So you're wandering around Europe and notice stars prominently displayed in front of every hotel. Say you find one that has three stars. What does it mean?
The short answer is: just about anything, but probably not what you're thinking. Let's get one thing straight, there is no unified definition of a three-star hotel across Europe. And another thing: most of the ratings are provided by the government (or in some cases, like Switzerland, by a volunteer organization), and will be a quantitative measure used to determine the price range (and sometimes the tax obligation) of a hotel. The ranges will overlap, so don't even look for that much consistency in price; a three star hotel may be more expensive than a four star, even in the same city. It depends.
You can make generalizations about hotel prices and the star ratings. A four star hotel will indeed cost more than a one star in the same city. The four star hotel will have more services and amenities, including meeting space for conferences. The one star will usually be very basic; not all rooms may have bathrooms in them. I usually look for 2 or three star hotels when I'm traveling in big cities. Today, most offer private baths in the (usually smallish) room and most of the time include television, a phone and occasionally even a mini bar. For a splurge that's often a good bargain, I'll look for a four star hotel in lest touristy areas, especially when it's hot and I want a day with decent air conditioning.
Just remember--the ratings on the outside of the building are based on an objective facilities and services provided assessment and are not in any way related to ambiance, charm or other subjective criteria. Think government ratings. Guido, a government pencil pusher for his whole life, goes into a hotel with a checklist. Is there a restaurant? Yes or No. Is there a toilet and shower/bath in every room? Yes or No. In the end there's gonna be a count of all the yesses that will intimately bestow the hotel with some number of government stars.
Don't expect a qualitative review. Guido is about as likely to rate the ambiance or romantic qualities of the room as I am to sing Don Giovanni at the Milan Opera house dressed in a garter belt and silk stockings. I can tell you for sure he's not going to write, "And the wainscoting blends beautifully with the flocked wallpaper in the bathroom, enhancing the overall impression of the room without calling attention to itself. It is an ideal space in which to read or contemplate life while the flush of early morning is upon you. 5 stars indeed!"
No, for charm, views, the feel of the place or the friendliness of the staff you'll have to get your ratings elsewhere. Get yourself a Michelin guide or something similar from our selection of European Guide Books. Those guys love wainscoting.
Is it hopeless to try to understand the Star System?
Actually, it's not. Understanding some of the star ratings can net you a bargain if you consider the limitations of the system. For example, there's this little hotel in Italy's Val Camonica that I like. The rooms have everything you may need: newer bathrooms, television, heat that works. Some have fine views. There's a restaurant downstairs where the owner's mom cooks. Inquire about the local specialties and you'll be surprised at what she'll go out of her way to cook for you if you stay long enough to make it worth her while.
The hotel is a one-star hotel so it's pretty cheap to stay there. Unless they drastically change the way the hotel is configured, they will never get more than a one-star rating. Ever.
I mean it. They could add gold plated bathrooms and wide screen television to every room, have a concierge who knew everything there was to know, and still, they'd be a one star hotel.
How can this be you ask? Because when you check in you do so in the bar, then, key in hand, you have to go outside and around the corner and climb a flight of stairs in order to make it to your room, even though the rooms are located in the same building. You see, a hotel with a reception area that is separate from the entrance used by hotel guests to get to their rooms is classified as a one star hotel in Italy, according to the owner, and nothing can change it except for digging out a new stairway or elevator shaft from the reception. And in this case that would cut the size of the hotel in half.
So despite the fact that the rooms are newly decorated and have all the amenities, he's only able to charge pretty much the same as a run-down hovel with baths down the hall. That's just the way the system works.
Tip: It is your right to view a room before you commit to staying in it. Ask to do so. If you're looking for a bargain, don't hesitate to consider one star hotels--just check the room first.
Honing in on a country's rating system
For more specific information on a country's hotel star rating system, consult our Hotel Rating Links.