Whether it’s AAA’s diamonds, or Booking.com’s stars, hotel stars and other ratings vary widely as to what they really mean. For that reason, it can be difficult to assess what you’re actually getting when you book a “five-star hotel.” What makes it different from a four-star? Is there any difference at all apart from sounding fancier, or is there some actual information that travelers can glean from hotel reviews?
As you might expect, it’s all pretty complicated and convoluted. The answer is, alas, yes and no.
Let’s take a look at what those ubiquitous hotel stars actually mean.
Started in the 1950s by Mobil Oil, the 5-star hotel rating system was a way for the company to help get people on the road and traveling by giving them a guide to what hotels were out there, and how good they were.
Later, the American Automobile Association, or AAA, devised their own rating system, the five diamonds, that judge hotels based on “the extensiveness of service, facilities and amenities” available. Each level of the scale has its own criteria of expectations.
Lately, sites like hotels.com and Travelocity base their stars not on any set list of criterion, but on popular opinion, garnered through customer reviews. These, of course, can be more or less reliable.
It can be confusing, experts say, but the more information one has, the better, right?
For companies like Mobil and AAA, the rating is judged by an independent reviewer who has no vested interest in the outcome. These judges stay at the hotels and assess everything from their customer service to their linens to the room amenities.
For all intents and purposes, sites like these follow AAA’s diamond rating system:
One diamond — budget-oriented, offering basic comfort and hospitality
Two diamonds — Affordable with modestly enhanced facilities, décor and amenities
Three diamonds — Distinguished, multifaceted with enhanced physical attributes, amenities and guest comforts
Four diamonds — Refined, stylish with upscale physical attributes, extensive amenities and a high degree of hospitality, service and attention to detail
Five diamonds — Ultimate luxury, sophistication and comfort with extraordinary physical attributes, meticulous personalized service, extensive amenities and impeccable standards of excellence.
But for more popular hotel chains and travel sites, the stars may be based solely on guest reviews. To be clear, however, the rating systems are not regulated by any one entity in the US.
And it gets more complicated when one leaves the country.
While in countries like England and Saudi Arabia and India there may be countrywide agreements regarding what a single star, or multiple stars means, those ratings can vary wildly from country to country. It is therefore hard to tell what a three-star hotel will get you anywhere in the world without more context.
For instance, in Europe, a five-star rating would include personalized greeting, one-hour ironing service as part of the room rate, and flowers or a gift waiting for the guest in their room.
In contrast, in America, a five-star rating will include turn-down service, luxurious and sophisticated facilities, and a personalized wake-up call.
In the United Kingdom, hotels are awarded five stars based on their amenities and multilingual services. But in India, five star hotels must include quality linens, Jacuzzi bathtubs, three hooks in each bathroom, a phone next to the toilet, and valet parking.
Experts in the industry recommend that travelers get as much information as possible about a hotel before they book it. While legacy rating systems like AAA’s do assess rooms based on a set of criterion, those systems don’t take into account customer preference or hotel individuality. And, as noted, customer preferences evidently vary fro country to country.
Meghan McEwan, who runs the Designtripper blog, says there’s more to a hotel stay than linens and continental breakfast.
“Travelers want more than stars, they want detailed information about the experience of staying somewhere,” she told CNN. “People have learned that they can forgive a lack of certain star-driven amenities if a hotel or inn is luxurious, quirky or interesting — fascinating innkeepers, breakfast cooked with ingredients from an on-site garden, a beautiful location, a library full of great books, a comfortable chair in front of a fireplace.”
At the end of the day, what really matters is what you’re looking for. If a hotel checks all your boxes, then it’s a five-star in every way that matters.