(Actually, my skin got really angry due to being overworked, but that’s not a great headline.)
I went to Seoul in early April, the first stop on a round-the-world trip. As a beauty product and service enthusiast, I’d been looking forward to this trip for almost a decade (!!!!). I’m a fan of teaching and learning about process, so I made extensive notes about what I booked and why. Now that I’m back from various travels, I’ll share what I’ve learned.
A million thanks to the people who actually live in Korea that are reviewing services on Kakao and Naver, making YouTube videos, and posting on social. I slid in for just one week and have virtual zero Korean conversation skills, so my experience is very much “tourist” grade.
I’m a 40-year-old NYC resident who enjoys beauty products and services. Before this trip, I hadn’t had any cosmetic injections or laser treatments – I wanted to experience everything for the first time in Korea. The skin concerns I was hoping to address were fine lines and wrinkles between my eyes and on my forehead, muscle imbalances in the marionette region that are likely related to jaw surgery but might be mitigated with a product like Botox, texture/closed comedones on my forehead, and large pores on my nose.
I went into the trip realistic about some things that I don’t think can be address in a fly and fix: I have fat pad loss due to normal aging, but also because I’ve lost 135 pounds since 2016. My nasolabial folds? lol good luck with softening them, especially since I plan to lose additional weight and I don’t think fillers are the best choice for me.
I try to be realistic about what can be done, and I’d rather be too cautious and not end up with a weird situation that needs to be fixed rather than doing my utmost to contain the effects of age and lifestyle. If you want to see the wild things that can happen with injections (especially filler), check out Dr Harris’s ultrasound IG account.
How I booked (and budgeted for) the trip
You might be thinking, wow, a three-week round-the-world trip that includes seemingly unlimited spending on beauty treatments sounds kind of like a credit card debt trainwreck.
Haha *cracks open the playbook* let me share the story of how I top credit card companies for fun and profit.
I flew around the world in business class for about $1,000 and a reasonable number of credit card points turned into miles. The cash price for a ticket like this would be about $10,000 per person, so I’ve been using my time away from the blog quite well.
I flew from my home in NYC to Incheon airport in Seoul on Asiana’s business class. There I enjoyed sparkling wine, a lie-flat seat, and the wonders of on-demand spicy ramen. After a week in Seoul, we took LOT Polish Airlines to Budapest, where we picked up a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul. LOT business class was fine, but their ramen was much less spicy and much more prone to spilling. We’re already plotting a return to Türkiye because our visit was so amazing, but we had to move along to London for a quick stop. We enjoyed the legendary Turkish Airlines IST business class lounge and short flight to the UK. After a surprisingly lackluster few days in London, we flew Brussels Airlines home. Their business class service and hard product turned out to be the best of the bunch: warm, professional service from flight attendants, excellent catering provided by DO & CO, and a seemingly unlimited number of glasses of champagne that eased the pain of returning to reality.
Booking the tickets involved weeks of research in spring 2022, hours on the phone, and enough stress that I’ve vowed to never do a RTW again! But I’ve done it, and it was awesome. To learn more about booking the legendary ANA Round the World award ticket using American Express points, start with this guide.
In Seoul, we stayed at the voco Seoul Gangnam using IHG points. voco is a millennial-targeted midrange hotel brand – not exactly the most exciting card in the deck, but I noticed that reviews for the hotel, less than one year old when we visited, are excellent. We enjoyed our stay in the pretty small, NYC-sized hotel room and definitely made use of the hinoki [aromatic wood] bathtub that was a perk of the room upgrade offered due to my IHG hotel group status. The free buffet breakfast, also due to my IHG Diamond status, was excellent, and included a nice blend of Western and Korean items. Points rates were quite low when I booked, and the hotel’s growing reputation meant that the hotel was nearly sold out during our stay and charging more than the somewhat dated Intercontinental properties nearby.
For the cash portion, I used YNAB budgeting software (a legitimately life-changing tool for me) and the following formula to save money before the trip: number of people x hotel nights in a city x the per diem rate for that city according to the U.S. State Department. For Seoul, we had 2 people x 7 nights at the hotel x a $125 M&IE Rate for Seoul. I knew that I’d underspend my target in Turkey by a lot, so I went wild in Korea. I tend to budget for cat sitting and airport taxis or transfers separately, and I also just leave my usual budget lines like groceries funded for that month, even if we’re going to be gone for 3 weeks of it, since it’s a good buffer in case of overspending or disaster. Typically that just becomes the starter fund for the next trip.
I realize there’s a mille feuille of privilege here, but everything about my current lifestyle was a completely out-of-reach dream five years ago. I don’t want to dance around financial specifics that might help someone else achieve their travel dream.
Things I learned the hard way while preparing for April 2023’s skintrip
Keep in mind that lots of people are traveling to Korea right now and you may need to book things further out than in recent years, especially at providers popular with tourists. It took me booking a trip to Korea three times before I could finally make it to Seoul, so I was ready to go wild – I think lots of tourists have the same mindset.
Sulwhasoo Flagship Spa changed their menu and increased their prices in April 2023. When I tried, it was not possible to book online (I kept getting errors), but their email (firstname.lastname@example.org) worked and someone on their end got right back to me (writing in English). It looks like their site has been overhauled and online reservations are open again. Word on the street is that they’re booking up very early despite the [modest] price increase and overall $$$$$ nature of the spa.
