Can't make sense of hotel rating systems? Here are tips on what the ratings mean and whom to trust.
How many stars does a four-star hotel rate? Four, you say? How about three? Five? 24?
You need to know what a rating really means, as Julie and Ron Sturgeon learned the hard way. Planning their 20th wedding anniversary trip to San Antonio, Texas, they chose their lodging based on its superior rating from an online travel booking site. Hotel Reservations Network, an Internet service affiliated with Hotels.com, gave the establishment 4½ stars. The Sturgeons expected luxury.
Checking in, the couple did find a stunning lobby and a well-appointed room. But they also found a shower that fluctuated between scalding hot and icy cold, an indifferent front-desk staff, and a bellhop who doubled as the only parking valet. Back at home, the Sturgeons discovered that AAA gave the hotel a midrange Three Diamond rating.
Frustrating? You bet. A major reason for the confusion is that every travel service seems to have its own system for rating hotels. A savvy traveler can sort out these disparities and decide whom to trust.
AAA and Mobil Travel Guide—considered the gold standards of rating systems—employ inspectors who visit every property they list (AAA once a year; Mobil every 18 months) and assign ratings on a scale of 1 to 5. Inspectors mea-sure television screens, count hangers, and check on numerous other items. AAA awards diamonds to 31,500 lodgings in the United States, Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean, scouting both urban hotels and far-flung motels. Mobil gives stars to 9,000 hotels in the United States and Canada.
Online hotel booking systems are another story. Many sites take AAA and Mobil ratings into account when coming up with their own, and Travelocity posts AAA diamonds. But for the most part, sites rely on lists of amenities hotels must have—pool, gym, gift shop—to qualify for a certain rating. Those that use inspectors, like Hotwire, Orbitz, and Priceline, admit that their inspection teams perform double duty, as eyes for the consumer and as salespeople who negotiate discount room rates for their Web sites. Some online services are notorious for handing out stars liberally. A recent search on Orbitz for five-star properties in New York City turned up 13. By contrast, AAA gives five diamonds, its highest ranking, to just five hotels.
Guidebooks take their own approaches. At Zagat, consumers rate establishments with points from 0 to 30. In Frommer's guides, individual authors have the final say, using ratings from 0 to 3.
How to play the hotel ratings game
DO YOUR HOMEWORK Compare systems—particularly if you're making an online reservation. Members can find AAA ratings in the Travel section at aaa.com  or in AAA TourBooks. Mobil's ratings are available at www.mobiltravelguide.com .
READ THE FINE PRINT Every system explains what its ratings mean. Look for definitions in customer service sections or at the front of guidebooks. For example, the explanation of AAA's lodging ratings in the front of TourBooks states that even a One Diamond property must meet basic requirements pertaining to cleanliness.
EXPRESS YOUR OPINION Nearly all hotel rating services say customer feedback—good or bad—is their No. 1 criterion. "Since we can only visit a property once a year, we value our members' feedback," says Kelly Bell, the California State Automobile Association's manager of approved accommodations. "In 2003 we received 1,502 notes from members. If we receive a lot of complaints of the same nature, we'll reinspect a property."
Photo Illustration by William Duke
This article was first published in September 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.