When planning a trip to Japan and Hong Kong with my boyfriend last winter — my first trip to Asia — I made what you might call rookie mistakes.
I waited until the last minute — three weeks before our trip — to book our hotels. I didn’t realize our visit to Kyoto coincided with peak cherry blossom viewing and a school holiday (I found what appeared to be the only available room in the city). And in Tokyo, I overlooked room dimensions as I was making reservations (in one hotel, the bed took up nearly all the floor space).
On the plus side, I chose our locations wisely, in prime neighborhoods close to transit hubs. And we spent less than I expected: an average of $200 a night.
Still, booking accommodations in Asia can be more complicated than choosing a hotel in Europe or the United States, because of language barriers and the unfamiliarity of many travelers with the hotels that pop up in search engines. So here’s some advice based on what I learned and tips from savvy expats who help Westerners plan trips to Asia.
• Know what’s out there. Asia has a range of hotels — from small family-run guesthouses to local and global chains. While there are some notable boutique options — including the design-centric Claska Hotel in Tokyo and the modernistic Mira in Hong Kong — chains tend to dominate the market, a situation that many travelers will welcome. For instance, if you want to use or earn reward points from companies such as Marriott or Starwood, you might prefer sticking with your member brand; it might also be easier to ask questions about reservations by calling a U.S.-based phone number.
Cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong are known for luxury hotels, among them the Peninsula, Ritz-Carlton, Mandarin Oriental and Shangri-La. But more affordable brands have also expanded into Asia, particularly China, which experienced a hotel boom before the 2008 Olympics that has not let up.
The roundup of worldwide hotel openings compiled by HotelChatter.com, which tracks trends, lists roughly 50 hotels that are due to open in China this year. Mark Johnson, HotelChatter’s founder, noted that many of them are midpriced brands owned by Sheraton, Starwood, Marriott, InterContinental and Hilton. For instance, Hotel Indigo, owned by the InterContinental Hotels Group, opened its first Asia property in Shanghai in 2010, with rates around $250 a night, and is planning another opening in Hong Kong in April.
• Know where to book. Sites like HotelChatter and TabletHotels.com are useful for researching higher-end hotels, but for a wider view, Agoda.com is one of the leading sites for Asia. I used Agoda, which is owned by Priceline, to book several of our hotels, including the Bishop Lei in Hong Kong and Hotel Sunroute Plaza in Tokyo — chosen mostly for their proximity to friends we were visiting. Another good option is Booking.com.
Both sites pinpoint each hotel on a city map, making it easy to judge how close you would be to popular sites and transportation hubs, which is important if you plan to take a train from the airport to the city. Johnson said he once stayed at the W in Hong Kong and loved being able to take a train directly from the airport to the hotel, whereas in Shanghai he ended up in a newer neighborhood that involved taking transportation to get to places.
“You really have to do your research and figure out where it is you want to be,” he advised.
There are also sites that focus on alternative accommodations, like JapaneseGuestHouses.com, a guide to Japan’s ryokan, traditional inns where guests sleep on futons on tatami-mat floors. Ryokan range from luxury properties to budget options that feel more like hostels. We stayed at two: Ryokan Rikiya, a bare-bones place in the prime temple-filled Higashiyama neighborhood of Kyoto, and Takaragawa Onsen Osenkaku, a riverside hot springs ryokan two hours from Tokyo — a great overnight escape that cost $214 total, including meals.
Chris Rowthorn, lead author of the Lonely Planet Japan guidebook, said staying in a ryokan is “a must-do experience in Japan,” and I agree; the ritual of the baths and a traditional kaiseki dinner wearing yukata robes was a highlight of our trip. Rowthorn’s blog, InsideKyoto.com, also recommends vacation rental homes in Kyoto — a trend that is slowly catching on in Japan.
Given the challenges of traveling in some parts of Asia, you might want to use a travel agent to book your trip, including outings, since even taking a taxi can be an adventure.
“In Chinese cities, most taxi drivers don’t speak English,” said David Allardice, owner of Eastern Journeys, a travel agency in Hong Kong that specializes in China. He also recommends planning much further ahead than I did.
“The spring and fall, when the weather is best, is always going to be peak season,” he said. “If there’s something you specifically want, it’s worth booking four months out.”
• Avoid surprises on arrival. I was surprised that some hotels listed on Agoda.com present room choices based on size, in square meters — in Tokyo, an “economy double” (about 170 square feet) we booked turned out to be claustrophobic. For most hotels, including chains, a “double” room generally means one double bed (queen-size beds are less common). Make sure you choose a nonsmoking room if that’s important, but you might find smokers in the lobby or down the hall.
Hotels with small rooms designed for business travelers often offer the best deals. In Tokyo, we stayed at what is known as a “business hotel,” which Rowthorn described as compact and clean but “not necessarily a place you’d look forward to going back to at the end of the day and lounging.”
That description is spot on, but you can’t beat the price: We paid about $150 a night, including tax and free Wi-Fi, and would have paid less if we had booked further in advance. Toyoko Inn (toyoko-inn.com) and Tokyu Hotels (tokyohotelsjapan.com) are popular business hotel chains, with locations all over Japan.
Our hotels all offered free Wi-Fi, which worked well, but my aunt spent three weeks in China last fall and had difficulty getting reliable Internet, especially with enough bandwidth to make phone calls using Skype.
At our hotels there wasn’t always someone on duty who spoke English, so do not count on having an English-speaking staff member 24/7, especially if you are staying at a less pricey hotel.
“As you go down the price scale, language really is one of the major issues,” Allardice said.
According to Smith Travel Research, rates for the higher-end hotels where Westerners typically stay averaged around $285 a night in Tokyo and Hong Kong last year and about $170 a night in Shanghai and Beijing. That matches what Allardice estimates his clients spend to enter the five-star spectrum.
If you can afford $500 a night, he said, “You’re going to be enveloped in a world of luxury.”
I’m saving up for that experience next time.