A vast array of incompatible rating systems purport to evaluate restaurants, hotels and travel accommodation in individual countries or worldwide. The value of these systems, much like the criteria used to generate the ratings, varies widely. In their original format, establishments were visited by professional reviewers on behalf of guide book publishers; an establishment which met a reviewer's minimum expectations under established criteria received a very brief printed description and a shorthand rating as a number of stars (some automobile associations use diamonds). In most reputable guides, an establishment of poor quality simply didn't get listed at all.
The original star ratings were introduced by the Michelin Guides for restaurants in 1933. There were only three levels, defined in terms of how a driver might reach them since Michelin is a tire company:
- one star: worth a visit; good enough that you should eat there if you are in the area
- two star: worth a detour; you should consider going out of your way to eat there
- three star: worth making a special trip just to eat there. As of 2009 there were only 81 Michelin-rated three star restaurants in the world.
Later, the ratings were applied to hotels and attractions as well as restaurants, and other guides started using more than 3 star levels. While criteria varied, most respected printed guides set a high bar before awarding multiple, additional stars. The Mobil Travel Guide (now the Forbes Guide) awarded five stars in 2006 to 32 hotels in all of North America (US, Canada & Mexico); more recent editions award "five stars" to just a handful of US hotels (10 in CA, 7 in NY, 2 each in HI and IL, 1 each in TX and DC, many states zero).
The ratings are a shorthand intended to accompany (not replace) the short textual commentary on each venue in a printed guidebook.
As anyone can publish their own ratings or even their own guidebooks, reviewing based on any arbitrary criteria, the use of a "star rating" on its own has substantial limitations:
- Marketers began to dilute these terms, with dozens of hotels claiming to be "five star" even if most merely met Mobil's definition of three star "Well-appointed establishment, with full services and amenities" or (at best) four star "Outstanding-worth a special trip".
- The status of the rating organization is often unclear, or the ratings vague or non-descriptive. There is a virtual jungle of rating systems in the world; unless the voyager knows why and how a specific rating is given, under specific criteria, a star rating on its own is just a number.
- Rating systems designed for traditional restaurants and hotels performed poorly when assessing bed and breakfasts or non-conventional properties. The availability of each item from a check-list of desired amenities is easily quantified; the quality of the provided services and the hosts themselves is subjective and difficult to assess in a repeatable manner. At most, a professional reviewer might be afforded discretion to award an additional half-star (★+) if a property is better than others in its class.
- Travel organisations (agencies, tour operators and transportation services) fell through the cracks, with ratings either based solely on user-supplied reviews or (more often) simply not provided at all. TripCook assesses travel companies on three main criteria: online indicators, offline indicators (corporate information, membership in national or international travel associations, insurance and years of experience) and third party (customer) reviews but quite clearly is a "travel business promotion agency", even saying as much in their logo and branding.
- Many rating systems were being operated by organisations in the business of representing travel industry vendors, selling travel or selling advertising. Replace the hand-selected few notable properties in the original printed independent guidebooks with a list of every member of the local innkeeper's association and a "one star" rating doesn't mean "actually good enough to join this very select list" but instead "quite possibly the worst hotel in the city". These differences make comparison of "star" ratings issued by different organisations under different criteria meaningless.
- On-line reviews are prone to inconsistent standards and vulnerable to manipulation. Instead of employing professional reviewers using established criteria, websites opened the floodgates to a self-selected sample of users who submit their own subjective reviews - most of which lauded (five stars) or scathingly despised (one star) any given venue as those who felt most strongly were the most eager reviewers. Website owners typically exercised a very heavy-handed control over which reviews get published, despite an inherent conflict of interest due to travel vendors advertising on the sites.
- Some countries have carefully implemented one standard, established rating system with well-defined criteria. In this system, an official guidebook issued by a province or state will consistently use one rating system across all listed properties. While this does not eliminate the inherent loss of data when reducing observations like "good room service, but badly dated décor" to one arbitrary number rating the hotel as a whole, it at least allows comparison between properties in the same market - at least in theory. In practice, the "official" system's rating and guide inevitably co-exist alongside other "star" ratings, everything from le guide Michelin to some random Yelp user, all on differing criteria.
A travel rating system that is impartial, contains no marketing affiliations and uses well-constructed algorithms paired with customer reviews could certainly make the travel industry more efficient, caring and responsible.
Conversely, an innkeeper giving themselves five stars (or six, or seven...) is completely meaningless.
