The availability of accommodation for tourists is generally good and ranges from shared rooms to 5-star luxury hotels. In the past, only a few hotels were allowed to accept foreign guests and the police monitored them, but restrictions now vary from city to city. Even in cities with restrictions, family-run establishments in particular can check you in if they feel they can get enough information from you to register you in the system, or if they think they can get away without doing so. Every hotel will still ask for a photocopy of your passport, some will check if your visa has expired, and they will probably share information with the authorities at least sometimes.
Looking for a hotel can be a daunting task when you first arrive in a Chinese city. Crowded passengers trying to get off the train or bus, touts grabbing your arm and shouting at you to follow them in front of your face, all in Chinese you don’t understand and you just want a place to put your bag. It doesn’t get better once you get into a taxi, because the driver doesn’t speak English and every hotel in your guidebook is full or closed! This is the experience of many travellers in China, but the agony of finding a hotel room can be avoided if you know where to look and what to look for. Also, star ratings, especially for two- and three-star hotels, generally cannot be trusted in China. Pricing is a much better guide.
If you are willing to pay ¥180 or more for a room, you will probably have little trouble finding one. For example, you could search Google Maps with the name of a hotel chain listed below under “mid-range”, find out what the address would be in Chinese, and then write that down on a piece of paper to give to a taxi driverIn case you are searching for something less expensive or more options, you may consider hostels, dormitories as well as extra rooms called zhusu. Sleeper trains and sleeper buses can also be a decent option if you’re planning your long-distance trip overnight. If you’re in a city and can’t find a hotel, try looking near the bus or train station, where there’s usually a wider selection of cheap hotels. Hotels without a licence can be heavily fined if caught hosting foreigners, but enforcement of this law seems to be sporadic, and many unlicensed hotels will still give you a room. In rare cases, someone from your hotel will accompany you to the local police station to comply with the house registration requirement.
Many ultra-cheap options are used as temporary accommodation by migrant workers and would not be attractive to most travellers from developed countries for safety and cleanliness reasons. In the cheapest hotels, it is important to ask if hot water is available 24 hours a day (有没有二十四个小时的热水 yǒuméiyǒu èrshisì ge xiǎoshí de rèshuǐ), and to check that the shower, sink and toilet actually work. Furthermore, it is recommended to avoid staying in rooms along busy streets, since the traffic may cause you to stay up late and wake up early. If you plan to just turn up in the city and look for a place to sleep, it is best to arrive before 6pm, otherwise the most popular places will be booked for the night.
Note that you should contact the local police (警察) or the public security office (公安局) if you are absolutely at a loss when looking for accommodation. They can help you find a place to sleep – at least for one night.
Prices are often negotiable, and a significant discount from the price posted on the wall can often be obtained even in nicer hotels by simply asking, “What’s the lowest price?” (最低多少 zuìdī duōshǎo). For stays of more than a few days, it is usually also possible to negotiate a lower daily rate. However, this negotiating tactic will not work during the busy Chinese holiday season, when prices skyrocket and rooms are hard to come by. Many hotels, both chains and individual properties, have membership cards that offer discounts to regular guests.
In mid-range hotels and above, it used to be quite common for guests to receive phone calls offering ‘massage services’ (which in reality offered additional physical services), but this has become rarer, so male guests may only find business cards stuffed under the door.
Booking a room over the internet with a credit card can be a convenient and quick way to ensure you have a room when you arrive at your destination, and there are many websites that offer this. Credit cards are not widely used in China, especially in smaller and cheaper hotels. Such hotels usually require an advance payment in cash and a deposit. A number of new online services will allow you to book without a credit card and to pay in cash at the hotel. During Chinese holidays, when it is difficult to get a room anywhere, this can be an acceptable option, but in the low season rooms are plentiful almost everywhere and it can be as easy to find a room on arrival as it is to book one over the internet.
Across China, check-out is usually at noon, and there is often the option to pay for half a day to get a 6pm check-out.
For those staying permanently in China, renting is possible, but with the obvious caveat that all contracts are in Chinese. Property prices are very high in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, even exceeding those in many major Western cities.
There are several ways to sleep very cheaply in China: hostels, dormitories, zhusu, massage shops, saunas and spas.
- Hostels (青年旅社) are by far the most convenient and affordable options. They are usually aimed at foreigners, have English-speaking staff and offer cheap, convenient transport around the city. Some of them are even cleaner and better equipped than more expensive accommodation. Hostels also have a cosy, international atmosphere and are a good place to meet other travellers and get some half-decent western food, which can be a godsend after living on rice and noodles for days or weeks. Most cities of any size have at least one hostel, and travel hotspots such as Beijing, Yangshuo, Dali and Chengdu have a variety of hostels, although they can book up quickly due to their popularity with backpackers. Hostels can often be booked in advance online, but be sure to bring a printout of the confirmation, as not all hostels know that you can book their rooms (and pay part of the price) online in advance. In Beijing, many hostels are located in hutongs – traditional courtyard houses in the middle of a maze of traditional streets and architecture. While many of Beijing’s hutongs have been demolished, a movement to save the remaining hutongs has led to a boom in hostels for backpackers and boutique hotels for middle-class travellers.
