When searching for luxury hotels, you’re bound to come across many four-star and five-star hotels. But what exactly is the difference between a four-star property and a five-star property?
In this article, I’ll give you some guidance on the differences that you can look for when shopping around and staying at these different types of properties.
You’ll get a sense of the little things that might differ and also some of the big things that might amount to huge differences in the quality of your stay.
I’ll use a combination of data from different official hotel rating systems and also refer to my own personal experiences when staying at these type of properties to give you some insight.
What is the difference between 4-star and 5-star hotels?
Five-star properties tend to offer higher levels of service and are usually all-round better equipped than four-star hotels to meet your individual needs. Everything from the dining to the decor may be more extravagant at a five-star property and they generally will leave a more lasting impression on you in a variety of ways.
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What hotel rating system are you using?
There are many different hotel rating systems out there and they are not always so consistent.
For example, one ranking system might show a five-star rating for a property while another one shows a four-star ranking.
A few of the different ranking systems you might encounter include:
In addition to these systems, you have hotels that rank themselves as a four star or five star hotel by seemingly random criteria. Some properties even claim themselves to be a 4.5 star hotel!
Make sure you don’t get some of the rankings confused with some of these systems.
For example, with Google there are the star ratings provided by users and then there is the hotel star rating provided by Google.
Where does a place like Google get their hotel rankings?
They state it’s a combination of a “variety of sources, including third-party partners, direct research, feedback from hoteliers, and machine learning inference that examines and evaluates hotel attributes, such as price, location, room size, and amenities.”
Other systems like AAA use extremely detailed criteria that judge seemingly every little facet of the hotel experience.
Because each system has its own ranking criteria and gives weight to factors differently, inevitably you’ll eventually see hotels listed with different rankings.
But regardless of what rankings you go by, in my opinion, there are certain factors that generally stand out when talking about the difference between five-star and four-star hotels. So let’s dive right in.
In my experience, the most stark difference between a four-star hotel and a five-star hotel is the level of service.
A true five-star hotel goes out of their way to make you feel something like royalty.
That’s accomplished by friendly and charismatic staff but it’s also achieved by the staff anticipating your needs.
This high level of service is included from every department within the hotel so that you’re constantly impressed with your interactions whether it be at the front desk, chauffeur, concierge, valet, etc.
Five-star properties may have a higher guest-to-staff ratio which makes it easier to provide guests with more individualized attention.
You’ll notice this when you make special requests like getting your clothes pressed or shoes shined because the hotel can take care of your request in a ridiculously short amount of time.
Another major way that service stands out at a five-star hotel is when something goes wrong.
Two real-life experiences illustrate this.
We booked a Rolls-Royce to transfer us to the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong and it ended up showing up something like 15 minutes late. The hotel apologized profusely and ended up waving the entire charge which was a few hundred dollars.
At the St. Regis in Houston, the receptionist had difficulty finding my reservation and I was forced to stand at the check-in desk area for quite a while awaiting check-in.
Without me even voicing a complaint, I received a phone call from the hotel manager apologizing about the incident and offering me a dining credit for $100+.
When something goes wrong at a four-star hotel, chances are you will have to be the one to chase down someone to get it fixed and to receive compensation if you’re entitled to it.
And even then you may have to put up a fight to get anything.
The bottom line is that they love to take care of you at a five-star hotel in a way that four-star hotels usually just can’t compete with.
Five star hotels like to kick your stay off with a bang.
It’s not uncommon to be greeted with some type of champagne, chocolate, or some other type of amenity gift.
Sometimes you might need hotel elite status to receive the gift but other times it may be available to all guests.
Often tied to the welcome gift is some type of personalized welcome letter, which goes along with the theme of the personalized touch you should get at a five-star property.
Both four-star and five-star hotels can offer exceptional dining experiences.
I recall a dinner at the La Concha Renaissance in San Juan, Puerto Rico at the Perla Restaurant, which was a fabulous dinner in a beautiful clam shell of a restaurant facility.
The food was great, service was on point, and it was just a great venue to dine in.
But fine dining experiences are just more expected at a five-star hotel and often get taken to the next level.
It’s not uncommon to find Michelin rated restaurants like at the Palazzo Manfredi, which offers views of the Colosseum right from your candle-lit dining table.
Then there is the underwater restaurant at the Conrad Maldives known as Ithaa. You can enjoy a multi-course lunch or dinner while sharks swim around you and waves roll overhead. It’s quite hypnotic.
