When planning a trip that includes a layover at Incheon International Airport, you were probably excited to learn about the free transit tours offered by the government. These tours offer a chance to explore Korea's history, culture, daily life, and even go shopping opportunities without too much time or effort on your part.
Right now the nearly dozen government-run transit tours range from short 1-hour jaunts to longer 5-hour excursions, giving you plenty of options to choose from, depending on your layover duration. With themes like entertainment, hands-on experiences, nature walks, and traditional Korean sites, there's an option for every interest, most of which are kid-friendly.
As you prepare for your trip, also keep in mind that you can only join one tour per layover, and you'll need a valid visa or an approved K-ETA to join a transit tour, regardless of your reservation status.
Korea Visa Information
Apply for a K-ETA
Before joining an Incheon Airport transit tour, you must have a valid visa or an approved K-ETA (Korea Electronic Travel Authorization), even if you make a reservation online. The good news is that there's a temporary exemption of K-ETA for travelers coming from 22 countries/regions between April 1, 2023, and December 31, 2024, making a layover tour even easier for many visitors.
To apply for a K-ETA, follow these simple steps:
- Visit the K-ETA official website and create an account.
- Fill out the required personal information and travel details.
- Pay the processing fee (if applicable) and submit your application.
- Check your email for the K-ETA approval notification within 48 hours.
Remember that transit tours are subject to seasonal availability and run on set schedules, so make sure to check the eligibility criteria and any restrictions for your chosen tour. When planning for a shorter layover (under 4 hours), keep in mind the duration of the tour and the time it takes to get through customs at the airport.
About Incheon Airport Transit Tours
Korea Transit Tour Overview
During your layover at Incheon Airport, tour offerings both within and away from the airport can give you a taste of Korean history, culture, and daily life. Available options include a short 4-hour Glimpse into North Korea Tour, as well as various full-day tours from Incheon Airport to Seoul.
To reserve a spot on a transit tour, you can visit the official transit tour website and pick out one that works for your schedule and sign up right then. Keep in mind that you will still have to complete the K-ETA process to enter Korea for these transit tours, so this does not take the place of a visa or K-ETA.
Also note that even if the booking system says that a tour is sold out, you can always just join the exact same tour when you arrive, as they allot less than half the available spaces to the online booking system. Each tour is covered in more detail below, as well as on the official site linked above.
Free Shuttle Bus
As part of the transit tour offering, Incheon Airport also provides a complimentary shuttle bus service for passengers. To board the free shuttle bus, simply show your tour reservation and ticket to the driver.
Remember to double-check the shuttle bus schedule and plan your tour accordingly to ensure you have enough time to enjoy your layover tour before returning to the airport. During your time outside the airport, please also make sure to explore responsibly and always follow local rules and regulations.
Free Cultural Transit Tours in Seoul
Gyeongbokgung & Insadong
Immerse yourself in Korea's rich history by visiting the majestic Gyeongbokgung Palace and the vibrant cultural district of Insadong. At Gyeongbokgung (gung means palace, so the full name is technically just 'Gyeongbokgung'), marvel at the traditional architecture and witness the changing of the guards ceremony.
Surrounding the palace grounds, which are the largets in the country, the neighborhood of Insadong offers an authentic Korean experience filled with art galleries, tea houses, and traditional souvenir shops.
Hanji Experience Workshop & Sinpo Market
Get hands-on with the traditional Korean craft of Hanji, a unique type of paper made from mulberry bark, in a workshop where you can create your own souvenirs. Later, experience local flavors at Sinpo Market, known for its delicious Korean street food; this option tends to be rather popular with kids.
Especially beautiful in the spring and fall, discover the picturesque Yonggungsa Temple, nestled amongst the lush greenery and tranquil mountains surrounding the city. The temple grounds house a remarkable stone pagoda and large Buddha statues that are a must-see for any visitor, and certainly inspire return trips for many.
Alternately, visit Jeondeungsa Temple, an ancient Buddhist temple with over 1,000 years of history and arguably just as beautiful grounds to wander. This tour leaves time for visitors to appreciate the serene atmosphere, traditional architecture, and discover the fascinating stories behind the temple's artifacts.
Hyundai Motor Studio & Yeongjongdaegyo Observatory
It may seem a bit random, but Korea's manufacturing sector is what pulled the country up out of poverty in the latter half of the twentieth century, so companies like Hyundai have been integral to Korea's economic growth.
Car enthusiasts in particular will enjoy a visit to Hyundai Motorstudio Goyang, where you can learn about Hyundai's car manufacturing process and immerse yourself in the automotive industry's rapid advances. Finish the tour by taking in the city's panoramic views from Yeongjongdaegyo Observatory, particularly impressive around sunset.
Free DMZ Transit Tours from Incheon
Nuri Park & Dokgae Bridge (DMZ)
This DMZ tour takes you to the symbolic Imjingak Pyeonghwa Nuri Park and the colorful Dokgae Bridge, both representing the hope for peace and reunification between North and South Korea. The park is adorned with colorful flags and captivating sculptures, while the bridge is covered in ribbons inscribed with wishes for peace, and on sunny days you can even see into North Korea.
Third Tunnel & Dora Observatory (DMZ)
This is a different, more historical and battle-focused experience at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. This particular tour covers some of the strategy and realities faced by soldiers on both sides of the war.