- Dormitories (宿舍) are found on university campuses, near rural tourist attractions and as part of some hotels. Most travellers have little luck with dormitories. It is not uncommon to have rowdy or drunken roommates, and shared bathrooms take some getting used to, especially if you are not used to traditional squat toilets or cold showers. However, in some areas, especially on China’s sacred mountains, dormitories can be the only cheap option in a sea of luxury resorts.
- Zhùsù (住宿), which translates simply as “accommodation”, can refer to any kind of sleeping accommodation, but the places that have the Chinese characters for zhusu written on the outside of the wall are the cheapest. A zhusu is not an actual hotel, but simply rooms rented out in flats, restaurants and near train stations and bus stops. Zhusu rooms are consistently spartan and bathrooms are almost always shared. The price can be quite low, costing only a few dozen renminbi. Officially, a zhusu is not allowed to rent rooms to foreigners, but often the caretaker is eager to get a customer and is willing to rent to anyone. There are never English signs advertising a zhusu, so if you can’t read Chinese, you may have to print out the characters to find them. Security in zhusu’s is sketchy, so this option is not recommended if you have valuables with you.
- Massage shops, saunas and spas: The cost of spas varies but can be up to ¥25. If you enter a spa very late at night (after 01:00) and leave before noon, you may get a 50% discount. In addition to showers, saunas, etc., the spa also has beds or loungers. Spa admission is usually for 24 hours and there is a small locker for bags and personal belongings. This is ideal if you are travelling light. In addition, spas often offer free food and chargeable services such as massages and body scrubs. There is no privacy as everyone usually sleeps in one room. However, there is more security than in a dormitory as there are attendants monitoring the area and your belongings (even your clothes!) are kept in the lockers. Don’t be fooled if receptionists try to invent reasons why you have to pay more than the quoted price. They may try to convince you that the prices quoted are for members only, locals, women or men, or only include part of the spa (e.g. shower but no bed/lounger). To verify any claims, start a conversation with a local some distance from the spa and ask about the prices. Do not let them know that you are checking the spa’s claims. Just pretend that you are thinking about going there if the price is good. If they know the spa is trying to overcharge you, they will usually support the spa’s claim.
The next hotels up, aimed at Chinese customers, are usually officially off-limits to foreigners, but you might be able to convince them to accept you, especially if you can speak a little Chinese. The cheapest Chinese budget hotels (one step above zhusu) are called zhāodàisuǒ (招待所). In contrast to zhusu, these are licensed accommodations, but they are similarly spartan and functionally furnished, often with shared bathrooms. Slightly more luxurious budget hotels and Chinese business hotels may or may not have English signs and usually have the words lǚguǎn (旅馆, meaning “travel hotel”), bīnguǎn or jiǔdiàn (宾馆 and 酒店 respectively, meaning “hotel”) in their name.
There are single and double rooms with private bathrooms and dormitories with shared bathrooms. Some budget hotels offer free toiletries and internet. In small, rural towns, a night can be had for as little as ¥25; in larger towns, you can usually get a room for ¥80-120. One problem with such hotels is that they can be quite noisy, as guests and staff can shout at each other until the early hours of the morning. Another possible inconvenience is taking a room with a shared bathroom, as you may have to wait to use a shower or squat toilet, which is also not in an appealing condition. In smaller budget hotels, the family running the hotel may simply lock up late at night when no more guests arrive. If you plan to be late, try to explain in advance, otherwise you may have to call reception, knock on the door or climb over the gate to get in.
Middle class hotels
These are usually larger hotels, clean and comfortable but not too expensive, with rooms ranging from ¥150 at the lower end to over ¥300. Often the same hotels have more expensive and luxurious rooms. Double rooms are usually quite nice and up to Western standards, with a clean private bathroom with towels and free toiletries. A buffet breakfast may be included, or you can buy a breakfast ticket for about ¥10.
There are a number of Western-quality budget hotels throughout China, including the following chains, all of which offer rooms in the ¥150-300 range and can be booked online in advance:
- 7 Days Inns. (7天连锁酒店)
- JinJiangInns. (锦江之星)
- Home Inns (Rujia Express Hotels).
- Motel 168. (莫泰168)
- Green Tree Inns (格林豪泰酒店). (English)
At the top end of the hotel food chain are international hotel chains and resorts such as Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton and Shangri-La and their Chinese competitors. These charge hundreds or thousands of yuan per night for luxurious accommodation with 24-hour room service, satellite TV, spas and Western breakfast buffets. In Shanghai, for example, suites can be found for over ¥10,000 per night. Many of these accommodations cater to business travellers with expense accounts and charge accordingly for food and amenities (e.g. ¥20 for a bottle of water, which costs ¥2 in the supermarket). Internet (wired or wireless), which is usually free in mid-range accommodation, is often chargeable in upmarket hotels.
Some hotels in the ¥400-700 range, like Ramada or Days Inn, are willing to lower their rates if business is slow. Chinese three- and four-star hotels often give block rates or better deals if you negotiate or book a room for more than 5 days. If you come to China with a tour, the tour company may be able to get you a room in a real luxury hotel for a fraction of the list price.