Travel is full of surprising, go-with-the-flow moments. But when your advertised-as-luxurious hotel turns out to be a roach motel, that’s one nasty surprise most can do without.
Granted it’s easy to avoid such incidents when you restrict your wanderlust to North America, thanks to the ubiquitous, trustworthy AAA diamonds and Mobil stars ratings. But travel overseas? For most, that’s uncharted territory.
International hotel rating systems are as diverse as the countries themselves. Meaning that three-diamond resort in Dusseldorf might outclass a four-star Paris property. How can you calculate the value of unfamiliar stars or diamonds?
As with any type of travel, it pays to read the fine print, assuming you can find the fine print (sometimes on a country’s tourism Web site) and understand the language.
Even we had a tough time determining criteria, and we knew where to look. Typically, hotel rating systems award stars based on facilities and services. The more amenities, the higher the rating.
Across the United Kingdom, hotels are rated under a Quality Assessment system. Similar to the AAA program, independent assessments using the same criteria are conducted by VisitBritain, VisitScotland, VisitWales or the AA (Automobiles Association). Hotels are given a one- to five-star rating. In addition, Gold and Silver awards are given to hotels that provide exceptional quality in all areas.
Not only do inspectors visit incognito, but they must follow a 64-page manual that rates everything from security to staff social skills to same-day pressing service to how often bed linens are changed. No in-room safe? No fifth star.
Spain’s star system is regulated by the government tourism authority in each of 17 regions. Representatives rate more than 10,000 hotels then submit the information to the federal tourism office, Turespana (www.spain.info), which publishes a hotel guide for the entire country.
A number of criteria – room size, restaurant options, amenities, entertainment facilities – must be met in order to get a star rating.
Similarly, Portugal’s Tourism Office is responsible for registering all lodging establishments, from boarding houses and pousadas to hotels. All are classified by stars depending on location and quality of facilities.
The five-star rating doesn’t exist in France. Instead, a voluntary system includes just over half the hotels. Any hotel that would be above a standard, superior or four-star luxe is considered a Palace. However, out of the 3,000 or so hotels in Paris, only a handful have been given the title, according to LastMinuteTravel.com.
Germans rely on the Varta Guide (www.varta-guide.de). Inspectors visit about 26,000 hotels anonymously, and the system is known for being independent and fair. (You can’t buy your way into this guide.) Varta awards from one diamond for a “hotel with a friendly atmosphere and appealing design” to five diamonds for “a hotel first-class in every aspect.”
The Netherlands introduced a five-category hotel-classification system (the Dutch Hotel Classification; www.hotels.nl/starinfo.html) in 2004. At its most basic a one-star “hotel” must offer breakfast. Guest rooms must have a bed, table, chairs, sink with hot and cold water, a window and heat. There must be one bathroom for every 10 rooms. Every additional star means that a hotel offers more facilities and services.
To rate two stars, a Dutch hotel must show at least 50 percent of rooms have their own shower and toilet, as well as color television. In a four-star hotel you do not have to walk up more than one floor to get to your room. When a hotel receives an official classification, it receives a dark red shield with its stars that must be clearly visible next to the hotel’s front entrance.
Across the Pacific, systems vary. Hong Kong refers to certain hotels (such as the Peninsula, Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons) as luxury but does not make public the listings of hotels by category. Instead, hotels are scored based on facilities, location, staff-to-room ratio, room rate and business mix.
In China, any official star rating is set by the China National Tourism Administration. Four stars and lower have to be approved at the provincial level, and five stars must be approved by the CNTA main office.
While each hotel posts its actual star ratings in a prominent location, travelers sometimes find hotels rated as 3.5 or 4.5 stars. The reason? Up-starring. The hotel wants to promote itself as a higher category so it removes its “official” three stars and touts itself as 3.5.
Though not compulsory, nearly all New Zealand hotels pay to be assessed by Qualmark (www.qualmark.co.nz), a partnership between Tourism New Zealand and the New Zealand Automobile Association. Stars (posted under a silver fern logo) range from one, given to hotels that meet basic minimum requirements, to five, for the best in New Zealand.
Like the U.K., this is one of the more complex scoring systems, with 20 different areas, from cleanliness to guest care, graded based on a range of criteria, then combined for an overall score.