One of the things that happens when you travel as much as we do, is we tend to do very little research before we arrive places. This results in us often being stuck in a situation entirely unprepared. This happened when we had a layover in Doha airport and did not know that we needed to get a visa on arrival, or when we were shocked at how expensive a ticket to Petra was. The same thing happened when we were booking a Korean DMZ Tour. But, here we share our tips on how to visit the DMZ in Korea. I want you to learn from our mistakes!
In this post, we are going to share our tips on how to book the best DMZ tour and what you need to know before booking. We also try to clarify some of the alphabet soup – to understand the difference between a DMZ JSA tour, a DMZ Seoul tour, and what the DMZ even is. This really is the ultimate guide to booking a South Korea DMZ tour.
How To Book a DMZ Korea Tour
Update on 2019 Trip Planning
North Korea has been in the news a lot during 2018. Things are changing pretty quickly. There are agreements in place between North Korea and South Korea to start dismantling certain installations along the border. During November 2018, the North Korean government demolished several guard posts along the border. The JSA was also closed around that time.
A few things to keep in mind. If you want to travel to the DMZ, do it soon. It is unclear how much it will change over the coming years. Also, as I recommend below, book your visit for the first day of your trip in case there is a closure of the JSA or DMZ. Last, I recommend booking your tour with Viator for a variety of reasons. Now, I recommend booking with Viator on a tour that you can cancel. Check the cancellation policy on the Viator page. Most tours allow you to cancel up to 24 hours before the tour. And you can manage the cancellation through Viator rather than through a South Korean tour company.
For the latest updates and travel advisories, check your country’s state department. For US travelers, check the US State Department Travel Advisory to see if there are current warnings to be aware of.
I swear I saw a television program once (and it might have been Anthony Bourdain), where you could take a train up towards the Korean DMZ, and just have a look around. I thought, in the back of my mind, that this would always be an option. Maybe his fixers and producers arranged his DMZ tour. Once I started doing some research, I realized we had to take a tour, but we had yet to book one. There’s no way to just train to the DMZ as Bourdain did.
We tried to work with Viator on booking a Korean DMZ tour with them, but they were sold out by the time we got around to it. We worked with Viator to promote their tours before and I always like their offerings. But we waited until just a week before arriving in Seoul and they had no more tours available.
When we first arrived at the Courtyard Seoul Times Square, I suddenly became a little panicked about booking a Seoul DMZ tour. I learned that they don’t do tours every day and you need to send a copy of your passport 48 hours in advanced. I was afraid we would run out of time during our week in Seoul because we had not planned ahead. So, I thought I would share my tips for booking a DMZ Korea tour so that you could learn from my mistakes. And our DMZ tour Korea advice starts with don’t do what we did. Plan ahead and you could have one of the best travel experiences!
This is the most popular Korean DMZ tour with our readers:
Book This Korean DMZ and JSA Tour
Top Tips for Booking a Korean DMZ Tour, aka Don’t Do What We Did
1. Book Your DMZ Tour Korea Well in Advance
Our number one DMZ tour rule is to book your tour ahead of time, preferably as soon as you settle on your dates to visit Seoul. First, this is because DMZ tours book up. Second, because you need to reserve a minimum of 3 days in advance in order to receive security clearance. DMZ tours from Seoul run Tuesday through Friday, except holidays and during military events and exercises. There is no way of really knowing ahead of time when this will happen. Tours can even be canceled the day of. It’s important to remember that the DMZ zone is an active military zone, and military activities trump a Korea DMZ tour.
So, book your DMZ tour from Seoul in advance, and try to choose your first full day in South Korea, in case you need to reschedule. When we were there, the US and South Korea joint military exercises were going on, meaning the available days during our week in Seoul were quite limited. We were lucky to have gotten in at all.
2. Decide Which DMZ Tour Korea to Book
When we arrived in Seoul, we sat down with a brochure from a Korean tour company to see what our options were. There is a DMZ Tour, a JSA DMZ Tour, and a combo tour. At the time, I had no idea what all these acronyms really meant. Do your research ahead of time and decide which tour you want to do. For example, the JSA Tour is not open to families with children under a certain age, but there are no restrictions on the Seoul DMZ Tour.
We assumed we were going to book a “DMZ Tour” and it was what we kept talking about it. I started to learn the difference between the DMZ Tour and DMZ JSA Tour. I encouraged Eric to book the DMZ JSA Tour. I thought we would end up in a fight. He was fixated on the concept of the DMZ and seeing into North Korea. When I suggested the JSA tour instead, he disagreed. We were steps away from a fight on this one.
Here’s the difference.
- DMZ Tour: Generally, a DMZ Tour stops at the Dora Observatory, Dorsan Street, and visits a tunnel that was dug to transport spies into South Korea. All cool stuff. But, not what I wanted to do. It does not stop at the JSA, the Joint Security Area. To me, that would be the best part of a DMZ tour.
- DMZ JSA Tour: I wanted to do the JSA Tour, which makes a stop at the Mt. Odu Unification Observatory, allowing a clear view into North Korea (weather permitting). Then, the most exciting part, as if seeing into North Korea was not enough, the tour stops at the famous JSA. This is the tour that takes you into the blue conference room that reaches across the MDL, or the Military Demarcation Line, which straddles both North Korea and South Korea. I saw the famous blue buildings on TV and that’s where I wanted to go. If you want to see the famous blue buildings and step foot inside North Korea you must book a DMZ Korea tour that includes the JSA.
