What Do Various Hotel Ratings Really Mean?

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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on November 3, 2008. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: AskEd & AnswerEd, Ed Perkins, hotel.

Pick up just about any package tour brochure and you'll see the hotels described as "first class" or "3 Star." But you really don't know exactly what those ratings mean. As a reader asked:

"I booked a tour that supposedly had first class hotels. But our hotel wasn't first class at all; it was mediocre at best. Who really decides what class or how many stars to give a hotel?"

The short answer is that the way the industry measures hotels, "first class" is in the middle of the scale, not at the top, as it is with airlines. Many "first class" hotels are, in fact, mediocre; many are generic and charmless tour-group hotels. But this reader raises the broader question of hotel ratings, generally, that may be of interest.

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Why Ratings?

Hotel ratings serve three purposes:

  • To guide individual travelers in their selection of hotels
  • To help tour companies and online travel agencies assure travelers of consistent quality
  • To serve a few governments as a basis for hotel taxation

The government function, of course, is of no interest to individual travelers. And although ratings have been around for decades, technology is diminishing their importance.

Travelers Now Have Alternatives

Time was that ratings were the only way individual travelers or their travel agents could get some sort of handle on where they might like to stay in a destination they didn't already know. Even the biggest guidebooks could cover only a fraction of the hotels in any city or destination region, and travelers needed some way to locate hotels that fit their desired price/quality spectrum.

These days, however, travelers have additional options. Instead of making a choice based on some arbitrary rating system, travelers can check out as many specific hotels as they wish through websites that post hotel reviews from individual travelers such as our sister site TripAdvisor, as well as others like HotelShark and IgoUgo. These sites feature user-generated content and—especially the big ones—probably cover more hotels than even the most widely used formal rating systems. Travelers can also access individual hotel reviews prepared by professional travel writers through sites such as Profesional Travel Guide. Travel agents who once relied on printed rating directories now increasingly use these sites in booking for their clients.

Packagers Still Need Ratings

Tour packages are usually assembled and brochures printed up to a year (sometimes even more) before the operator actually has to provide the tours. In many cases, the tour packager can't finalize contracts with individual hotels early enough to provide actual hotel names in the brochures and early publicity; in other cases, packagers have to change their hotel rosters during the course of a season.

Rather than try to name individual hotels in their early promotions, many packagers commit only to hotels in a certain classification, leaving themselves wiggle room to change the specific hotels depending on pricing and availability. Even when a brochure lists specific hotel names, those brochures almost always include fine print that says something like "The operator reserves the right to substitute alternate hotels of equal quality." Obviously, both operator and traveler need the protection of some form of consistent measure of that "quality." And many a dispute has arisen over whether a substitute hotel was really of "equal" quality.

Online Travel Websites, Too

Although most big online travel agencies ("OTA" seems to be emerging jargon for them) list hotel names and descriptions, most of them show some kind of rating. And the "opaque" buying system used by Hotwire and Priceline —where buyers don't know the name of the hotel until after they make a nonrefundable purchase—wouldn't work at all without consistent ratings.

Overall, these uses mean we won't see the end of ratings anytime soon. So let's take a brief look at the rating systems.

"Objective" Ratings

In general, ratings based on objective criteria—room size, furnishings, public rooms, recreational facilities, and the like—are available for more hotels than ratings based on individual inspections by professional inspectors or travel writers:

  • Probably the most widely used objective rating system is the 10-level classification pioneered by the "Official Hotel & Resort Guide" (OHRG) decades ago for use by travel agents. From the top down, those ratings are Superior Deluxe, Deluxe, Moderate Deluxe, Superior First Class, First Class, Limited Service First Class, Moderate First Class, Superior Tourist, Tourist, and Moderate Tourist. Over the years, it's the only system that is consistent worldwide. Even though the use of the printed OHRG is declining, its ratings seem ingrained in the system. Whenever you see "First Class hotels" in a tour brochure, you can bet the operator based hotel specification on this OHRG system.
  • Several governments or local industry associations around the world assign official hotel "star" ratings, including many European countries, China, and several Latin American countries. Most are totally "objective," although some temper ratings by traveler reports. Most are updated periodically, but in Latin America star ratings are issued only once, when a hotel opens. Obviously, you find no consistency from one country to another.

Of course these objective ratings don't get at the "charm" factor at all, and they typically omit references to location and other subjective factors that can be very important to travelers. Moreover, my take is that these objective ratings tend to overemphasize sizes and numbers of public rooms and deluxe suites at the expense of standard guest rooms. But I'm sure many of you regard public rooms as more important than I do.

Subjective Ratings

Other widely used rating systems incorporate subjective input:

  • Major guidebook series rate hotels, most notably AAA ("diamonds") and Mobil ("stars") in North America and ViaMichelin (hotel symbols) in Europe. These ratings are based on a mix of objective and subjective components, including the results of actual on-site inspections, and the publishers respond to negative reports from individual travelers.
  • For years, many travel agents have relied on hotel reviews prepared by professional travel writers available through "Star Service," an expensive subscription service. Ratings in Professional Travel Guide are based, in part, on input from Star Service reports.

Guidelines

  • If you're looking for a hotel on your own, rely on individual reviews through TripAdvisor and similar sources rather than ratings whenever you can—they're generally more detailed and useful than just a classification.
  • Any time a decision on a hotel involves a rating, try to find out just where the rating originated. Then, if necessary, you can go to the source of that rating for more information.
  • Keep in mind that, unless the source of the rating is specified, anybody can claim to be "4 star" or such.
 
 
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