Accommodation in China

China’s tourism industry continues to climb a rather steep learning curve. A few decades ago, foreign travelers were only allowed to stay in designated Chinese hotels but today it’s wide open (though many smaller, cheaper places still don’t have a license to legally rent to foreigners).

And as China’s tourism industry grows, new accommodation is springing up everywhere so you’ll find good options regardless of your budget. A few key take-aways:

  • Look for the new: There are a lot of new places opening up all the time. Curiously, their rates will often be the same as much older, more run-down places in the same category.

  • Don’t be shy about bargaining: This is a bargaining culture — posted rates are often just a starting point. If their occupancy rate is low (and/or you’re willing to commit to several nights), it’s very possible to get 30% or more off.

  • Always check your room to make sure everything is in working order before you agree to check in. Given China’s construction boom — and dubious reputation for Quality Control — it’s common to find things broken even in the more upscale hotels. Check everything from lights, air-conditioning, hot water, TV & remote, phone, leaks, mini-fridge, towels, soap, etc. And don’t trust that they’ll necessarily keep their promise to immediately fix a problem—ask to see another room.

Other tips:

  • In budget to mid-range hotels, you’ll not only have to pre-pay for your room, you’ll have to leave a small room/key deposit (usually Y100). Make sure to keep the deposit receipt since you’ll need it to get back your deposit when checking out.
  • Most hotels these days use a key card instead of a physical key– insert this key card into the slot by the door to turn on the power in your room (a clever environmentally-sound practice in many Asian hotels to ensure that electricity isn’t wasted when no one is in the room).
  • When you check in, remember to grab your hotel’s business card. In addition to their address, it will sometimes have a small map. It’s all too easy to lose your bearings on a stroll so you can use it to ask for directions (as well as show your taxi driver). NOTE: Your hotel’s Chinese name will often have no relation to the English name, so no taxi driver will know where the “Golden Paradise Premium Hotel #1” is. Hell, they might not even know what the “Hilton” is (other than a vague association with a vapid blond on a pirated sex tape they once saw).
  • When you arrive in a new city, it’s often a good idea to check your bag at the left-luggage office at the train or bus station (cheap) while you search for a hotel. Security is generally good but obviously lock your bag up if possible and keep valuables with you.

  • Unless you’re expecting a call from someone, unplug the phone, particularly if you’re a solo male traveler. Otherwise you might get creepy calls at odd hours from prostitutes offering you a “massagee” (I think they’re tipped off by hotel staff). I read a posting somewhere by a male traveler who got a knock on his door; after opening it (bad call), a shady hooker forced her way in and refused to leave until he paid her for taxi fare! WTF?!

Accommodation categories in China:

A four-star toilet! (still, B.Y.O.T.P.)

I’ve grouped accommodation into three general categories. China’s tourism industry does use a “Star” system to rate facilities and quality (similar to the West)….but don’t put too much stock in them because the system of awarding of stars (surprise!) isn’t immune to bribery…so the number of stars doesn’t necessarily reflect actual quality. The motto for pretty much everything in China these days is “Buyer beware”.

Price range: Y700-1500+ (US$100-220+), with 15% service charge

These are larger 4- and 5-star luxury hotels in China that usually have some English speaking staff, as well as the usual restaurants, swimming pools, health facilities, internet facilities, and so on.

In the bigger cities, your best bet is to go with the international chains (Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton, Ritz Carlton, etc). The Chinese-owned ones in this category are similarly priced and tend to be not as nice with less consistent service and quality control.

(TIP: Even when I’m slumming it in some cheap hostel, I’ll sometimes stroll into 5-star hotels to use their clean toilets or read their newspapers and have a rest. No one questions—or cares—if they see a random laowai hanging around the lobby. Sometimes I’ll even check my bag in for an afternoon if I’ve already checked out of my own hotel.)

Definitely worth checking out for good deals on mid to high-end hotels: Agoda [ ]. They’re basically a hotel consolidator that buys up big chunks of rooms at discounted rates. I got good deals (up to 50% off) with them in other Asian countries, but not China (just found out about them last year).

Price range: around Y150-350+ (US$20-50)

There are a lot of options in this price range. Since the Chinese are immensely practical people, many hotels in this category (especially the older ones) are functional but ugly — a basic room with private bathroom, A/C, and a TV (not that there’s anything to watch). Also, unless you’re in a tourist destination that’s popular with foreigners, chances are slim for finding a competent English speaking staff.

Note to budget travelers: Some of these mid-range hotels in China also have cheap dorm beds (as low as Y25). And others have cheaper, private rooms for about the same price as staying in a hostel.

Jinjiang Inn room

To meet rising demand from a growing Chinese domestic middle class, some good motel chains have been popping up in a lot of cities (kind of the “Motel 6” of China). Renting for only around Y150 and up, they’re popular so try to book in advance:

  • Motel 168 [ ]
  • Jinjiang Inn [ ]
  • Home Inn [ ]

Price range: Y20-100 (US$3-15)

"I think it's that Joren van der Sloot...."

Budget hotels in Chinese cities tend to be near train and bus stations. Accommodation in this category ranges from run-down private rooms with bathroom to a bed in a dorm with a shared bathroom.

Being a culture accustomed to little privacy, the cheaper ones will often rent individual beds in a room, meaning you might share your room with others. Often, they’ll try to put same-sex foreigners together.

Xiangzimen hostel in Xi'an

Hostels in China: “Hostelling” is still catching on in China so you shouldn’t expect your Hostelling International Card to be used as much as in Europe.

But they do exist and are more common in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing, as well as backpacking-friendly places like Yangshuo and Xi’an. These can be a good option for solo travelers looking to meet others and share rides. Some also have organized tours as well as rent bikes, and arrange transportation tickets.

Another option in some cities is university accommodation — very basic but cheap (dorms as low as Y20-30). They sometimes have option of paying more for a private room.

If you’re someone who likes to have everything booked in advance, try these (but you’ll often pay higher advance rate vs. walk-up rate):

  • Hostelling International-USA [ ]
  • Youth Hostel Association [ ]

TIP: Bring earplugs (I don’t believe there’s a Chinese translation for “noise pollution”) and lock up your valuables in shared accommodation.

Advance booking:

Unless I’m traveling to a popular place during a busy tourist season (or arriving in a city late which I avoid whenever possible), I personally don’t book in advance since I prefer to keep my options open. I not only have the luxury of seeing a room in person, I’ve found that I’m able to negotiate a better rate (advance booking rate will usually be higher than walk-up depending on demand).

But since you usually won’t be required to leave a credit card to book in advance (unless up-market hotels), it doesn’t hurt to book in advance since you can cancel without penalty if needed. Outside of expensive hotels, it can be hard to find English-speaking staff to take your reservation in China (don’t be surprised if they just hang up on you!). So ask a local (e.g. current hotel clerk) to call to book in advance for you.

Checking in:

A couple of things to note: You’ll need to show your passport and fill out a registration form when checking in.

You’ll also need to pay in advance, often requiring an additional refundable deposit (if credit cards not accepted) often — another reason to make sure everything is in working order.

Apartment & house rentals in China:

If you’re staying in a particular city in China for an extended visit, look into a long-term furnished apartment rental. Many are high-rise luxury complexes with swimming pools, gyms, and so on. There’s a good supply of these in Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong.

Of course, these will range widely depending on place and quality but plenty of options in the US$500-2000/month range:

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