Say you're planning a getaway to Miami Beach. The Fontainebleau, once a haunt of Frank Sinatra, might sound like a tip-top choice. But if you consult various hotel ratings guides, you'll wonder whether they're talking about the same place.
Travelocity awards the Fontainebleau five stars, for "original design, elegant room décor, exceptional dining, and meticulous grounds." But Forbes (formerly Mobil Travel Guide) bestows a ho-hum three stars; and Priceline, Expedia, Hotels.com, and AAA give four or four and a half. Frommer's website doesn't even list the hotel, and its book awards just one star ("highly recommended," not "very highly"), yet Fodor's calls it one of "the best of the best." The Michelin red guide for hotels? There isn't one for Miami.
What gives? Bjorn Hanson, a dean and professor of New York University's Tisch Center for Hospitality, says that guides generally follow accepted industry criteria for categorizing hotels, but the process is somewhat subjective. Some guides rely on guest reviews, stars given by competing Web sites, and online descriptions. Others base their ratings on actual stays. Most award up to five stars; others stop at two or three.
The French-based Michelin guide decides which hotels to rate, and inspectors visit in secret and pay their own way. By contrast, hotels pay AAA a onetime fee to be evaluated. Expedia.com announces visits in advance. ("It's to everyone's mutual benefit," a spokeswoman told us.) Fodor's doesn't charge for inclusion but lets its freelance reviewers accept free lodging.
Let the stars be a guide, but also:
Start With the Hotel's Own Website
There you should find features, services, and policies, plus photos. If you can't find the info you need, contact the hotel.
Read User Reviews
Travel sites survey guests, publish their comments, and average the results to create an overall score. The more reviews, the better. Search "branded" sites such as Hotels.com plus aggregator sites such as Tripadvisor.com, Mytravelguide.com, and IgoUgo.com.
Look for Recent Comments
They might refer to renovations or local roadwork.
Seek Reviews From Travelers Like You
Guests looking for romance have different expectations from business travelers.
Ignore the Best and the Worst Comments
They might have been posted by people with a vested interest or an axe to grind.
Courtesy Consumer Reports
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Copyright © 2005-2010 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.