Five-star Ratings Might Not Mean What You Think They Mean

Leela Palace Udaipur
Photo: Sivan Askayo

With booking sites offering sometimes thousands of reviews for a single property, it can be challenging to sift through all the information to book the perfect hotel room. Anything — from a chain restaurant to an all-inclusive resort — can be rated online, and these ratings depend on so many different factors. A hotel could be a "five-star" property with a "three-star" user rating, leaving a lot of room for confusion. Besides the user ratings, various countries and booking sites have specific standards that they use to rate hotels, adding to this uncertainty.

If you’re trying to understand what a hotel's rating actually means, it can be helpful to consult an expert. Jim Carreker is on the board of the luxury brand Relais & Châteaux which has 600 worldwide hotels, and he's the owner of the stunning wine retreat, The Louise, located in Australia's Barossa Valley. Carreker says that the problem with most rating systems is that they “don’t account for more important attributes of charm, courtesy, friendliness, a local staff, etc.” Carreker also notes that to get five stars in some countries, you must fulfill certain room requirements, like, “a television, a certain thread count in the linens, the size of the mirror, a pool, or even the square footage of the room.”

With so many things to consider, hotel rankings can be very confusing. Travel + Leisure is here to help eliminate some of that clutter to help you understand what differentiates an average hotel from a five-star property. This is how some of the world's most popular booking sites and travel organizations define a five-star hotel.


Expedia is one of the most-used booking sites in the United States, offering over 590,000 bookable properties. While their rating system leaves a lot to interpretation, they do set some general guidelines for five-star properties, loosely based on several national ratings systems. According to their ratings guidelines, five-star hotels usually have gourmet dining, luxury spas, and more. Of course, none of these amenities are guaranteed by Expedia, so it's best to do a little more digging on your own if you want to ensure a five-star experience.


Spice Island resort in Grenada, a AAA Five-Diamond property
Christopher Churchill

America’s go-to rating system is run by the American Automobile Association (AAA). AAA uses a Diamond Rating system, with five diamonds being the highest designation a hotel can achieve. In order to assign ratings to hotels, inspectors visit these properties unannounced. To quote AAA, properties “need to be of the ultimate luxury, with meticulous personalized service and extensive amenities” to obtain five-diamond status. A three-diamond property has to be “distinguished, multi-faceted with enhanced physical attributes, amenities, and guest comforts."


Here’s where things get a little confusing. The Hotelstars Union (part of international hospitality organizaiton HOTREC) oversees hotel ratings in 17 European countries. Not included, however, are major tourist destinations like France, Spain, The United Kingdom, and Italy. HOTREC has a 1-5 star rating system, and to get five stars, a hotel needs to have 24 hour reception, valet parking, an in-room safe, a daily turndown service, and more.


A dish at the Four Seasons Hotel Le George V, a Palace class hotel in France
Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

If you’re traveling to Paris, you might think a five-star hotel is the best of the best, but you’d be wrong. France has a five-star rating system, but they have one level higher called "the palace distinction". Five-star spots are still posh and must have larger room sizes, bilingual staff, room service, concierges, and more. But to achieve Palace status, the hotel must also have top-rated restaurants, spas, fitness facilities, and even a respectful environmental policy.

The United Kingdom

The Automobile Association (The AA) is the United Kingdom’s go-to system for rating hotels on a 1-5 star basis. UK hotels are given a range of ratings based on a variety of factors. Five stars signifify luxurious rooms, high quality food, and multilingual service. If you want the best of Britain, look for five red stars — this honor is given to hotels that are especially outstanding.


The Louise, a Luxury Lodges of Australia property
Courtesy of Luxury Lodges of Australia

Australians have a country-wide system called Star Ratings that judges hotels on objective metrics. Unfortunately, many luxury hotels have removed themselves from this rating system. Carreker notes that the top boutique lodges have banded together and instead use a company called Luxury Lodges of Australia to ensure a higher standard for the more upscale properties.


If you’ve ever booked a hotel in Italy in May, you know that there’s only about a 50/50 chance that the air conditioning will be turned on throughout the building, regardless of the Italian requirement that four- and five-star hotels must have A/C. There are several other factors to note when booking a hotel in Italy. A one-star hotel doesn’t guarantee you a bathroom, only one bathroom per three rooms. Hotels are only required to change towels and linens once every three days. And some hotels that are in historically designated buildings can generally get higher ratings with fewer amenities, making things like elevators harder to come by.


Leela Palace Udaipur
Sivan Askayo

If you’re curious as to exactly how a hotel achieves five stars in India, you’ll have to read an very thorough document from the Indian Tourism Board. Some interesting key points include: all hotels must have two hooks in every bathroom, five-stars hotels need to have x-ray machines at the entrances, and pools must have LED wall clocks with numerals measuring at least three inches tall on full display.


In China, you might want to investigate four-star hotels for ultra-luxury because of an interesting loophole. To crack down on corruption, the Chinese government banned government officials from staying in five-star hotels. That ban caused a bevy of luxury hotels in China to voluntarily downgrade their star status to continue accommodating government employees. While this essentially defeats the purpose of having a rating system in place, it is good to know if you're looking for a luxury hotel in China.

Rules about hotel ratings vary from country to country, making it difficult to know exactly what level of luxury you're getting when you book. If you really want a five-star experience, you should look into trusted hotel brands like Relais & Chateaux, Four Seasons, Belmond, and Rosewood. These hotels meet the highest hospitality standards regardless of any country’s rules or regulations, which will help you sleep easy while on vacation.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles