Written by Jake Hollingsworth
Ask for stories of awkward and uncomfortable experiences in taxis, and you are bound to receive more than a few. If you are not a local in Korea and are not able to communicate fully with the driver, it is not uncommon to have your fair share of less-than-ideal rides about town. Hopefully, you have never experienced any of the following, but if you have, don’t feel alone. However, as the bad experiences often receive more attention, it is important to note that not all taxi experiences are unpleasant. I, along with countless others, have never experienced anything like what was shared with me by other expats in Korea, but it still happens, and caution is always advised when entering the care of a stranger.
Steve, a middle school English teacher from the U.S., recalled that once as he was riding from Suncheon to Gwangyang, the driver was watching a Jeonnam Dragons game on his phone mounted to the dash. In a moment of excitement as the Dragons scored a goal, the driver took his hands from the wheel to cheer, swerved, and nearly hit a guardrail.
Michelle, who has lived in Seoul for a year, said, “I hailed a cab that had its doors locked. The driver was pretty erratic, so I texted my husband to tell him what was going on and to hang out with me. After a few more very strange minutes, the driver pulled over, shouted “WC” and ran to the public restroom. Somehow, I stayed in the cab for the duration, and once he returned, everything was totally normal. Now I have a better understanding of what a locked door implies.”
Other folks living on the peninsula noted that they had been driven by drivers smelling heavily of alcohol or appearing to be nearly asleep. One teacher in Gwangju said that his driver stopped during the ride to verbally assault another driver who had cut him off, all while the meter continued to run. Some have been refused service, presumably because of their foreign appearance. Others have been told directly by the driver that he would not usually transport a foreigner late at night.
In addition to safety concerns, expats in Korea have experienced moments when they felt they were being scammed. Andrew from the U.K., who has traveled back and forth to Korea multiple times over the past four years working with Korean construction companies, said, “I joined Samsung in Geoje. They told me that I would be picked up and that the price from Busan to Geoje would be 130,000 KRW. There were four of us and I assumed the fare would be split four ways. However, the driver took 130,000 KRW from each of us. He must have thought it was Christmas!” Multiple respondents said that they have been driven in an indirect route to their location, driven in circles, or rode with a driver who ignored his GPS and pretended to not know where the destination was, all while racking up an unnecessarily inflated fare.
Taxi safety is a legitimate concern, but compared with the large number of expats living in Korea, the percentage of negative experiences is relatively small. Many drivers are thoughtful and helpful. Adam, a teacher from the U.S., was riding with a driver in Jeonju to the bus terminal. When asked where he would be taking a bus to, the driver quickly realized that Adam needed to go to a different terminal than the one he had requested. The driver’s concern for his passenger enabled the confused expat to avoid missing the final bus of the evening.
Stories of good experiences could go on over many pages, but safety is still a topic worthy of discussion. Veteran expats shared tips and best practices to remain as safe as possible. David from Daegu recommends always being ready to snap a cell phone picture of the driver’s medallion info. It is usually located on the front passenger’s side above the glove box. Jason and his wife Rachel, teachers for nearly a decade in Busan, recommend the buddy system, especially for females and especially late at night. Another recommendation from many expats is to have your destination written in both English and Korean. This helps to avoid confusion for both you and the driver. Allison in Gwangju, a hagwon teacher from Canada, also urges expats to map out where you are going on your phone before hailing a taxi. She says this allows passengers to more quickly recognize if they are traveling in the wrong direction.
With the option of the Kakao Taxi app (a service similar to Uber) now available, expats are having better luck getting to their destinations, especially in cities. Brian in Seoul said, “My personal experience with hailing a taxi compared to the Kakao Taxi app is like night and day. Maybe it’s because they get rated. I’ve consistently had 4- to 5-star service, and cars that were in great condition, with extra padding, Wi-Fi, and perfect air temperature.”
Compared with many other countries around the world, Korea is a relatively safe and comfortable place to live and work. The majority of expats surveyed related this sense of safety and ease, but also acknowledged that bad people live everywhere in the world. Therefore, common sense is the best tool to avoid negative experiences. If something does not feel right, it is probably because it isn’t.
Jake Hollingsworth is an American English teacher living in Naju.