Lost in Korea at midnight – the importance of planning

The airport went dark and I stood there all alone. I didn't speak the languge or know how to get to my hotel.

The other night I was on the last flight to arrive at the airport for the night.  The concourse was silent except for the soft shuffle of our feet as we all rushed to get our bags and go home.  Looking around at the dark stores and empty seats it reminded me of a late night flight I took into Seoul, Korea several years ago.

At the time I was flying around the world for Hewlett Packard and frequently in Asia.  However, this was my first trip to Korea.  Travel had become pretty standard for me by then and the ritual of flying, getting some money, finding my hotel…had become almost mundane.  I didn’t even think about it any more.  I just arrived and followed the well worn path in front of me.

The 747 poured out passengers and businessmen like me into Seoul’s main airport. We all rushed to grab our bags and find a taxi to our hotels before finally crashing for the night.  However, taxis in Seoul only took cash at that point so after getting my bag I wandered the airport to find a Cash Machine (ATM).  After circling the terminal the only one I could find was in a far corner and only offered Korean language instructions.  As people rushed around me and taxi drivers solicited fares I began the complex task of decoding this ATM.

For 30 minutes I sat there testing different menu options until I finally got to a screen that asked how much cash I wanted.  The choices ranged from 100,000 to 10,000,000!  Since I hadn’t bothered to check the exchange rate before arriving I had no idea how much this was and was terrified I was about to empty my entire life savings.  Finally, with Solomon-like wisdom I chose the middle number, it spit out cash and I turned around, victorious at having beaten the Korean-only ATM!

However, in the 30 minutes it took me to do this, the entire airport had emptied out.  Everyone was gone.  The information booth was closed, all the passengers were gone and no taxis were left.  I stood there dumbfounded.  What the heck was I going to do?  I didn’t know any taxi services I could call let alone how to operate the pay phone that was also only in Korean.  After flying for hours was I now condemned to sleep on the floor in the airport?

Finally, a solitary man came through the doors and motioned to me.  He was a taxi driver; the last taxi driver at the airport.  This worried me.  This guy must be the worst taxi driver in Korea if he was still hanging around an empty airport in Seoul at midnight looking for fares.  But I was desperate and decided to give it a try.

We drove through the dark streets for 45 minutes while I sat in the back seat worrying that at any minute he’d pull into some alley and rob me blind.  But of course he didn’t.   He deposited me safely at my hotel and charged me 200,000.  I assumed he had overcharged me, but later learned that was about $8.  He was a fair man and had really saved my butt.

Now, before I arrive at any international location I confirm the exchange rate, make sure I at least have 1 or 2 local phone numbers and have at least some idea of how to get to my hotel; just in case I get stranded at midnight again.

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