Shangpree’s reservation email (was email@example.com) was no longer working when I tried it; it seems they’re using SHANGPREESPA@GMAIL.COM now (and I only discovered that a moment ago while writing this). Spa 1899 is booking up quite early (they have an easy reservation system on their site). I wasn’t blown away by the reviews of the Ohui & Whoo Spa Myeondong.
I always intended to visit at least one fancy facial spa, but I abandoned that idea in light of the booking challenges and decided to focus my efforts on trying skin clinics instead.
Choose your own spadventure: hard or easy mode
- Go on the Klook or Trazy mobile apps or desktop sites.
- Browse and book services.
- Have support in English if you have questions or issues.
It really does work, the businesses are listed because they’re open to foreign tourists, and they often state in their descriptions which languages they can accommodate.
At one point, I thought Korea travel group admins and YouTubers suggested Klook and Trazy because they want to make affiliate commission, and that may be true, but also these apps make a horribly complicated process easy.
Some providers have English-language booking sites of their own or English Instagram accounts that invite DMs, so that’s pretty simple.
There are also beauty and medical concierge services that assist with translation and provider selection. I didn’t work with any because the things I’m doing are pretty straightforward or reviews indicate that the person providing treatment feels open to working in English.
There’s also a general concierge service that charges by the minute to do this sort of online and telephone work for you! It’s called Wonderful, and it looks great – but you need to deposit money for at least four hours of services ($.75 per minute) to start as a client. That’s about $180, and I can see how that would be worth it if I needed a number of high-stakes appointments and reservations made. If you don’t use the time, you can request a refund; see their site for the full T&C.
Things that didn’t work for me
I couldn’t book online using Naver and Kakao booking widgets because I can’t set up their proprietary pay accounts due to not having a Korean bank account. I couldn’t get the WAUG app to work because I couldn’t verify my phone number (but the app is pretty useful for finding places you can book on your own if you speak Korean!). I couldn’t contact one business on Line because my account wasn’t verified, and when I submitted my passport to verify myself, I was told I was not…myself. I tried to get a Korean SIM card early so I could get a required pin number for a site and that fizzled because I guess the mobile phone number I got has the official area code of spam and I got auto-blocked or something. Honestly, it was exhausting.
Hard mode (for those of us that dropped out of Korean class and suddenly have a world of regrets)
First, a warning: if you use apps to communicate in Korean and you book in at a place that doesn’t typically work with tourists, consider that uhh there are aspects of receiving skin treatment that make it really hard to use apps. Like when you’re under a full-face modeling mask or covered in cotton pads soaked in acid and someone asks a question in Korean. I have imbalanced language skills (I’m vastly better at reading and translating languages than speaking), and the actual appointments exposed just how hopeless I am at Korean conversation. Being a good online researcher can make the in-person experience worse, paradoxically, by helping you book appointments beyond your conversational Korean skills.
If you can’t book the easy way, phew, get ready for the hard way. I’m not sure how someone would do this without knowing at least a tiny bit of Korean tbh. So you need to find the places you want to visit, review their menu and prices, and then find their IG or Kakao.
The Korean alphabet and typing in Korean
If you’re new to Korean, the first step on your journey is learning the alphabet and how to type. The alphabet is extremely logical and there are a million resources out there for learning it. I bought Basic Korean: A Grammar and Workbook, but the alphabet is only one chapter in the whole book and even the Wikipedia page about the Korean alphabet is probably enough to get you started. This “Learn to Read Korean in 15 Minutes” guide is really popular and clear.
The alphabet, called Hangul, has only 24 letters. Those blocks that people sometimes think are Chinese are just groupings of letters in syllables. Each block is a syllable. The blocks lead to delicious fried chicken, appreciation of legendary Hangul sponsor King Sejong, and cheap Botox. Get studying.
Script for requesting an appointment in DMs or via Kakao
If you’re totally cold contacting a place, I’d recommend providing your name, telephone/email/SNS contact info, the date and time you’d like to reserve, and the service you’re interested in with the price in parentheses. Putting the price in parentheses gives the provider a chance to say ahh actually, our price is now x without it being a post-treatment shock; not all websites are updated continuously, especially since so many Korean websites use text on images.
If you’re submitting a reservation request after connecting with a provider’s Kakao, it makes sense to use their exact reservation format. Typically they’ll have about four pre-written FAQs you can click on and one will detail how to book an appointment. Screenshot anything that’s in Korean and share the image to Papago if you’re on iPhone to recognize and translate the text. Use the keywords from the FAQ in your request, if possible.
A word of advice: if you’re getting a good flow going with the provider on Kakao where you’re pasting in Korean text from Papago and they’re writing back in English, don’t flip to writing in English just because they seem proficient unless they explicitly ask you to; they might be using Papago exactly the same way you are. I made this mistake with a spa and it temporarily broke the flow of our booking discussion.
In the message, I like to mention right up top that I’m a foreigner/tourist to account for my rocky Korean and also to give the provider a chance to let me know if they’re really not up for working with tourists. I didn’t encounter any providers that discouraged booking, but I wanted to walk in knowing that the office knew what was up. I made sure to demonstrate familiarity with their menu and working hours in my message (see the script below) so they knew I was serious about coming in.
Here’s the script I used (I typed English into Papago and sent the translated Korean text after checking it on Google translate):
Hello. Please excuse my Korean. I’m a foreigner and will be visiting Seoul in [month].
I’ve heard wonderful things about your [spa/clinic/salon]. Would it be possible to make a reservation?
Here is my information:
Date and time requested:
Thank you so much for your help.
