China’s accommodation scene continues to improve at pace, with most cities boasting a range of good options from budget to top-end. Luxury hotels (mostly international brands) and backpacker hostels are as good as you’ll find in the West, the latter supplemented by some excellent budget hotel chains. Mid-range hotels, however, are often lacking in character, many of them former state-run behemoths.
Price is not a good indicator of quality, with a good deal of overlap between the various places. The Chinese hospitality industry remains on a steep learning curve, so new places are often vastly better than old ones.
Security in accommodation is reasonably good, with budget dosshouses and youth hostels the only places where you’ll really have to keep an eye on your stuff; the latter usually have places in which you’ll be able to lock away valuables.
Increasingly, booking ahead by phone or online is a routine procedure. Accommodation-booking websites, such as elong (elong.net) or China Trip (english.ctrip.com), often have English-language content and offer massive discounts on selected mid-range to upmarket hotel rates. These two don’t require pre-payment for rooms; you simply reserve through the website and pay on arrival. Budget travellers should check out hostel websites such as hostelworld.com and hostelbookers.com.
For some hotels, however, the concept of booking ahead may be alien, and you won’t make much headway without spoken Chinese – though it’s a good idea to call (or to ask someone to call for you) to see if vacancies exist before lugging your bag across town. Be aware that room rates displayed at reception are almost always just the starting point in negotiations. Staff are generally amenable to bargaining and it’s normal to get 30 percent off the advertised price, even more in low season or where there’s plenty of competition. Always ask to see the room first. Rooms usually have either twin beds (双人房, shuāngrén fáng) or single beds (单人房, dānrén fáng), which often means “one double bed”, rather than a small bed; some places also have triples or even quads.
New arrivals at city bus and train stations are often besieged by touts wanting to lead them to a hotel where they’ll receive a commission for bringing guests in. Chinese-speakers might strike a bargain this way, but you do need to be very clear about how much you’re willing to pay before being dragged all over town.
If you find yourself being turned away by cheaper hotels, it’s not that they don’t like you – they probably haven’t obtained police permission to take foreigners, and would face substantial fines for doing so. The situation is dependent on the local authorities, and can vary not just from province to province, but also from town to town. Nothing is ever certain in China, however: being able to speak Chinese greatly improves your chances of negotiating a way into these cheaper places, as does being able to write your name in Chinese on the register (or having it printed out so the receptionist can do this for you) – in which case the authorities need never know that a foreigner stayed.
Checking in involves filling in a form giving details of your name, age, date of birth, sex and address, places where you are coming from and going to, how many days you intend staying and your visa and passport numbers. Upmarket hotels have English versions, and might fill them in for you, but hotels unaccustomed to foreigners usually have them in Chinese only, and might never have seen a foreign passport before – which explains why hotel receptionists can panic when they see a foreigner walk in the door.
You always pay in advance, including a deposit which may amount to twice the price of the room. Assuming you haven’t broken anything – make sure everything works properly when you check in – deposits are refunded; just don’t lose the receipt.
In cheaper places, disconnect your telephone to avoid being woken by prostitutes calling up through the night.
At most mid-range and high-end hotels, breakfast will come as part of your room rate; you’ll usually get a coupon for this when you check in. Breakfast is served a little earlier than most foreign travellers would like – some places stop service at 8am, though 7–9am is by far the most common timeframe.
Check-out time is noon, though you can ask to keep the room until later for a proportion of the daily rate. Make sure you arrange this before check-out time, however, as staff may otherwise refuse to refund room deposits, claiming that you have overstayed. Conversely, if you have to leave very early in the morning (to catch transport, for instance), you may be unable to find staff to refund your deposit, and might also encounter locked front doors or compound gates. This is most of a problem in rural areas, though often the receptionist sleeps behind the desk and can be woken up if you make enough noise.
