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Five wooden stars lined up on a table next to a bell, which is being rung by a hotel worker in white gloves
Andrey Popov | Adobe Stock

What Do Hotel Star Ratings Really Mean? 

A five-star rating has become shorthand for luxury—but what exactly does that rating mean when it comes to hotels? Why is the same property four-stars on one hotel search site and three-stars on another? 

There’s no one organization in the United States that hands out definitive star rankings to hotels. Instead, individual hotel booking sites and other groups use their own rating system to categorize properties to help travelers know what to expect.

Close up of person using smartphone with graphic displaying five stars in a speech bubble hovering above
Thapana_Studio | Adobe Stock

Expedia, which is part of the same corporation that owns many hotel booking sites such as and, is one of the few sites to publish their methodology for star rankings—making it a good general reference point for figuring out what hotel star ratings really mean.

Expedia Hotel Star Ratings

Star Rating What Expedia Says to Expect
One-star Basic motels, hostels, and hostels
No-frills accommodations
Daily housekeeping and 24/7 reception may not be available
Rooms may not have private bathrooms, TVs, or phones
Two-star Simple, but clean budget accommodations
24-hour reception
Daily housekeeping service
Rooms with private bathrooms
Generally no on-site dining aside from Continental breakfast
Three-star On-site restaurant and bar
Baggage assistance available
More spacious guest rooms with comfortable seating and good quality bedding
Larger bathrooms with shower/tub combinations 
Four-star Larger lobbies with common space available
Concierge service
Valet parking
Turndown service
24-hour room service
Rooms with large beds, extra seating, minibars, safes, pillowtop mattresses, bathrobes
Upscale toiletries provided
Resorts feature spas, tennis courts, poolside food service 
Five-star Fine dining on-site
Luxury spa
Full-service health clubs
Well-trained staff
Welcome amenities
Butler service available
Elegant guestroom decor
Oversized bathrooms with premium features
Electronic features in-rooms such as remote-controlled shades
Resorts feature golf courses, tennis courts with a variety of playing surfaces, health clubs with personal trainers, and luxurious spas
A hotel desk bell in focus in the foreground with hotel staff at the front desk out of focus in the background
davit85 | Adobe Stock

Forbes Travel Guide Star Ratings

If you’re looking to treat yourself to an upscale hotel stay, check Forbes Travel Guide. The publication only evaluates luxury properties, and only issues stars to hotels that meet their high-quality standards. Only the best hotels will receive stars—anything below four stars that still meets the criteria to be included in the guide simply earns a “recommended” rating. 

Unlike other star rating systems, Forbes Travel Guide places a high emphasis on service, saying, “Seventy percent of a property’s rating relies on its service—with a more exacting look at the guest experience as a new service metric for 2023—while the remaining 30 percent accounts for the quality and condition of its facilities.”

To evaluate hotels Forbes Travel Guide sends in inspectors who “test up to 900 rigorous standards, from modern-day luxuries—such as whether a room is set up to enhance sleep quality or whether the food-and-beverage choices support a guest’s well-being—to more traditional elements, such as the décor and the attention the staff pays to a guest.” 

Star Rating What Forbes Travel Guide Says to Expect
Five-star Outstanding, iconic properties with nearly flawless service. 
Four-star Exceptional properties with high levels of service.
Recommended Excellent properties with consistently good service.

AAA Hotel Diamond Ratings

The American Automobile Association (AAA) owns another popular hotel ranking system. Instead of stars, AAA uses diamonds to rate hotels, and ratings are refreshed yearly.

AAA Executive Director of Travel Stacey Barber tells SmarterTravel, “Each year, AAA Inspectors visit over 25,000 hotels in our portfolio, in person. We pride ourselves on giving travelers only current assessment and first-hand information about the hotels we designate.”

If you want to make sure you’re booking a truly luxurious hotel, look for the AAA Five Diamond rating—according to Barber, only 0.5 percent of properties inspected earn that coveted ranking.

Here’s how AAA explains its ratings:

Star Rating What AAA Says to Expect
One Diamond A bed, a pillow, and a bargain.
Two Diamonds A familiar, casual, affordable setting.
Three Diamonds The comforts of home, minus the effort.
Four Diamonds Splurge-worthy properties for special occasions.
Five Diamonds The crown jewel. 
Over the shoulder view of a woman booking a hotel on a laptop in a cafe while drinking coffee
Song_about_summer | Adobe Stock

International Hotel Star Ratings

Hotel star rankings are not standardized across the world. In Europe, 20 countries utilize the Hotelstars Union rating system. This group aims to classify hotels with common criteria so it’s easy to tell exactly what each star rating means.  

The countries that participate in this rating system are: Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Slovenia, Sweden, and Switzerland. 

European Hotelstars Union Rating System

Star Rating What European Hotelstars Union Says to Expect
One-star All rooms feature ensuite bathrooms
Daily room cleaning offered
TVs and WiFi in all rooms
Table and chair in all rooms
Soap/body wash and bath towels provided
Toiletries available on request
Reception service
Cashless payment available
Extended breakfast offered
Two-star Breakfast buffet
Bedside reading light 
Body wash or shower gel
Linen shelves
Bath and hand towels
Bilingual staff
Sewing kit and shoe polish utensils available
Three-star In-person reception available at least 10 hours per day; remote reception available 24/7
Common lounge area
Luggage service available
Drinks available in-room
Hair dryer and mirror in-room
Luggage racks
Laundry and ironing service available
Extra pillows and blankets available
Complaint management system in place
Four-star In-person reception available at least 10 hours per day; remote reception available 24/7
Hotel bar or lounge area 
Breakfast buffet with service or seated breakfast
Minibar/room service available 
Armchair or couch and side table in all rooms
Bathrobes and slippers available
Amenity kit (shower cap, nail file, etc.)
Vanity mirror in bathroom
International TV channels
Five-star 24/7 reception service
Valet parking 
Shuttle or limousine service
Personalized in-room greeting for each guest 
Minbar and room service available 24 hours
In-room safe
Ironing, shoe polish, and sewing service available
Turndown service

Want to find five-star hotels for cheap? Check out our sister site, SmarterTravel Hotels, for big savings even on luxury properties.

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