I say this because I printed copies of the said documents and they all ended up in the trash bin. The Embassy personnel will not even allow you to get to the Consul with these things tucked away with the other requirements. You will find them walking around the waiting area with notices in hand to make sure that everyone sees it (and that everyone follows it).

We arrived at the Korean Embassy at around 7:25AM. There were a number of people waiting already but the gates did not open ‘till 8:00AM. We only were only required to surrender one ID to the security but we ended up giving up two IDs anyway. We had a hard time understanding what the Security Guard was saying so we ended up surrendering two IDs. We were also asked to sign on the log sheet for New Applicants (there’s a different one for returning tourists/visitors). We decided to have a quick breakfast at a nearby fastfood chain while waiting for the gates to open. When we came back, there was a relatively long line at the gate. We queued up and were eventually asked to enter the premises.

Upon entry into the Consular Office, Embassy personnel immediately asked for our passports and instructed us to sign another log sheet. Again, you need to sign the correct log sheet as there is one for New Applicants. We were given another number (each, this time) and this is the one we referred to when we waited for our turn at the Consul’s window.

We were asked to insert the requirements inside the passport in a certain order. I cannot, for the life of me, remember the order with which we had to present the documents; however, the Embassy personnel will tell you when you get there. I remember my number being called along with several others as we had to line up at the Consul’s window as well. My turn eventually came and all I had to do was give my requirements. The Consul checked my requirements and didn’t ask me any questions (she didn’t even look at me). Luckily, my requirements were complete (plus two optional documents) and I was seated at the window for not more than five minutes. I was given a slip with my Passport No. and the date I was being asked to return written on it (I was asked to return the following Monday, September 10). My bestfriend was asked to return another day because he was not able to bring his ITR; however, the Consul kept the other documents, including his passport.

NOTE: Again, it is imperative that you have all your documents with you as the Embassy will not process your application without them. They WILL ask you to come back at another day if you miss one. My bestfriend, Beng, returned Friday that week with his ITR and copies of the other documents (still). He brought along copies just in case the Embassy asked for them again (eventhough they kept the copies he had the first time he went there). And they did. Take note that Visa Application (passing of the requirements) is from 9:00AM to 11:00AM only.

We were all asked, except for Beng, to return the following Monday (5 business days). We arrived at the Embassy at around 2:15PM. It was the same process that we went through when we claimed our passports: surrendered one ID at the gate, signed the log sheet, proceeded to the Consular Office, signed another log sheet, and obtained a number. The Embassy personnel stapled a small piece of paper to each of our claim slips and asked us to write down our names as they appear in our passport. We waited for our numbers to be called. We were again asked to line up in front of the Consul’s window.

When it was my turn, I surrendered the claim slip. I saw the Consul look through the stack of passports on his desk and fished out mine. He double-checked if it really was my passport, gave it to me, and did not say anything. I remember hearing the pounding my heart as I opened my passport. When I saw that Visa printed out, I was so close to whooping with joy. After a whole week of paranoia and discomfort, I was able to breathe properly again.

Jennie was asked to return another day and to submit copies of her payslips; three months-worth of payslips, to be exact. We were not sure why the Embassy asked for her payslips. I urged her to get everything done and processed that day so that she will not have to return to the Embassy. It was a good thing that our payslips are available on-line. We went to a near-by mall, found a computer shop, and printed copies of Jennie’s payslips. We were in such a hurry because claiming of passports was only up to 4:00PM and we wanted Jennie to get hers on that day. We never surrendered the gate pass (number) when we left for that errand so we just went directly to the Consular Office.

Jennie was given another number and had to queue up a couple of times before she got her passport. She was initially worried that the Embassy denied her Visa. We were thinking that the Embassy just needed more proof of income, which was weird because we worked for the same company.

Beng’s Visa application went differently though. As I have mentioned earlier, he was asked to go back another day because he didn’t have his ITR. He went back to the Embassy Friday of the same week to pass is ITR (for the completion of his requirements). When he returned a week after (again, on a Friday) to claim his passport, he was told that the Embassy cannot get a hold of his Human Resources Department. He was asked to return Wednesday the following week to pass another document, this time his Work Contract. We were all getting worried at this point because it was the second time he was asked to return to pass a document. Beng returned Wednesday the following week to pass his Contract. He said that he waited at the window for a very long time. He assumed that the Consul was trying to get in touch with his Human Resources Department. Sadly, when the Consul returned, he gave Beng’s passport back and said, “Sorry”.

I remember being on the verge of tears because I was going on a trip without my bestfriend. I still remember waking up to his text message and almost dropping my phone. I didn’t want to believe it at first because he has the best record among the four of us. He had been going in and out of the country since he was young and has had three trips abroad in the last five years alone. His Bank Certificate reflected a BIG (and I mean REALLY big) amount and he was able to pass his other requirements. We all arrived at the conclusion that the COE (having work) is critical. Don’t get me wrong, he is employed but the Embassy was unable to reach his Human Resources Department. This goes to show that they really check and call your workplace to confirm your employment. Later on, Beng informed me that their Human Resources Department was outsourced on the same week that we applied for a Visa. It must have been the reason why no one was available to answer the Embassy’s call.

 

On another note, Mei did not apply for a Visa. She became very busy with work and had to give up on the trip. We were saddened that Beng and Mei were not able to go with us. Jennie, Marie, and I were just glad to have surpassed the most challenging part in the process of going to Seoul.

