How to Pension: A guide to pensions in South Korea

Korean pensions are one of the best things about traveling in Korea. They offer unique stays in amazing places. Learn more about pensions today so that you feel comfortable booking them tomorrow.

What is a pension?

Pensions are like the Korean version of a Bed and Breakfast, except without someone else making you breakfast. They are rooms, cabins, or spaces that having a sleeping, cooking, and dining space so that you can easily spend a weekend away without ever leaving your own room.

Pensions are also often owned by families that live on the grounds or in the same building. This means they often have a very casual, laid-back feeling and you might end up spending all night hanging with new friends.

What do Pensions Offer?

If you are looking into pensions, then you are likely looking for a more quiet, secluded vacation, with the flexibility of being able to store and prepare your own food. Most pensions include a kitchen, complete with stovetop, refrigerator, microwave, sink, dishes, etc. as well as a barbecue area.

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Some pensions provide a barbecue service, where they provide meat and vegetables at a price. Some pensions provide breakfast service, which is often a small continental or Korean porridge-style breakfast. Since you have a kitchen in the room, I wouldn’t expect the pension to have a lot of food on location. If you’re traveling on a tight budget, we pack frozen & microwavable breakfast items, sandwich supplies, fruit, and drinks in a cooler. Keep in mind, they will supply things for Korean cooking since we live in Korea, if you need something special (like forks) you might want to bring your own.

What Types of Pensions are There?

Remember, that Korea LOVES uniqueness and variety so pensions are VERY different everywhere that you go. That means there are SO many different kinds of pensions: dog pensions, pool and spa pensions, pensions with toys and playgrounds, themed pensions, lake pensions, beach pensions, forest and mountain pensions, camping pensions, which provide a private space for cooking and bathing while you camp outside. Knowing what kind of experience you want will help to refine your search.

There are also pension hotels or pensions resorts. What this means is that only some of the rooms have in-room kitchenettes. Keep this in mind if you are specifically booking a spot for the kitchenette. If it also says hotel, motel, or resort in the name you should make sure you have reserved one of the rooms with the kitchen.

How many people can stay in a pension room together?

While it’s easy to find a pension, in a beautiful area, with many amenities, and a western-style bed, for under 100,000 won, many of them are meant for 2 to 4 people. If you’re a larger group or family, trying to travel on a budget, you may want to consider an ondol room, though we do have “family-friendly pensions” listed on SOS and in our blogs. Pensions with more than one western-style bed exist, but may require more searching and usually cost around 300,000 won or more.

How much do Pensions Cost?

Once again, due to the mind-bending diversity within the pension experience, you can pay between 30,000 – 600,000 a night. It all depends on what kind of unique experience you are looking for.

Staying at Pensions on a Budget

If you’re traveling on a budget or want a more private experience, then plan for the weekdays, rather than weekends. And, of course, you can save even more if you avoid traveling during peak seasons, such as the summer. Additionally, if you travel with friends and choose an ondol room you can all stay for as little as 10,000-20,000 a night by sleeping on the floor like a slumber party.

What’s an ondol room?

Ondol sleep is where you sleep on the floor. Sometimes they may provide futon-style mats and other times it might be little more than a blanket you sleep on and one you sleep under. Since the floors are heated, this can be a surprisingly comfortable way to sleep and fun for groups of friends or family. If you don’t like sleeping on a hard floor, you can bring your own mattress or pads to be more comfortable while saving money and having a truly Korean experience.

How to Judge Room Size?

What is pyeong in Western terms? One pyeong is the equivalent to just over 3 square meters. Most pensions will list their room sizes by pyeong and number of guests. Some pensions will allow you to have more than the maximum number of guests at an additional price.

Reservations and Booking

Most Pensions are not on Western-owned booking websites, but some are. To truly discover all of the pensions, you will want to search on Naver or Kakao Maps. Much like their food “delivery” links, Naver often includes “booking” links on the pension page. You may also call the phone number listed on Naver and/or use the website, if they have one, which will also be on the Naver pension page.

If you can’t use Naver to book, you can use a bilingual concierge service to help you make the reservation. Bilingual concierge services make life in Korea make life much easier and less stressful. We have recommended three that can make booking pensions easier.

While making a reservation, you have a few options and, much like any other financial decision, it’s wise to “shop around”. For example, my husband and I found the same pension in Naver and on Expedia. The same room was 150,000 on Naver, but only $123 USD on Expedia. Keep in mind, you also have to check the exchange rate to see if this is actually cheaper.