The different Chinese words for hotel are vague indicators of the status of the place. Sure signs of upmarket pretensions are dajiudian (大酒店, dà jiŭdiàn), which translates as “big wine shop”, or, in the countryside, shan zhuang (山庄, shān zhuāng) or “mountain resort”. Binguan (宾馆, bīnguăn) and fandian (饭店, fàndiàn) are more general terms for hotel, covering everything from downmarket lodgings to smart new establishments; reliably basic are guesthouse (客栈, kèzhàn), hostel (招待所, zhāodàisuŏ) and inn (旅馆, lǚguăn; or 旅舍, lǚshè). Sometimes you’ll simply see a sign for “accommodation” (住宿, zhùsù).
Whatever type of hotel you are staying in, there are two things you can rely on: one is a pair of plastic or paper slippers, which you use for walking to the bathroom, and the other is a vacuum flask of drinkable hot water that can be refilled any time by the floor attendant – though upmarket places tend to provide electric kettles instead.
In the larger cities, you’ll find upmarket four- or five-star hotels. Conditions in such hotels are comparable to those anywhere in the world, with all the usual facilities on offer – such as swimming pools, gyms and business centres – though the finer nuances of service are sometimes lacking. Prices for standard doubles in these places are upwards of ¥1200, with a 15 percent service charge on top; the use of credit cards is routine. In Hong Kong and Macau, the top end of the market is similar in character to the mainland, though prices are higher and service more efficient.
Even if you cannot afford to stay in the upmarket hotels, they can still be pleasant places to escape from the hubbub, and nobody in China blinks at the sight of a stray foreigner roaming around the foyer of a smart hotel. As well as air-conditioning and clean toilets, you’ll find cafés and bars (sometimes showing satellite TV), telephone and internet facilities and seven-days-a-week money changing (though this is usually only for guests).
Many Chinese hotels built nowadays are mid-range, and every town in China has at least one hotel of this sort. The quality of mid-range places is the hardest to predict from the price: an old hotel with cigarette-burned carpets, leaking bathrooms and grey bedsheets might charge the same as a sparkling new establishment next door; newer places are generally better, as a rule. In remote places, you should get a twin in a mid-range place for ¥150, but expect to pay at least ¥300 in any sizeable city.
There’s been a recent explosion in urban budget hotels aimed at money-conscious businessmen, which offer small (but not cramped) clean double rooms with showers, phones, TV and internet portals right in city centres. Some places like Kunming, Chengdu and Shanghai have local brands, but nationwide chains include 7 Days Inn (7daysinn.cn), Home Inn (homeinns.com) and Motel 168 (www.motel168.com). At around ¥200 a double, or even less, they’re a very good deal, especially if you’re able to take advantage of early-booking promotions (you’ll need to speak Chinese for this, and possibly to have a local credit card too).
Cheap hotels, with doubles costing less than ¥150, vary in quality from the dilapidated to the perfectly comfortable. In many cities, they’re commonly located near the train or bus stations, though they may need some persuading to take foreigners. Where they do, you’ll notice that the Chinese routinely rent beds rather than rooms – doubling up with one or more strangers, and paying per bed – as a means of saving money. Foreigners are seldom allowed to share rooms with Chinese people, but if there are three or four foreigners together it’s often possible for them to share one big room; otherwise single travellers might have to negotiate a price for the whole room.
China has a rapidly expanding network of youth hostels (青年旅舍, qīngnián lǚshè), many affiliated with the International Youth Hostel Association (IYHA). Contact details for individual hostels are given through the Guide, and booking ahead is always advisable – easiest on sites such as hostelworld.com and hostelbookers.com. At IYHA hostels, members get a small discount, usually ¥10, and you can join at any mainland hostel for ¥60.
Hong Kong, Macau and a few regions of China (mostly in southwestern provinces) also have a number of privately run guesthouses in everything from family mansions to Mongolian tents, whose variety comes as a relief after the dullness of mainland accommodation. Prices for double rooms in these guesthouses are generally lower than in hotels.
Camping is only feasible in Hong Kong – where there are free campsites scattered through the New Territories – and in wilderness areas of Tibet, Sichuan, Yunnan, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia, far away from the prying eyes of thousands of local villagers. Don’t bother trying to get permission for it: this is the kind of activity that the Chinese authorities do not have any clear idea about, so if asked they will certainly answer “no”.