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What do those hotel star ratings really mean?

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Augusta, Maine (Photo: PhotoDisc)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on January 13, 2005. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: elite status, hotel, Sarah Pascarella.

Even though I'm the editor of SmarterTravel.com's Hotel section, I often find myself getting confused over the quality and value ratings of given properties and brands. While doing research, I would often find the same property listed as five stars from PlacesToStay.com, four stars from Travelocity, and three from Orbitz, for example.

There seemed to be no one-size-fits-all measurement to rate a hotel's value, amenities, and overall potential for customer satisfaction. And if I was perplexed, I figured many consumers were as well.

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David Dennis, product manager for Expedia, agreed that the hotel star ratings can be confusing. "Our customer and media feedback all said hotel rankings seemed arbitrary, and that the ratings couldn't be trusted. As such, we recently revamped our classification system to take all hotel data—amenities, media reviews, customer experience, and professional benchmarks—into a weighted average ranking."

Despite efforts to improve rankings, I was still puzzled about how one hotel could produce such varying star ratings across multiple travel sites, and set out to decipher the system. First, I toured hotels to see first-hand what a given property offered. Second, I asked for specific definitions from the travel providers. Lastly, I compared sites side by side to ratings from real consumers at Trip Advisor. My results? Quality is (for the most part) subjective, and will vary by individual travel tastes.

What's it all mean?

To place ratings in context, here are simplified definitions from each of the major travel sites.

Star rating Travelocity Expedia Orbitz
One-star Meets budget basic needs Economy, no-frills accommodations Simple accommodations
Two-star Meets basic needs Value, clean, basic Value, comfortable, affordable
Three-star High service, additional amenities Quality, style, comfort, personalized service Mid-scale, convenience plus comfort
Four-star Superior property, variety of amenities Superior, upscale, high quality Deluxe/upscale, comfort plus quality
Five-star Luxury setting, flawless guest services Finest hotels, luxury, superlative service, highest comfort standards Luxury, first-class services, well equipped and state of the art facilities

You may still, however, be confused by conflicting star rating information. To get a better sense of the hotels that interest you, use each site's rating as a general guideline and check hotel user ratings and testimonials on Trip Advisor. Additional user reviews can be found on Yahoo and Citysearch. In addition to their own rating systems, Expedia and Travelocity also list consumer user reviews on individual hotels. Note the tone of each entry—Do any complaints sound similar to issues that usually bother you? Does the praise gel with what you usually like about a hotel? By comparing your tastes to previous guests' experiences, you'll be able to get a better sense of a given property.

"Go with sites that you trust and those that provide the most information," recommended Dennis. "Beyond star ratings, look for room photos, property details, and what other customers have to say to make the most informed decision."

Hotel tours: Seeing the stars first-hand

To get a sense of the amenities and qualities associated with different hotel brands, I toured several properties representing the major national chains in our home city of Boston. Tours included seeing a variety of rooms, conference facilities, dining establishments, fitness centers, and any extra amenities the staff felt made their hotels stand out from the rest. The hotels we toured include:

Two-to-three-star hotels:

  • Best Western Roundhouse Suites: Includes suite lodging, free parking, and complimentary airport shuttles.
  • Comfort Inn: Includes on-site entertainment (bowling, kids' halls), free shuttles, restaurants, and a gourmet candy shop.
Three-star hotels: Three-to-four-star hotels:
  • Hilton Boston Back Bay: Includes free Lincoln Town Car service, Neutrogena bath products, and dual shower heads.
  • Hyatt Regency Boston: Includes high-speed Internet access, fitness center, and fine dining.
  • Wyndham Boston: Includes a library, customized member services, and city views.
Five-star hotels:
  • Four Seasons Boston Hotel: Luxury amenities include five-star dining, personalized services, L'Occitane toiletries, rooftop spa and pool overlooking the city.

Not sure it's the right hotel for you? Check the stars

Before booking a hotel, decide what you want out of your trip. You'll then be able to use the star ratings system to choose the best hotel for your excursion, as well as provide a good benchmark for pricing.

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