Choosing A Hotel In China

China is not a resort or honeymoon destination, at least not for the average romantic. Mainland China has no hotels so special that they are worth flying all that way to sample (although Hong Kong and Macau do).

There are two types of hotel in mainland China: the Sino-foreign joint-venture hotels with familiar brand-names, and Chinese-owned and -managed hotels. At the government-issued four- and five-star Chinese properties, they want you to think that they are at the same level as the joint-ventures; at lower levels, the accommodations can range from indescribably battered and grubby, to friendly and comfortable.

Your first choice at the four- or five-star level should be a familiar brand-name or a property from one of the Asian luxury chains. In most cases the buildings are Chinese-owned, and from this book (for your destination), those written down for you by your hotel receptionist (times, pick-up point, and other details), and a pen and paper (or calculator) to bargain prices. Avoid giving an exact kilometer distance, since if you overrun it (and with China's poor road signage and the drivers' lack of experience outside their own town centers, you're bound to get lost at least once), there will be attempts to renegotiate. For the same reason, it's best to avoid being precise to the minute about a return time, but note that especially in big cities drivers sometimes have to be back in time to hand the car to the man who will drive it through the night. Be prepared to pay road tolls, and ensure that the driver gets lunch. If you find a driver who is pleasant and helpful, take his mobile phone number and employ him on subsequent days and for any airport trip.

the foreign part of the venture is the management company, which provides senior management and trains the staff, ensures conformity with their standards (never entirely possible), does worldwide marketing, and generally provides up to 90% of what you'd expect from the same brand at home. There are Grand Hyatts in Beijing and Shanghai, and a Park Hyatt on the way. The Starwood group's St. Regis, Sheraton, and Westin brands are here, as well as Six Continents' Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn; so are Hilton, Marriott, Ramada, Best Western, and more, although all are concentrated in China's largest cities. The Hong Kong Shangri-La group's hotels are among China's best, and they are notably successful in extracting the best from local staff. The Marco Polo and Harbour Plaza luxury brands are also in China (the Beijing Marco Polo in particular should not be overlooked). The

Palace Hotel in Beijing is managed by the same company that manages the legendary Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong (also Bangkok, New York, and other cities).

Your second choice should be a wholly Chinese hotel with foreigners in senior management, whose main purpose is simply to be there and make sure that things actually happen. But in this type of hotel and in the joint-venture, the general manager may be ignorant as to what's actually going on: Perhaps the transport department uses hotel vehicles for private hires to make money on the side; the human resources manager rejects applicants whose experience may be threatening and make a good income from bribes to ensure that the housekeeper's nephew gets a job in security; the front office manager institutes a system of fines, and pockets them himself; or the doormen charge taxis to be allowed to wait in the rank.

Entirely Chinese-owned and -operated hotels at government-issued four-and five-star levels usually have one thing in common with their counter-parts—they charge the same (or, at least, attempt to), but you certainly won't get value for your money. At four-star level and below, 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. The aim is to find sweetly inept but willing service rather than the sour leftovers of the tiefhnwdn (iron rice bowl) era of guaranteed employment, for whom everything is too much effort.

A drawback for all hoteliers is that the government requires them to employ far more people than they need, and it's nearly impossible to obtain staff with any experience in hotel work. The joint-venture hotels are the training institutions for the rest of the Chinese hotel industry, which steals their local staff as soon as possible. Lower-level hotels are run on half-understood rules, with which there's half-compliance, half the time. You may stay in a three-star which has perhaps a dozen foreign guests a year, but whenever they knock on a door, housekeeping staff may announce themselves in English ("Housekeeping!") although that's the only English word they know, and 99% of their guests won't know even that. But it's written down in a manual somewhere. A hotel may have designated nonsmoking rooms, but that doesn't mean they don't have ashtrays.

Until recently throughout China, only hotels with special licenses were allowed to take foreign guests. This requirement has already vanished in Yunnan and Beijing, and may eventually disappear elsewhere. In theory, all hotels with such licenses have at least one English speaker, usually of modest ability, shouted for by nervous, giggling staff as soon as you walk in.

The Chinese star-rating system is 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 (because although it's a required feature, China simply doesn't have enough tennis players), but the hotel will retain its four stars, as long as it banquets the inspectors adequately. In general, Chinese hotels receive almost no maintenance once they open. There are "five-star" hotels in Beijing which 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. A new three-star will usually be better than an old four-star.

Outside of joint-venture hotels, don't rely on the extras, many of which we do not even list, and even if we do, it's no guarantee that you'll find them fit to use. Salons, massage rooms, nightclubs, and karaoke rooms are often merely bases for other kinds of illegal entertainment (for men). Fitness equipment may be broken and inadequately supervised, and pool hygiene poor, so proceed with care.

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 hnmo (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.

Almost all rooms in China, however basic, 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 or VCDs; and a thermos of boiled water or a kettle to boil your own, usually with cups (which you should wash before using) 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, toothbrush/toothpaste package (but bring your own).

Ordinary Chinese hotels usually speak of a biaozhun jian, or standard room, which usually 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 dan ren jian or single rooms. Nevertheless, two people can stay there, but 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.

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 (yajtn), 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, and since staff occasionally forget to enter payments in computer or ledger, you may need receipts to prevent yourself from being charged twice.

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 1, because if you say 4, 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 stolen anything; this may not happen speedily, so allow a little extra time.

Children 12 and under 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.

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