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, like 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.
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. 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. Once I started doing some research, I realized we had to take a tour, but we had yet to book one.
When we first arrived at the Courtyard Seoul Times Square, I suddenly became a little panicked about booking a Korean 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 Korean DMZ tour, so that you could learn from my mistakes.
Top Tips for Booking a Korean DMZ Tour, aka Don’t Do What I Did
First, because tours book up, and second, because you need to reserve a minimum of 3 days in advance in order to receive security clearance. Tours to the DMZ 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 day of.
So, book 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 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 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 DMZ Tour.
We assumed we were going to book a “DMZ Tour” and it was what we kept talking about it. In fact, when I started to learn the difference and was encouraging Eric to book the JSA Tour, I thought we would end up in a fight. He was fixated on the concept of the DMZ and seeing 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. 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.
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 conference room that reaches across the MDL, or the Military Demarcation Line, which straddles both North Korea and South Korea. I had seen the blue buildings on TV and that’s where I wanted to go.
I tried to explain the difference between the tours and Eric dug in his heels on the DMZ tour. I dug in my heels on the JSA Tour. Kevin, the Courtyard Seoul concierge, made the decision easy. When I went down to see about booking the tour, before it was too late, Kevin said, “oh yeah, the JSA Tour, it is cool, that is what you want.” Done. Kevin agreed with me. I explained to Eric in more detail, including Kevin’s expert advice, and the marital crisis was averted.
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, 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.
4. Bring Your Passport on the DMZ Tour
When booking the Korean DMZ tour, you need to provide your passport number, and possibly a photo copy, for a security check. This is what you need at least 48 hours before the tour date, to allow for the security check. It is also mandatory to bring your passport with you, as it will be inspected at least once, and maybe even twice, before you are allowed into the Joint Security Area.
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, and often 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.
6. Pack Light
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 stayed 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 bus.
7. Don’t Drink During Your DMZ Tour
We were warned numerous times not to drink alcohol during the tour, especially at lunch. The concern being, supposedly, that if you are intoxicated at the DMZ, 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
The Korean DMZ is the most militarized border area in the world. One one side of the line there is a 4 million man 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.
That said, it is one of the most unique places you can visit it the entire world. If you take the precautions, follow the rules, and do your research, it will be an incredibly rewarding experience, and one you will never forget.
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 hear the Times Square shopping center, with loads of dining options (Check out Trip Advisor Reviews here | Book now)
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 (Check out Trip Advisor Reviews here | Book now)