USA Today – You call this a five-star hotel?

There is a great article in today’s USA Today about a problem we’ve complained about for years: websites overstating the quality of hotels.  The culprit is a hotel in Rome that was selling as a 5-Star hotel.  Spoiler alert: the hotel is far from a 5-Star hotel.  From the article:

We recently stayed a few nights in Rome before a Mediterranean cruise. We were traveling with family, including my in-laws. We booked a five-star hotel, the Hotel Grand Plaza, through We were excited because the hotel website looked great.

When we got there, we found the property was old and tired and the rooms we had booked each had significant deferred maintenance. For example, in one room, water continuously dripped from the bathroom ceiling onto the toilet seat. The electrical faceplate in one room was lying on the floor, leaving wires exposed in a room where small children were staying. Another room had no closet, only a plywood armoire that was too narrow for the four hangers inside to hang properly. One room had a tub but no shower curtain, so water went all over the floor. The list goes on.

USA Today did a little digging and found that was overstating the quality of the hotel.  From the article: has its own star rating system, based on a blend of factors, including information from the hotel, how the hotel is rated elsewhere and how the overall brand has been historically rated, according to Ek. In order to be consistent, the site uses the same proprietary star rating system for hotels around the globe.

“We generally have the most conservative ratings of any online agency,” according to Ek.

In the Express Deals area, describes five-star hotels as being “the very best hotels in each city” that “provide the highest levels of quality, services and amenities.”

“Higher star-rated hotels will generally have a combination of more amenities (ie, on-site restaurant, room service, business center, gym, concierge), higher quality in-room appointments (higher thread-count sheets, upgraded pillows and mattresses, designer toiletries, etc.),” explains Ek.

Five stars (or diamonds, AAA’s emblem of choice) are harder to come by from the independent rating companies. AAA and Forbes Travel Guide (formerly Mobil) have long been trusted for their reliable, unbiased and extremely detailed ratings, as recorded by incognito inspectors on unannounced visits. However, neither AAA nor Forbes currently rates hotels in Europe, though Forbes recently announced plans to expand its market to some major European cities, including Rome.

Just .4% of hotels make AAA’s five-diamond cut. Criteria are stringent. Take that armoire, for example, with its sideways hangers at the Grand Hotel Plaza. Compare that to AAA’s five-diamond rules, which stipulate that closets be 22 inches deep, with interior lighting and containing at least 10 hangers, two of which must be satin or similar, plus the closet must also have one or more features such as drawers, shelves or a shoe rack.

Other leading travel sites, including Expedia, and Travelocity, also list the Grand Hotel Plaza as a five-star property. Tripadvisor indicates it’s a five star as well, and has posted more than 550 reviews of the hotel. Travelocity reviewers, however, score it three out of five, with plenty of guests rating it “excellent” but a sizeable percentage also lambasting it as “terrible.”

But does the hotel merit a five-star rating when guests can’t use the toilet without being dripped on from overhead? Rather than luxe lodging, Aronson’s family got rooms with portable in-room safes, windows that didn’t lock and bathrooms with water problems inside and out.

I sent Aronson’s complaint to The company compared the Grand Hotel Plaza’s five-star rating to its recent traveler reviews. Apparently those stars didn’t align, because decided to refund Aronson’s extended family’s entire $2,666 hotel stay. The booking site also knocked one star off the hotel’s rating.

On TripAdvisor, the hotel is rated 3-Stars and is ranked #747 out of 1266 hotels in Rome.  That surely does not sound like a 5-Star or even a 4-Star hotel.  The very first review is titled ‘Burglarized in the room’.  Luckily, USA Today gives some rate tips on how to avoid a situation like this.  From the article:

• Find out the hotel’s star-rating source. Some employ more rigorous criteria than others.

• Don’t make assumptions based on the number of stars. A five-star hotel might not be as posh as you might imagine, depending on who is doing the rating. Conversely, a two-star property might well be charming and comfortable, but it can’t rise above its middling star rating because it doesn’t offer room service.

• Read reviews. There’s no shortage of opinions online. Reviewers on Travelocity, travel booking sites and forums can give you a sense of what to expect. A rule of thumb is to discard both rave reviews and the most disgruntled and instead take the middle opinion, with a grain of salt.

• If you have a specific problem at a hotel, contact the front desk and give the hotel the opportunity to correct the issue or change your room. If the staff can’t or won’t help, contact the agency you booked through. (Make sure you bring the customer service number and your booking confirmation information with you.) The hospitality industry generally takes a dim view of complaints after the fact if guests don’t make issues known during their stays.

• When staying at the crème de la crème really matters, don’t book blind. Some trips, say a honeymoon or voyage with the in-laws, may call for more opulence than others. In that case, it’s better to be able to winnow out hotels with widely disparate reviews than get stuck with a nonrefundable booking, regardless of the discount.

• Write a review. Travelers get post-stay surveys from, and other travel booking sites solicit feedback as well. Tripadvisor is a clearing house of traveler opinions. Add your thoughts to the collective wisdom, whether your stay was positive or negative. “In our system, guests have more clout than they think they do,” says Ek.

Great advice.  We always prefer to reference AAA or Forbes when booking high-end hotels.  For mid-level hotels, reviews on sites like TripAdvisor help us from having our family vacation ruined.

Source:  USA Today Article

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