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What to Do on a Layover at Incheon Airport (Seoul)

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Incheon Airport, also known as Seoul-Incheon International Airport, is the largest airport in South Korea. It consistently ranks as one of the best in the world, and if you’re reading this, you’re probably facing a layover in Seoul soon (or even right now). So below are my top tips for surviving an Incheon Airport Layover, after 4 years living in Asia and several transits through Incheon— not to mention 3 years living in South Korea!

About Incheon International Airport in 2022

Incheon International Airport is located west of Incheon’s city center, on an artificially created island about an hour and 8 minutes away by rail (AREX) from Seoul City proper. Terminal 1, shaped like a traditional Asian Torii Gate, handles Asiana Airlines and international flights. The concourse in the middle handles other international flights; and Terminal 2, which is shaped like a claw, handles Korean Air, Delta Airlines, KLM, and Air France flights.

Those of you looking to visit South Korea are probably as confused by all the changes as I was before I visited again in 2022. The Korean government has been as wishy-washy with their pandemic policies as those in most of the other heavily-touristed countries in Asia have been. But as of November 4th 2022, masks are still required on public transportation and in all indoor public places, excluding the outdoors (unless you’re in a crowded area or at an event with 50+ people).

Here are the documents you need to visit Korea as a tourist:

  • K-ETA (Korean Electronic Travel Authorization, applied for at least 72 hours before departure) OR Visa to visit Korea (countries which previously had a visa exemption now need to apply for a K-ETA).
  • Q-Code (can also be filled out upon arrival): visitors need to fill out information for the Korean quarantine system, known as Q-Code. Note that all travelers are now allowed in regardless of vaccination status, but you do need to have filled out your Q-Code before going through immigration.

If for some reason you need to take a covid test in Korea, the cost of a covid test in Incheon Airport is currently ₩80,000 ($60USD), with some options within Seoul as inexpensive as ₩65,000 ($50USD). There’s no testing requirement to leave South Korea, but you may be required to take a test in order to move on and enter your next destination or home country.

For those only visiting Incheon on a layover, you only need to present a Q-Code and K-ETA if you have a checked bag that you need to pick up & re-check in Incheon Airport (for example, if you booked those two flights separately). If you are arriving at the airport for your layover on the same ticket with a checked bag, it will be checked onto your destination for you & you don’t need to show proof of arrival visa.

What to Do Inside Incheon Airport

There are tons of things to do in Incheon International Airport. There’s free WIFI access, a variety of eateries, stores to shop in, various recreational facilities, sources of entertainment, and cultural experiences for travelers.

Short-term visitors to Korea should make full use of Incheon International Airport’s amenities. There are nursing rooms for mothers to take care of their infants and play areas to preoccupy their kids. Multiple pharmacies are present as well as clinics (Inha University Hospital) which have assisted in the mandatory COVID-19 testing.

If you need to freshen up, free showers are available. Transit passengers are provided free bath kits, but otherwise these can be purchased for a small fee.

For those who want to, the Incheon Airport terminals can be a great place to shop. There are many Duty-Free stores, luxury brand goods, and popular South Korean souvenirs for sale, such as hand fans and pottery. Cosmetics are also big in South Korea.

Incheon International Airport is also big on art and architecture, much like the rest of Korea. There are many modern interactive fixtures laid about including seven gardens within the terminal to visit, each with their own design and theme. These are the Pine Tree Garden, Flowering Tree Garden, Rock Garden, Flower Garden, Cactus Garden, Water Garden, and the Four Gracious Plants Garden.

If you want to know more about the state-of-the-art operation of Incheon’s International Airport, consider visiting Terminal 2’s PR Observation Deck where they offer multimedia experiences and displays to express the airports history and inner workings. One interesting virtual tour is the 360° VR view of the baggage handling system.

For those with more of an athletic interest, there is a skating rink called Sky Forest at the Airport Transport Center. There is no entrance fee, but you will need to rent skates unless you happen to have a pair of your own on hand. Also near the transport center is a CGV Movie Theatre that features screenings that are up to date with worldwide releases.