I have a few theories of when to book and what order to book things.
First: most in-demand/hardest to book/most desirable to you → easiest to book/least in demand/your heart won’t break if you don’t do it.
The idea here is that you want flexibility in case the spa or clinic of your dreams reveals that they’re actually closed the day you wanted to come in or there’s just one slot available during your trip. If it’s a high-end spot, it’s also more likely to require a deposit to hold your reservation, and sending the deposit is almost always a small side quest that takes time.
Specific to beauty: I’d book least invasive to most
Makes sense, right? If you get a laser treatment on day 1, you might get instructions that say no rubbing your face for 4-5 days, and oops that facial you were looking forward to is just not advisable.
As a travel obsessive, I’d recommend a one- or two-day buffer before your most important appointment
People get delayed all the time, and I didn’t want to be rushing from the airport all frazzled to make a theoretically relaxing beauty appointment.
What’s in my spa bag
I thought I’d need a whole pile of stuff for beauty appointments, but what I truly needed was my favorite SPF, passport (in case the provider can offer an on-the-spot tax refund or refund paperwork), packable bag in case I uhhh wandered in to Olive Young to do some beauty shopping before/after appointments, an external phone battery, a spare mask, and toothbrush + paste in the event I ate before an appointment.
Hair salons offered mask-free service. All offices that have a doctor onsite (be it skin or hair/scalp) did adhere to masking during my visit. I wore a mask inside buildings; if masking wasn’t needed, staff kindly let me know.
My beauty services
Palan Hair Gangnam Head Office
Name in Korean: 파란헤어 강남본점
Address in English: 498 Gangnam-daero, Gangnam-gu, Seoul 06119
Address in Korean: 서울 강남구 강남대로 498 (우)06119
How I found it: Memebox used to carry Palan hair products way back in 2014 and their CrySense hair essence was unreal. Like, maybe the best hair product of my life. It has since been discontinued, but I wanted to go to the source and buy whatever they’re making now.
How I booked: basically by dying. I tried to book online via Kakao and Naver, but those require a Korean bank account. I next tried to message them via Line, but that required a validated ID. I even submitted my passport to Line and that didn’t work because apparently I am not myself (?!?!). I finally tracked down their Kakao and sent a message in Korean (thanks to the Papago app) to request an appointment. They got right back to me confirming.
What I booked + cost estimate: blowdry and shampoo (30,000 won)
Actual cost: $38.96, but that includes a fairly pricey hair essence I purchased for home that I think was about $16
What I thought: Teacher Hyebin gave me a soft wave style that I wish I could recreate. I prefer a style like this, but I always walk out of NYC salons with either stick straight or Halmark movie robust waves, so it was fun to see the Seoul salon default style. I communicated with my stylist through the Papago app and the everything went well. I was impressed by the shampoo bowl, which doesn’t put pressure on the neck, but found that the shampooist didn’t really get the back rinsed as well as I’d like – it’s hard to do without one’s head hanging over the bowl. I was surprised by the look of the two salons I visited: they’re way more stripped down and almost warehouse like versus the wannabe plush salons I’m used to. The cost was excellent, staff were super nice, and the service ran just about 30 minutes.
I looked over the products available for sale, but my research was correct: all versions of the Palan CrySence hair essence are gone and only super expensive shampoos are available for sale from that line. Like, we’re talking $100+ for one bottle. On the off chance that they were stocking a secret winner, I bought a kind of clear oil hair essence that honestly seems pretty standard.
Beauty Lounge Gangnam
Name in Korean: 뷰티라운지의원
Address in English: 442, Gangnam-daero, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Address in Korean: 서울 강남구 강남대로 442
How I found it: I watched a vlog from The Suitcase Designer (featuring EuniUnnie) on YouTube and thought that this would be a great place to get a modestly priced aqua peel facial right after landing in Seoul.
How I booked: Beauty Lounge has a website with an English option, which made researching the treatments and booking so easy. I added my picks, made the reservation, and received a confirmation email with a PDF a few minutes later. At the time of reservation, I said that I opted to skip a dermatologist consultation (because I more or less know what I want and what’s going to happen).
What I booked + cost estimate: I booked an Aqua Peel (18,000 KRW) and Making Baby Nose treatment (39,000 KRW). Aqua Peel has an AHA or BHA component and uses a suction wand to vacuum stuff out of pores. I’ve had this before in NYC and tbh I didn’t see a ton of improvement, but I was up for spending $15 to see if Seoul could do it better. Making Baby Nose is described as blackhead management, Picofraxel, and a Pore tightening pack. I booked both of these as part of the clinic’s Kakao friend event and I think I added them correctly to my KKT, but honestly I could very well be wrong!
Shortly after arriving, I met with the clinic director to plan my treatment. At Korean skin clinics, consultations with a director tend to be free while a consult with the onsite dermatologist costs $20 or so extra. We decided to do an aqua peel and full-face pico toning (laser) session. I asked if the pico toning would present a problem for my skin later, since I had other treatments on the books, and she said I’d be fine. I asked if there’s a cooling treatment she could recommend for after the laser, and we added that to my order.
Actual cost: $55.14 for full-face pico toning, cooling wand session, and aqua peel, which concludes with a very pleasant rubber mask.
What I thought: This was so stupendously cheap for what I got. Don’t get me wrong, it was a more bare-bones skin clinic experience: I washed my own face before the treatment and it didn’t have the vibe of a place that Gangnam mothers-in-law stop at before handing a poor girl a cash-filled envelope to leave their son alone. Yet I wouldn’t call it a factory either. The clinic was clean, very efficient, and each treatment room had a soft divider wall, so there was a sense of some privacy, which I hear can be lacking at the more affordable clinics and even Shangpree spa.
