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What Do Hotel Star Ratings Really Mean?

It’s easy to get confused over the quality and value of hotel star ratings. You might see the same property listed as five stars from, four stars from Travelocity, and three from Orbitz, for example. What do the hotel star ratings even mean if they’re not consistent from website to website?

When I looked into it, there seemed to be no one-size-fits-all measurement to rate a hotel’s value, amenities, and overall potential for customer satisfaction. So I dug deeper.

David Dennis, product manager for Expedia, agreed that 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 TripAdvisor. My results? Quality is (for the most part) subjective, and will vary by individual travel tastes.

What Do the Hotel Star Ratings 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 be confused by conflicting star rating information, though. To get a better sense of the hotels that interest you, use each site’s rating as a general guideline and check user ratings and testimonials on TripAdvisor.

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 hotel star ratings, look for room photos, property details, and what other customers have to say to make the most informed decision.”

Hotel Tours: Seeing a Hotel Star Rating 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 my 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 I toured included:

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:

  • Residence Inn on Tudor Wharf: Includes a waterfront location, suite-style rooms with kitchens, a social hour, and pool/whirlpool.
  • Sheraton Commander Hotel: Includes a Harvard Square location, fitness center with sun deck, and newly renovated rooms.

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, and rooftop spa and pool overlooking the city.

Not Sure It’s the Right Hotel for You? Check the Star Ratings

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

Decide what you want to do while you’re away, and if splurging on a hotel is something you feel is a justifiable expense. Some just want to spend money on meals, tourist attractions, and nightlife, and use the hotel only as a place to sleep. As such, a lower-class hotel will suit you just fine.

Others use hotels as part of the vacation experience, and expect extra features such as a pool, room service, or on-site spa. If you’ll be booking a higher-class hotel with lots of amenities, be sure you’re going to take advantage of them—otherwise you’re paying for nothing but a higher star rating.

Where do you want to be? If you’re going to a city and plan on staying downtown, a hotel located within the city proper (regardless of star rating) may be your best option. However, if you need accessibility or want to do some regional exploring, consider a hotel centrally located to all the places you wish to see, and not necessarily in the city.

An added bonus: A higher-class hotel outside the city proper may be more affordable than a similar or lower-class hotel inside the city, and may also have cheaper parking options.

Is this a business trip? If so, you may want to spend extra money on a higher-star hotel that is in a downtown location, easily accessible to the areas you need to be. (Note that hotels downtown may have a higher star rating simply because of a good location.) During my tours, I learned that the higher-class Wyndham caters to business travelers, particularly female executives. As such, do a bit of research into hotels downtown to make sure you are getting a hotel with the technology, location, and (if applicable) business center to make your trip go as smoothly as possible.

Do you need an extended stay? Some brands, such as the Residence Inn, tailor their rates to guests needing a home away from home (typically stays of at least 30 days). While such properties usually have a higher-star rating because of their multiple amenities (suite-style lodging, kitchens, etc.), they can offer competitive pricing: The longer you stay, the cheaper your per-day rate will be. If you need a long-term stay, be sure to research hotels catering their rates to such guests.

How to Choose, How to Save

Once you’ve narrowed your search to a few properties, call the hotels directly to see if any current sales or package deals are available during the dates you wish to visit: You may be able to take advantage of a great rate, or extra perks to make your stay more memorable. Or, check the property’s website to see if online-only rates (or lowest-rate guarantees) are offered.


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