However, if you decide afterward that you didn’t like your experience, which also happened to us on another occasion, online travel sites, such as Hotels.com or Expedia.com, may not help you to get a refund, using the “language barrier” as an excuse.

This is another reason booking through a bi-lingual concierge can be a great choice, they can help support you with language barrier issues. That’s because many pensions have clear refund info on their websites and are much easier to work with directly than when trying to get a refund from a travel website, like Hotels.com.

You may use the 1330 app to assist with gathering information, although they can’t directly make reservations or handle money. Realtors often are like a concierge in Korea, they can assist with parking tickets, setting up bank accounts, as well as helping with reservations.

How to Prepare for Your Pension Stay

First of all, if this is your first time staying in a Korean pension, mentally prepare for culture shock. Know that there will be things that surprise you and things that are uncomfortable. Remember that neither you nor the Korean culture has failed when things are hard and confusing. That is the beauty and struggle of living between cultures. You will be ok and you will have a great time if you give yourself and the experienced grace. Here are some ways that you can plan ahead to be successful and enjoy staying in pensions in South Korea.

Food to bring

Again, if you’re on a tight budget, then pack up your cooler and/or grocery bag with your regular dietary needs. My husband and I always pack a roll of paper towels and ziploc bags as well. Pension destinations always have small grocery stores nearby. Great conversation to have with the pension owner when you arrive, but they are also listed on Naver. This is also a perfect opportunity to try local cuisine, such as the various seafood restaurants along the coastline.

Pensions often have silverware, dishes, pots and pans and cleaning supplies. Some also have rice cookers. The 1330 App could also help you check in advance for questions regarding amenities.

What to pack

If you’re picky about bath amenities, then, as usual, bring your own. Towels are handy if you’re going to a beach, especially. Korean hotels and pensions often have small towels, so packing your own may be handy. Otherwise bathrooms are often stocked with bath needs, including toothbrushes and combs, sometimes. Personally, I like to pack my own small squeegee for the shower and bathroom floor.

Often times the manager/owner will replenish your supply of towels and toilet paper in the morning. Once our manager left a cute, little basket on our door full of bath amenities.

If there’s a swimming pool, pack a swimming cap, and floaties for the kids. You may also consider waterproof tattoo covering makeup and finishing spray but it’s rare to find anyone with an issue with tattoos in the pool these days since many young people have lots of tattoos.

Since pensions are often in more remote areas, you might also want to bring games and activities to enjoy during the evening or the long afternoon around the pool. Such activities might need some beverages and snacks as well, so bring those too.

Arriving at the Pension

When you arrive, you will be greeted by the manager and/or owner. They often live on-site or nearby and will also exchange phone numbers with you when you arrive. Of course, please be patient, as they may need to communicate with you through a translation app. It would be helpful to have yours ready, too. Also remember that, even if they speak English, it doesn’t mean that you fully understand each other. Miss communication will happen and that is ok.

When you check-in, they will go over house expectations, such as swimming pool hours, where and how to dispose of trash, how to access amenities that are not in your room. Have your own questions ready. But, if something pops up, I find that they respond quickly to texts and phone calls.

Remember that you will most likely NOT fully understand everything they tell you. That is why it is important to pull out your smartphone and use Papago or Google Translate to take a picture of all signs around your pension and see what they say. If that still doesn’t help, contact 1330 and ask for their help understanding what the rules are.

Additional fees

When you gook a pension online, you pay the base room rate. There might be an extra charge for pets or people. If you are worried about this, you can use 1330 to check what extra fees there could be.

A Summary of Pension Culture Shock You May Experience

Now that we have looked at the pension experience, let’s do a quick review of the things you mind find culturally challenging so that you can prepare ahead and minimize the struggle:

  • Language barrier with the pension management so you need to use a translator app or 1330
  • Types of bedding or towels which are common and appreciated with Korean culture so you pack your own
  • Rural locations without access to western groceries or restaurants so you bring your own food to cook in the pension room
  • Korean cook utensials so you bring your own special pan or forks
  • Not able to book them on western sites so you use a bilingual concierge
  • Swimming hats and googles for the pools need to be used
  • Very friendly guests or management that may encourage you to join the evenings conversation or drinking games

Relax and Enjoy Korea’s Amazing Pension Culture

Once you start staying at pensions it can be hard to go back. They provide a uniquely relaxing and culturally comforting experience that hotels, motels and resorts lack. If you have any additional information that you think should be in this article, leave your comments!