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Hotel Star Ratings Decoded

Star ratings are the hotel industry's way of indicating standards - for amenities, quality, service, and often for location. But what do they mean? They can vary across the globe (a 4-star hotel in one country may vary widely in another). The measurement depends on who gives the star rating.

Online travel companies rate hotels, AAA rates them, Forbes (formerly Mobil Travel Guide) rates them and, of course, hotel customers write their own reviews and give star ratings on sites like TripAdvisor. While methods and results vary, the qualifications for a rating boils down to the same main elements. Star ratings, if used as guidelines, provide a good baseline for overall quality and cost.

Once you know your budget or your group's budget, then it's a matter of shopping around to find the right hotel for you. Those little gold stars are a good start at an at-a-glance sense of hotel quality, but be sure to also look at room photos, descriptions, and user reviews.

Whether you're organizing or traveling to a wedding, family reunion, or college reunion with old pals, star ratings can help with trip planning.

Here's the skinny on star ratings:

Luxury, top-of-the-line hotels that are often resorts near the sexiest scenery with the highest standards of service and cleanliness. Think personal pampering, fine art as d├ęcor, sumptuous meals, and quality linens. Example: Ritz Carlton.

Upscale, high-class hotels with a host of convenient amenities such as pools, valet, and bellhops. These are often near other hotels of the same caliber and have happy hours and signature dishes by well-trained chefs. Example: Hyatt Hotels & Resorts.

Mid-scale full-service hotels are often near major business centers or attractions, have pools, quality breakfast, lunch and dinner, and spacious accommodations. Think standard hotel with simple, yet clean furnishings. Example: Holiday Inn.

Mid-scale limited-service lodging often belonging to big chains known for standardized service. Properties are smaller-scale and room service is typically unavailable. Usually quite clean and comfortable. Example: Comfort Inn.

Economy or budget hotels are generally located near major intersections or affordable attractions. Think bargain basics with furnishings and service, but usually walking distance to cheap eats. Example: Motel 6.