Pico toning was an interesting experience and felt a bit like a wee rubber band snapping all over my face. The cooling treatment felt wonderful. The aqua peel was excellent: it actually dislodged some sebaceous filaments in my nose, and the modeling mask was a luxurious way to wrap up a very cost-effective visit.
I don’t know if it was the pico toning, the light acid from the aqua peel, the clinic’s spf (my skin is a big baby about sunscreen), or the acid applied at a later appointment, but my skin BROKE early in my stay in Seoul. I was red, inflamed, dry, just a mess. If I had this to do again, I’d only do the excellent aqua peel at Beauty Lounge and I’d learn the Korean phrase for “no sunscreen please, I brought my own.”
Address in English: 7, Seolleung-ro 153-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Address in Korean: 서울 강남구 선릉로153길 7 ,2층
How I found it: I somehow saw the most blingy, spectacular nails ever one day on Instagram. I followed the account and this was the first appointment I booked when preparing to visit Seoul.
How I booked: I contacted the salon on their Kakao and we traded messages about the design (I picked one from their IG because they can’t promise an accurate quote if they’ve never done the particular design before — I wanted to know exactly what I’d be charged). I messaged them in English because they have English FAQs available. Tbh, given how easy things were with using Papago to write in Korean with other providers, I could have just written in Papago-Korean to make things easier. Here’s the list of things you’ll need to provide to make a booking:
➋nailcare or pedicure? [manicure or pedicure]
➌Presence of gel removal (hand/foot) [are you coming in with existing gel on the nail that will need to be soaked and removed]
➍The design you want: Full Coloring, French nails, gradation nails, Point nails, Colorful design, Send a picture of the design you want ◡̈ [given that the shop can’t give an accurate price quote unless you’re referencing their work, I’d pick a design from their IG and send that photo in the chat so everyone is on the same page]
➎Extension status: total extension, Point extension(how many do you do) [I think point extension would be if you only want some nails extended, do you want nail extensions or natural nails]
Important to note: there’s a price for extensions if you want them and a price for the design. If you want the full IG bling blingy, expect to pay about $300 USD. If it’s significantly less than that, make sure your price quote includes both the extensions and the design!
What I booked + cost estimate: full nail extensions plus a very blingy design (extensions: 150,000 KRW + 239,000 KRW for the design = 389,000 KRW). I needed to make a 50,000 KRW deposit in advance (about $40). I could have done that by bringing the money to the shop two days before my appointment or by making a bank transfer (the shop provided their bank details once we settled on a date, time, and design). I didn’t want to mess around with walking over some money while I was doing other things in Seoul or potentially delayed, so I sent money via Wise, which was SO EASY. Like, SO EASY. I send a lot of wires for work and I’m now considering making the switch to Wise. This is a referral link for a fee-free first transfer on Wise.
Actual cost: $297.78
What I thought: This was SUCH an experience. The staff were…what’s the opposite of Mean Girls? They were really nice and welcoming. They do nails for kpop girls, big name stars, and I can see why known sweethearts like Tiffany from SNSD want to spend time in that genuinely nice environment. Before and during the appointment, we communicated through Papago and it was so cool to see expert nail artists prep the nail and cuticle, create extensions, and then do nail art. I’ll always treasure the memory and the beautiful nails I got to take with me (and, phew, they remained rock solid until I removed them).
As someone that gets fancy nails done once per year max, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of the extent to which the nails would match IG photos. My nailist for most of the visit, who I think was Tammy Na herself, wanted to deviate from the sample image I pulled from the shop’s IG, but she promised the design would be pretty. I loved my nails and the holographic foil pieces gave lots of bling while presenting minimal edges that could snag on my clothes and hair – perfect for travel.
The experience made such an impression on me that I realized I want fancy nails in my life all the time! $300 isn’t something I can regularly drop back here in NYC if I want to keep up my travel-focused lifestyle, but I realized I could buy $300 in Gel-X extensions, tools, and nail art supplies and then make myself the nails of my dreams. I’m slowly working up to attempting the stone-heavy, clear nail designs on the Tam2Na IG. This whole experience made my world bigger.
Name in Korean: 엘린에스테틱 역삼점
Address in English: 518, Nonhyeon-ro, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Address in Korean: 서울 강남구 논현로 518 여산빌딩 5층
How I found it: I was browsing the WAUG (Where Are You Going) app greedily, hoping to book more beauty services the easy way. Eline looked great and their Kakao and Naver reviews looked good, so I tried to buy a voucher for their “small face facial.” Well… I tried to check out. I needed to verify my phone number before I could make a purchase. I tried my US phone number multiple times (US was the second option in the drop down!) and even tried setting up an Airalo Korean eSIM early on my husband’s phone so he could get his phone verified. Nothing. I tried to chat with WAUG and got nowhere. I don’t think the app is going to work unless you have a Korean phone number, and even then, maybe not? By this point, I’d found Eline’s Instagram and was stuck on the notion of getting a service there. I mean, this is the less a massage and more a reformation: sign me UP.
How I booked: I found their Kakao and used the Papago app to compose a message in Korean to them. We went back and forth to make the reservation for me and one friend and to confirm the updated price. After a bit of conversation (me writing to them in Korean, then writing to me in English), I was booked!
