Hotel ratings: What do they REALLY mean?

Virtually every hotel posts a “star” rating to give potential guests a sense of how luxurious or economical their accommodations will be. Those usually range from one to five stars, but how do hotels get those ratings and how meaningful are they?

The answer is: it depends.

The explanations of what constitutes a one, two, or five-star hotel as provided by many companies are short on specifics and seem more than a little subjective.

Expedia says its star ratings are derived from the amenities available at each property. However, its criteria are a bit ambiguous. For example, “many” three-star hotels offer an on-site restaurant and bar, and guestrooms “typically” feature more space than a two-star hotel. The lobbies of four-star properties “typically offer upscale décor” while guestrooms of five-star hotels offer “elegant” décor.

The explanations are fine as far as they go but beg questions including: What earns one property a description of “superior” while another is judged to be merely a “quality” property? Where does “upscale” end and “elegant” begin? In large measure, it depends on the perspective of the one doing the interpreting.

Many of the other companies owned by Expedia, which include Travelocity, Orbitz,, Hotwire and others, have similar descriptions of their criteria. goes a bit farther, offering examples of which national chains fall into which categories, ranging from the Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons properties at the five-star level to Hyatt and Marriott at four stars, Holiday Inn and Hilton at three stars, and so on.

However, there are at least a couple of organizations that have specific criteria on which properties are judged. One is the AAA, formerly known as the Automobile Association of America. I recently spoke with John Lubanski, one of the regional managers in AAA’s inspections department.

As experienced travelers may know (though none of the three contestants on a 2018 episode of Jeopardy! knew), AAA rates hotels from one to five diamonds. While its public-facing materials also reflect criteria that can be described as objective, its hotel inspectors use an extensive list of subjective criteria when evaluating a property.

When performing an inspection, the AAA inspector arrives unannounced, and requests prompt access to guest rooms. After a brief conversation with the hotel’s manager, he or she will begin their assessment.

“They will inspect the selection of guest rooms, and look at all the things that make up our ratings criteria,” Lubanski said.

Inspectors visit each rated property at least once a year to ensure the property is maintaining its standards for the areas that guests will experience during their stay at the hotel.

AAA inspectors examine four areas of each hotel: the exterior, public areas, guest rooms, and bathrooms. Inspectors do not visit the behind-the-scenes areas referred to as “back of house.”

Public areas are rated on five criteria: Food & beverage outlets or a breakfast area, meeting rooms if appropriate to the facility, restrooms, signage, and sundries and shops. While one-diamond hotels are not expected to have a public restroom or meeting space available, all others must have those facilities. As one might expect, the more diamonds, the more refined (or fancier) those facilities are expected to be.

DeLuxe King at Rosewood Hotel Georgia, Vancouver, BC, a Four-Diamond property

Guest rooms are ranked on 15 criteria, including general décor style, bed and bedding, floor coverings, free floor space, furniture quality and design, illumination, mirror, seating layout, hang space for clothing, television type and placement, workspace/writing surface, ventilation, wall coverings, decorative enhancements and window coverings.

Rooms at a single-diamond property will have bed linens of “common blends, thread count” while four- and five-star rooms will offer linens that are “very soft to the touch” and “luxuriously soft,” respectively.

AAA also considers additional items that are not assigned a diamond rating but which are factored into the overall rating of the guest room. Those include in-room coffee and tea, a microwave oven, refrigerator, iron & board, provided robes and slippers (my personal favorite) and the rooms’ overall impression, among other factors.

These days, when connectivity it king, AAA also looks at the availability of Internet access, and whether it is complimentary or pay-to-play.

“Any property that charges for Internet is going to have a slight reduction in their rating,” Lubanski said.

Bathrooms are rated on 16 factors, ranging from the weight and softness of the towels to the availability and quality of personal care products to the shape of the toilet seat and the position of the toilet. Toilets at all hotels above one diamond must have elongated seats with lids, and four-diamond hotels must have toilets in a recessed area while they must be in an enclosed toilet-only area in five-diamond properties.

As with the guest rooms, AAA also considers other factors that are not assigned a diamond rating but can play into the overall rating, including the provided hair dryer, whether there is a television in the bathroom, vanity seating and the overall impression of the loo.

Four- and five-diamond hotels must also meet higher service expectations than lower-tier properties.

“That’s one of the things that makes it so difficult to be rated five diamonds,” Lubanski said.

Magnolia Hotel, Victoria, BC, a Four-Diamond property

In rating five-diamond properties, inspectors will stay overnight, anonymously, to rate things including the conduct of the staff, the verbiage they use, how they address guests, how quickly they respond to requests, and other factors.

Four- and five-diamond properties are judged on up to 13 different areas including the reservation services, arrival and departure services, check-in and check-out services, bell services on check-in and check-out, evening housekeeping services, in-room dining (both ordering and delivery), concierge services, and miscellaneous staff services.

Another rating service with criteria that are more objective than subjective is the three-year-old Gervois Hotel Rating. That rating system is aimed at discerning, multicultural and sophisticated hotel guests and has a portfolio of 122 hotels that have been personally reviewed.

Founder Pierre Gervois founded the rating system after having too many hotel stays where his experience differed markedly from the hotels’ ratings.

“Over the years, I have been disappointed by the numerous existing hotel rating systems” Gervois said. “Too often, there is a tendency to give too generous ratings to hotels members of luxury hotels chains, and to underrate independent boutique hotels.”

Gervois Hotel Rating employs five essential criteria: Location, building, atmosphere, dining, and service. Each criteria is measured on a 20-point scale, and the five scores are totaled to arrive at the property’s final rating. While still somewhat subjective, the criteria are more specific than many of those used by larger, and more generic, ratings companies

Hotels should be located in the heart of the city, ideally in a building with historic significance, such as the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington, D.C. It was in that hotel during the tenure of President U.S. Grant, that the term “lobbyist” was coined.”

Perhaps the most subjective area to evaluate is the atmosphere. For its ratings, Gervois looks for an intimate ambiance and the feeling of being received as friends in a private mansion, and considers all the combined elements that communicate sophistication.

Service must also be top-drawer. Inspectors look for a warm welcome without pretension or arrogance. “Guests should be greeted when entering and leaving the building, and by name when possible,” according to their standards.

My take

The subjective nature of most ratings systems makes me take their ratings with a grain of salt.

For example, rates Hilton Hotels (NYSE:HLT) at the three-star level, along with Holiday Inns, while Marriott Hotels (NYSE:MAR) and Hyatt (NYSE:H) properties are given four stars. In my experience, the Hiltons at which I have stayed – and there have been several – are much more on par with Marriott and Hyatt properties than Holiday Inns.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I worked for a Hilton property is Seattle from 2010 to 2014, but am not currently employed by Hilton or any affiliate.

The Burj Al Arab hotel

Further muddying the waters are the ratings derived from guest reviews. Dubai’s iconic Burj Al Arab hotel, which claims to be “The world’s only 7-Star hotel,” gets only 4.5 stars from the readers of TripAdvisor, and is rated No. 34 of 569 hotels in Dubai.

Remember that guest reviews are an amalgamation of reviews by experienced and novice travelers, those with high standards as well as those with simple tastes, some who are impressed by virtually anything and those for whom nothing is good enough.

Accordingly, savvy travelers should bear in mind that the opinions - informed or otherwise - of those reviewers may have more to do with the rating of a specific property than any specified standards. Unless you’re relying upon ratings that have specific criteria and a high level of objectivity, use them only as a general guide.

Visit my main page at for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photos by Carl Dombek
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