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    Logo of the White Swan Hotel
    Logo of the White Swan Hotel

    An abundance of accommodations is available in China for most of the year, despite the rapid growth in domestic travel. Four- and five-star hotels, sometimes run by foreign hotel chains, are plentiful in the major cities and tourist destinations. In other cities and towns, there are numerous mid-range hotels and budget options with basic facilities to choose from. Generally, there is no need to book in advance, unless you are traveling during one of the high seasons – the first week of May and October, and the Chinese New Year (Spring Festival). Although you may want to book some of your stay (the first few nights, for example, to ease your arrival), it is perfectly feasible to turn up at your hotel of choice, bargain cheerfully, and book yourself a room at a sizable discount.

    Different kinds of hotels
    Visitors in search of international standards of comfort and service should stick either to five-star hotels managed by familiar Western chains, or the Singapore- and Hong Kong-based luxury companies. Several international chains such as Hyatt, Shangri-La, Marriott, and Sofitel all have hotels based in the major cities; check their websites for details.

    The grand Xinhao Ying Hotel on Xinhao Shan, Qingdao
    The grand Xinhao Ying Hotel on Xinhao Shan,
    Qingdao
    The plant-laden lobby of the White Swan Hotel, Guangzhou
    The plant-laden lobby of the White
    Swan Hotel, Guangzhou

    Chinese-run hotels do their best to emulate Western operations and are raising their standards, design, and service at a rapid rate. The published rack rates of Chinese four- and five-star hotels are indeed comparable, although the level of service in Chinese hotels does not match their Western counterparts, and many do not accept international credit cards. There is a willingness to please, however, especially away from the main tourist areas.

    The Chinese star system of grading hotels is meaningless. Although authorities have devised a check-list of facilities that hotels must provide within each grade, there is no proper system of monitoring the standards of these services. Therefore, no matter how poorly these facilities may be maintained, no star is ever lost once it has been given. Rather than be involved in the star-rating system, some international hotels choose to go starless. These unrated hotels can be far superior to neighboring Chinese-run, five-star properties, which may not have been renovated in years. As a general rule for Chinese-run hotels, the newer the hotel, the better the facilities.

    For the best deals, and to check out the location and prices of new hotels and make online bookings, www.ctrip.com is excellent.

    Budget hotels & other types of accommodations
    Budget travelers will find a choice of basic and inexpensive accommodations all across the mainland and in Hong Kong. Dormitory beds for around ¥25–30 are common, especially away from the larger cities. Youth hostels with spotless facilities and beds costing about ¥50 are beginning to open up in some metropolises. Many universities will rent out vacant rooms in their “foreign residents wings.”

    At the upper end of the budget spectrum, the Motel 168 and Jinjiang chains offer excellent rooms, free Internet, private bathrooms, and televisions for an affordable rate.

    Camping is not an option in China. Pitching a tent, except in the most far-flung places, is certain to attract attention, and you are likely to get a visit from the police. Stays in a ger, the round portable homes of the nomadic Mongols and Kazakhs, can be arranged in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. These overnight camps are firmly targeted at tourists, so you may be disappointed if you are after an authentic experience. Some monasteries and lamaseries have pilgrims’ inns where you are welcome to stay for a minimal fee, but conditions can be very austere. On holy mountains, such as Emei Shan, you will find many temples offering basic but atmospheric accommodations.

    Booking a hotel
    In China, the real price of a hotel room is what the customer is willing to pay. Locals always ask for a discount and you should too. The days of official surcharges for non-Chinese customers are long gone. Although many hotels still quote higher prices to foreign visitors, they are amenable to hard bargaining and will bring their rates down drastically, especially if the rooms in question will otherwise go empty.

    For most foreign-run hotels, the best available price will be on the hotel’s own website. Unless demand is very high, the price will tend to drop nearer to the planned day of stay.

    Websites for Chinese hotels will almost always quote a wildly inflated rack rate. Only foreigners who try to book in advance from overseas will ever pay this price. Specialist websites often claim to offer huge discounts but, while they can sometimes offer good prices for advance bookings, you should be able to get a better price by a considerable margin if you turn up to book in person. Discounts of 10 to 20 percent are standard, 30 to 40 percent very common, 50 percent not unusual. You can even try for larger discounts, especially in locations with strong seasonal demand.

    The recent introduction of double beds of various sizes in Chinese-run hotels (rather than the standard twin single beds) has led to some confusion. Older hotels and a few newer ones do indeed have regular “single rooms,” with a single bed in a relatively small space for a cheaper price. However, rooms described as “single” usually refer to those with a double bed, and can be occupied by two people, although they usually cost slightly less than twin-bed rooms of the same size.

    The display of certain credit card symbols at hotels does not guarantee that the hotel will accept the international versions of these cards. It is therefore important to confirm that your international card will be accepted before checking in. You cannot pay directly with travelers’ checks, and though most tourist hotels now have foreign exchange facilities, the staff will probably send you to a local bank to exchange your checks. In most places, be prepared to pay in renminbi.

