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updated 9/26/2008 9:50:13 AM ET 2008-09-26T13:50:13

When 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?

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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 alongside 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."

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:

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

Travelocity:

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

Orbitz:

  • 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.

Site two: Travelocity offers two ratings, a 1.5-star "Travelocity rating" and a two-smiley rating based on 14 traveler reviews.

The Travelocity rating comes with no specifics save for a generic explanation of their inspection and rating guidelines. For one-star ratings, the description reads thusly: "These properties meet a budget-traveler's basic needs for comfort and convenience. They tend to be located near major attractions or thoroughfares and provide clean guest rooms. Many properties do not have a restaurant on site but are usually located within walking distance of dining establishments."

For specifics, you'll need to check with the lay folk. This is where it gets tricky. One lodger says, " The only thing good at this hotel is the location. The rooms are disgusting."

Another more or less agrees: "The cockroaches were friendlier then the staff!"

But another lodger was happier, posting a review entitled "Very Nice":

"This hotel was very nice and kept up. The best rooms are the rooms that are outside poolside. I would stay again next year."

Another reviewer struck a balance: "It was a good value for South Beach. It is an older property but I had a nice room."

So 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.

Case study two: New York Marriott Marquis
Let's do one in another packed hotel district. Make it Times Square — the New York Marriott Marquis. The tally:

Expedia:

  • Expedia rating: Three and a half stars
  • Traveler rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

Travelocity:

  • Travelocity rating: Three and a half stars
  • Traveler rating: Four and a half smileys

Orbitz:

  • Orbitz rating: Three stars
  • Traveler rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

Here we have a somewhat different scenario; the "pros" are largely in agreement, but are out of step with travelers by a full star or two. This time travelers rate the hotel consistently higher than do the "pros."

In reviews on all three sites, travelers consistently praise the convenience of the Marriott's Times Square location — which may help explain the discrepancy between the their ratings and the pros'. A great location near all the attractions of the Big Apple may weigh more heavily into a sightseer's rating than it would into the rating of an expert taking a critical look at the hotel itself.

However, judging by the traveler reviews, the hotel itself rates pretty highly as well; it gets kudos for excellent service, large rooms and a great restaurant. Compare that to the Days Inn, which also had a great location but got slammed for dirty rooms and an unfriendly staff. (Strangely enough, the pros at Orbitz gave both the Days Inn and the Marriott Marquis a three-star rating — talk about a discrepancy!)

Conclusion
At the heart of the discrepancies in ratings from one service to another appears to be the weight they to reviews written by us, the travelers. As I note above, in many cases, the experts and the travelers appear almost to be reviewing different hotels.

Even a quick scan on a hotel search can show you the discrepancies between "official" and "traveler" ratings; keep a sharp eye. Also, as with the elevators above, you may want to consider the date of the review, as hotels renovate and update amenities all the time.

In the case of the Days Inn, the pros want to call it a two- to three-star hotel; a lot of travelers think it is a one-star hotel at best, a tear-down at worst. (Qualifying Note: There is dissension in the ranks. My thinking is that it's not terrible to have a low-priced chain right on the ocean in South Beach; at least folks can still get a room where the other half lives and plays.)

At the Marriot Marquis, the pros want to give it a three-star rating; in most cases, travelers rate the Marquis a solid four or more. Of 154 reviews on Expedia and 46 on Travelocity, travelers appear almost universally to rate the hotel a notch higher than the "experts." Whether it is the hotel itself, or the brightening influence of Times Square's lights outside the front door, it's hard to know!

The bottom line? Take every rating with the proverbial grain of salt, check multiple sources, and look for reviews from travelers who sound like you.

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