Establishments in South Africa may choose to have themselves graded by the Tourism Grading Council of South Africa on a 5 star scale. Many establishments make use of this service and you will see the star grading displayed on most advertising material.
- 1 star - Clean, comfortable and functional.
- 2 star - Good: Quality furnishings, service and guest care.
- 3 star - Very good: Better furnishings, service and guest care.
- 4 star - Superior: Excellent comfort and very high standard furnishings, service and guest care.
- 5 star - Exceptional: Top of the line quality and luxurious accommodation to match the best international standards. Flawless service and guest care.
Canada Select, an industry-based organization, is the largest Canadian rating agency. During periodic inspections, properties are evaluated for physical quality, content of facilities, services and amenities provided, only taking service into account at the higher star levels. Each category and star level has distinct criteria which must be achieved; where the quality of facilities is superior a property may be awarded a half-star above its criteria rating. This system was originally devised to rate hotels.
|★ or ★+||Clean, well-maintained and comfortable, providing necessary facilities for an enjoyable stay. Meets or exceeds nationally accepted criteria for facilities, services, amenities and accommodation quality, including standards such as room size, window screens and coverings, clothes storage, linens, door lock, smoke detector, and parking facilities.|
|★★||Mid-range accommodation which exceeds the one-star level in quality of mattress, bed linen, floors/window/wall coverings, and in provision of bedside and seating area lighting, additional room furniture, and parking space.|
|★★★||Above average facilities and services, larger units with additional room furniture, coordinated furnishings, better quality mattresses and linens, clock/alarm, extra amenities in washrooms|
|★★★★||Exceptional or superior quality in all areas of facilities and services, guestrooms, bath and common areas. The property typically provides laundry/valet service as well as many additional amenities.|
|★★★★★||Luxurious at a world standard, offering outstanding facilities, guest service and amenities.|
Canada Select also rates cottage cabins, bed and breakfast and camping facilities, using different criteria for each. A B&B room must include an ensuite bath and a full breakfast (not merely "continental breakfast") to receive three stars or above.
A rival group, Canadian Star Quality Accommodation, operates its own star system and inspection process. The programme is voluntary, but these ratings appear to be in use in tourism guidebooks published by three of the Western provinces.
In Canada, as in the US, automobile associations (CAA/AAA) have long published their own guidebooks for members with a rating scheme based on diamonds instead of stars.
The best known standardized rating system is the AAA (American Auto Association) Diamond Rankings. These ratings appear in a long-running series of printed state or regional guidebooks which are offered free to AAA members.
It is quite reliable and meaningful in describing the level of service, i.e., what amenities to expect at a hotel. The vast majority of motels and hotels in the U.S. are rated two or three diamond, while four diamond properties are upscale/fancy—often the best hotel in a city. Five diamond properties are super-lux and usually found only in the most major cities.
AAA also provides ratings for restaurants, but these are less referred to.
Star ratings for hotels in the US are not in any way standardized or regulated, and are generally best ignored. In certain cities, some people may find local star ratings for restaurants, such as those by the New York Times for New York restaurants, to be of some use.
The three biggest organizations for rating are VisitBritain, Automobile Association (AA) and Royal Automobile Club (RAC). They cooperate when it comes to rating which makes it easier for the traveller.
Their hotel ratings are:
- One star: Practical and acceptable accommodation. A limited range of services and facilities. High standard of cleanliness. 75 % of all bedrooms have their bathrooms and toilets en-suite or private. The staff is friendly and helpful and help you with what you might need for your stay. Breakfast restaurant open to you and your guests. Alcohol may be served in a separate bar or lounge but the selection is limited.
- Two stars: Personal service and extra facilities. The bedrooms are generally more comfortable with colour television and en-suite bathrooms. The hotel has a restaurant open for breakfast seven days a week and for dinner at least five days a week. The food is of a slightly higher standard.
- Three stars: Very good accommodation with spacious public areas. The bedrooms are comfortable and offer a higher range of facilities and services. The hotel is more formal with a reception. Light lunch, snacks and a wide selection of drinks are served in a high-quality bar or lounge. The hotel offers room service (continental breakfast only). There is also a laundry service.
- Four stars: Excellent comfort and quality accommodation. All bedrooms have en-suite bathrooms, an overhead shower and WC. The public areas are very spacious and the establishment has a strong focus on food and drink. The staff is experienced and the service is very good. The room service serves all meals 24/7, including drinks and snacks.