For people who would like to take an exercise break there is the Digital Gym as well various spa and massage services. The Digital Gym features an interactive visual workout that is fit for a variety of ages. Spa on Air in Terminal 1 can provide some relaxation from flights, but the shared spaces can become quite busy. If you’d like a more extended break, you can rent a private sleeping space for a higher fee.

Incheon International Airport also has a great assortment of places to eat. There’s a food court called Korean Food Street that offers a small variety of typical Korean dishes all sold in one place. In addition, there are several local cafes and Korean food chains that are popular with locals. For the not so adventurous, western food chains also make their presence known in Incheon International Airport, the most notable one being Shake Shack.

Convenience stores are easy to locate, for those looking for snacks and drinks. Food is also provided for by the many lounges if you are a pass holder and have access to them. I often end up in Terminal 2 with Korean Air and Delta Airlines, and the pickings are more sparse than in Terminal 1. I highly recommend the Earl Grey ice cream at Viola Cafe in both Terminals 1 & 2, which makes the ice cream right in front of you using dry ice.

Finally, consider also visiting the Culture Experience Center for an insight into Korean domestic life. If you’re lucky you may come across a South Korean cultural procession walking the airport grounds in their traditional garb.

How to Sleep at Incheon Airport (Layover)

Waiting for a flight can be tiring. Depending on the length of the layover, Incheon International Airport has different options available for travelers looking to get some rest.

Incheon Airport Nap Zone

If they do not mind, passengers are allowed to sleep on the benches and seats they find themselves waiting in if they can get comfortable.  However, I recommend finding a designated Nap Zone and securing a lounger bed. They’re located on the 4th floor of Terminal 1, near gates 25 and 29; in Terminal 2, near Gates 268 and 231; and in Concourse near Gate 118.  Do make sure you keep an eye on your belongings or secure them in a locker to avoid theft.

Incheon Airport Hotels

For greater privacy within the airport, there’s the option of booking a room at a Transit Hotel or Capsule Hotel. Rooms are available from 6 hours, half a day, and full-day blocks. Booking is open 24 hours, but is only available for transit passengers. Alternatively, DarakHyu Capsule Hotel in Terminal 1 offers shorter stays starting at just 3 hours, albeit smaller rooms (they also have a DarakHyu Capsule Hotel in Terminal 2). Outlets are available to keep devices charged and some rooms even have their own showers.

Another option is to book a hotel outside the airport terminals. Rail and shuttle transport are frequently available to take you to and from the airport. Grand Hyatt Incheon and Paradise City Hotel & Resort for example are quite close to Terminal 1, and the commute will only take three minutes once you’ve made it onto the transportation of your choice (Seoul metro is recommended)

What to Do on a Layover in Seoul

What makes Incheon International Airport stand out is the variety of activities and attractions available for travelers who find themselves there on long layovers.  Apart from the hours you can spend on the entertainment and recreational facilities within the airport, we also recommend immersing yourself in South Korea’s culture and environment through the Free Transit Tours.

Incheon International Airport offers transit travelers tours for passengers to have a structured experience of what South Korea has to offer. After getting approval stamps from immigration & customs, transit passengers can take trips to heritage sites and even Seoul proper.

There are specific tours for different interests, and they can vary in length.  or example, the Changdeokgung Palace tour allows visitors to try wearing a Hanbok (a traditional Korean garb), and it can take up to 5 hours.  Transit travelers on layovers are advised to keep in mind their boarding time and make sure to have ample time to get back to and check in their flight at the terminal.

Two stops away from the airport by rail is Paradise City Resort. They have a casino, a few amusement-park rides, and multiple spas, as well as hotel room accommodations.  South Korean nationals are not allowed to gamble, so be prepared to present your passport and identification if you want to play.

For golf lovers there is Sky72 Golf Club. Both the golf course and a driving range are available for use. Golf club sets can be rented, and they have unlimited ice cream in sheds along the course. There are also many attractions and landmarks in Seoul city proper, like COEX Aquarium, Lotte World, theaters and museums, N Seoul Tower, and others. However, unless there is ample time available on your layover, you might find yourself exhausted chasing attractions before your flight.

