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Star Quality: What's in a Hotel Rating?

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two star hotel signWhen searching for a hotel recently, the intrepid editor of IndependentTraveler.com noticed hotel star ratings sometimes varied by a "star" or more when switching from one booking engine to another. If hotel ratings can fluctuate just by typing in a different URL, what's the point?

On the whole, star ratings can be very useful; if you're just crashing for a few hours during a road trip, you don't need many amenities, and probably don't want to pay for them either. But if you are on your only real vacation of the year and will be staying several days, you don't want a flea-pit with dark rooms, poor service and, worst of all, bad (or no) coffee. Star ratings can give you a very quick sense of what the room at the inn is really like.

So how can there be so much variation from one site to the next? Was the inspector in a foul mood? Was the hotel cleaning staff out sick with a rampant cold? Was the hotel just having an off day? If the reviews are suspiciously good, did the hotel know the inspector was coming, or just show them the best room? I suspect that reviewers are underpaid and overworked -- did they even stay at the hotel, or did they just scan the place and move on to the next one?

The fluctuations in ratings all come down to the Who and How Many we take at their word. Some sites just take it on the advice of the experts and their inspection teams; others let travelers tell the tale; others rely on a mix of all the various voices. The more eyeballs that have a look and the more voices allowed to have a say, the closer it seems we get to the truth of a rating.

Then, after the reviews are in, how are the sites tabulating the numbers? All three of the major booking sites -- Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz -- post both an "expert" star rating alonside user contributions, including ratings and reviews. All three sites offer links where you can read explanations of what types of data their expert ratings are based on.

Reviewers vs. Travelers
A serious discrepancy between the star ratings of the "pro" reviewers and those of us "lay" folk who actually lie in the beds can be attributed to almost anything and everything. How many different kinds of people visit any given chain hotel in a major city (or perhaps in this case, how many stars are in the sky)?

Among travelers, the variations appear to come from anything from personal preferences to personality type. A view of the ocean from one person's window will make them inclined to ignore almost anything actually in the room, and to give a higher rating. Another person staying in the same room pulls the drapes to escape the glare and forms the opinion that the room is actually kind of dark and dingy.

On one hand, Visitor Half Full says "rooms were clean enough, staff was nice, great location for the price." Meanwhile, Visitor Damn Near Close to Empty says: "I will never ever stay here again; the next thing to visit this place should be a bulldozer."

woman on hotel bedRatings may even vary by several stars based on the mood of the person at the front desk at check-in and how well they treated the traveler in that very impressionable five minutes. But one thing you will find for certain: the experts and the travelers sometimes appear almost to be reviewing different hotels. It turns out that the best person to trust may be yourself, or rather, someone just like you -- someone who actually slept in the hotel.

Case Study One: Days Inn Miami South Beach
First, let's look at our editor's choice, the Days Inn Miami South Beach, a bargain to mid-priced hotel in a prime location in a city overloaded with hotels of every rank and price point. Ratings on the big three booking engines:

  • Expedia Rating: One and a half stars
  • Traveler Rating: 1.0 out of 5

  • Travelocity Rating: One and a half stars
  • Traveler Rating: Two smiley faces

  • Orbitz Rating: Three stars
  • Traveler Rating: 2.4 out of 5.0

    Tally: The "pros" give it 1.5 - 3 stars, travelers 1 - 2.4. At the extremes, this is a fairly large variation.

    Site One: Expedia gave it a star and a half based on its formula for calculating star ratings. The site's description of one-star hotels is as follows: "A one-star establishment is expected to offer clean, no-frills accommodations with minimal on-site facilities for the budget traveler for whom cost is the primary concern. Guestrooms generally are small, functionally decorated, and may not have a private bathroom, in-room telephone, or amenities. On-site dining is usually not available. Public access and guest reception may not be available at all hours."

    Expedia appears only to have two reader ratings at this time, both negative: "It's a very old hotel and its age is showing," writes one reviewer, who gave the hotel an overall rating of 1.0 (even though he or she rated the service a 4.0, room cleanliness a 3.0 and room comfort a 3.0).

    "Days Inn should be ashamed of this one," writes the other, before proceeding into a litany of complaints.

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