For first time visitors to China, the act of actually choosing a hotel can be extremely stressful. Unless you have a travel agency making the choice for you, it feels a bit like Russian roulette: you just don’t know what you’re going to get! Are there tricks to help you choose the best China hotels online before you arrive? The short answer is ‘yes’, and here’s how.
The fear of choosing a bad China hotel is not without merit. I’ve stayed in some pretty awful hotels while traveling throughout China, hotels that I wouldn’t ever let my mother step foot in.
Well, let me rephrase that.
The hotels were fine by Chinese standards: however, by international standards, they were terrible.
So, what can you do to make sure that you’re choosing the best China hotels possible for your level of comfort and budget?
I’m going to draw from my decade of experience traveling around China and staying at hundreds of Chinese hotels to share with you some simple tips and principles that will completely change the way you search for good China hotels online.
Note: There may be links within this article that are affiliate links. What this means is that, at no extra cost to you, you will be helping to support this website and all the free information I provide when you use the services listed. Thank you!
Step 1: Understand the China Rating System
First things first: the star rating system in China is a joke.
What often gets by as a five-star hotel in China would rarely rate as a four-star anywhere else in the world. Just the fact that you can stay in a Chinese five-star hotel for less than US$100 is an indication of the standard being used here.
Most Chinese hotels are rated on an official system that runs from one to five stars. This is important only because, according to Chinese policy, a foreigner is only allowed to stay the night at hotels with three or more stars.
Thankfully, most of the time these hotels are perfectly acceptable and budget-friendly.
As you can see in the graph above, the vast majority of Chinese hotels are rated 3-stars (40.7%).
This is good if you’re hoping to find a place to sleep. It’s not good once you understand that many of these three star hotels would barely be legal in the western world.
The bottom line is this: As you’re searching for a Chinese hotel online, make sure that you understand these three important points:
- A three-star hotel is the lowest rating and a four-star hotel by China’s standards would be considered average anywhere else in the world.
- The five-star rating covers a wide range of experiences, including what most travelers would consider a good business hotel all the way to a legitimate, international five-star hotel.
- Price is often the only indication of which kind of “five-star hotel” you’re dealing with.
This final point is an interesting but important one that we’ll unpack more in Step 4 below.
Also, it’s worth noting that hostels and Airbnb in China aren’t subject to this same rating system, so if that’s the route you plan to go, you don’t need to worry about this at all.
Step 2: Search Near Public Transport (Critical!)
As the old saying goes, “Location, location, location”.
This is never truer than in China, where city blocks can often take fifteen minutes to walk, and taking a taxi in China can be impossible the moment you need one.
The problem here is that maps can be deceiving. For example, if you look at a hotel in Beijing and see that it’s only two blocks from the nearest subway stop, you may be inclined to think, “You know, that’s not too far. We could save $20 a night!”.
The reality is that those two blocks could easily require 20-30 minutes of walking each way which can really wear on you (unless you’re some power walking super-traveler).
In bigger cities, finding a hotel located near a strategic subway stop can mean the difference between quick transportation to your next destination or an hour of extra walking. To me, that’s often worth the extra $20.
Can you imagine walking for 20-30 minutes along this crowded Beijing block you see above?
Step 3: Use a Local Booking Site (Local = Lots of Pictures)
I enjoy using services like Expedia, Orbitz and others, but when it comes to hotels in China, they lack the one thing that really matters: the listings often don’t have enough photos.
While photos can definitely be deceiving, the more there are, the easier it is to get a sense of whether or not a hotel bathroom will fit your needs.
It’s for this reason that I usually suggest that travelers do their hotel research on local websites like Trip.com (which is the English version of the popular Chinese Ctrip website).
*Note: I used to recommend eLong but once it was bought out by Expedia, it became much worse.
Not only does Trip.com offer their website in English, they’re also able to accept most major international credit cards.
Best of all, because it’s a China-based company, they usually provide quite a few photos for all best China hotels, including shots of the front (helpful for finding the hotel when you arrive), pictures of the different rooms, and pictures of the bathrooms.
Step 4: Use Price to Make a Final Decision
As I said above, pricing is often your only indication of quality when it comes to best China hotels to choose from. It goes against our western “get the best deal” mentality, but if you think about it, it really makes sense.
Let’s take hotels in Beijing for example. In a simple search, I came across the Junyi Runhua hotel that offers rooms for between US$55-$70/night. I also found the Hilton Beijing hotel that offers rooms starting at more than US$115/night.
Both of them are rated “5-stars”.
As you can imagine, these two hotels are completely different in quality. And honestly, $159/night for a Hilton in a capital city is still pretty cheap.
This might be obvious when you’re dealing with an international brand like Hilton, but in most cases when you’re comparing two domestic hotels side-by-side, the only indication you will have of the level of quality will be pricing.
I’m not saying that you can’t find good deals, and I’m not telling you to increase your budget. I’m only suggesting that you get what you pay for.
Conclusion | Find the Best China Hotels Online
As you plan your travels to China and begin to research the best China hotels, take a moment to consider the following:
- What is the China hotel star rating? (and will that be comfortable enough?)
- Is this China hotel located near transportation? (and it better be darn close!)
- Am I seeing lots of pictures of this China hotel? (because the Chinese search engines such as Trip.com have the best)
- Is this China hotel ridiculously cheap? (you’ll get what you pay for, despite the “rating”)
You may end up spending a few more dollars than you expected – especially considering how dirt-cheap you can find some hotels in China – but in the end you’ll be better off. Finding transportation won’t be a headache, the bathroom will be clean and the bed will be comfortable (at least, this is what you can normally expect with a China hotel).
Josh Summers says
Very good advice, Justine. While most of the time Ctrip will only list hotels that can accept foreigners on the English version of the site, I have had the same experience you have. You’re not going to sleep on the street, but it is annoying.
The problem in western areas such as Lanzhou, the hotels seem to change their status ever 6 months or so. A hotel I stayed at last year now no longer accepts foreigners. And it was a nice hotel! So weird. Thankfully, you don’t run into that as much in the bigger cities along the eastern coast of China.