What I booked + cost estimate: Instagram Small Face event version b (45,000 KRW) for 80 minutes
Actual cost: $34.22
What I thought: Towards the end of the appointment, I started laughing hysterically under a modeling mask. It was clear by about two minutes in that while I could book the appointment with the help of Papago, my lack of Korean conversation skills would make the whole visit a lot harder for the therapists. Thankfully this was a birthday facial and my Seoul-based bday friend is great at Korean; I don’t know how I would have survived without her.
This visit beat me up lol. I somehow got a bruise on my bicep that lasted for weeks, the acid portion of the festivities took my on-alert skin from rosy to straight up PISSED, and the spa’s sunscreen didn’t agree with my no-stinging stance on spf. This was definitely the least tourist-oriented spot on my list, and I felt kind of bad invading a spot that didn’t really ask for business from tourists. The staff was gracious and they delivered a great, very robust treatment at a stunning price, but going in-person to a spa and seeing how things work for locals isn’t quite the same as using an online buying service to shop on Korean websites that don’t ship internationally. For the sake of all involved, I wouldn’t repeat the experience.
Lee Moon Won clinic
Name in Korean: 이문원한의원
Address in English: 33, Seolleung-ro 132-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Address in Korean: 서울 강남구 선릉로132길 33
How I found it: I was browsing Klook’s beauty options years ago and came across this scalp and hair clinic. I started following on Instagram and was pretty blown away by their welcoming, healing vibe. They want to help people from around the world with scalp and hair issues. They even have an English language website. There was never any question that I’d be requesting an appointment. It’s head spa plus a traditional Korean medicine approach to hair and scalp issues plus a really welcoming vibe. Hello, I’m in.
How I booked: I reserved via Klook by selecting the treatment I wanted and the day I wanted to come. I also mentioned the time I was hoping to visit in a field before checking out. A bit more than 24 hours passed after my booking and no confirmation had arrived, so I logged into my Klook account and tapped a button to request confirmation. Soon after, the appointment was confirmed and the clinic wrote to my email in English to request that I arrive one hour earlier than I originally requested because they were otherwise booked (cool with me). Their own website has a booking form, but that requires paying a deposit by wire transfer – I wanted to pay in full on Klook and avoid fiddling with another wire. Klook also has coupons sometimes that bring the price below list price.
What I booked + cost estimate: Basic Scalp Care Course ($116.37 due to a small coupon)
Actual cost: $116.37 + I bought like $200 in products just so I could bring the experience home
What I thought: What a banger. The clinic is located in a quiet, residential part of Gangnam and has a garden out front, which includes herbs used in the products. There were multiple translators working in English and Russian at a minimum. I was warmly welcomed to the clinic, then escorted to a review of my scalp and strands with the clinic director. She took photos of my scalp using a special camera. My thick hair got compliments, but my scalp was DESTROYED. I had patches of super dry skin in some areas, and others had red inflammation. I think I have some sort of auto-immune skin thing going on that I need to get diagnosed. Would I be surprised if the stress from my job and trying to wrangle appointments caused a plaque psoriasis flare? lol no
I then met with the doctor, Lee Moon Won himself, who serves as namesake, mascot, and medical expert at the clinic. He said my hair was incredibly dry for having been washed a few days before and my scalp should have been showing some oil, but it was a skin desert. He asked about medications I’m on and let me know that I should wash my hair only every four days given the fragile and dry condition of my scalp (friends, that’s worth the cost of admission, who doesn’t want to be told it’s imperative to wash hair less??). Given the dryness, the scalp spa voucher I purchased wouldn’t quite work, but that was no big deal because I could do the hair version, which is comparable and just much more gentle on the scalp, at no additional charge. I was delighted at their flexibility and decided to load up on some Lee Moon Won products after the appointment. I was accompanied by a translator for both stops on my tour de LMW, and she was clearly well-versed in the nuances of medical terminology in both languages.
After that, I went upstairs for my treatment. I was instructed to use the bathroom before we started, which is necessary because so many patients feel a scalp/bladder connection quite inconveniently during treatment. I went to my private room and switched into a robe, then got under the blanket on the heated bed. The room was darkened and very soothing. I got a kick out of the soundtrack, which was piano versions of songs from musicals. My head spa therapist came in and gently massaged my neck and back, which felt amazing and also horrendous due to the bruising from my Eline pounding. She applied all sorts of potions and masks, then led me to a pocket door, which revealed my very own little wash bowl room! I didn’t love the idea of prancing around the clinic in a fairly small (for me) robe, but this was totally private and in keeping with the luxurious feel. The wash bowl made it hard to get all of the scalp masks fully out of my hair, and I eventually had to rinse and re-dry back at the hotel.
After getting dressed in my own clothes again, I stopped in at the styling area, where I was given a very classy wave style. The stylists have expertise in helping to volumize thin hair and create cover for conditions like alopecia areata. I walked out looking ready to slam down a mother-in-law envelope in a Tous les Jours. At the conclusion, I was escorted back down to the ground floor, and the staff confirmed that my bill had been settled by the Klook voucher. I proceeded to buy like $200 in products that sounded nice, mainly because I want a bit of Lee Moon Won clinic in my life every day.