- Five stars: Luxury accommodation, spacious and exceptional quality. The facilities and services are extensive and the cuisine is of the highest international quality. The staff is highly professional and attentive. The comfort is superb and the hotel has a sophisticated atmosphere.
The diamond symbol is used by the RAC.
- One diamond: An acceptable overall level of quality. As minimum, a cooked or continental breakfast is offered. If other meals are on offer, they will be freshly prepared.
- Two diamonds: The level of overall quality and comfort is higher and the establishment has a higher emphasis on guest care.
- Three diamonds: The overall quality is very good. The bedrooms are comfortable and well maintained. There is a good choice of quality items for breakfast, all-round comfort and guest care.
- Four diamonds: The overall quality is excellent, which also shows when it comes to customer care and attention to detail.
- Five diamonds: The overall level of quality is truly exceptional, for example high-quality interior design and furniture. The customer care meets your every need.
- One star: The overall level of quality is acceptable. There is an adequate provision of your needs regarding furniture, furnishings and fittings.
- Two stars: All units are self-contained and the quality level is good.
- Three stars: The standard of maintenance and decoration is very good, and so is the overall level of quality. There is ample space and quality furniture. All beds are double with access from both sides. Microwave oven.
- Four stars: The level of quality is excellent; if there is no access to washing machine and a dryer, the establishment provides a 24/7 laundry service.
- Five stars: The overall level of quality is exceptional and so is the interior, fittings and fixtures, often with a personal touch. The management is highly efficient and customer care is paramount. There is an excellent range of accessories.
Restaurant with rooms
This category includes restaurants, bistros and brasseries. Establishments included will:
- most often have no more than 12 bedrooms. The establishment is clean and well maintained and reflects the standard of a two star hotel (see above).
- have a restaurant which is a local or national destination for eating out, and which is the principal focus for the establishment. The restaurant is available for non residents for main meals and open every day.
- put their emphasis on food quality rather than a wide menu. The food is prepared with high skill and a significant use of fresh local and seasonal produce.
Many well known hotel companies have their own consistent style of service and quality to such an extent that the chain name is a guarantee for high quality.
VisitBritain Silver & Gold Award
The VisitBritain Silver & Gold Awards are awarded to establishments with the highest levels of quality within their rating. The overall rating is based on a combination of the range of facilities, the level of the offered services and the general quality, the gold and silver awards focuses solely on the quality aspect.
There are separate criteria for hotel, motel, serviced apartment, self-catering, hosted accommodation and caravan-holiday park (so a "five-star motel" can't be compared directly to a "five-star hotel"). The hotel criteria are about fifty-six pages; each category of accommodation is rated on three groups of criteria ("Quality and Condition", "Cleanliness" and "Facilities and Services") and inspected at roughly three-year intervals. Half-stars may be awarded.
|★ or ★+||Offers budget facilities without compromising cleanliness or guest security. Guests may access fee-based services or facilities upon request.|
|★★ or ★★+||Focusses on the needs of price conscious travellers. Services and guest facilities are typically limited to keep room rates affordable and competitive but may be available upon request or fee-based.|
|★★★||Delivers a broad range of amenities that exceed above-average accommodation needs. Good quality service, design and physical attributes are typically fit for purpose to match guest expectations.|
|★★★★||Achieves a deluxe guest experience. A wide range of facilities and superior design qualities is typically complemented by service standards that reflect the varied and discerning needs of the guest.|
|★★★★★||Typifies luxury across all areas of operation. Guests will enjoy an extensive range of facilities and comprehensive or highly personalised service relevant to the accommodation type. Properties at this level will display excellent design quality and attention to detail.|
Innkeepers are under no obligation to participate in the scheme; many choose not to do so due to the fees involved. A star rating may be upgraded if a property is renovated or revoked entirely in response to consumer complaints.
Qualmark is the official rating system and uses a 1-5 star system; half-stars may be awarded for properties better than the others in their class.
|★ or ★+||Acceptable. Meets customers' minimum requirements. Basic, clean, and comfortable accommodation.|
|★★ or ★★+||Good. Exceeds customers' minimum requirements with some additional facilities and services.|
|★★★||Very good. Provides a range of facilities and services and achieves good to very good quality standards.|
|★★★★||Excellent. Consistently achieves high quality levels with a wide range of facilities and services.|
|★★★★★||Exceptional. Among the best available in New Zealand.|