Explaining Hotel Star Ratings: What Do They Mean?

five-star hotel poolMany factors can help you decide between one hotel and another—location, price, how nice the pool is, whether they serve free breakfast, etc. While all these things are important (who doesn’t love free pancakes?), people also often base their decision on the hotel’s star ratings, using it as an indication of how great the hotel really is.

These little shapes carry a lot of weight and can help give you a clearer picture of how past hotel guests felt about their stay. It’s easy to assume one star is unfavorable and four or more is exceptional, but, where do these stars come from? Who determines these ratings and what exactly do they mean? Let’s take a look at why you should be cautious when basing your decision solely on a hotel’s star rating.

What Are Star Ratings?

Star ratings were created so travelers could, at a glance, get a general impression about a hotel and its excellence. By using a simple star rating of one to five stars in the U.S. (Europe ranks their hotels up to four stars), the star rating system was designed to measure a hotel’s overall quality. With one star being a no-frills experience and five stars meaning your hotel dreams are about to come true, the ratings were established to help the traveler quickly get a feel for a hotel and its standards.

How Are Hotel Star Ratings Determined?

Since there isn’t a universal scoring system, it’s not unusual to see the same hotel with different star ratings on different websites. While this can be just downright frustrating, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider a hotel’s star rating when deciding where to stay. However, it does mean you should familiarize yourself with the system.

The stars are awarded by a few different groups, each with their own system of determining ratings—confusing, right? You’ll find star ratings awarded by travel guides, consumer travel associations like AAA, and travel websites like TripAdvisor. Online booking sites like Expedia, Travelocity, or Booking.com each have their own rating system, making the process even more complicated. Imagine finding a hotel on one travel website with four stars, then later seeing the same hotel with two stars on another website. Which rating should you believe?

Before we look at how these ratings are determined, first let’s see what the ratings even mean…

What Do the Ratings Mean?

Generally, speaking, here is what you can expect when you see a hotel star rating:

  • 1 star—The hotel offers basic accommodations without the frills. This is best when you just need a place to sleep and aren’t interested in niceties.
  • 2 stars—The hotel is slightly nicer than one-star hotels, but still good for travelers on a budget.
  • 3 stars—The hotel offers some unique amenities and quality service but is still considered affordable.
  • 4 stars—The hotel is noted as an upscale environment and is known for comfort and care.
  • 5 stars—The hotel offers exceptional services, state-of-the-art furnishings, and personalized service at a higher price.
hotel star rating breakdown

What Are Hotel Star Ratings Based On?

Not all ratings are created equally. Keep in mind that there are both official and unofficial ratings. The Forbes Travel Guide first started ranking hotels on a star-based system back in the ’50s, and the guide remains one of the leading official star-assigning groups today. AAA is also considered an official star-rating source.

Ratings on travel websites are often based on user reviews and are considered unofficial. You’ll find unofficial star ratings on sites like TripAdvisor or Google, where users rate the hotels based on their own experience. Now, just because a rating is “unofficial” doesn’t mean it’s not trustworthy; it just means it didn’t come from one of the official rating sources.

At Roomkey, we have opted to show ratings and reviews from TrustYou because we feel that these ratings are honest, unbiased, and are coupled with reviews from guests who have experienced the hotel firsthand.

How to Decide Where to Stay

Basically, take hotel star ratings with a grain of salt. Read guest reviews and use your best judgment. When you search on Roomkey.com, you’ll have all the information you need to decide whether a hotel is legit (including firsthand reviews and ratings). Once you’ve made a decision you feel good about, we’ll take you to the hotel’s website to book your reservation directly with them. When you book through Roomkey, you can rest assured you’ve made a booking decision you won’t regret.