Travel website are plentiful, all claiming that they’ll save you more money than the next. When booking a recent trip to Mexico, we selected a vacation package guaranteeing that we would be booked in a 5-star hotel. When we received the hotel booking, we noticed that it was actually listed as a 3-star hotel everywhere that we looked. Except ― you guessed it ― on the website of the travel company that booked it. This led me into a rabbit hole of research about how hotel star ratings are calculated, and who’s making money off of your bookings. Here’s what I learned.
There’s no standard for hotel ratings
Traditionally, hotel ratings were based on the hotel itself: things like their appearance, amenities, and the level of service. Still, there’s no worldwide or even country-wide guideline that a travel agency would need to adhere to. So, naturally, I turned to a spreadsheet to dig into how exactly the ratings different from site to site.
Here are the results from a few hotels in the city we’re going to:
Hotel booking websites work for commission
Being no stranger to affiliate marketing myself, I know that websites like Expedia earn commission from the hotels. What I didn’t know was that in some cases, hotels are actually buying more stars from these travel and hotel booking websites. And it makes sense. The more stars they list a hotel at― regardless of its actual amenities or quality― the more bookings they get. And the more bookings they get, the more money everyone makes.
The worst offenders
As you can see in the breakdown, Booking.com listed almost every hotel as 5 stars. But there’s a reason. Most of these hotels were part of their “Preferred Partner Programme,” marked by a thumbs up next to the 5-star rating.
They give a vague explanation to customers on the hotel page (seen above), but they admit in their Terms of Service that these hotels have straight up paid for their positive ratings:
“In certain cities and regions, Booking.com operates a preferred partnership program, allowing certain Suppliers that meet and maintain the preferred program terms to be listed ahead of the rest of the Suppliers in the default “Recommended” ranking for the relevant city/region. The preferred Suppliers are marked with a “thumbs-up” symbol and in return for this high ranking, the preferred Supplier pays a higher commission.”
Turns out I’m not the first one to notice, either. Their liberal 5-star ratings received a mention in the NY Times Travel last fall.
Trivago is another one that popped up with liberal 5-star ratings, but they also have zero mention on their website of how their star ratings are calculated. There was also no mention in their fine print, so this one is a bit of a black box. I recommend proceeding with caution on Trivago. It has its place for price comparison, but take the star ratings with a grain of salt.
Sunwing is a Canadian trip operator, selling their own packages directly and via websites like Expedia.ca. Based on my experience and conversations with them directly, their star ratings are more of a marketing tactic to help them sell rooms at unpopular resorts and at a higher cost than booking them directly. I would recommend creating your own package of a flight & hotel on a website like Expedia instead of a pre-packaged vacation.
Although there were no strong patterns, I did notice that other companies like Air Canada Vacations (Canada), WestJet Vacations (Canada), and Kayak also skewed higher on their ratings, and had a few unexplained 5-star ratings mixed in.
What you can do
Ignore star ratings
Going forward, I won’t be placing any weight on hotel star ratings. I plan to spend more time digging through photos of hotels, reading reviews, and comparing actual amenities. It takes a lot more time to book a trip, but don’t you want it to be perfect?
Avoid hotels entirely
I think I haven’t noticed the issues of these websites since I normally use Airbnb for my trips. We were looking for a different type of trip this time, but I think it will be our last beach holiday for quite some time.
Double check on TripAdvisor
TripAdvisor does make money by giving some hotels preferential listings and visibility, so it’s also not the best place to start your search. Still, they seem to have pretty stable star ratings, so if you want a sanity check on your 5-star hotel, they’re a great resource.
I hope this helps you proceed with caution when booking your next dream vacation. Did it help? Let me know in the comments!