Life in Korea: More dirty secrets about the Mugunghwa train

Updated - September 7th 2020

The last time I wrote a post about how to get ahead on the Mugunghwa trains, I was still figuring out the best way to approach the system. I wouldn’t say I’m at 100% (who is?), but there are definitely ways to hack the system. Why, you ask? Hacking the system makes the difference between riding in comfort and scrounging for a spot to stand with dozens of other people.

While there’s really no hacking the price down, it’s already pretty cheap. A train ticket to cross the country comfortably is 30,000 won ($25 USD) – cheap enough for any tourist or English teacher to travel any weekend they like. If you’re not going across the country, it’s even cheaper. Mugunghwa trains offer more legroom and better reclining seats than the twice-as-expensive business-class KTX.

First, get your freakin’ tickets ahead of time. They’re sold up to a month in advance of departure at the ticketing machines, which are located in every train station. The major stations have dozens of them. If you’re even thinking of traveling during a peak time (e.g. Friday night, Sunday night, the night before holidays, during holidays), get them posthaste. Expect lines, but you’ll be hanging with the cats that plan ahead. You can also book online, if you want.

Second, returning the ticket is as simple as it was to get it. If your ticket has a black (or clear glossy) stripe on the back, head to the ticketing machine and tap ’Returning’. The fee starts at 400 won (about $0.35 USD) and increases as the departure time gets closer. If your ticket looks more like a receipt, simply take it to the counter and talk to a human (환불, or ‘hwan-bul’ is your vocabulary word of the day)

By the way, you can STILL exchange the ticket for cash after the train leaves. In case that hangover (or bad alarm clock) prevents you from making the train, it’s actually not a huge deal. It’s more of a penalty than a fee at that point, but you’ll get something back – and that’s better than nothing.

So let’s say you didn’t get your ticket in advance, and the only ticket to buy is a standing-room ticket (입석 – ib-seok). All hope is not lost, but it’s time to hustle.

If you’re leaving from the terminus station, the train will be at the platform 10-15 minutes before the scheduled departure time. GET ON THE TRAIN AS SOON AS IT PULLS IN. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, and do NOT wait any longer than you have to. From the perspective of everyone else getting on board, there’s no way to tell you’re riding on a standing-room ticket. The only person that’ll know is the person with the legitimate right to that seat.

Fourth, not all Mugunghwa trains are created equal. Some cars have amazing little cubbyholes that you small people can curl up in and take a nap. Some cars have power plugs near the front and back of the car on either side. Most trains have a club car with food and drink, but this is the first place most people with standing-room tickets go. Most cars will have a decent amount of room behind the last row of seats (unless the people have turned their row of seats around!).

Fifth, if you’re forced out of a seat by the legitimate ticket holder (or a hard-luck case that breaks out the guilt trip), head to the front two cars of the train. While I’m not 100% certain on this, I strongly suspect that a train is sold from the front to the back. If that’s true, people that are planning ahead and picking the time and date that works best of them. Certainly not all of them are going from end-to-end. Also, anecdotally speaking, more people with standing room tickets seem to head to the BACK of the train.

Sixth, don’t give up until you’re comfortable. I’ll call this the ’standing room juggle’ for lack of a better term. Put your stuff down to mark your space or have your traveling companions hold your space while you scout the train. It’s a good way to stretch your legs and avoid cramps, and you never know what you’ll find. Quite a few of your train mates never bother moving around to see if seats have opened up – and 9 times out of 10, there are more seats than there were before.

One final note: the train attendants rock. In the unlikely event you’re witness to an older person of the belligerent or drunk nature, they’re trained to handle them without much more than a few words or a pantomime from you. I mention them mainly because they’re there to make the trip a little easier for everyone – in four years and literally hundreds of train trips, I’ve had precisely zero negative interactions with them and quite a few positive ones.

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