By
updated 12/13/2005 2:40:21 PM ET 2005-12-13T19:40:21

When searching for a hotel recently, IndependentTraveler.com's intrepid editor 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 is the point? On the whole, star ratings can be very useful; if you're just crashing for a few hours during a car trip, you don't need many amenities, and probably don't want to pay for them either.

  1. Don't miss these Travel stories
    1. Lords of the gourd compete for Punkin Chunkin honors

      With teams using more than 100 unique apparatuses to launch globular projectiles a half-mile or more, the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event is our pick as November’s Weird Festival of the Month.

    2. Airports, airlines work hard to return your lost items
    3. Expert: Tourist hordes threaten Sistine Chapel's art
    4. MGM Grand wants Las Vegas guests to Stay Well
    5. Report: Airlines collecting $36.1B in fees this year

However, 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 what is going on? Was the inspector in a foul mood? Was the hotel cleaning staff out sick suffering from a rampant cold? Was the hotel just having an off day? Or 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? Some examples: Orbitz does a behind the scenes calculation from a few different sources, then just posts a star rating with minimal explanation. Expedia and Travelocity use what you might call the Amazon model: post an "expert" rating alongside user contributions.

Like Orbitz, Expedia takes its ratings from independent ratings systems, media recognition, and post-trip surveys of our customers," which get "plugged into a weighted formula" to produce a star rating. Notably, however, Expedia offers a separate "Traveler ratings summary," and then publishes numerous customer reviews.

Finally, Travelocity tends to rely on AAA for their "pro" diamond reviews, and then posts a separate traveler review rating based on a "five-smiley" system. Travelocity also publishes traveler comments.

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." On the other hand, 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."

Ratings 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:
No "pro" rating
Traveler Rating: Two stars

Travelocity:
AAA Rating: Two stars
Traveler Rating: One star

Orbitz
:
Orbitz Rating: Three stars
No specific traveler rating

Tally: The "pros" give it 2-3 stars, travelers 0-2 stars. At the extremes, this is a fairly large variation.

Site One: Expedia gave it two stars, based on 15 traveler reviews. Only seven of the 15 actually recommend the hotel, with review headlines ranging from "Cheap and Clean!" to the concise and clear "Dump." However, by the time you have read the 15 reviews, this turns out to be less confusing than it may seem. In fact, at that point you would be hard-pressed to say you didn't know what you were getting into by booking a room here; one reviewer even writes "Don't stay in room 211!"

Site Two: Travelocity offers two ratings, one "two-diamond" rating from AAA, and one two-star rating based on five traveler reviews. The AA rating comes with no specifics save for a generic explanation of their inspection and rating guidelines: AAA's two diamond rating reads thusly: "These establishments appeal to the traveler seeking more than the basic accommodations. There are modest enhancements to the overall physical attributes, design elements, and amenities of the facility typically at a moderate price."

For specifics, you'll need to check with the lay folk. This is where it gets tricky. One lodger says "Don't even think about it. This was by far the worst hotel I stayed at in all of Florida. It needs to be demolished."

Another more or less agrees: "Ragged. This hotel is old, run down, and I would never stay here again."

But another lodger, apparently an experienced traveler, is surprised by the negative reviews, posting a review titled "?????:"

"This was a great hotel. I had no complaints. The staff was great. The room was clean and comfortable. I really enjoyed my stay. I will stay there again and again. I work for a major airline in NY that has a major hub in MIA and I would definitely recommend this location. Great price too."

Another reviewer struck a balance: "it was good value for the money a little run down but clean and helpful staff."

And now we're fully in Amazon country, where one person loves a book or CD, and someone else hates it, someone else thinks it's okay, likes the beat, gives it three stars. You would think that a hotel room is less a matter of taste than would be, say, a novel, but this does not seem to be the case.

Site Three: Orbitz's review gives the property a full star more than anyone else, and two stars more than several individual travelers. However, Orbitz gives no specifics for their ratings, offering only the following: "3 Stars - Mid-scale hotels: Discover convenience and comfort in the city or in the suburbs where many of these properties are located. Amenities that may be available include: swimming pools, fitness centers, room service, concierge service and parking. Often you'll find these properties located near highways and office complexes. Rooms and lobbies are nicely furnished, and restaurants are usually located at the property."

Uhh, that's not what quite the folks who stayed there told us!

All of that said, everyone liked the location right on the beach and in the heart of the action; if location and price are your two top priorities, this hotel could be a good choice.

Can't get enough of Traveler's Ed? Visit the archives!

The Independent Traveler is an interactive traveler's exchange and comprehensive online travel guide for a community of travelers who enjoy the fun of planning their own trips and the adventure of independent travel. You can access our wealth of travel resources and great bargains here at www.independenttraveler.com, or at www.bargainbox.com.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments