Ever wonder why the same hotel gets four stars from one website and three stars from another? What's the difference between a bed-and-breakfast and an inn? What exactly is a boutique hotel, and what do you get when you stay at a resort?
Here's a primer on hotel rating systems, categories and definitions.
*Bed-and-breakfast: An owner-occupied property with no more than 10 or 15 guest rooms, plus common areas. Breakfast is included in room rates.
*Inn: Usually an independently owned property with more than 10 rooms but fewer than 50; often the owner lives onsite. Some inns include dinner and breakfast in room rates; some have full-service restaurants.
*Boutique hotel: Characterized by unique, stylish or even quirky decor and interior design, offering a stark alternative in appearance and experience to chain brands where furnishings may be identical in every location. Boutique hotels were originally independently owned, but today there are boutique hotel chains, such as Kimpton hotels, and Starwood's Ws. Marriott is launching a boutique brand called Edition.
*Resort: Offers on-site leisure activities related to location along with overnight accommodations. Types include ski resorts, golf resorts, beach resorts, lake resorts and spa resorts. Per-person rates at all-inclusive resorts cover meals. Some resort rates include activities like kayaking, canoeing or tennis; others add fees for equipment rentals, lessons, excursions and access to facilities. Resorts can range from rustic lodges to luxury hotels.
*Motel: Designed for travelers who need lodging on or near roadways, with free outdoor parking but limited services and amenities. Rooms are often accessed through outside doors rather than interior hallways. The word comes from "motor hotel."
*Ratings: A system for evaluating lodging quality, usually on a scale of one to five, with five the most luxurious. Some countries, like China, have government standards for hotels with strict definitions for ratings, but there are no uniform standards in the United States.
However, many in the U.S. lodging industry use a star rating system introduced in 1958 by the Mobil Travel Guide, which was rebranded as the Forbes Travel Guide in 2009. This system -- described at www.startle.com/about/ratings -- reserves five stars for extremely luxurious properties with numerous amenities and superlative service. Forbes is notoriously selective, giving five stars to just 59 hotels around the world and four stars to 176 properties.
AAA's rating system uses diamonds rather than stars -- www.AAA.com/Diamonds -- and is also widely known. AAA rates many more locations and types of hotels -- some 32,000 -- than Forbes, and AAA's printed guidebooks, free to members, are still widely used by road-trippers. A hotel that gets three diamonds from AAA is usually nice but not luxurious, offering a fitness center and a restaurant at a minimum.
Priceline.com readers use the website's star ratings to book hotels through its "Name Your Own Price" system without knowing which hotel they'll get. "We realize star levels carry certain expectations," said spokesman Brian Ek. For example, "to earn three stars, a property must offer a 24-hour front desk, on-site dining, business services, remote-controlled TV with premium channels, a telephone with voicemail, a radio alarm clock, iron and ironing board, and a hair dryer in the room." Priceline customers are sent a survey after each stay, and if satisfaction ratings for a hotel drop, Priceline will re-evaluate the star rating.
But ratings can vary widely by source, even for the same hotel brand. "AAA will rank many Doubletree hotels as three-diamond and a few as four-diamond," said David Sangree, president of Hotel & Leisure Advisors. "Some are really nice and some are kind of average. Days Inns also have a wide range of hotels, with some that are really nice and many, not so nice. They're ranked as two- and three-star."
And contrary to what many consumers may think, a one-star or one-diamond hotel, if rated by a reputable source, is not a fleabag. It simply offers fewer amenities and services. "People may think if a place only got one diamond, it can't be any good," said Todd Cronson, regional manager for AAA Tourism Information Development. "That couldn't be further from the truth. Maybe the lighting styles are out of date, maybe the furniture is older, but if it got a diamond from us, it's perfectly clean, safe and well-maintained."
AAA and Forbes send inspectors incognito to rate the hotels they list. But many websites rely on consumer reviews for hotel ratings. TripAdvisor ratings are all generated by travelers and tend to reflect enthusiasm and satisfaction with a hotel, not whether there is room service or a restaurant.
"The top-rated properties on TripAdvisor are not necessarily the most opulent or luxurious for a particular destination, but typically provide outstanding service and value," said TripAdvisor spokesman Brooke Ferencsik.
For example, Starwood's Aloft in Harlem is a stylish, trendy hotel in an interesting neighborhood where there are few other lodging options. Aloft is not a luxury brand; there's a bar and prepared food in the lobby, but no room service or restaurant. That's why it gets three stars on Priceline and three diamonds from AAA. But TripAdvisor travelers like the Harlem Aloft so much that they rate it 4.5.
Ratings also don't always correlate with price. A four-star hotel in a small city with few tourists could easily charge less than a two-star hotel in Manhattan or in a beach town in the summer.
So how is a consumer to figure out what ratings mean?
"You have to know where you're getting your stars or diamonds from," said Sangree. "Then you have to look at that company's criteria and figure out, what's the difference?"