Who makes the ratings?
A lot of different rating bodies are considered “official” guides to hotels. But in the United States, the three most-trusted are AAA, Forbes, and Michelin.
To get AAA-approved -- an honor bestowed upon properties, mind you, by the same folks who come out to the Target parking lot when you lock your keys in the car -- a hotel must pass an exhaustive 33-point checklist designed to ensure that the travel agency is not recommending an establishment where you'll contract ringworm. The criteria aren't unreasonable, and could apply pretty easily to a Motel 6.
Once a property has been AAA-approved, it then can apply for the vaunted AAA One-Five Diamond Ratings. These are based on 77 categories, with a specific criteria set for each level of star. Amazingly, that doesn’t even include the section for guest services, which encompasses 12 additional areas of service, each with 12-27 checkpoints.
In order to receive Five Diamonds, rooms must not only be clean and luxurious, but include specialized design features, valet dry cleaning, 24-hour reception, separate enclosed areas for the toilet, sheets with over 400 thread count, legitimate artwork on the walls (no framed museum posters here), and some sort of decorative ceiling, among other things. The entire process is laid out in a 41-page guide that you can peruse before bed tonight.
The main problem with the Diamond system, though, is that it requires the property to provide televisions in the rooms and a swimming pool just to get about Three Diamonds. And while exceptions are made -- like for the pool-less Plaza in New York -- many high-end hotels that think guests should do things other than watch TV on vacation get left, like Taylor Swift, without a Diamond.
Forbes inspects around 1,000 hotels a year and awards only Four and Five Star ratings based on a titanic, 800-item checklist that covers everything from the hotel to the restaurant to the spa. We'll save you the trouble of reading it and just tell you this -- the criteria are derived from an algorithm built around a 70/30 service facility orientation and are the only inspection body who stays anonymously. That said, Forbes’ guide is available online at ForbesTravelGuide.com totally free, and is more comprehensive than the AAA system.
Michelin, whose Red Guide was once upon a time the hotel bible for travelers, is now more known for its ranking of chefs and restaurants. So while a culinary establishment that can boast a star from the big fat tire man is considered one of the best in the world, its rankings for hotels aren't quite as comprehensive. Yes, if you head over to the Michelin travel site, you will find star rankings for hotels. And, yes, that hotel could legitimately say it's a "3-star Michelin hotel." But, to be honest, that ranking isn't a whole lot more meaningful than one you'd find on a comparable travel site.