Over the months we’ve spent in China so far, I’ve had more experience than I’d like in finding different types of accommodation, from short term to long term.
Because that isn’t necessarily easy, even if, like us, you can speak, understand and read a bit of Chinese.
China is a vast country, with over 1.6 billion people. That means that there are always more domestic tourists than international tourists, especially during the peak holiday periods around Spring Festival – so most operators are focused on a Chinese-speaking market, rather than the foreign market.
Which can be a real shock to folk accustomed to the ease of the South-East Asia banana pancake trail.
So… here’s how to find accommodation in China, whether you’re looking for a year rental, a short-term let or a place to rest your head for the night. If you’ve got questions or tips of your own, do please leave me a comment.
How to Find Accommodation in China for a Year or More
Most Chinese rental contracts are for one year. Rental contracts in the south are typically paid monthly. North of Beijing, rent is typically payable either entirely in advance or with six months rent, plus deposit, plus broker’s fee in advance and six months rent halfway through the contract. Brokers usually charge a month’s rent and the deposit is around a month’s rent as well.
If you’re studying in China or working in China, your employer or university will most likely help you out with this process – if you’re not, your best sources for good value annual contracts are the websites ganji.com and 58.com. These are both in Chinese, but Google Translate can help you navigate them.
Be aware that the pictures shown on the site may not actually be of the flat that you are headed to see. Unless you hit a broker or private landlord who speaks English (rare), I’d recommend asking a Chinese friend, teacher or colleague to act as translator for you when calling to arrange a viewing.
Utilities are phenomenally cheap in China (often under a pound per month per item) but you will most likely need to arrange your own broadband internet (this post has information on how to do this).
If you’re checking out the location, never, ever use Google Maps in China. Always opt for Baidu maps.
How to Find Accommodation in China for a Few Months
Most Chinese cities with a large expat community will have websites tailored to expats and foreign visitors, and apartments tailored for the medium-term visitor, ready to move in straightaway, with professional cleaning, internet and English-speaking agents.
Prices are, of course, higher than those on ganji.com or 58.com, but this is how we found our apartment in Kunming.
If there isn’t an expat site for the place you’re looking to find accommodation, and you’re not studying or working somewhere that can help you find a rental, you’ll need to navigate Chinese language sites until you find a broker to assist.
How to Find Short-Term Accommodation in China
Chinese cities that see a lot of tourists will also have a range of apartments available at rates that vary by the day, the week or even the month. These are most often studios or one-bedroom-plus-sofa “family rooms”, though, since many young Chinese couples live with their parents, there’s a fair smattering of love hotels too.
The most extensive range is to be found on mayi.com, but this is a Chinese language site and unless you have a Chinese phone and a Union Pay card, and read Chinese well enough to read the SMSs it sends you, or have a Chinese friend handy to help you, it won’t be a great deal of use.
Of the main Western apartment rental sites, Wimdu, perhaps thanks to its Chinese-language subsidiary airizu.com, has a good range of apartments in the major international tourist destinations in China – more than a hundred in Chengdu alone.
It’s always wise to start looking ahead of time, as the best deals go fast, and send an enquiry to all apartments you are interested in to confirm availability before you proceed to booking.
How to Find Hotels and Hostels in China
China is so large, and its cities so vast, that no English-language booking site can cover a fraction of the options available.
As I’ve explained elsewhere, I’m a huge fan of travelling with a guidebook, and for China a detailed guidebook is extremely helpful (particularly when paired with a Chinese SIM card), although, again, they will only cover a small selection of the most central choices: you can also use the Lonely Planet website.
Chinese YHA hostels offer reliably good value accommodation – most offer family rooms and, though not as cheap as you might expect, they tend to have clean, modern, contemporary rooms that feel straight out of the more luxurious end of an IKEA catalogue. There are fairly few hostels in China, but most will have fliers for hostels in other cities that they recommend – these are well worth picking up.
Agoda.com has, in my experience, the broadest selection of hotels and guesthouses in China. The main international five-star brands live up to the standards set elsewhere; Chinese business hotels tend to be nicely decorated and very good value with Western bathrooms; cheap Chinese hotels are not for the faint-hearted.
Shoestringers should note that really cheap accommodation will not have a web presence in Chinese, let alone English.
How to Find Accommodation in China When You’re Stranded
There are hotels near most railway stations, bus stations and airports in China, and you’ll often find that the quality of the rooms belies the reception area. If you speak some Chinese, you may be able to negotiate a hefty discount from the rack rate, particularly since prices are often set to include lucky numbers.
A few railway stations and major airports have hotel booking desks, sometimes with people who speak English too. But if you look lost for long enough ar arrivals in any airport or the exit from most train stations, you’ll be accosted by a hotel tout – if you’re looking for one, they might well be standing at the exit with a Chinese language sign. In small towns and rural areas, the tried-and-true technique of pounding the streets will work.
Most hotel touts outside of the most obvious destinations don’t speak English so, as the Chinese don’t count on their fingers in the same way we do in the West, it’s a good idea to use a mobile phone or bank notes to establish and/or negotiate the price before you follow them to their hotel.