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What to Do on a Layover in 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 2023

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 (see below for more info).

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 February 1st 2023, masks are still required on public transportation and in hospitals but are NO LONGER REQUIRED in all other indoor public places (though most people have continued wearing them).

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.

There they offer multimedia experiences and displays to express the airports history and inner workings. One particularly 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. But keep in mind that 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.

Changing Terminals in Incheon Airport

When you arrive at Incheon Airport, it will be at either the Concourse, Terminal 1, or Terminal 2. Each of the terminals has a separate subway stop (for your return flight), though the airport also provides a shuttle between the concourse & terminals that takes 5-10 minutes each way.

Most of the airlines fly from & to Terminal 1 or the Concourse (which redirects to Terminal 1). But the newer Terminal 2 is host to nine popular airlines: Korean Air, Delta Airlines, Garuda Indonesia, KLM Royal Airlines, AeroMexico, Xiamen Airlines, China Airlines, Aeroflot Russian Airlines, Air France.

To change terminals in Incheon Airport, you need to head down to level B1 (regardless of terminal) and follow the signs for the ‘Shuttle Train.’ There will be one additional security check as you transfer terminals, but it’s less thorough than the ones done on new passengers, and any checked bags you have will continue with the airline.

Overnight Layover in Incheon Airport (Rechecking Bags)

If your bag isn’t being checked onwards by your airline and your layover is overnight, then you’ll need to claim & re-check your bag(s) 3 hours or fewer before your flight. When you land, you’ll also have to do all of the regular exit procedures for Incheon— go through security, scan your Q-Code, and pass through customs— then claim your bag and go to the capsule hotel in your chosen terminal (see below).

If you need to change terminals: you can stay in either terminal to sleep, or if it’s before midnight when you grab your bag, you can continue your journey by taking the Seoul Subway (AREX train) between the terminals. This will cost about 600KRW (45 cents USD) and you can pay with a credit card.

If you’re totally exhausted, you can head directly to the capsule hotel in your Terminal 1 (there are signs) and head to the other Terminal in the morning when the subway reopens around 5:30am. But for an overnight layover I highly recommend booking your room ahead of time here for Terminal 1 or here for Terminal 2.

Most of the shopping in Incheon Airport, especially duty free, is open from 6:30am-9:30pm every day. So if you have a late enough flight, you’ll probably have time to check out some stores before you leave. Just keep in mind that duty free employees will check your final destination and may limit any alcohol or tobacco purchases based on the rules in that country.

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 (Long or Short)

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, I 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. For 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 in Incheon Airport 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, even though the mask mandate has been lifted (except on public transport & in hospitals). 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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Erika

Friday 27th of January 2023

Hi Max. I am flying from China and have a layover at Incheon on Monday. I am trying to figure out the q-code. Is it needed if it is only a layover? What do they mean with "country of final departure?" What address do I put in for stay in Korea since am not leaving the airport? Do I need to take another covid test on arrival since it's mandatory to take one within a day of arriving from China?

Erika

Friday 27th of January 2023

@Max, Thank you for the quick reply. What if i leave the airport to do one of those airport tours, would i need a covid test upon arrival?

Max

Friday 27th of January 2023

It's not technically needed for a layover, but they may still ask you about a Q-Code if you're transiting to/from China. That's definitely confusingly worded, but it's asking which country you JUST came off a plane from (some people may have had another layover elsewhere beforehand, or travelled to multiple destinations; it's just a strangely-worded translation). Honestly, I'd just use the address of a famous hotel chain near the airport; they won't question you about it (and if for some reason they do, just say it's where you planned to stay when you come back to visit Korea and had to put in an address to apply for the code).

You don't need to take a covid test upon arrival if you aren't leaving the terminal/going through customs to actually enter Korea.

Pepper

Friday 20th of January 2023

Hi there. Do I need to apply for a K-ETA for a 5hr transit tour? Thanks!

Max

Saturday 21st of January 2023

Yes, you will. It's an official government policy if going beyond the airport terminals, unfortunately.

Chad

Thursday 19th of January 2023

Hi Max,

My family and I are going to Canada this March. We have Philippine passports and we are Permanent Residents of Canada. We have a 12hr layover at Incheon and we were wondering if we could avail of the Free Transit Tours.

Max

Friday 20th of January 2023

Hi, Chad! Yes, as of a couple weeks ago they have now resumed the daily Free Transit Tours form Incheon Airport. Check out this official link to see which tours are available on your dates & make the reservation (which is required).

Lar

Tuesday 17th of January 2023

We are Israeli passport holders. We have tickets from Australia to Israel with layover connection in ICN airport for about 20 hours. Arrival and departure from terminal 2. We booked our tickets from Korean Airline, prestige class. 1. Do we need q-code and k-eta both if we'll go to the city (as I understand we don't need anything inside airport) or only something one of them? 2.Is staying in lounch free for us? 3.Can we get a hotel for free for over night and, if yes, how can we arrange this?

Thanks in advance

Max

Tuesday 17th of January 2023

Hi, Lar! As Israeli passport holders, you can apply for a K-ETA (at least 3 days before you depart), which you will need for your trip. You can fill out the Q-Code either before your trip or once you arrive, but depending on when your trip is, they may even get rid of the Q-Code system by then.

And yes, Korean Airlines Prestige Class ticket holders are entitled to access the KAL Prestige Class Lounges on the day of your flight (though not the day before); all you need to do is show them your boarding pass.

I don't believe that Korean Airlines offers free accommodation for layovers, unfortunately, though there are tons of great places in stay in Seoul that would put you in the midst of all the action & close to the main attractions during your long layover. I recommend Myeongdong or Insadong for how central they are and close to the palaces & traditional restaurants/street food.

I hope you enjoy your trip!

Gielle Valencia

Monday 16th of January 2023

Hi Max. I’ll be travelling back from the philippines to New York on August,2023 and I have a 14 hours lay over in ICN. I am thinking of going out and have a visit to the city. Do I still need to get a korean visa?

Max

Tuesday 17th of January 2023

If you have a Philippine passport, then yes you'll need a visa, but if you have an American passport you can apply for a K-ETA at least 3 days before your trip. Unfortunately that's the rule for any length of layover if you leave the terminals; everything changed during the pandemic, and it hasn't been downgraded, yet. :/

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