Yeo Yong Guk hanbang spa
Name in Korean: 한방스파여용국
Address in English: 60, Seokchonhosu-ro 12-gil, Songpa-gu, Seoul
Address in Korean: 서울 송파구 석촌호수로12길 60 흥성빌딩
How I found it: I was looking for a really luxurious facial and even ordered a ton of samples of Sulwhasoo products to try to find a product line that agrees with my skin. I…just…couldn’t click with the products; they felt like a coating on my skin or I didn’t like the scent or they felt irritating. I was attempting to power through and just go with the essentials line at the premium spa when their booking form kept rejecting me. I wrote to the Sulwhasoo email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) and immediately got a response: they weren’t taking bookings at the moment because their menu options were changing and prices were going up. At that point, I mentally tapped out. I was fighting too hard for something I didn’t even really want on some level. I next tried Shangpree and didn’t hear back (I found a bounceback in my spam folder saying their email was no longer working – note that email@example.com doesn’t work any more and SHANGPREESPA@GMAIL.COM is the new address), which wasn’t crushing because they apparently do all their treatments in a shared room. I considered some Klook options because I was getting so exhausted by the process of booking a relaxing facial and eventually looked closer at Yeo Yong Guk: the reviews were great, a 2-hour facial and massage extravaganza was more or less in line with a single facial at Sulwhasoo, and this flavor of hanbang (traditional Korean medicine) really speaks to me. It has a Skylake vibe. I watched some videos of their services on YouTube and realized that this is the spa I was looking for. I realized after googling a bit that I’d read about this spa before: in Devon Abelman’s articles for Allure on her 2019 trip to Seoul.
How I booked: I booked on Klook by selecting the date, time, and paying, and my appointment was confirmed instantly.
What I booked + cost estimate: [Facial + Body] YeoYong & Yeosin (120min) ($190.21 due to a small coupon)
Actual cost: $0. I cancelled! It was nearing the cancellation deadline and my skin was on fire due to all the treatments. The pointy ceramic accupuncture snake that’s an essential part of their treatments + my super inflamed face = not happening.
What I thought: Klook made it easy to find and book this spa, then cancel when my skin said no more.
VS Line Clinic Apgujeong branch
Name in Korean: VS라인 의원
Address in English: 48, Apgujeong-ro 28-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Address in Korean: 서울 강남구 압구정로28길 48 2층 VS라인의원
How I found it: I realized after seeing some reels posted by @laxtoluxury that I could just…book…skin clinics. That sent me off to YouTube to search, and a video by Brown Beauty Abroad on YouTube convinced me to book at VS Line clinic. Their dermatologist speaks English and the reviews on Kakao and Naver are phenomenal.
How I booked: I DMed the clinic’s English IG and was able to easily make an appointment. I provided my name and my preferred appointment date and time. I also was given a choice of consulting with the doctor for 22,000 KRW or meeting with the coordinator + their translator for free. I selected the doctor and opted to pay the fee.
What I booked + cost estimate: I sent a face drawing with my concerns, but the final treatment plan will only be set after meeting with the doctor or coordinator. I was hoping to get a ton of Korean Botox and sort out the texture on my forehead.
What I actually did: 4ml of Juvelook skin booster. 2ml were injected into my skin using a microneedling punch device (I paid a bit extra for it; I thought it sounded efficient) all over and the doctor used 2ml under my eyes to demonstrate what a temporary skin booster like collagen would look like. The doctor said that he doesn’t like using traditional fillers in that area since they tend to migrate, but a booster like Juvelook would go away quickly. For Korea-based patients, he likes to do three spread out sessions of collagen injections in hollows like under the eyes; the collagen goes away in a year to eighteen months, so it’s not just living permanently in that area. He originally intended to use 2ml to fill my undereye and nasolabial folds, but my undereye gobbled up all 2ml. The results were subtle, but so good. I’m dying at the fact that I can’t get the collagen treatment!
I also got Botox in two areas: the 11 lines (glabellar region between the eyes) and forehead.
I did not get anything particular done for my forehead texture and closed comedones – staff at all the clinics I visited zeroed in on signs of aging and really didn’t seem to notice the little bumps I hyperfixate on. Treatment of those would likely have resulted in some visible skin damage, which I said I hoped to avoid since I had a dinner reservation and flight to Istanbul in two days.
Actual cost: $515.58
Yes, I shamelessly photographed every page of the menu as if I was trying to read it using Papago, I know my audience!
VS Line is by no means the cheapest clinic in Gangnam. Their prices certainly beat those in New York, even as things like Botox studios are popping up with very competitive pricing, and the experience is a big step up from something like Beauty Lounge. If you want a tune-up before lightly terrorizing a kdrama Cinderella, stop here.
What I thought: I think this is a great choice for a Seoul skin clinic, and the higher prices result in a significant step up in terms of service, but you should keep in mind that this is still a very busy practice. While I requested a consult with the dermatologist (something I was happy to pay for) at the time of booking, I ultimately met with the director and translator. I didn’t realize that we were deviating from my plan until the bus was in motion. They were both excellent, but that led to a slight change of plans in the treatment room: the dermatologist proposed taking the 4ml of Juvelook I was supposed to get punched into my skin and dividing it into 2ml punched and 2ml injected with a needle into my undereye hollows. That sounded like a great idea to me, and it really paid off – for the undereye. My skin didn’t really have noticeable improvement from the punching, which isn’t surprising because you’re supposed to get a booster treatment like this at least three times.
The undereye filler looked really good, but I did bruise a fair bit, so part of the limited time I had with the filler before it would all be reabsorbed was spent with some pretty visible little bruise marks.
