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‘Four-star’ hotel? Who says?

A recent inquiry from a reader highlighted a problem travelers often face: “What constitutes a four-star or four-diamond hotel?” That’s a good question, and it highlights the difficulty of determining exactly how good a hotel is when you don’t know it. The short answer is, “It means whatever the person or organization that awarded it means—nothing less, but nothing more.” Although you see lots of claims, it’s hard to find measures that are both objective and consistent.

Worldwide ratings

I know of only one comprehensive standard of ratings that ranks hotels worldwide on a consistent basis. This system is used by the Hotel & Travel Index (HTI), a resource that covers more than 100,000 hotels, just about everywhere. Its ratings are based on a 10-level system of categories rather than “stars.” From top to bottom, those categories are Superior Deluxe, Deluxe, Moderate Deluxe, Superior First Class, First Class, Limited-Service First Class, Moderate First Class, Superior Tourist, Tourist, and Moderate Tourist. Note that “first class” is the middle of the HTI scale, not at the top as it is with airlines.

HTI ratings are ubiquitous. When you see a hotel described as “first class” in a travel brochure, chances are the tour operator is using its HTI classification. Over the years, I’ve found them to be reliable—and certainly better than other worldwide sources. HTI warns U.S. travelers away from any hotel rated below Superior Tourist, although I’ve found many Tourist and Moderate Tourist hotels quite acceptable.

HTI is a for-pay service published mainly for travel agencies and others in the industry. However, anyone can search for an individual hotel through its website. Also, your travel agent probably has a current printed directory. In any individual city, however, not every hotel has a rating.

“Official” national ratings

Lots of countries employ some form of national hotel rating system. In a few, such as France and China, the government administers the system, but in most, an industry group such as a hotel association or tourist organization handles the program. A system of one to five stars is the most common rating basis, but you find other approaches in some countries.

Whether measured by stars or something else, these official ratings share some basic characteristics:

  • Ratings are based almost entirely on objective criteria—room size and furnishings, bathroom fixtures, number and extent of public rooms, restaurants, elevators, and such. Nothing is added for “great views” or “charm;” nothing is deducted for “slow service” or “creepy neighborhood.” Official ratings tend to give more weight to public rooms than most travelers would.
  • Ratings usually reflect local rather than worldwide or U.S. tastes. Thus, for example, French travelers demand bidets and British travelers prefer “cooked” breakfasts.
  • Ratings may not always be current. Some sources only rate a hotel once, when it’s first opened, and never re-examine it. Others update every few years on a regular schedule.

Over the last few years, the major European countries have tried to get their systems to converge, but local differences remain. And as for Asia and Latin America, forget it.

Michelin for Europe

Many savvy travelers have learned that Michelin Red guides provide the most reliable rating system for hotels in Europe—at least in the countries those guides cover. Current guides are available for Benelux, France, Germany, Great Britain and Ireland, Italy, Spain and Portugal, and Switzerland, plus some other regional and city guides cobbled together from info in the national guides.

Michelin’s system combines objective and subjective measures, and it presents them in a highly condensed graphic format:

  • Rather than stars, Michelin’s basic ranking system is a series of six categories, from “Luxury in the traditional style” to “guesthouse.” In the guides, they’re represented by the number of hotel-building symbols.
  • Places deemed by Michelin’s inspectors to be “particularly pleasant or restful” are highlighted in red.

I’ve used Michelin just about every time I’ve traveled around Europe, and it has been extremely reliable. You’ll find Michelin Red guides in any good U.S. travel bookstore.

Here at home

The U.S. has no official rating system, so individual organizations are free to treat hotels as they see fit. And there’s no shortage of organizations doing just that:

  • AAA and Mobil guides provide by far the most extensive listings of U.S. hotels and motels. AAA is the outfit that uses “diamonds,” on a scale of one to five, while Mobil sticks to the more conventional “stars,” again with a one-to-five scale. Both organizations say they base ratings on objective data plus personal inspections.
  • Most major online travel sites include ratings on at least some of their hotel listings. Travelocity uses AAA’s diamonds where they’re available; the others use their own systems.

I’ve found that the ratings on major sites are pretty consistent internally within each site, and reasonably consistent from one site to another. I’ve also found the ratings reasonably accurate, at least as far as my needs are concerned.

For the personal touch

Star or diamond ratings aren’t the only way to evaluate hotels you might not recognize. Whether you prefer opinions from professional writers or prefer input from ordinary travelers such as yourselves, you have plenty of sources:

  • Just about any good guidebook series has information on hotels, mostly written by professionals. Among the best are Fodor’s and Frommer’s, both of which provide quite a bit of “free” information online. Destination articles in the slick travel magazines also provide lots of hotel information, although most of it emphasizes the high end of the market.
  • If you prefer reviews written by real-world travelers, several websites have recently emerged to compile such reports. TripAdvisor is the 800-pound gorilla of the bunch, but there are a few smaller websites.

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