Understanding Hotel Star Ratings

By Jessica Sillers

Counting to five is easy, so why is understanding the hotel star rating system so hard? Different standards for ratings can make it tough to uncover the real truth about hotel quality. We’re here to break down the difference between a two-star and three-star hotel, and help you spot a genuinely great Airbnb in a sea of five-star listings.

Why Star Ratings Vary So Much

There isn’t one governing body behind hotel star ratings. Most American hotel ratings operate on a five-star system, but there isn’t one central organization to issue ratings. Some European countries use four stars as their max, while others use five. The United Arab Emirates gives some of its hotels a six- or seven-star rating. Some countries set hotel rating standards in law, while others (including the United States) don’t.

Then there’s customer reviews! While travel websites base star ratings on available amenities and accommodation details, customers generally use a subjective measure of their own opinion on one stay.

Which ratings should I trust?

The Forbes Travel Guide and AAA assign star or diamond ratings, respectively. The Hotelstars Union provides a hotel classification system for 17 European nations, including Germany, Greece, Sweden, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Austria. Some countries like Italy, Portugal, and Spain set laws defining hotel ratings. Any of these should give you a strong idea of what to expect.

Generally, it’s smart to take customer reviews with a grain of salt. After all, it can be hard to know if a particular customer is quick to slam a hotel with a one-star review over a minor issue. It’s worth glancing at recent reviews, though. A sudden surge in two-star reviews on a hotel with a four-star average could signal a recent change in management or quality.

What U.S. Star Ratings Mean

Even without a single star rating standard, there’s enough overlap between most websites and travel organizations to get a sense of what to expect. Here’s a general guide to what each hotel star rating means.

One star

Basic accommodations for budget-minded travelers. Expect smaller rooms, with a bed and bathroom but not much else. You may even share a bathroom with other travelers, or need to visit the front desk to use the hotel phone. Don’t expect any special amenities or onsite facilities.

Note that none of the above means that a one-star hotel will be dirty or located in a dangerous or isolated area.

Two star

Some simple hotel chains or franchises fall under this rating. Expect some closet space, an in-room phone and TV, daily housekeeping during your stay, and possibly a continental breakfast. It’s still a basic experience, but not as stripped down.

Three star

As stars go up, amenities expand. At this level, expect to find more on-site services and amenities like a pool, fitness center, conference room or business center, restaurant, room service, and valet service. Your room is likely to be more comfortable as well. Three-star rooms tend to be larger, with more furniture (like a table or desk), TV with expanded cable offering, Wifi, and more contemporary furnishing.

Generally, business travelers need at least a three-star hotel’s level of comfort and service to meet work expectations while they’re away from home.

Four star

Superior hotels at this level usually have luxurious decor and a certain “wow factor.” Expect luxuries like a mini-bar, premium furnishing, and fancy linens and bath supplies in your room. Amenities and services are upscale, often including state-of-the-art fitness center and pool, spas, restaurants, elegant business spaces, and concierge services.

Five star

The top of the line in luxury. Expect extravagant decor, cutting-edge tech and equipment, and VIP service beyond compare. You may find welcome gifts in your room in addition to premium amenities, a lavish bathroom, and possibly even your own designated concierge. Hotel grounds and amenities may be expansive, and can include tennis courts or a golf course, high-end restaurants, health clubs, and other on-site entertainment. Staff attend to your every need with the most prompt, gracious service in the industry.

Sharing Economy vs. Hotel Lodging

Navigating sites like Airbnb can be especially tough. It can seem like every listing has at least a 4.5 rating! Can they really all be that amazing?

Airbnb’s strict requirements for hosts can put pressure on them to get the highest reviews possible. Hosts can see reviews guests post, so it may be possible for some hosts to accept or reject guests based on the guest’s review history. A five-star host listing doesn’t mean much if the host has prescreened out anyone likely to leave less than raving feedback. To get a stronger sense of an Airbnb listing’s quality, look at the following signs.

Total number of reviews

A robust list of reviews suggests plenty of satisfied guests. Sparse reviews could mean a new listing and inexperienced host, or could possibly indicate some cherry-picking.

Time between reviews

The guest culture on Airbnb can lean toward, “If you don’t have something nice to say, say nothing at all.” You want to see listings where most guests are happy to leave a positive review. Long gaps between reviewers could be a warning sign if the accommodation is frequently booked.

Review quality

Read a few actual reviews. Do guests praise host responsiveness and room cleanliness? You may have found a winner. Detailed, positive reviews give extra credibility to a high rating.

Host connection

If you’re undecided about a listing, try messaging the host directly with any questions. Whether they’re prompt and helpful, or your message goes unanswered, you may get the info you need to make a decision.

Booking an upcoming hotel stay for a business trip? TravelBank gives businesses the flexibility to generate hotel budgets based on star rating preferences and gives business travelers access to over 500,000 hotel properties and homesharing options, many at exclusive rates. Learn more about how we deliver a better business travel experience.

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