The Botox was mostly successful: I wasn’t overfrozen at all and the 11 line injections muted my scrunches nicely without preventing some movement. The upper part of my forehead was well-smoothed, but the lowest line was still lining because I remained hypermobile. This was baby’s first Botox, but my forehead muscles are swole! There’s a tradeoff: adding the units I’d need to be completely smooth might result in my eyes appearing smaller, thereby changing what I look like. I respect the decision to not just slam units into my face.
VS Line was more high-touch than Beauty Lounge: they handled my pre-treatment cleansing, but the pre- and post-treatment was not done in a private room with a door. I was under a modeling mask in a room with just soft divider walls when a fellow customer was informed that their mother’s credit card charge for the equivalent of $5,000 USD had been declined and she was heading out to acquire cash to cover their bill. Yikes!
I thought the dermatologist was great, he was totally fluent in English, and he certainly had the aesthetic-philosophical approach that I’ve seen from practitioners here in NYC.
I don’t think I’m going to book another trip back to Seoul just to get more injections, despite the excellent prices and my ability to cook up extremely affordable travel. Going into this trip I feared I might be creating a monster: would I love the results so much that I’d book solo shopping and skin clinic trips? Ehh. There are some problems with “fly and fix”: I can’t tell you wtf Juvelook is. Is this a filler that isn’t called filler? Is this a new type of more absorbable filler? Is is hyaluronic acid? I just don’t know, and it’s not approved for use in the U.S. right now, so few local practitioners would have experience with the product in case I had issues or wanted to slap another injection of some sort in the same area.
Getting Botox done without a pretty standard 10-day follow-up (since by then I was already flying to the U.K.) means missing little tweaks like some extra units in the lower forehead line. Even if I flew back to get collagen undereye filler, I’d need to stay for three sessions and spread them out, then it would be gone in 18 months max. I still have the forehead texture that bugs me (which I’m trying to dislodge with Differin).
Rather than running back and forth to Korea for treatments with expiration dates, I’m more into the idea of a semi-lasting fix like platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections to make my body regrow its own fat pads. You might have seen PRP vampire facials, but this is injecting the PRP into the skin in key areas to make the fat below the skin actually grow again – it’s the same technique used to repair things like joints after serious injury and wear. PRP is a whole other magnitude of cost and it takes a bit of time to see results (because the fat has to grow – you’re making the filler), but regenerative beauty medicine that makes my body do the work feels more exciting to me than continuously stamping and injecting. (I know about PRP beauty injections bc Dr Ifeoma Okoronkwo, who has a regenerative cosmetic medicine practice on the Upper East Side here in NYC, is my medical Botox doctor for a condition called cervical dystonia, and we talk endlessly about aesthetic treatments that actually look good years later.)
Also spelled as: Nomeol Shop
Address in English: 755, Seolleung-ro, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Address in Korean: 서울 강남구 선릉로 755 3층(논현동, 진성빌딩)
How I found it: I was browsing Klook, happened to see this salon, and – at that point – I’d given up on booking Palan. I thought about it and realized, hey why not, this place has great reviews, I like the styles they’ve posted, and the stylist speaks English.
I liked the salon’s example images that show long bangs and soft face-frame styles. Here’s one of their designers showing how to do a self-bang-cut that compliments a ponytail:
How I booked: I booked on Klook and submitted my preferred date and time, and the salon confirmed shortly thereafter.
What I booked + cost estimate: Cut + Hair Wash + Styling ($50.28 due to a small coupon). My hair was a bit below my shoulders, so I could have been charged a bit more due to the length, but staff let me know that my Klook voucher covered everything.
Actual cost: $50.28
What I thought: I had a great experience at Normal Shop! The receptionist/shampooist graciously welcomed me and did a great job scrubbing and rinsing – despite the wash bowl shelf that posed problems with rinses elsewhere. My stylist and I communicated through Papago and we were totally on the same page about the style I was going for (long bangs, a style I saw featured quite a bit in the promotional images for the salon). We even had a short conversation about hairline woes and how we’re both using bangs for some cover. I walked out feeling pretty fabulous.
Things I learned
Fly and fix skin clinic arbitrage sounds good on TikTok, but I’m not totally sold
The prices in Korea are stunning if you’re coming from the U.S. I still get teary when I think of how little I paid for Botox. That said, you should have a realistic expectation of what can be done during a short trip. I explain more about this in the VS Line section, but I want to reiterate that a lot of these procedures like skin booster microneedle injections and lasers are supposed to be done repeatedly in order to see results. They’re sold in packs of three or ten at a discount because that’s sort of when you start to see those signature kbeauty results.
Korean salon sinks rule for cervical spine (neck) health, but present a huge problem for getting the back of one’s head totally clean
I had this very slick idea: I figured I’d be dead tired during the Seoul portion of our trip, so I booked three hair appointments that involved someone that is not me washing and drying my hair. Brilliant on paper!
I enjoyed the Korean hair salon sinks, which have a whole ledge on which you can rest your head, thereby taking strain off the neck (I have a neck condition and omg the U.S. guillotine-style salon sinks hurt so much). The problem is that I found it really impossible for the shampooist to rinse the back of my head fully as a result. I was doing hollow holds in the chair to try to lift my head and neck for them because I just figured that lifting my giant head with one hand while rinsing with the other was likely going to be difficult, and maybe that didn’t help. If you get a hair service that involves washing, give the roots at the back a feel before moving away from the wash bowl.
