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Travel Advice - Oh those ratings – what do all those stars really mean?

When booking a hotel or evaluating a restaurant, most of us depend on some form of a  rating system to help us understand the “quality” level of the hotels that we are interested in booking.

In some cases, the “rating” system is based on recommendations of knowledgeable friends or acquaintances.  In other situations when we are traveling to new places and evaluating places to stay, we may rely on ratings systems provided by travel agents, publications, or travel booking websites.

In general, most rating systems represent their quality assessment by assigning symbols or numbers: just as in school, the “highest” grade is most desirable. Another seeming truism, is that the higher the rating, the higher the price for the service.


Travelers use “quality” ratings to save some homework. For example, a traveler may be looking for a certain level of amenities and know that they will find them at hotels rated three stars (mid scale) or better. Others eschew anything but the basics and look for one star or economy lodgings. In essence, the rating system becomes a filter that we use to separate those hotels that are acceptable from those that are not acceptable.

We are not concerned with your choice of type of lodging or its expense, as these choices reflect your preferences. What we are interested in is to help you realize that the ratings attached to hotels, restaurants, and other attractions are subjective and, sometimes, misleading.

Ratings come from all sorts of sources. Some ratings are reasonably reliable (AAA) and others are of dubious value. There is nothing magic about professional ratings. In these cases, an inspector commonly visits and evaluates a property or service based on the characteristics deemed important in the ranking system of the company that employs them. 

In other cases, the ratings are crowd-sourced and reported by people who claim to have stayed at the property being rated.  Sometimes you will be reading a rating that was created by another brand who would rather you stay with them.  In some cases you will see review by people who just seem to hate a particular brand, while in other cases you will find reviewers who could not find anything bad in a penitentary.

Unless you are familiar with the system, you cannot be sure the evaluation is based on the values important to you. We urge you to familiarize yourself with the rating methods of companies that provide ranking that you frequently use.

Most companies that provide ratings describe their evaluative process on their Web site or company publications (e.g., the Zagat Guides editorial team provides an exhaustive description of their rating system in each of their restaurant guides).


One of the most problematic issues with the use of rating comes from the crowd sourced or “blended ratings” provided by online hotel booking services. Several of the leading, online reservation services return a list of hotels, in response to your query on room availability in a specific city.

These lists are, most often, an amalgamation of hotel lists provided to the online services by numerous suppliers (hotel chains or other reservation services). In essence, the list of hotels presented to you comes from a variety of sources that use different measures of quality. For this reason, it is often difficult to evaluate the quality of the hotels based on the online ratings, since the ratings are based on different criteria.

If you are concerned about the quality of a hotel and whether the rating is valid, use your favorite search engine, enter the name and location of the  hotel, and see what you can find out. Sometimes you will hit a dead end. Often you will be able to find information that will help you to evaluate the hotel.

On several occasions, we have “Googled” a hotel and found comments by patrons of the hotel that helped us decide that this was not the place for us to stay. Later while visiting the city, we stopped by the hotels in question and agreed that booking reservations elsewhere was the right thing to do.

Ratings are just another guide to hotel selection and they are only as good as you have been thorough in finding out how they reflect reality.  Most often, you will need to read numerous reviews in order to approach the "truth" about any hotel rating.

If you need to find information about Destinations or other Things Travelers Need To Know, try Googling ThereArePlaces.
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