It includes a visit to the Third Tunnel and the Dora Observatory, from where you can catch a glimpse of North Korea through binoculars, and a remarkable drive through the countryside to arrive at the DMZ.
Free Tours for Shopping in Korea
Paradise City Art-tainment
Art and fashion lovers will enjoy visiting Paradise City Art-tainment, a complex that combines art and entertainment. It's not a venue as frequented by Seoulites, but you could easily pass an afternoon there exploring the various exhibitions, installations, and performances that blur the lines between reality and imagination.
This pick takes you to stroll through the bustling streets of the Hongdae neighborhood, named for the local arts university and known for its youthful energy, street art, and vibrant music scene. When you need a break from shopping, you can stop to savor delicious Korean food on the cheap and experience the dynamic culture in one of Seoul's most popular neighborhoods.
Hyundai Premium Outlet & Triple Street
This is the most straightforward shopping tour of all of the options. It allows you to indulge in some retail therapy at Hyundai Premium Outlet, with both luxury and affordable brands, and Triple Street, a trendy shopping complex with a unique mix of stores and cafes.
PAID Layover Tours From Incheon Airport
If none of the free transit tours from Incheon Airport interest you or fit your schedule, there are a number of paid tours you can reserve ahead of time. These are also better for larger groups (6 people or more), as some of them can be customized or even just chosen to fit everyone's tastes.
Viator Private Seoul Layover Tour
For those with DIY tastes, Viator offers a private layover tour to Seoul which includes a guide, transportation fpr the duration of your tour, and visits to top attractions like Gyeongbokgung Palace and the Namsangol Hanok Village.
Admission fees are included in the price of the tour, but if you want to go to any other stops nearby, you must coordinate it in advance.
DMZ and Observatory Tour
Viator also offers a more intense but even more short DMZ tour with a trip to the famous tunnels dug by North Korea. It takes you to explore the Korean Demilitarized Zone more hands-on, though Viator also offers a version of the DMZ tour with a North Korean defector.
This particular DMZ tour takes you to several of the most important sites during the war, including the Third Tunnel and the Dora Observatory, though it does not take you to the JSA. Note that stops are also carefully regulated, so no schedule changes are permitted.
Gondola DMZ Tour
Viator also offers a more family-friendly DMZ tour with a Gondola ride and a trip to the DMZ Museum rather than crawling around in the actual tunnels.
This particular tour of the DMZ also takes you an observatory in Paju, the town along the border, where you cna buy North Korean-made products and look at the DPRK through a telescope, though more bespoke DMZ tours are also available.
Private Seoul Tour w/ Meal
Somewhat comparable to the tour from Viator, GetYourGuide also offers a private layover tour from Incheon Airport that generally includes a visit to Gyeongbokgung Palace and a few nearby attractions. However this option includes a traditional Korean meal, and is generally more customizable than other options, meaning it can be tailored to your or the group's interests.
Korean Folk Village Tour
Another option through GetYourGuide is the Korean Folk Village tour, which takes you to a living museum where you can experience traditional Korean life. This tour includes a visit to the museum's various exhibits and performances, and shows you a stark contrast to the many skyscrapers dotting the city.
Transportation and Access
Seoul Metro (Slower)
If you're planning to strike out on your own for your layover, taking the Seoul Metro to the city center is your best bet. This is both because it's cheaper and because it won't be as affected by traffic as the other options, with the exception of the Airport Railroad (caught from the same place).
Both Terminal 1 (제1여객터미널) and Terminal 2 (제2여객터미널) at Incheon Airport have access to the metro lines, with Terminal one ever-so-slightly closer to the city. The travel time from the airport to Seoul is approximately an hour to an hour and a half, depending on where you're headed, and the time between trains is around 10-12 minutes.
Airport Railroad (Faster)
The Airport Railroad (AREX) is another convenient way to get to Seoul from Incheon Airport, though it's slightly more expensive than the regular metro. It has two types of trains: the express train and the all-stop train, both of which are still faster than the regular trains.
The express train directly connects the airport to Seoul Station, with a travel time of approximately 43 minutes, while the all-stop train stops at sevral stations and takes just under an hour to reach Seoul Station. Both types of trains can be boarded at boarding gates in Terminals 1 and 2, so buy your train or metro ticket carefully.
Airport Limousine (Slower)
You can also choose to take an Airport Limousine bus to reach your destination in Seoul, which is actually how I first went into the city when I moved to Korea. It sounds bougie, but they're not actually limos; they're nice buses which offer a comfortable ride to designated stops throughout the city.
The tickets are affordable and the stops include several popular tourist areas and major hotels. While the distance and travel time may vary depending on your destination, you can expect a journey of approximately 60 to 80 minutes unless there's traffic (I'd recommend taking the metro if you'll be leaving the airport between 4pm-6pm).
Taxi into Seoul (Expensive)
If you prefer a more direct and private mode of transportation, you can always take a taxi into Seoul. There are taxi stands located outside both terminals, and depending on the distance and traffic conditions, a taxi ride into the city can take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour.
Keep in mind that this option is generally the most expensive among all methods of transportation from the airport, and many locals now exclusively use the Kakao Taxi app to call for rides, so some of the taxis may be claimed quickly. Just look for the red sign in the taxi window.
In addition to these transportation options, if you need to get between the terminals, there's a shuttle train service that operates from 4:45am to 11:30pm, with roughly 6 to 8 minutes between trains.