 

We had our reservation at Dalkom Guesthouse adjusted and we ended up with 300,000KRW for three people for a 5-day/4-night stay. Unfortunately, we were not able to use the entire downpayment amount we paid through HostelWorld.com. It is in their fine print that the downpayment is non-refundable even if the reservation is cancelled. We were able to use 30,000KRW out of the total downpayment amount and we only paid 270,000KRW for the rooms, plus the key deposit.

CREATING AN ITINERARY

Jennie was the one who created the draft of the itinerary. She has been checking the internet for the best places to visit in Seoul and she ended up with a very promising list. I went over the itinerary and took it upon myself to get check the nitty-gritty of the tourists sites.

The key in creating an itinerary is doing research. I found a lot of websites that contained useful information about the tourist sites in South Korea. I realized that simply looking up places to visit is not enough and is a sure-fire way to create havoc during the trip. Here’s a checklist that you can refer to when creating an itinerary:

1. List down tourist sites or places you would like to visit.
2. Find blogs and/or official websites that would give you the following information:

  • a. Schedule – Check if the places you chose to visit are actually open on the day you want to visit them. For example, the Royal Palaces in Seoul are open/closed on different days. Jennie was able to determine that one common day wherein all of them are open was on Wednesdays. When Jennie created the draft, she placed all the Royal Palaces on Day 3 of our itinerary. Some places might not be open during holidays. Check if reservations are needed as well.
    b. Opening and closing times – You wouldn’t want arrive at a tourist site at 8:30AM only find out that it will not open until 11:00AM. An example would be the time when I was researching on Han River Cruises/Ferry Rides. I saw that there were three docks (Jamsil, Tteuksom, and Yeouido) and, that each dock has different schedules and intervals. It made me rethink of the places we were supposed to visit on Day 1 of our trip; however, this happened on the day itself. The Han River Cruise was eventually moved to Day 2 as it was basically impossible for us to get to any of the docks on time for the last trip after visiting Namsan (N Seoul) Tower. Yes, the change of plans happened right then and there but having knowledge of the schedule/time/intervals played a big role in being able to adjust to the situation.
    c. Entrance fees – There are tourist sites that do not have entrance fees. It’s good to know these things especially if you’re travelling on a budget.
    d. Proximity to other sites – Check if a tourist site is near other places you would want to visit while in that area. This will minimize your travelling time and expenses as you won’t have to go back to the same place on another day to visit the other tourist sites.
    e. Transportation – Knowing how to get around and how much it will cost is necessary. When we were in Seoul, we maximized our M-Pass (more on this when I post my Day 1 entry) by using the subway system. It simply is the best means of travelling from one end of the city to the other. Even if you see that it’s just one station away, it still maybe best for you to use the subway. It’s sort of hard to judge the distance of one station/tourist spot to another just by looking at the subway/city map. You might be thinking that I just don’t know how to read a map or to look up information but based on experience, when they say it’s only a 15-minute walk from point A to point B, it means 15-EFFING-minutes. You will realize this especially when you’re really tired and you still have one more place to go to. Getting to know the different modes of transportation, their costs, and knowing the best one to use for the majority of your trip is critical.

3. Budget – Know how much money (ours was in USD) you would want to bring along with you, how much you will actually exchange for local currency (KRW), and how much you’re going to set aside per day.

  • a. Do not exchange all your money to KRW – There is a lot of banks in downtown Seoul, where you can exchange more of your money to KRW if the need arises. I had 1,200USD for my trip but I only exchanged 700USD. On my last day, I had the KRW I had left changed back to USD at the airport and I found out that I still had $32 leftover. It all has something to do with the exchange rates.
    b. First Day – The first day is always the one with the highest budget simply because you also need to pay the guesthouse upon arrival. Add that to your budget for the day, which includes food, entrances fees, etc. On my first day, I allotted 200,000KRW for everything; while the succeeding days had 100,000KRW each.
    c. Use envelopes – I brought a pack of envelopes with me and I put my money for the day in one. These paper envelopes made it easy for me to write down (track) the amount of money I was using and taking out. The reason I did this was because I wanted to make sure that I will overspend in one place and not have enough for the rest of the day. I was not able to use up my budget of 100,000KRW per day and I kept whatever’s left inside each envelope. On Day 5 (last day – shopping for souvenirs), I collected all the left over money from each envelope and added it to my 100,000KRW budget for that day. I was able to buy a lot of souvenirs! 

4. Buy a travel-size book filled with key words and phrases that would be helpful in communicating with the locals. Learn courtesy words/phrases, numbers, and frequently used words (i.e. Hangul for water – so when eating in a restaurant, you’d be able to ask for a glass or a refill).
5. Read blog entries and watch videos – Given that there was very little time left before our trip, I was only able to focus on Day 1 of our itinerary (i.e. fixing and adjusting the timetable, noting down costs, etc.). Watching videos and reading up on the tourist spots (Seoul) really helped me get a better idea of how to go about things for the rest of our trip.
6. Use technology – Most of us have gadgets like smart phones and tablets nowadays. Download applications that will help you take on Seoul (i.e. Maps, Official Tourism Apps, Guide Books, etc.). Keep a copy of your itinerary in there as well.
7. Ask around – Check if you have friends or family who have been to Seoul. There’s nothing like first-hand experience and they’d be able to give valuable tips.

We basically prepared for our trip to Seoul for a year. It was tiring and nerve-wracking but it was all worth-it. I hope you found the things I said in this post helpful. I will be posting entries about our 5-day itinerary soon. 🙂

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