Seeing stars: The inside scoop on hotel ratings

Here's the back story on how travel sources rank hotels and how to avoid some of the confusion

Published: August 07, 2014 11:15 AM

You’re planning a getaway to Chicago and find a great deal at the James Hotel off the world-famous Magnificent Mile. So you look beyond the property's website site for independent confirmation by consulting travel experts such as AAA, Orbitz, and Expedia, and notice that each has assigned the hotel a different rating. What gives?

Hotel ratings typically rely on a star-classification system (AAA uses diamonds, Michelin opts for pavilions) to rate hotels, with one star representing the lowest score and five, the pinnacle of pizzazz. Hundreds of variables can factor into the rating, including location, upkeep, room size and view, food, linens, toiletries, service, décor, entertainment, reputation, and even the presence of a notable chef or exotic plants in public spaces.

AAA gives the James 3 diamonds, which translates into a property aimed at guests with "comprehensive needs," featuring “distinguished style, including marked upgrades in the quality of physical attributes, amenities, and level of comfort provided.” By contrast, Orbitz, which assigned the hotel 5 stars, considers it a luxury property where you can “treat yourself well with first-class services and accommodations.” Expedia and gave the James 4.5 stars.

Planning a hotel stay? Check our hotel room buying guide and learn how to get the best room at the best rate.

Even though guides generally follow accepted industry criteria for categorizing hotels, the process is fraught with enough subjectivity to account for occasional inconsistencies.

Different guides employ different methodologies. Some rely heavily on guest reviews, take into account the stars awarded by competing Web sites, and factor in a description of the property and amenities based solely on online information. Others base their ratings on actual stays. Michelin, the famous French guide, dispatches trained inspectors with years of professional industry experience and formal education in hospitality training, to evaluate hotels meticulously and confidentially. Expedia will conduct inspections, but announces its visits in advance. Other guides allow freelance writers who act as reviewers to accept discounted or complimentary lodging—as long as they inform the hotel that the perks won’t affect the overall recommendation.

Despite their differences, star ratings are a valuable indicator of a particular property’s general quality, but they don’t necessarily reflect all of the amenities and services available. So, it’s important to consider other tools as well:

  • Consult the hotel’s website. That’s where you’ll find the most information about the property, including the full range of features, services, and policies, along with detailed photos of guest rooms, common spaces, and amenities such as the fitness center, conference rooms, and recreation areas. If you can’t find information about a service or amenity that’s crucial to you, contact the hotel directly.
  • Read user reviewers. Travel sites survey guests about their experiences, publish their comments, and average the results into an overall score. The scores, or customer ratings, are depicted numerically or as icons. The more reviews, the better. Don’t limit your research to “branded” sites such as Expedia or Visit aggregator sites such as and too.
  • Look for recent comments. They can point out real-time inconveniences or problems arising from activities such as ongoing renovations or local road construction.
  • Seek out reviews from travelers like you. Guests interested in a romantic getaway or family vacation may have very different expectations than those on business.
  • Carefully weigh extreme comments. Particularly glowing or unflattering comments may have been posted by those with a vested interest or ax to grind. If a comment appears out of sync with most of the others, take it with a grain of salt, or simply disregard it.

—Tod Marks

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