We've all said it before: "It's a five-star hotel!" But what exactly does that mean?

If you're blinded by the intricate hotel star system, you're not alone. Is a five-star hotel really worth it? It doesn't help that the same hotel may have three different ratings, depending on the travel website you visit or the tourist guidebook you read. Let's explore those perplexing little stars, and see whether a place that scores five stars is really worth a hundred dollars a night more than its three-star competitor.

Key Takeaways

  • Europe and the U.S. use different hotel star rating systems. In Europe, four stars are the max, whereas the American system goes as high as five.
    In the U.S., a variety of private agencies and websites award stars, and criteria for the categories vary.
  • A one-star rating may simply mean that the hotel offers basic accommodations and limited amenities.
  • Although similar to a one-star hotel, a two-star hotel is generally part of a larger chain and offers a few more amenities.
  • Three-star hotels are typically part of larger, more upscale chains or hotel groups.
  • Four-star hotels are large, upscale establishments, fully staffed, and complete with tons of extras.
  • Five-star hotels are the most luxurious properties in the world.

Star Light, Star Bright: Is That Star Rating Right?

The star rating system was designed to measure the quality of hotels. While you may assume a one-star rating means a "disgusting hole in the wall where illegal activities take place" and a five-star rating means "Oprah Winfrey stayed here and loved it," that's not always the case.

But remember, Europe and the U.S. use different hotel star rating systems. In Europe, hotels are generally rated on a four-star system, with four stars being the best hotel room money can buy. On the other hand, the U.S. uses a five-star system to rate hotels.

And there's more to these star ratings than meets the eye. A one-star rating doesn't always suggest a bloody shoot-out recently took place on the premises; it may simply mean that the hotel offers basic accommodations and limited amenities.

Reaching for the Stars

So who determines how many stars each hotel receives? In Europe, local government agencies and independent organizations hand out star ratings to hotels. In the U.S., stars are rewarded by a variety of different groups, from travel guidebooks and national consumer travel associations to travel agencies and websites.

To make things more confusing, each travel website has its own hotel star system. So the same property may receive three stars on Travelocity, five stars on Orbitz, and four stars on Expedia. Luckily, most of these travel websites and associations provide a guide to their personal hotel star rating system.

For the most part, the North American hotel star system breaks down as seen below.

1-Star Rating: The Bare Necessities

A one-star hotel is simply a place to rest your head for the night. Generally owned by a sole proprietor, these hotels offer modest rooms with nothing more than a bed and bathroom. There are no restaurants on-site, but there should be one within walking distance of the hotel.

These hotels don't offer extra amenities or special services. In other words, you're not going to get a nightly turndown service with a Godiva chocolate on your pillow here. However, you should have access to nearby public transportation and reasonably priced meals and entertainment.

2-Star Rating: A Few Extras

Although similar to a one-star hotel, a two-star hotel is generally part of a larger chain or franchise as opposed to being individually owned (think Econo Lodge or Days Inn). The accommodations are similar to a one-star hotel's: simple and basic. However, two-star hotel rooms include a television and phone. Plus, these hotels typically offer an on-site restaurant or dining area and daily housekeeping service. The front desk at a two-star hotel is usually open 24 hours a day.

3-Star Rating: Moving on Up

Three-star hotels are typically part of larger, more upscale hotel chains, such as Marriott, Radisson, and DoubleTree. These hotels are generally more stylish and comfortable than one and two-star hotels, and they offer a wider range of services and amenities: a fitness center, a pool, business services, an on-site restaurant, room service, conference rooms, and valet services.

The hotel rooms are larger with higher-quality, contemporary furnishings and often include fancy extras like flat-screen TVs with extended cable. Three-star hotels are located near a major expressway and local attractions, and they are often geared toward business travelers.

4-Star Rating: Upscale Comfort

Also known as superior hotels, four-star hotels are large, upscale establishments, fully staffed, and complete with tons of extras. The spacious rooms are beautifully designed with premium furnishings and include luxurious touches like lavish bedding and fine bath products.

Four-star hotels offer loads of special services and amenities, including concierge services, fine dining, multiple pools, and hot tubs, high-class fitness centers, bellhops, room service, valet parking, day spas, limousine services and an array of special suites.

5-Star Rating: G-L-A-M-O-R-O-U-S

Now we're talking lifestyles of the rich and famous. Five-star hotels are the most luxurious hotels in the world. These fine establishments boast extravagant lobbies, unparalleled service, and unequaled comfort. They resemble architectural works of art, featuring cutting-edge interior design and opulent furnishings.

As a guest in a five-star hotel, you will not have to lift a finger (except for when you hand over that platinum credit card, of course.) Many of these hotels provide their guests with a personal butler or designated concierge. The massive five-star guest rooms are glamorous and elegant, often including premium linens, a personal Jacuzzi tub, a large-screen Plasma TV with high-definition cable, a DVD player, high-speed Internet access, fresh flowers, lavish bath products, and speedy, around-the-clock room service.

For the most part, five-star hotels also offer gourmet restaurants, on-site entertainment, state-of-the-art fitness centers, multiple heated pools, and hot tubs, valet parking, spa services, tennis courts, and golf course access. Champagne wishes and caviar dreams!

The Bottom Line

There's no question that the hotel star rating system can be vague, confusing, and downright arbitrary. However, with a little bit of research, it is possible to pinpoint the perfect hotel to suit your unique needs and your budget.

While you're doing your hotel homework, you should also check out what other consumers have to say. Many travel websites include guest ratings in addition to their own star ratings and, though you should account for personal bias and quirks, they're often quite candid and apt.