Life in Korea: getting a taxi – and not getting ripped off


Author’s note: ‘Life in Korea’ posts are aimed at the newer expats amongst us. If you have a more experienced perspective, comment away!

Author’s note: ‘Life in Korea’ posts are aimed at the newer expats amongst us. If you have a more experienced perspective, comment away!

Getting a taxi around Korea sounds like a fairly simple process – stick your arm out when you see a taxi with their light on, announce your destination to the driver, and get in the car. Yeah, right. A publication released by the Tourism Promotion Division in Seoul (“Seoul’s Best 100”, printed 2008), showed tourists were least happy with taxis (on a 1-10 scale, taxis rated a 6.02 compared to 8.37 for the subway and 6.77 for the bus), while a recent Korea Times article claimed 69% of foreign tourists were dissatisfied with their ‘taxi experiences’. Whether the driver quotes you a price instead of turning on the meter, takes the long way around, or refuses to take you somewhere, there’s no guarantee things will go as planned.

Not too long ago, my girlfriend and I found ourselves in Itaewon one Friday evening / early Saturday morning. Taxis were few and far between, and there were more than a few people waiting for one. Eventually we get one and announce our destination – a trip that costs about 6,000 – 8,000 won on any other day. We’re quoted a rate of 15,000 won. I ask him to turn his meter on, and he says something about how it’s a Friday night. As if there’s some reason to gouge people just because it’s a certain night of the week. My girlfriend wrote down the taxi’s number (every taxi has a card showing the driver’s name and cab number facing the front passenger seat) and I dug out a 10,000 won bill to throw over the seat before getting out.

Important tip: Once out of the car, walk the opposite way of traffic if you’re going to try this trick.

In another case, we needed to go a fairly short distance (a few kilometers) from the Express Bus Terminal. After announcing our destination, the driver refused without giving a reason. I asked ‘왜?’ (‘Why?’); after not getting a response I took a look at his taxi license and began to dig out a pen and paper to write it down (as if to make a complaint). At that point he motioned us in and we were on our way. Suddenly there didn’t seem to be a problem with a supposedly short distance.

Important tip: If the driver refuses a fare, ask why. That it’s the end of the day or out-of-their-jurisdiction are fairly legitimate, if inconvenient, reasons.

Although I’ve not yet taken one of the ‘international’ taxis (complete with a bright shade of orange and Seoul’s haechi logo), the 20 percent surcharge that was criticized awhile back is only charged if you reserve the taxi ahead of time. If you hail the cab as you would any other, there shouldn’t be a surcharge. That service is available at either (English, Chinese, Japanese, or Korean available) or by calling 1644-2255.

If you find yourself getting ripped off, you do have a couple of resources. The Tourist Complaint Center is affiliated with the Korea Tourism Organization, and while not most people’s idea of a fun job, they can be reached by calling 02-735-0101. Without specific information on the taxi or driver (their name, taxicab number, license plate / tag number), there’s only so much that can be done – take a picture with your cell phone if you can.

Another option is the taxicab company – you may need to get a Korean friend to help you out, as the person picking up the phone is likely an operator / dispatcher. That phone number should be on the card just above the glove compartment.

Whatever kind of taxi you take, remember a few practical / etiquette points:

  • If there’s a line of taxis, get in the one in front – not only have they been waiting the longest for a fare, they’re in a position to get going.
  • Remember that taxi meters calculate a fare by time and distance, so consider whether a taxi or subway will be faster during rush hour traffic.
  • Before hailing a taxi, try figuring out which direction you need to go and get on that side of the road. That prevents them having to drive in the wrong direction before getting a chance to turn around.
  • Take a final look in the taxi before closing the door – too many people have lost cell phones, wallets, purses, or shopping bags because they never turned around.
  • Finally, don’t try to bail on the driver if he’s done his job. He deserves to get paid like anyone else.

Experienced readers, any other tips / advice on taxis? Comments are open.

Creative Commons License © Chris Backe – 2009

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