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Hotel Star Ratings in Europe: What’s in the stars?

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Hotel Esmeralda, Paris
The Hotel Esmeralda in Paris has location, private baths, no elevator and one star. (Doubles €95-110)

By Tom Meyers—

So, you’re staying at a three-star hotel in Paris. Does that mean it’s better than a two-star hotel? And would that be similar to your two-star hotel in Rome? What are these star ratings, anyhow?

European hotel star ratings can be quite confusing. To help you out, we have six things to keep in mind when considering how many (or few) stars a hotel possesses:

Paris Loiret

The Grand Hotel du Loiret in Paris has simple rooms with private bath, an elevator, and two stars. (Doubles €70)

1. Star ratings reflect the hotel’s category.

Let’s start with the basics: In many European countries, tourism officials inspect hotels and assign them a star rating based upon a long list of criteria, mostly concerning the services and amenities offered. The more criteria met, the higher the score and higher the star rating.

The star rating is really a tally of all these features. These inspectors visit the hotel with a check-list of services and amenities, and check off what they see. Elevator? Check. Full bathtub in each room? Check. Cable TV? Check. No minibar? No check. The scores are tallied and stars are awarded.

These inspections are not always obligatory. In France and Germany, for example, the star ratings are voluntary. Meanwhile, the Spanish and Italian governments require the ratings. (Read Travel + Leisure’s article on the differing governmental criteria.)

Paris Hotel Castex

The Castex Hotel in Paris has private baths, elevator, extra comforts—and three stars. (Doubles €100-155)

2. Hotel star ratings are not like other ratings.

A restaurant given a three-star rating is usually considered “better” than a restaurant that has received only a one-star rating.

Hotel star ratings don’t work this way. The tourism officials who inspect and rate the hotels are not making judgment calls here–it’s a straight-forward process of checks and tallies. The hotel’s star rating doesn’t tell you how the inspector feels about the hotel. It’s not a review.

3. More stars do not always make a better hotel.

You can be certain that a four-star hotel offers elevators, room service, private baths, cable TV, Internet, air conditioning and so forth. But it doesn’t say anything about the room decor, the hotel’s location or the helpfulness of the staff. A four-star hotel may be far less charming than a two-star hotel.

We’ve visited many hotels that are stuck, for reasons outside their control, with a low star rating. A two-star hotel located in a historic neighborhood in Paris, for example, will certainly have restrictions placed upon its ability to do renovations. This might make adding an elevator impossible, which would the prevent the hotel from achieving three-star status, no matter how lovely the rooms are or cordial the management.

4. Some hotels game the star system.

Many hotels would like to increase their star rating. For one thing, it often permits them to charge more for their rooms. Thus, it should be no surprise that some hotels look for a speedy way to inflate their star rating.

While in Europe reviewing hotels for EuroCheapo, I’ve often visited a property already on the site only to find that they’ve “gained a star.” Perhaps it’s a two-star hotel that’s suddenly become a three-star. How? Many times they’ve simply gone on a shopping spree, throwing a hair dryer and cosmetic mirror into the bathroom, a mini-safe and an iron into the closet. And of course, they sport new rates to match.

This is fine and all, but often the hotel experience hasn’t actually improved. First off, you may not need any of those “extras.” Secondly, in many cases the property had previously offered all of these things to anyone who asked at the reception. (Well, maybe not the cosmetic mirror–but those things just get in the way anyhow, and seldom flatter.) You wind up paying more for a largely unchanged experience.

5. Star rating criteria change by country.

To make it all a tad more confusing, rating standards change by country. A three-star hotel in Spain does not have the same criteria as a three-star hotel in Italy.

So how are you supposed to make any sense out of the ratings? I’d recommend just making some assumptions…

6. Star ratings should be used to make assumptions.

I would recommend using the star ratings to assume certain things about your room. The more stars, the more amenities and services. The more stars, often (but certainly not always), the larger the room, as well. Just please don’t assume that more stars necessarily offers a “better” hotel experience, as they won’t tell you anything about the criteria that I find absolutely essential to choosing a hotel for my own travels.

Here are some guidelines that I would generally follow regarding hotels in Europe:

One-star hotel: Most likely offers smallish rooms with simple furnishings. Might have a fan, radio and sink. The rooms probably do not have air conditioning or TV, and may or may not have private bath. The hotel probably doesn’t have an elevator. (Note: Some family-run one-stars have antique furnishings and large rooms–so take these as generalizations!) The reception may be closed during certain hours, and may even be in another building.

Two-star hotel: Rooms probably have a TV (maybe with cable), and probably have private baths. Rooms may have air conditioning or at least a fan. The hotel may have an elevator and may offer Wi-Fi or some sort of Internet access. The reception will probably be open 24-hours.

Three-star hotel: Rooms will almost certainly have cable TV, minibar, safe, iron, air conditioning and private bath (with hair dryer). The hotel will have an elevator, probably Wi-Fi, and certainly 24-hour reception.

Four-star hotel: All of the above, plus many extras. These may include room service, office center, meeting rooms, fitness room, laundry service, restaurant and concierge services.

Important note: Some of these extra services may not be free. For example, a four-star hotel may charge you a ridiculous hourly fee for Wi-Fi access, while a two-star hotel may offer the same service for free.

My advice

When I travel, I usually stay in one- and two-star hotels that have been favorably reviewed (often by this site), are centrally located and have some element of charm or history. I sometimes bump it up to a three-star hotel (especially if I need air conditioning or, if I’m working, desk space with reliable Wi-Fi access). But I almost never stay in a four-star hotel.

I’d rather stick to the lower stars. I would gladly trade a cable TV or minibar in Rome for a helpful proprietor whose family has been running the hotel for decades and offers a wealth of advice. I’d trade in an elevator in Amsterdam for a top-floor view, even if it means lugging my suitcase up a startlingly steep staircase.

Let the stars guide you when choosing a hotel. But take them for what they are: hotel categories that tell you which services to expect. To know what the hotels are really like, you’ll have to dig deeper.

Star crossed?

Have any thoughts about hotel star ratings in Europe? Share your thoughts or experiences with us in the comments section.

About the author

Tom Meyers

About the author: Tom Meyers created and launched EuroCheapo from his Berlin apartment in 2001. He returned to New York in 2002, set up office, and has led the EuroCheapo team from the Big Apple ever since. He travels to Europe several times a year to update EuroCheapo's hotel reviews. Tom is also a co-host of the New York City history podcast, The Bowery Boys. Email Tom. [Find Tom on Google Plus]

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2 thoughts on “Hotel Star Ratings in Europe: What’s in the stars?”

  1. @Mark, I agree, they love twin beds over there!

    But seriously, these are good tips. More and more I am losing my past ‘hotel snob’ attitude on things and realize that I’m only sleeping there, not moving in. I’ve also tried to work with small independent hotels, usually you get great service and tips and the hotel has a bit of character.

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  2. I have never been that concerned about a hotels star rating what I am always confused about is the bed situation in the room. Here in the US we have Single Twin, Queen and King sized beds. However when looking at hotel listings on just about every hotel site they always show double rooms or a triple room sometimes a double and a triple. I have had my own travel site for about a year now and hate to admit that I still don’t understand the bed situation in the hotel rooms. It would be easier if they would say room with 2 double beds in it or a room with 1 double bed in it and so fourth.

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