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Hotel rating systems leave plenty of room for doubt; Survey: It isn't always easy to understand the evaluations provided by AAA, Mobil and Michelin; Strategies


How nice, exactly, is that hotel you're considering for your summer splurge?

You can ask your travel agent, tour operator or even the hotel reservations agents -- it can't hurt -- and you can consult a guidebook from AAA or Mobil. But whether the answer comes back in stars, diamonds or authoritative-sounding adjectives, many hotel rating systems can leave your curiosity unsatisfied. Or, even worse, some make a place sound better than it is.

Here's a quick guide to some of this country's most widely used hotel rating systems.

* The diamonds of AAA: One diamond from the AAA means "good but modest accommodations" that meet basic needs of comfort and cleanliness. Three diamonds mean "a degree of sophistication," along with a marked improvement over two-diamond properties in physical attributes and comfort. Five diamonds mean "world-class properties, delivering an exceptionally high degree of service; striking, luxurious facilities; and many extra amenities." The AAA guidebook notes that "a one-diamond property is still better than one-third of the lodgings in operation."

* The stars of Mobil: Mobil's star ratings began in 1958 and are based on anonymous visits by staff evaluators, who also consider input from readers of past guidebooks. One star "provides a comfortable night's lodging." Three stars mean hotels "are professionally managed and staffed and often beautifully appointed; the lodging experience is truly excellent, and the range of facilities is extensive." Five stars mean a property that is "among the best in the United States, superb in every respect and entirely memorable, year in and year out." Among the five-star lodgings in the 1998 Mobil guide: the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Hotel Bel-Air and the Peninsula in Beverly Hills.

* The Official Hotel Guide (or OHG, in travel-agent talk) classifies hotels as Deluxe, First Class or Tourist, measuring not only hotel hardware but also service (as assessed by evaluators) and leaving out many bottom-of-the-barrel properties. But the system is euphemism-rich, and there's another level of rating within those three categories, so a traveler needs to know that Superior Deluxe beats Deluxe, which beats Moderate Deluxe. Similarly, Superior First Class beats First Class, which beats Limited-Service First Class, which beats Moderate First Class. The lowest possible OHG approval rating, beneath Superior Tourist Class and Tourist Class, is Moderate Tourist Class. This may sound like a middle-of-the-road property, but at that level, say the more forthright editors of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, you find "low-budget operations, often quite old," which "may not be well-kept. Should only be used in a pinch if no other accommodations are available."

* Government ratings: In the United States, local, state and federal officials stay out of the business of rating lodgings. But outside this country, many governments have systems for classifying hotels. Tourism-industry veterans warn that those systems usually emphasize hardware (room size, for instance, and food-and-beverage facilities) and overlook harder-to-measure factors like service. Insiders also note that in some European countries, hotels with higher rankings pay higher taxes -- which gives them an incentive to stop at three or four stars, rather than trying to meet all qualifications for a higher ranking. Nevertheless, the government rankings can be a useful tool. Among the countries with government ranking systems are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, France, Greece, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and Switzerland.

* Michelin has been greatly expanding its guidebook business in recent years, and it now prints green guidebooks to destinations around the world. The green guide can be very helpful in plotting a sightseeing itinerary -- cities and tourist attractions are labeled "worth the trip" (three stars), "worth a detour" (two stars) or "interesting" (underscored in blue), or left unlabeled. But the green books say nothing about hotels or restaurants. Michelin's red guides, which cover Europe but not North America, assess hotels and restaurants in French but explain the meaning of rating symbols in English. Restaurant cuisine is held to Michelin's legendary and exacting three-star standard; hotels are graded with tiny building logos: One little building means "quite comfortable"; three big buildings and two little ones mean "luxury in the traditional style." (Michelin red guides might not be available in chain bookstores, but can be found at travel specialty shops.

Pub Date: 02/07/99

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