    Charming rural lodgings in Ping An, near Longsheng, Guangxi
    Charming rural lodgings in Ping An,
    near Longsheng, Guangxi

    Hidden costs
    The prices quoted by major international hotels do not include their service charges or local bed taxes, although the latter are rarely levied. Many Chinese-run, upper-end hotels have begun to levy service charges of between 5 and 15 percent. Since this is a new practice, most Chinese customers refuse to pay the charges, and hotels rarely insist. Foreign visitors should check their bills carefully before paying, as specialty restaurants in hotels often try to sneak service charges on to their bills. Note that minibar contents are as overpriced in China as they are elsewhere in the world. Costs for phone calls from even modest hotels are computer monitored, and no more than a modest service charge will be added on top of the actual cost of the call.

    The lobby at Dalian Hotel, Harbin
    The lobby at Dalian Hotel, Harbin

    Seasonal demand
    While rooms are readily available in China for most of the year, the busiest travel periods are during the week-long national holidays, principally around the Chinese New Year (January or February) and October 1. Unlike the West, very few people in China have discretionary holidays, so almost everyone in the country seems to be traveling at the same time. Another time to avoid traveling is during the Spring Festival, when accommodation is almost impossible to find. The exact dates are not fixed far in advance, but as soon as the dates are declared transport and accommodation costs shoot up.

    Spring and autumn, with their milder temperatures and lower humidity, are more popular seasons for traveling than summer or winter, which are both extreme. In summer, some of the cooler destinations within reasonable reach of large cities – such as the island of Putuo Shan, served by short flights and ferries from Shanghai – can be very crowded and expensive during weekends, but very cheap during the week. Other events that affect transport costs and room availability are the festivals of ethnic minorities, particularly in the southwest, and trade events such as the biannual fair in Guangzhou.

    The Grand Hyatt Hotel at the Oriental Plaza Shopping Center
    The Grand Hyatt Hotel at the Oriental
    Plaza Shopping Center

    Choosing a hotel
    When looking for a hotel, keep in mind that the newest hotels are always the best, as most owners seem to resist carrying out repairs and maintenance unless they are absolutely necessary. New hotels, which are constantly springing up in various parts of the country, are mostly one-off operations started by private businesses in the hope of benefiting from the growth in domestic tourism. Hotels run by the police, banks, post offices, tobacco companies, and other businesses, are aspiring to compete with long-standing establishments run by local governments. Any hotel with the word “business” in the title is likely to be relatively new and offer good services.

    In general, hotels whose names begin with the province or city to which they belong, followed by one of the many Chinese words for hotel such as dajiu-dian, jiudian, fan-dian, and binguan, are more likely to be owned by local gov-ernments. These hotels are best avoided, as most seem to be trapped in an era of central planning and guaranteed employ-ment, with shabby, dilapidated rooms, and a rather indifferent staff to whom the Communist motto, “Serve the people,” doesn’t necessarily extend to the person in front of them.

    General observations & precautions
    Check-out time is usually noon, but visitors can pay half the nightly rate to keep the room until 6pm. Chinese regulations require all non-residents to be out of hotel rooms by 11pm, but this is widely ignored. Although foreign exchange facilities are usually open seven days a week at most of the better hotels, these facilities can only be used by registered guests.

    In most parts of China, hotels which provide accommodations to foreign visitors must have a license to do so. Some hotels without licenses may turn you away, although this is becoming increasingly rare. Beijing and Yunnan have already done away with the licensing system, and more regions can be expected to follow soon.

    Many hotels in China, including some establishments with foreign management, advertise facilities such as night clubs, hair and beauty salons, and karaoke bars, but these are often fronts for prostitution. Be wary of unexpected telephone calls to your room offering “ anmo” or massage. It is best to disconnect your phone if you wish to avoid being solicited.

    It is nearly always a mistake to arrange transport services through your hotel, as they often cost as much as four times what they would if you found a taxi on your own. It is wiser to simply walk onto the street and flag down a passing vehicle. Taxis hovering near the doors of hotels in popular tourist destinations should also be approached with caution.

    When surveying hotels, remember that the pictures you see on brochures and websites almost always date to the time of opening, and are unlikely to represent the current condition of rooms. You should also not be swayed by the promise of saunas, fitness centers, swimming pools, or jacuzzis, especially in Chinese-run hotels in remote areas, as the presence of these in brochures does not indicate that they are still working or fit for use. Most importantly, the rates mentioned are not fixed.

    The Yunjincheng Folk Custom Hotel in Pingyao, Shanxi
    The Yunjincheng Folk Custom Hotel
    in Pingyao, Shanxi

    Facilities for children & the disabled
    Children are welcome everywhere in China, although special facilities for them in hotels are rare. Most hotels allow children below 12 years to stay with their parents free of charge. Most hotels will also add an extra bed for an older child for a nominal (and usually negotiable) fee. Groups of four, including two children over 12, can sometimes share a room, but may be required to pay for two rooms. However, many older, Chinese-run hotels have three- and four-bed rooms, ideal for families.

    In general, China is not a suitable destination for the disabled. Only the newest and best international hotels make any serious effort to provide wheelchair access, or fully adapted rooms. Most places have standard suites with inconveniently placed light switches, although some have wider bathroom doors to allow wheelchairs. However, most hotels have elevators, so booking a ground-floor room is not necessary.

    Tipping
    As tipping is not very common in China, hotel staff don’t usually expect to be tipped. The international hotels will already be charging you a 5 to 15 percent service charge on top of your bill. Some Chinese hotels have started to add these charges as well.

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