How Hotels Get Their Star Ratings and What They Mean

There are more hotel rating systems than ever before. Here’s a primer on what they are—and what they mean.

Exterior of huge Broadmoor Hotel

The Broadmoor Hotel has more than 700 guestrooms, plus 17 restaurants and bars. It’s had an AAA Five Diamond property designation for close to 50 years.

Courtesy of the Broadmoor Hotel

Hotel rating systems have become ubiquitous around the world, but even savvy travelers might not realize there isn’t a standardized governing body for rating and inspecting hotels with reach across the continents. Navigating rating systems is more challenging today, as there are more hotels to choose from than ever before—according to U.S.-based research firm Smith Travel Research, the world now has more than 1,200 hotel brands. As the kinds of hotels have proliferated, so too have the rating systems to help sift and sort them. There are new entrants jostling for independent authority, too, including the famed Michelin restaurant guide that’s primed to launch its first hotel ranking guide later this year. There’s been talk of seven-star hotels, leading to some controversy over whether that category exists at all.

With so many hotel ratings systems out there, it can be hard to know the kind of experience you might get when analyzing a potential place to stay. For clarity, we’ve broken down the systems that exist today, while tapping travel experts for insight into what it all means.

The origins of star ratings and hotels

The star-based system emerged in the 1950s, via a travel guide underwritten by the firm that’s now known as Exxon Mobil. It was an instant sensation, and the writers soon established an entire team of inspectors who swarmed the United States checking the status of hotels and awarding rankings accordingly.

According to Bjorn Hanson, a former lecturer at NYU and former global lead for PricewaterhouseCoopers’ hospitality practice, the hospitality world was primed for such rankings in the wake of World War II, when new chains like Hilton and Holiday Inn were emerging to offer their own brand as a guarantee of standards.

“It’s partly the nature of the industry. It was a way of dividing hotels,” he says of the emerging hospitality landscape, where differentiating hotels was becoming harder—and so many of those new hotels were midrange and motel-style. There also was less need to look at the upper tiers then. “When you try to picture the late 1950s, I’m not sure there were many five-star hotels.”

How star ratings systems vary by country

White and gray guest room at Four Seasons Hotel New York Downtown, with small deck outside tall glass door.

The Four Seasons Hotel New York Downtown is designated a five-star hotel according to Forbes Travel Guide.

Courtesy of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts

The HotelStars project is the closest to standardization that the industry has achieved: The 15-year-old body operates across several countries, mostly in the European Union. But most hotel ratings systems in existence today are specific to a country or region—in Europe, some systems are regulated by government agencies like tourism boards.

Ratings in the United Kingdom have been standardized by the government since 2006, with inspections carried out by the local answer to AAA and the tourism boards. As an opt-in scheme, with associated costs to cover those checkups, it means some hotels remain unranked. France’s system is run by its tourism board, with detailed requirements for each category: The size of a double bedroom, for example, must be a minimum of 97 square feet to reach one-star status but surpass 258 square feet to reach five-star levels.

In Italy, hotels are awarded stars according to strict criteria—a five-star hotel, for example, must have a meeting room of some kind. But each of the Italian regions also has individual annotations on those criteria, which makes it harder to compare a three-star hotel in, say, Tuscany, with its counterpart in the Veneto.

In the USA, the landscape for rankings is more muddled than in Europe, without any government oversight. Rather, it’s down to competing systems like AAA and Forbes Travel Guide, which can be inconsistent, whether with rivals or with themselves. AAA recently did away with its well-known one- and two-diamond ratings in favor of a simple “approved” stamp, aiming to minimize stigma for more basic crash pads. Since the U.S. landscape remains unregulated, hotels can self-designate a star rating on their websites without third-party approval—so if you don’t see a logo like AAA or Forbes on the website, buyer beware.

Things don’t get any clearer in North Africa, where Tunisia has its own domestic system, which was upgraded and intended to roll out in 2021; three years later, there’s been little progress. The Tourism Grading Council of South Africa (TGCSA) exerts control over rankings there, but it’s an opt-in, not opt-out, system leaving many properties uncategorized.

China’s government unsurprisingly operates the rating system there, via the tourism board or CNTA, and it uses the one- to five-star system. However, the criteria for each tier differ from the luxury expectations of other regions—a fleet of transit vans to help shuttle guests to the city center, for example, is one marker of five-star status.

The swimming pool deck at Cheetah Plains in South Africa, next to river, with several empty beige lounge chairs in foreground

Cheetah Plains in South Africa is certified as a five-star lodge through the Tourism Grading Council of South Africa.

Courtesy of Cheetah Plains

How travel experts use hotel rating systems

Travel experts are likely to have evolved their own approach to star ratings, prioritizing certain organizations over others. Paul Tumpowsky, founder of Skylark, a luxury-tier travel agency, says the only ranking body he’ll trust is the Forbes Travel Guide. “You have to pay to be inspected,” Tumpowsky explains, “But it’s a real process, and they get training along with the rating. When you’re mystery-shaped, you don’t just get a rating, but also feedback about what was wrong and how it can be improved. It’s become really valuable.” Tumpowsky also looks for hotels that are members of an industry association, whether that’s Leading Hotels of the World, which comprises more than 60 of the world’s best independent properties, or Virtuoso, which only admits hotels to its ranks when they pass stringent entry tests focusing on everything from service to sales numbers.

These paid-for memberships are only available to hotels that reach a certain standard; they have benchmarks like the star systems, but there’s also a careful curation that considers vibe and aesthetics as much as that raw data. “It’s much more binary than the star system,” Tumpowsky says of the either-in-or-out option, “but that’s going to be the type of hotel that will work for my clients, with requirements about certain things like room service. But in the end, a hotel participating in a program like that is trying to market to the top American travelers and their advisors. So it makes inherent sense.”

Hotel ratings systems have an upside for more than the guests—they encourage hotels to improve

Table for two on outdoor deck at dusk at Le Sirenuse, with hill of small buildings in background

Le Sirenuse is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World.

Courtesy of Le Sirenuse

Even though how stars are awarded may differ between countries and ranking bodies, they’re vital for the bottom line. Indeed, fear of losing them drives hotels to extremes, like hiring inspection firm Coyle Hospitality. Coyle typically works as a secret shopper–style operation, providing rapid response reports to management on properties that highlight their strengths and weaknesses. But the company’s managing director, Jeff Gurtman, says his team will often be brought in as a tire-kicking trial, running through the hotel using the same checklist as, say, AAA. “They’ll be looking for the minutiae, say, the way the newspapers are offered, or how a request is handled—if I call housekeeping, I should be able to order my Caesar salad without being transferred to room service,” he explains.

The biggest issues often occur, he added, when a hotel has ceded control of its food and beverage outlets to an outside operator, like a celebrity chef. “They employ our services for that to give them the ammunition to go back to the restaurant partner and say ‘You’ve got to shape up because you’re dragging us down.’” One hotel chain hired Gurtman’s team for a different ratings-related reason. “They were not interested at all in measuring standards or quality. What they wanted us to do is see if their staff could gain practice in identifying who the inspector is, and sometimes they did, and sometimes they didn’t,” he said with a laugh, adding, “it’s the equivalent of studying for the test rather than the material.”

British-born, New York–based Mark Ellwood has lived out of a suitcase for most of his life. He is editor-at-large for luxury bible Robb Report and columnist for Bloomberg Luxury. Recent stories have led him to hang out with China’s trendsetters in Chengdu and learn fireside raps from cowboy poets in Wyoming.
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