Spring training beckoned a couple of years ago, so my husband and I decided to splurge on a two-night stay in a luxury hotel and scale back for the other nights. As we returned from our breakfast at the modest inn, he said he preferred this place to the luxury joint. I wanted to say that he was a peasant, but if he was, so was I because I agreed.
The peasant charge may be true, but it also indicates two truths about hotels: First, star ratings don't always indicate how much you'll like your stay, and second, the fault, dear Brutus, is, in fact, in our stars, not in ourselves.
If I did have stars in my eyes about hotels, William Beckler, a co-founder of AlltheRooms.com, set me straight: Be mindful of the difference between user ratings and, say, AAA Five Diamond awards.
Those awards are based on evaluations by "the Auto Club's full-time inspection staff," AAA told me in an e-mail.
Visits aren't announced so that service may be evaluated without influence. The evaluation also takes a hotel's "physical attributes" into account.
You may stay at a great property, but if it lacks, say, a critical amenity (a spa or 24-hour room service, perhaps), it's not going to make it to the head of the class.
Four stars in your eyes
Contrast that with our stay at the modest inn: No spa, no room service, no high-thread-count sheets, no chic shampoo/conditioner samples. But we liked it anyway because the bed was comfy, the TV worked well and the breakfast was hearty.
It is not unusual, hotel experts say, to be more satisfied with a lower-cost hotel. We ease up a bit on lesser properties because we don't expect perfection.
That's part of the value of user reviews instead of professional evaluations, but the user review field is rife with misunderstandings, some chicanery and some inconsistency.
For instance, how do you know the reviewer wasn't paid or compensated in some way? How do you know a hotel didn't disguise itself as a person and say rotten things about a competitor? And do star ratings mean the same thing to everyone?
Answer: You don't know if there is pay to play, you don't know if someone is trying to gig someone, and what you think is a two-star experience might be four stars to me.
In Europe, stars usually do mean something because rating systems often are regulated by the government.
"In Portugal, there is a national star system based on a mix of quantitative and qualitative criteria," said Rita Alves Machado, director of marketing for Minor Hotels in Portugal and Brazil.
Achieving a five-star rating is "more demanding in terms of services," said Alves Machado, who has spent 15 years in the hotel business.
You'll need 24-hour room service, for instance, to earn the coveted five, not just the 15 hours a day you need for a four, she said.
But, she added, there's no consistency from country from country about how these hotels are rated.
Upon further review
That's where user reviews come in, but again, let the reader beware.
Two online companies, though, do get mentioned frequently because of the integrity of their reviews, experts said, and those are Expedia.com and Booking.com.
There are others, perhaps, but both online travel agencies, or OTAs, have this requirement: You must have completed a stay to write a review.
You want accurate information, of course, but it's also in the OTA's interest to provide it.
"We want to help you get a hotel and make you so happy you're going to come back ... and shop on us," said Sarah Gavin, an Expedia travel expert.
Leslie Cafferty, head of global communications for Booking.com, knows what her shoppers want, and it's not an assessment by the OTA.
"People don't want to hear our opinions," she said. "They want to hear real opinions." And that means people who have stayed there.
Expedia uses stars as well as words that explain them — "exceptional," or "wonderful" or "excellent," depending on the stars — words that people use conversationally to describe their experience, Gavin said.
Booking uses words too — "superb," "excellent," "wonderful," among them — along with a numeric rating.
Both show the number of ratings written.
Nothing will absolutely guarantee you'll be thrilled with your place. Much can go wrong between the time you book and the time you stay.
I also know from experience that a call to the hotel, not just booking blindly online, can pay off too, especially if you ask two critical questions: Are you doing any renovation right now? If so, is there noise? If the answers are yes and yes, ask what kind of discount you can expect because, yes, your pain should have a payoff.
When Beckler of AlltheRooms.com and I first talked about star ratings, he said they were like the Wild West. That may still be true, but knowing what to look for on a site and understanding what those ratings mean may help restore calm to the chaos.
Read the review but understand what you're reading.