(CNN) — Online user ratings are great, until you discover they’re fake. Or you remember how your uncle always leaves reviews and his taste is terrible.
Travelers want a proper set of standards, which generic hotel star ratings seem to offer. After all, you see, “Five-star hotel” and think, “Must be amazing,” just as you hear “One-star” and realize It’s gonna be a rough honeymoon.
But what do those ratings actually mean, particularly now that the internet and its many hotel review sites have transformed travel? We’re here to set you straight… right after we make you way more confused.
A shifting standard
Hotel ratings were created “to help customers work through acceptable and unacceptable choices, then within the acceptable choices get some sort of hierarchy of better and worse,” explains Chekitan Dev of Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration.
A great idea, sure. But the problem was that a number of different hierarchies emerged, with limited overlap.
“In most parts of the world, the system is controlled by the government,” Dev says.
These ratings typically do have one thing in common: They’re out of date.
“The government ones tend to be stuck in the past,” Dev observes. “They don’t update their criteria. They don’t take into account service and more intangible issues.”
Even the ones that are current may be a little questionable.
It was long nearly impossible to find a five-star hotel in France. Why?
Their rating system stopped at four. Then in 2009 they added an extra star category, bringing it to the standard five stars. The following year, one more category was added: luxury hotels deemed particularly extraordinary are now given a separate “Palace” title by the French Tourism Development Agency.
Meanwhile, Dev notes India placed a luxury tax on its five-star hotels, causing properties falling into that category to modestly present themselves as four- or even three-star properties.
Hotels in some nations go the other way, lobbying to receive an artificially elevated rating so they can charge higher rates or even use the rating as leverage for loans.
The US offers a different kind of confusion.
The latter is focused specifically on luxury hotels, with 1,276 rated hotels in 74 countries. Forbes Travel Guide awards its Five-Star, Four-Star and Recommended (three-star) ratings annually, based on anonymous, in-person inspections.
Dev notes the AAA ratings are usually more laid back: “It’s common for hotels to have five diamonds and four stars.”
Now that you’re properly perplexed, let’s actually look at the levels.
Scaling the stars
There isn’t a single answer to the question of what star ratings actually mean, since there are so many systems shaped by so many factors.
Some tourism marketers now even give exceptional luxury properties an unofficial six-star designation. (Think stunning over-water villas in the Maldives with private butlers, like the ones in the video at the top of this page).
And bear in mind not all of a brand’s properties are created equal when making assumptions about a chain’s star category — newer hotels are usually more modern and deserving of a higher rating.
But just to have some sense of how it works, ratings traditionally play out like this.
Expect the hotel to be small to medium-sized, most likely part of a national chain.
You will likely get a telephone and TV in your room. You may have a restaurant; you probably won’t have room service.
It should be “conveniently located to moderately priced attractions.” Think: Econolodge, Motel 6.
Back to basics: EconoLodge is among the best-known US budget hotel chains.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Slightly more personal; public access may be restricted past certain hours. Think: Days Inn, LaQuinta Inn.
About now, the lobby should be pretty nice. Fitness centers and pools make appearances. Think: Holiday Inn, Best Western.
The goodies you’re pleasantly surprised by at three stars have become commonplace, such as spas, concierges and car valet services. Think: Hyatt Regency, Marriott.
The service is pretty personal. The property will likely be quite large. The rooms will offer “stylish furnishing and quality linens;” your lobby may be described as “sumptuous.” Expect a concierge. Think: Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons.
Leading to the question…
How much should stars shape your decisions?
The Four Seasons is one the best-known hotel brands considered worthy of a five-star designation. Pictured is its property in Hoi An, Vietnam.
Those in the travel industry have mixed views on the use of stars.
Katherine Norton from Brownell Travel, North America’s oldest travel agency, is polite about them (“a rating is something a hotel should be very proud of”).
That said, “Brownell’s business is centered around longstanding relationships and personal experience.” The means a “three-star hotel could be chosen because we know they will go above and beyond for our clients.”
Similarly, Dev says it’s important to understand a basic fact: “A one-star hotel doesn’t have to be a bad hotel.” At their best, such properties are just minimal: They don’t offer bells and whistles; they charge less accordingly.
So when you pick up your laptop to locate your next lodgings, how should you approach star ratings?
“If you focus only on star ratings, you miss out on a lot of potential benefits,” says Slav Kulik, CEO and co-founder of the software company Plan A Technologies. He knows this field well, having provided custom software platforms, digital transformation solutions and countless other services for dozens of hospitality and travel clients.
What can consumers expect? “Thanks to AI, booking engines and loyalty programs can now deliver a personalized experience for every guest,” Kulik reports.
Considerations can include: Which floor do you like to stay on? What products do you want awaiting you when you arrive at your room? Which restaurant should have a reservation ready to go, so you can have a favorite meal after a long day? Which 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 on a four-star hotel instead of $130 on a one-star may have technically shattered the family budget — but it generated $5 in average star savings. What can matter more than that?
This feature has been updated with additional information from Forbes Travel Guide.