(CNN) – Online user ratings are great until you discover they are fake. Or you remember how your uncle always leaves comments and how his taste is terrible.
Travelers want a convenient set of standards, which is provided by generic hotel star ratings. After all, you see “Five Star Hotel” and think, “It must be amazing,” just as you hear “One Star” and realize the honeymoon is going to be rough.
But what do those ratings really mean, especially now that the Internet and many hotel review sites have transformed travel? We’re here to set you straight… right after it gets a lot more confusing.
A changing standard
Hotel ratings “were created to help customers work through acceptable and unacceptable options, then come up with a sort of hierarchy of better and worse within the acceptable options,” explains Chekitan Dev of Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration.
Great idea, sure. But the problem was that many different hierarchies emerged, with limited overlap.
“In most parts of the world, the system is controlled by the government,” says Dev.
These ratings usually have one thing in common: they’re out of date.
“Governments tend to be stuck in the past,” says Dev. “They don’t update the criteria. They don’t take into account service and more intangible issues.”
Even today’s can be a bit questionable.
For a long time it was almost impossible to find a five-star hotel in France. Why?
Their rating system stopped at four. Then in 2009 they added an additional star category, bringing it to the standard five stars. The following year, another category was added: luxury hotels considered particularly exceptional are now awarded the title of “Palace” by the French Tourism Development Agency.
Meanwhile, Dev notes that India imposed a luxury tax on its five-star hotels, resulting in properties that fall into that category being presented as four- or three-star properties.
Hotels in some countries go the other way, lobbying for an artificially high rating so they can charge higher rates or even use the rating as leverage for loans.
The US offers a different kind of confusion.
Ratings are not controlled by the government, and as a result there are various methods. Traditionally, the two most prominent rankers have been AAA, with its diamonds, and Mobil (now Forbes), with its stars.
Dev points out that diamonds are usually more relaxed: “It’s common for hotels to have five diamonds and four stars.”
Now that you’re properly confused, let’s look at the levels.
Climb the stars
There is no single answer to the question of what star ratings actually mean, as there are many systems shaped by many factors.
Some tourism marketers now give the unofficial six-star designation to exceptionally luxurious properties. (Think of the amazing overwater villas in the Maldives with private butlers, like the ones in the video at the top of this page).
And keep in mind that not all properties in a brand are created equal when making assumptions about a chain’s star category — newer hotels are typically more modern and deserve a higher rating.
But to give you an idea of how it works, ratings have traditionally behaved this way.
Expect the hotel to be small to medium in size, probably part of a national chain.
Chances are you’ll get a phone and a TV in your room. You can have a restaurant; you probably won’t have room service.
“It should be conveniently located to mid-priced attractions.” Think: Econolodge, Motel 6.
Back to basics: EconoLodge is one of the most popular budget hotel chains in the US.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
A little more personal; outside of certain hours public access may be restricted. Think: Days Inn, LaQuinta Inn.
The Three Stars
So far, the lobby should be pretty cool. Fitness centers and swimming pools make appearances. Think: Holiday Inn, Best Western.
Treats that pleasantly surprise you with three stars have become commonplace, such as spas, concierges and valet services. Think: Hyatt Regency, Marriott.
The service is quite personal. The property is likely to be quite large. The rooms will offer “elegant furniture and quality linen”; your lobby can be described as “suptuous”. Expect a doorman. Think: Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons.
Bringing the question…
How much should the stars shape your decisions?
The Four Seasons is one of the most popular hotel brands worthy of the five-star designation. Pictured is his property in Hoi An, Vietnam.
The Four Seasons
Those in the travel industry have mixed views on the use of stars.
Katherine Norton of Brownell Travel, North America’s oldest travel agency, is kind to them (“a rating is something a hotel should be very proud of”).
That said, “Brownell’s business is built around long-standing relationships and personal experience.” This means that “a three-star hotel can be chosen because we know that our customers will go above and beyond.”
Dev also says it’s important to understand one basic fact: “A one-star hotel is not necessarily a bad hotel.” At best, such properties are minimal: they offer no bells and whistles; they charge less accordingly.
So when you grab your laptop to find your next accommodation, how should you approach star ratings?
“If you only focus on star ratings, you’re missing out on a lot of potential benefits,” says Slav Kulik, CEO and founder of software company Plan A Technologies. He knows this field well, having provided customized software platforms, digital transformation solutions and countless other services to dozens of hospitality and travel clients.
What can consumers expect? “Thanks to AI, booking engines and loyalty programs can now provide a personalized experience for each guest,” reports Kulik.
They may include: What floor do you like to be on? What products do you want waiting for you when you arrive in your room? Which restaurant should have a reservation ready so that you can have a favorite meal after a long day? What type of pillow do you prefer?
If you’re determined to get as much star value as possible, Dev suggests taking the price of a hotel and dividing it by the number of stars.
Then explain to your spouse why spending $500 at a four-star hotel instead of $130 at a one-star technically broke the family budget, but created $5 in average star savings. What could matter more than that?