There is a combined DMZ JSA Tour, which incorporates all of the above, but that is a very long day. The tour departs at 8 am, which means check-in is just after 7 am. It’s the perfect tour for someone who wants to make the most of their visit.
Key Tip: The JSA Tours visit the blue conference room buildings below! To me, this is the best part of any Seoul DMZ tour.
3. Booking a Korean DMZ Tour
Tour operators, like Viator, and a Korean company named Cosmo, all sell the DMZ tours. But, you might not know who will actually operate your tour until you arrive. There are only about a half dozen companies that are licensed to operate the DMZ tours. All tours meet at the Lotte Hotel Seoul, or a similar hotel like Hotel President, where tours can also be booked. Although we booked through Cosmo, a different company ran our tour, with a slightly altered itinerary than what we saw with Cosmo. In our case, it meant we had a North Korean defector on our tour bus, which was amazing. Just roll with it. All tours are about 95% the same. By booking a Seoul DMZ tour ahead of time with Viator you can receive confirmation of your tour before arriving in Seoul, which is a big deal. Trust me. As discussed above, you can also cancel if issues arise with the DMZ and the current political situation with North Korea.
4. Bring Your Passport on the DMZ Tour Seoul
When booking the Korean DMZ tour, you need to provide your passport number, and possibly a photocopy, for a security check. This is what you need at least 48 hours before the date of the DMZ visit, to allow for the security check. It is also mandatory to bring your passport with you, as it will be inspected by your “DMZ host” at least once, and maybe even twice before you are allowed into the Joint Security Area. Without your passport, you will not be able to complete the tour.
Check out this Top 10 Seoul Eyewitness Seoul Travel Guide to learn more
5. Dress Conservative at the DMZ Border
There is a fairly strict dress code for tourists going into the Joint Security Area. No ripped jeans, no camouflage, no leather pants or skirts, no “commercial” military clothing. One important thing to remember is that when you are standing on the South Korean side of the Joint Security Area, the North Koreans can see you. They sometimes take photos of the tourists. If tourists are not dressed appropriately, the North Koreans say the folks on the south are poor. If tourists are wearing commercial military clothing, the North Koreans can say the folks on the south are the aggressors.
I do not know people who have been refused entry to the Seol DMZ tour but it’s really not worth the risk. Just dress conservatively for all DMZ tours that visit the Joint Security Area.
6. Pack Light For Your Trip to the DMZ From Seoul
Also, due to security concerns, you have to leave your bags on the bus before entering the JSA. You are allowed to bring your camera, in your hand, and wallets, but everything else stays on the bus. We each put our passport in our pocket, I carried my wallet in my jacket, and I only brought my iPhone with me. You are not allowed to use a telephoto lens at the JSA either. Don’t bring anything with you that you would not feel comfortable leaving on the tour bus.
7. Don’t Drink Alcohol During Your DMZ JSA Tour
We were warned numerous times not to drink alcohol during the DMZ JSA Tour, especially at lunch. The concern being, supposedly, that if you are intoxicated during your DMZ tour, and you stumble or fall because of it, you can cause an international incident. I think this is also why small children are not allowed on the JSA Tour, because of the unpredictability of their behavior.
8. Realize Where You Are Going – DMZ Korea Map
Even though the DMZ definition is “Demilitarized Zone,” the Korean DMZ is the most militarized border area in the world. One one side of the line there is a 4 million men strong, nuclear-capable army, protecting an aggressive country. Although incidents are rare in the JSA, they do happen. This is why you will be asked to sign a disclaimer before being escorted into the JSA. It is also why there are so many rules and regulations on being a tourist in the DMZ. During 2018, there have been attempts to de-militarize points along the border. There supposedly are fewer military personnel at the JSA now, but, honestly, you never know. That said, it is one of the most unique places you can visit in the entire world. If you take the precautions, follow the rules, and do your research, a South Korea DMZ Tour will be an incredibly rewarding experience, and one you will never forget.
Book Your Korean DMZ and JSA Tour Here
Recommended Top DMZ Tours to Book From Seoul
Here, we recommend some of the best DMZ tour options. This includes a JSA tour and the combo DMZ JSA Tour Seoul, which is the full day tour.
JSA and DMZ Tour, starting at $135 per person. It’s a 10-hour tour that includes the JSA, the Freedom House, the Bridge of No Return, the Unification Bridge, the Dora Observatory, and more. It includes everything! Also, they note they don’t make a shopping stop. Some tours do a visit to a jewel factor or ginseng factory, making the day longer. This tour does not. This tour has a cancelation policy allowing a cancelation 24 hours in advance. Check the latest prices with Viator.
JSA – Joint Security Area Tour, starting at $85 per person, which is shorter, only 6 hours, and includes the JSA and lunch, along with Bridge of No Return. It’s a good option if you don’t have a lot of time, or your real focus is on visiting the JSA. This tour can be booked with Viator. This tour has a gradual cancellation policy, where you can cancel up to 7 days in advance.
Where to Stay When Visiting Seoul
Our favorite two properties in Seoul, both happen to be Marriott Properties.
The Courtyard by Marriott Times Square, where contemporary rooms start around $150. And, the hotel is conveniently located near the Times Square shopping center, with loads of dining options (Book now on Booking.com | Rates from $150)
JW Marriott Seoul, where luxury rooms start around $200. And, the hotel is located above the main bus station and a small shopping center. Other activities are a quick cab ride away (Book now on Booking.com | Rates from $200)
Traveling to Seoul?
Where Else to Stay in Seoul:
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PIN IT! How to Book a DMZ Tour
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together over the last 20 years, they have traveled to over 70 countries. Amber is the author of the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna.