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Strategies: Heeding to Hotels

seeing stars
how to decode hotel ratings

Many travelers don't realize that there's no international standard for rating hotels. In fact, a five-star establishment in one country may warrant three--at best--in another.

Europe, for example, is a veritable Tower of Babel. Government inspectors in France assign one of six ratings, from zero to four stars; at the top is "four-star luxury." In Italy, the 20 regional tourist offices assign one to five stars to their area's hotels, but in Switzerland, the criteria are set and measured (from one to five stars) by the private Swiss Hotel Association. Visitors to England can take their pick: the English Tourist Board awards one to five crowns based on amenities and services, as well as one of four more-subjective overall ratings; the Automobile Association of Great Britain and the Royal Auto Club also have popular rating scales of one to five stars.

In the United States, the two main judges are AAA and Mobil, which dole out one to five diamonds or stars, respectively. Though their standards are similar, AAA has more detailed requirements. (For instance, under hotel bathrooms, AAA lists twice as many demands for a four-diamond rating-- including "decorative soap dish" and "facial tissues in decorative color"-- than Mobil does in its four-star category.)

Once you've deciphered what the stars, crowns, and diamonds mean, you're still not out of the woods. Remember:
• Even within a country, there can be variations. "In Rome," says a spokesperson for the Italian Government Tourist Board, "I wouldn't go to a two-star. But in a place like Montecatini, you'll find beautiful two-star hotels." Mexico's Ministry of Tourism recommends only three-star (and above) properties to international visitors, and only four-star and above in Mexico City and Guadalajara. And some properties in France that qualify as "four-star luxury" will ask to be downgraded a notch in order to pay a lower tax rate.
• Foreign hotels tend to be weak in the technology department. Five-star hotels in Switzerland are required to offer a simple direct-dial telephone in each room, but AAA insists that each room in a four- or five-star U.S. property have multiple phones, voice mail, a message light, and a data port.
• At the top levels, you pay for amenities you might not use. If you never call room service late at night, don't use the gym, and couldn't give a hoot about colorful Kleenex, you may get better value from a hotel with fewer stars. -- Jim Glab

To speed up notification of families after a disaster, the U.S. Department of Transportation now requires that airlines ask passengers on all international flights to supply an emergency contact. Yikes. Next thing you know, you'll be signing a waiver.

new on the shelf

Follow in the footsteps of genius with the new Picasso's Paris (Little Bookroom, $19.95; 212/ 691-3321). Through four walking tours-- in Montmartre, Montparnasse, St.-Germain-des-Prés, and the Étoile quarter-- author Ellen Williams traces Pablo's progress from young Spanish émigré to the world's most famous artist, pinpointing the cafés he frequented and the buildings in which he lived. The small, hardcover guide, filled with historic photos and reproductions, makes a great companion for armchair and Paris-bound travelers alike. -- Kimberly Robinson

let's vent
How can a hotel justify a $50 "processing fee" for a reservation canceled five months in advance?Sure, Twin Farms says it'll refund the money if the room gets rebooked, but . . .
"A leopard mauled two bicyclists in a wild-game park," the Associated Press reported in October. Did the cyclists actually think they'd be able to outrace the animals?
Continental and Northwest now charge an extra $20 if you book one of their E-mail specials over the phone instead of via the Web. Seems a little extreme to us.
Where do hot restaurants--like Nobu and Cena in New York--get off making the customer call back to confirm?Why can't they call you?

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