In case you missed it, there’s a seven-star resort coming to an Austrian treetop near you. No word on if it’s being inspected by the Lil’ Rascals to make sure it has adequate clubhouse space and “No Girls Allowed” signage since to literally everyone in the world’s knowledge no official rating system exists for tree houses. But it makes one wonder: If a treehouse can claim it has seven stars, can any old hotel do it too?

The Burj-al-Arab in Dubai famously claimed it was the world’s first and only seven-star hotel, but a quick look at Google reviews gives it a paltry four and a half. So who’s telling the truth here, and who is basing stars on nothing more than marketing copy/guests with a remote control battery vendetta? We set out to get to the bottom of the ever-ambiguous hotel rating system, read through some lengthy reports, and now offer up this handy explainer to how the whole thing works.

Hotels are rated by a handful of bodies

Though the process is completely unregulated by any kind of industry or government organization, a few independent companies rate hotels by strict criteria, awarding the stars you often see hanging over the front desk. The biggest in the United States are AAA, Forbes, and Michelin.

AAA

The American Automobile Association — and its Canadian cousin the CAA — have far and away the most comprehensive criteria for rating hotels. If you’d like to read through them all, here’s a scintillating 46-page guide. If you don’t have time to pore through it, AAA rates hotels in four categories, from the very-basic “Approved” to Three, Four, and Five Diamond ratings. Inspectors look at over 29,000 hotels a year, with only one half of one percent receiving Five Diamond status, and another six percent rating Four Diamond.

The rating system looks at a lengthy checklist covering every part of the hotel, from the landscaping outside to the television on the wall. Approved properties must have two medium-sized bars of soap, Five Diamonds must have “a comprehensive and luxurious selection of fashionable bath products.” Approved hotels must have a desk or writing surface of some sort, Five Diamond must have a large desk with multiple outlets or USB ports, and an ergonomic chair. Approved hotels must have a pool. Five Diamond pools require landscaping and water features. You get the idea.

To achieve the ultra-coveted Five Diamond rating, a hotel must undergo an inspection covering over 100 points in 13 categories, examining customer and concierge service, as well as room service, guest request, and bell service. All aspects of inspection other ratings are not subject to.

Of course, this leaves some pretty large discrepancies for, say, modern lifestyle hotels like The Drake, which don’t offer much in the way of clothing storage but still offer a high level of service. Or luxury hotels in Las Vegas or the Caribbean that don’t have TVs in rooms because they want their guests to be outside. While hotels don’t need to hit EVERY mark on the list, they’ve gotta hit most. So lacking a diamond doesn’t necessarily mean lacking quality.

Forbes

Forbes isn’t quite as meticulous as AAA but still gives its inspectors a 900-point checklist to determine the relative luxury of a hotel. Forbes also looks a little more at lifestyle elements, rating the variety and quality of cocktails at the bar, for example. Or the overall dining experience of a restaurant, not simply its existence. Forbes inspections are a little more personal, too, as inspectors look for anticipatory service and housekeepers who organize your toiletries.

It also only offers four-star, five-star, and recommended ratings, granting them to nearly 1,900 hotels in 73 countries. It has added 70 five-star and 120 four-star properties to its list in 2020, so statistically, Forbes’ ratings are a lot easier to come by than AAA.

Michelin

Once upon a time when you heard something was Michelin-starred you just assumed it gave really good wet-road traction. Now, of course, your mouth starts to water as you imagine multi-course feasts made of foam, espuma, and meats you can’t pronounce. But Michelin also rates hotels, and while its Red Guide isn’t quite the lodging authority it was in years past, it’s still a much more dependable rating system than anything you’d find online.

Online ratings can mean a number of things

Online ratings are effectively two separate ratings: One from the site and one from users. Online travel companies like Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity have quick, one-sentence descriptions of what constitutes one-through-five star hotels, and none exceed five. Most start with one star as basically a place with a bed and a door and work their way from value motels at the two-star level to luxury properties at five stars. They don’t conduct official inspections for these ratings, as these serve more as descriptors than awards.

Many sites, including TripAdvisor and Google, offer user-generated star ratings too. These, however, function more as an indicator of met expectations than luxury. For example, if you say at a Motel 6 and get a clean, comfortable room at a reasonable price with the light left on for you, you’ll likely award it five stars since you were completely satisfied with your stay. However, if you stay at the St. Regis and pay $500 a night for a room where the Smart TV doesn’t work, you may rate it three stars because it failed to meet expectations. That is to say, use these ratings to gauge if a place is worth the money, but maybe not its level of luxury.

The rest of the world is a whole other ballgame

In Europe, a collective of hospitality associations called HOTREC uses a standardized system to rate hotels across the continent. As anyone who’s traveled through Europe knows, hotels there can skew a little more… spartan than they do in the US, which is why the criteria in HOTREC’s Hotel Stars program are far simpler than the hundreds of points from Forbes or AAA. A five-star in Europe, for example, requires turndown service, a safe, and internet as some of its main criteria. One-star properties need to have private bathrooms in every room, as that’s not always the case across the pond.

Is the hotel rating system up with the times?

As we said before, modern hotels have done away with amenities people don’t want, regardless of their star ratings. Minibars have gone from overpriced convenience stores to almost extinct, then back to unique in-room shops. Bulk amenities are becoming more commonplace in rooms. Closet space isn’t as important as it used to be. But electrical outlets and fast WiFi are crucial.

In some ways, the rating criteria have kept up. AAA, for example, began replacing its business center inspection points with tech connectivity features. For example, Five Diamond properties now must have mobile check-in and mobile keys, multiple USB ports, electrical outlets, and high-speed WiFi. And the 42-inch flatscreens now must offer Smart televisions and Netflix connectivity.

Sustainability, on the other hand, hasn’t crept into star rating criteria quite yet. Where once upon a time criteria required daily replacement of bottled amenities, that one has been dropped. But AAA does still require bottled products in bathrooms for high ratings, though it does make exceptions for what it calls “eco-conscious” bathrooms. Still, taking steps like requiring no single-use plastics in-room, or bulk amenities, to achieve five-star status might go a long way in making hotels more sustainable.

Whether the current star rating criteria are relevant at all — especially in the age of ubiquitous user reviews — is debatable. But what’s not debatable is that lacking an official rating from Forbes, AAA, or someone similar, a star rating isn’t much more than a marketing term. Yes, a seven-star treehouse sounds impressive, but if no one was there to inspect it, did it really even get reviewed? Probably not, so make sure you still do your homework, and don’t trust anything that sounds too fancy to be real.

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