Considering all your options, a long layover at South Korea’s Incheon International Airport is highly desirable. The only real consideration is that the pandemic is still ongoing.  It is likely that the effect on tourism may reflect in temporary closures of specific stores, establishments, services, or attractions. Therefore it’s best to plan and check online beforehand.

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Grett

Tuesday 6th of December 2022

Hello, I’m travelling to the Philippines via Korea on Thursday. I will arrive in korea at 6 am but my flight to the phils is not until midnight. I have a philippine passport and cannot get a k-eta, if I don’t have a visa am I not able to check my luggage out and recheck to my other flight? Also will I not be able to get out of incheon airport without a visa?

Max

Tuesday 6th of December 2022

Correct. If your flight from Incheon to the Philippines doesn't already check on your luggage from your original destination, you need a visa/K-ETA to be able to get through customs and re-check it. From their perspective it's a security issue, because once you get down to baggage claim you can just exit the airport and theoretically never come back to catch your flight onto the Philippines.

At least this was how American Airlines explained it to my mom in the same situation, whose American passport still allegedly needed a K-ETA (her bags would have been checked on to her next destination; she wasn't even going to go through customs). In reality she didn't need the K-ETA and never used it, but it was just before her flight and they wouldn't let her board, so she was forced to apply for a K-ETA that would hopefully come through the next day & buy another $700USD+ ticket for the same flight the next day.

So I tell you this horror story so that you realize there are TWO barriers: will the airline let you board, and will Korea let you through customs. After our experiences, I'd say it's safer to try and get the visa or rebook the flight.

Marie

Monday 5th of December 2022

I arrive in Incheon at 530am December 9, and don't connect to my next flight until 18:30. My bags will be checked all the way to Thailand, so I'll only have my back pack with me, possibly my small carry on. I have a friend who lives in Korea, and she wants to come to the airport to visit me. Can I leave the airport to rest and eat for 10 of those hours without getting a visa?

Max

Monday 5th of December 2022

Hi, Marie! You'll still need to get a K-ETA or visa if you'll be leaving the international departures terminal at all, unfortunately. But with that long, you would be able to even go into the city to meet your friend, as that's a long time to spend only in the airport!

Antonio

Tuesday 29th of November 2022

Hello . I’ve booked a trip in April from Atlanta to Bangkok . The return home flight has a layover in Seoul for 1hr . Is that enough time ? I think I read that we wouldn’t have to go through customs but what else would we need to do or be aware of ?

Max

Wednesday 30th of November 2022

As long as you don't need to recheck bags, that should be enough time to transfer and you won't need to go through customs. I'd keep the ticket ONLY if everything was booked on the same ticket; otherwise, if there's a delay on either flight then you'll still be covered.

Lynette Cartagena

Wednesday 23rd of November 2022

This coming Dec.2022,me and my husband traveling from manila to vancouver canada with 14 hours lay over at seoul incheon international airport korea.we have canadian tourist visa.do we still need to registered to Q-Code and have K-ETA? Our flight is connecting .and we are not planning to go out in the airport.hope you can answer my concern.thank you😇

Max

Thursday 24th of November 2022

Yes, you'll probably still need a K-ETA to board your flight, but you won't need a Q-Code if you're not going through customs. Enjoy your trip, Lynette!

Carmen

Monday 14th of November 2022

Hi Max, I will have an 8.5hr layover in Incheon Airport mid January 2023. I will be landing on a Lufthansa flight and boarding an Asiana flight for Sydney (all on the one Lufthansa ticket and booked via their website). Will I need a QR code to go on a transit tour (if they will be operational). I've had 4 vaccine doses - anything else required? Thanks so much.

Max

Monday 14th of November 2022

Hi, Carmen! If they are operational, you will probably not need a Q-Code by then (and if you do, you can fill it out at the airport or fill it out in the 2 days before), but they will almost certainly require you to have a K-ETA even if it's only a layover, so that's more what I would focus on. Enjoy your trip!

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