Yes, Gangnam has lots of stunning people, but the beauty professionals I encountered were so nice to me
I was kind of concerned that I wouldn’t pass the coolness or appearance test in Seoul, and I might get the cold shoulder from staff as a result. I didn’t experience that at all, and I found beauty staff to be extremely nice and helpful in salons, the nail shop, skin clinics, and even stores. I wouldn’t think that a place that has fat globule mascots for lipo clinics would be nice to me, but I had a great experience.
Not having to think about tips make me kind of euphoric
I want beauty professionals to be paid well for their service and expertise, but oh my god sorting out the appropriate amount for tips at U.S. beauty spots makes me want to DIY everything. Seeing an all-in price and then…paying…that? Total luxury.
Questions + answers
I had some pre-trip questions and nice followers on Instagram contributed their questions, so I mashed them together to hopefully cover everything.
Is Myeongdong back? I’ve seen some videos showing that a ton of stores closed, but I’ve also seen signs of revival in recent months. I don’t have a point of comparison, but I know a sad city when I see one.
Keep in mind that I didn’t personally experience Myeongdong before COVID, but when I went, the streets were bustling and the Olive Young was rocking. Many road shop brands have closed up shop in the area, but the resurgence was definitely in effect.
Why does Chicor (a beauty store) have such middling reviews?
I went to Chicor and it was fine? It had some very nice color cosmetics and even had Lador haircare. Perhaps the reviews reflect the service experience shoppers have had. It’s worth checking out.
What should I actually buy at Olive Young? What did you buy at Olive Young? Does Olive Young sell mainly full-size products or can I buy a ton of travel sized items?
Olive Young really doesn’t have many skincare minis for sale. They do have minis, but they’re often offered as a perk for buying a full-size product from the same brand, and they’re boxed together.
As far as what to buy: I expected to get FOMO and go wild, but I ultimately just bought stuff I already use that was way cheaper than Amazon due to 1+1 offers, or some products I hadn’t tried yet from brands I already know. I ransacked the make p:rem, bought experimentally in the haircare section, and got more creative with mask shopping, but I didn’t see a lot of new-to-me stuff at Olive Young, to be honest!
I bought lots of masks and hair volumizing clips, in part because they make good gifts, but for full-size stuff I kept it pretty practical! I’ve given away or thrown out a horrifying number of products in the past, and I didn’t want to repeat that experience.
Can I make it out of Nail Mall without spending $100+?
YES. Nail Mall is a legendary nail supply story and I made it out without spending anything because I was so overwhelmed by the thousands of products. There were like 20+ LED lamp options; I had no idea what to even pick! I’d love to go back later in my nail journey. It was like showing someone mountains of caviar when they’ve only tried fish sticks before and saying “what do you want?” (I want to run away, tyvm.)
Are there any skin clinic treatments that can make a real difference in just one appointment? Which treatment did I think was most worth it in terms of time, effort, and money spent?
This is the crucial question. If you have fine lines/wrinkles and pores like me, the two things I’d get done again are Botox and an aqua peel. Otherwise, I’d actually do less to my skin. That was a lesson I learned the hard (and fiery) way!
Did I get hit with Customs fees upon my return or travels through other countries?
No. I didn’t buy more than $800 of stuff on my travels, which is the United States personal use exemption here for most goods. The U.S. particularly takes a very lax approach to import taxes of all kinds at the airport; checks at Customs in New York = pushing your cart past an empty podium. I wouldn’t want to get too confident because running afoul of unfun officials seems like a pain, but I had to google to even find the personal use limit because it’s just such a non-issue for U.S. tourists who aren’t, like, buying Hermès bags.
Is it still the same popular brands like Innisfree and Etude House, or Tamburins on the trendy side – or have new brands emerged?
From what I could see, there hasn’t been massive brand turnover in Korea (again, people who are very active in the industry like Odile Monod and Beauty & Seoul would know better than me). I was walking around Apgujeong and seeing pop-ups from brands like Tamburins and JUNGSAEMMOOL, brands we absolutely know already, but not seeing new contenders. I’m sure I missed a lot and people that are more engaged with kbeauty in 2023 likely know some hot new brands, but it really seems like the explosive creation of brands has slowed. Road shops like Etude and Innisfree were still very present, but there were fewer locations than I expected, likely due to pandemic-related closing of locations in touristy areas.
Olive Youngs are all over the place, which makes for nice pauses before and after appointments, when there’s a need to kill time. I was shocked though by how many of the brands stocked at Olive Young are known to me. I decided to minimize my product research before the trip so I could experience the delight of finding new brands and new products, but there just weren’t that many that I came across. This is kind of why I splashed out at Lee Moon Won on hair care: at least that was a totally new brand and type of product for me. Many things available at Olive Young can be acquired online internationally and Credithink on Amazon basically has the OY greatest hits list available with free Prime shipping. This made it really easy to not go too overboard with my shopping. No need for FOMO, it’s all pretty much available at home as I need it.
What I’d do differently
The thing I do for my actual job is event planning. Large events. I returned from our latest event – probably the most stressful of my life, hence the state of my scalp – about three weeks before flying to Korea, so I was making reservations while in Planner Brain. As a result, I think I did too much: my skin was screaming from all the treatments and I was consulting my gcal on vacation so I could remember all the places I needed to be. It was a lot.
[I’m still in Planner Brain because I’ve been putting various future trips together, so apologies for the organization and copyediting issues that I’ll likely need to go in and fix later.]
I went to Korea. Sometimes I think about the fact that I got to do this and I scream with happiness inside.
We need a celebratory EXO gif here, for old times’ sake: