Choosing a Hotel in China

When China reopened its doors to tourists in the early 1980s, hotel choices were very limited for foreigners, but these days there are increasingly more options, and the only thing that is thin on the ground is character. At the upper end of the scale, international chains are keen to get their slice of the Chinese pie and are opening new joint-venture hotels around the country. In the major cities you'll find the gamut of international chains, including Best Western, Crowne Plaza, Grand Hyatt, Harbor Plaza, Hilton, Holiday Inn, Kempinski, Marco Polo, Marriott, Ramada, St. Regis, Shangri-La, Sheraton, and Sofitel, among others. In most joint venture hotels the buildings are Chinese-owned, and the foreign part of the venture is the management company, which provides senior management and trains the staff, tries to ensure conformity with their standards, does worldwide marketing, and generally provides up to 90% of what you'd expect from the same brand at home. Chinese-owned chains are also improving and expanding, however while the exterior appearances of domestic and international five-stars may be similar, if you have the choice, go for the latter, as while prices will be comparable, service is almost always better. Unfortunately, such large operations also have large carbon footprints, and often put very little back into the local economies. It is therefore wise to remember that every time you open your wallet, you are voting either yes or no for the environment. Budget choices are more limited, in part because hotels require licenses to receive foreign guests, and many cheapies don't have these. Saving the day, though, are a new breed of business chain hotels such as Home Inn, Jinjiang Inn, and 7-Days Inn, which are sweeping the nation, and offer inexpensive (usually under ¥200) functional, modern rooms, often with good locations near the city center.

In general, Chinese hotels receive almost no maintenance once they open. There are "five-star" hotels in Beijing that have gone a decade without proper redecoration or refurbishment. Foreign managements force the issue with building owners, but it's rare elsewhere that standards are maintained. Thus the best choice is almost always the newest -- teething troubles aside, most things will work, staff will be eager to please (if not quite sure how), rooms will be spotless, and rates will be easily bargained down, since few hotels spend any money on advertising their existence.

Hotel Amenities -- The international chain hotels will feature all of the facilities you'd expect around the world, but the Chinese star-rating system itself is virtually meaningless. Five-star ratings are awarded from Beijing authorities, but four-star and lower depend upon provincial concerns. In some areas a four-star hotel must have a pool, in others a bowling alley, and in others a tennis court. The Jacuzzi may have more rings than a sequoia, the bowling alley be permanently out of order, and the tennis court be used for barbecues, but the hotel will retain its four stars, as long as it banquets the inspectors adequately. This said, most three-star places and above will have a functioning business center, restaurant, laundry facilities, and maybe a travel desk. In theory, all hotels approved to take foreign guests should also have at least one English-speaking staff member, but they often fail to materialize. Salons, massage rooms, nightclubs, and karaoke rooms are often merely bases for other kinds of illegal entertainment (for men). You may receive unexpected phone calls. If you are female, the phone may be put down without anything being said, as it may be if you are male and answer in English. But if the caller persists and is female, and you hear the word aanmo (massage), then what is being offered probably needs no further explanation, but a massage is only the beginning. Unplug the phone when you go to sleep.

Types of Rooms -- Ordinary Chinese hotels usually speak of a biaozhun jian, or standard room, which means a room with twin beds, occasionally with a double bed, and with a private bathroom. Often double beds have only recently been installed in a few rooms, which are now referred to as danren jian or single rooms. Nevertheless, two people can stay there, and the price is lower than that of a twin room. In older hotels, genuine single rooms are available, and in many hotels below four-star level there are triple rooms and quads, which can also serve as dorms shared with strangers. Children 12 and under can stay for free in their parent's room. Hotels will add an extra bed to your room for a small charge, which you can negotiate.

Almost all rooms in China have the following: a telephone whose line can usually be unplugged for use in a laptop; air-conditioning, which is either central with a wall-mounted control, or individual to the room with a remote control, and which may double as a heater; a television, usually with no English channels except CCTV 9 (to which no buttons may be tuned) and possibly an in-house movie channel using pirated DVDs; and a thermos of boiled water or a kettle to boil your own, usually with cups and free bags of green tea. In a cupboard somewhere there will be a quilt. Between the beds (most rooms still have twin beds) will be an array of switches, which may or may not actually control what they say they control. In the bathroom there are free soap and shampoo, and in better hotels a shower cap, and toothbrush/toothpaste package (but bring your own).

International hotels regularly describe their standard accommodations as deluxe, and, along with the facilities listed above, in the room you should expect to find a fridge, maybe a minibar, a hairdryer, satellite TV, and either broadband or wireless Internet connection (which is often chargeable).

Checking In & Checking Out -- Foreign credit cards are increasingly accepted in three-star hotels upwards, but never rely on this. Most hotels accepting foreigners have foreign exchange facilities on the premises, although some may send you elsewhere to exchange checks. Almost all require payment in advance, plus a deposit (yajin), which is refundable when you leave. Keep all receipts you are given, as you may need to show one to floor staff to get your key, and you may in fact need to hand the key back and retrieve the receipt again before you can leave. To get your deposit back, you'll need to hand over the receipt for that when you check out.

To check in, you'll need your passport and you'll have to complete a registration form (which will usually be in English). Always inspect the room before checking in. You'll be asked how many nights you want to stay, and you should always say just one, because if you say four, you'll be asked for the 4 nights' fee in advance (plus a deposit), and because it may turn out that the hot water isn't hot enough, the karaoke rooms are over your head, or a building site behind the hotel starts work at 8am sharp. Once you've tried 1 night, you can pay for more.

When you check out, the floor staff will be called to make sure you haven't broken or stolen anything (there is usually a list in each room detailing the costs of every item within); this may not happen speedily, so allow a little extra time.

Saving on Your Hotel Room

The rack rate is the maximum rate that a hotel charges for a room. In China these rates are nothing more than the first bid in a bargaining discussion, designed to keep the final price you will actually pay as high as possible. You'll almost never pay more than 90%, usually not more than 70%, frequently not more than 50%, and sometimes as little as 30% of this first asking price. Guidelines on discounts are given for each city. Avoid booking through Chinese hotel agencies and websites specializing in Chinese hotels. The discounts they offer are precisely what you can get for yourself, and you can in fact beat them because you won't be paying their markup. Many of these have no allocations at all, and simply jump on the phone to book a room as soon as they hear from you. Here are some tips to lower the cost of your room:

  • Do not book ahead. Just show up and bargain. In China this applies as much to the top-class joint-venture names as to all the others. The best price is available over the counter, as long as there's room. For most of the year, across China, there are far more rooms than customers at every level. For ordinary Chinese hotels you may well pay double by booking ahead, and there's no guarantee your reservation will be honored if the hotel fills up or if someone else arrives before you, cash in hand.
  • Dial any central booking number. Contrary to popular wisdom, as the better hotels manage their rates with increasing care, the central booking number is likely to have a rate as good as or better than the rate you can get by calling the hotel directly, and the call is usually toll-free.

In Hong Kong & Macau -- Hong Kong in particular is well stocked with hotels that regularly make their way onto lists of the world's best. Service is second to none, and they are worth flying halfway around the world to stay in. Little of what's said about mainland hotels above applies.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.