While the dining venues at a five-star hotel can be ultra impressive, the meal itself should also stand out and be extra memorable.
So while a four-star hotel can still serve up an amazing meal, it’s not usually offered in the same extravagant way as a five-star hotel and probably not as noteworthy.
Room service is another area where you’ll probably find a difference.
It may be more common to find more quality room service menu items from a five-star hotel and they may be more inclined to deliver food 24 hours a day versus a four-star hotel where you might be dealing with a more limited menu and limited hours.
The waiting time for your food could also be longer at a four-star property and when your food is delivered you can expect a fancier presentation at a five-star property.
Breakfast at a five-star hotel usually stands out in a major way when compared to a four-star hotel.
At a five-star hotel buffet set up, you should have a wide range of options and just about everything on the menu should be fresh and high-quality.
I found that at four-star hotels, the breakfast can be “so-so” or at least half of the items on the breakfast menu could be just okay.
But at a five-star hotel, this does not tend to be the case especially with items that the hotel is willing to make fresh for you such as eggs Benedict, omelettes, pancakes, etc.
Also, the coffee and juices at a five-star hotel are consistently high quality but can sometimes be hit or miss at a four-star hotel.
Both four-star hotels and five-star hotels may have great bar scenes. But in my experience, the five star hotels can take the bar scene to another level.
They may also have more talented mixologists and unique cocktails that you may not be able to find anywhere else on the planet. You also shouldn’t struggle to find top of the line champagnes like Dom Perignon, Krug, etc.
Another area where five-star hotels usually stand out is the decor.
Five-star hotel lobbies often makes a statement with stunning decor and architecture and you typically remain impressed with artwork and design elements as you explore the hotel corridors.
Many four-star hotels offer this type of experience, too.
For example, I’ve stayed at W hotels that qualify as a four-star hotel but offer a pretty visually stunning experience at seemingly every corner.
The difference is that a five-star hotel property may offer a more grand or elegant set up when it comes to decor, so there is more of a “wow” factor.
Gyms and pools
I haven’t always noticed a dramatic difference between the gym and pool areas at a four-star vs five-star hotel.
When it comes to gyms, one way that a five-star hotel may stand out is by offering an array of exercise classes or personal trainer sessions.
They may also utilize more state of the art equipment, have more TV screens, etc. but it’s rare that I notice a large gap between a four-star and five-star hotel with the gym’s hard product.
There are some five star hotels like the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong that offer an unbelievable pool experience with exceptional views but I’ve also stayed at five-star hotels that don’t seem to stand out that much with their gym or pool (and they may not even have a pool).
If I did have to pick one area where a five star hotel might stand out it’s probably that they are just more equipped with hot tubs, cold plunge pools, spacious and clean locker rooms, etc.
A five-star hotel may be more likely to have additional facilities like a steam room and sauna.
At a five-star hotel you’ll probably find the room more equipped with various features.
It’s common to have things like electronically controlled window shades and other room enhancements like a surround sound, ambient lighting, etc.
You might even find special features like a television screen viewable in the bathtub. But sometimes, a five-star hotel room may not be that much different from any other hotel room in terms of functionality.
I always say that you can tell a lot about a hotel by the bathroom.
A five star bathroom is going to have something like marble (or some other stone) floors, large counter space with dual sinks, spacious shower with dual shower head, fresh flowers or live plants, enclosed toilets, soft and plush towels, comfy robe, brand-name amenities, and beautiful lighting and mirrors.
It might also have added luxurious features like heated toilet seat, heated floor, and possibly even a stunning view.
I’ve stayed at some four-star properties that pretty much fit this description so it’s not only the five star properties that offer these splendid hotel bathrooms.
But there is usually a substantial gap between a three star hotel and a four/five star hotel when it comes to the bathrooms.
The bedding is definitely an area where a five-star hotel should stand out.
Usually, there are some decorative elements that nicely complement the room’s design. The mattress should be of the best quality and the linens and pillows should be super soft and plush.
Another area where the distinction is somewhat blurred between four-star and five-star properties is the hotel spa.
I don’t always try out the spas when I review hotels but we have tried out a handful of them, including some at five-star properties.
I’ve honestly been pretty blown away by the facilities and staff at both four-star and five-star properties, so I think this is the type of thing that just depends on the specific spa facility.
Like I mentioned above, typically the biggest difference I’ve noticed between a four-star and a five star hotel is the level of service we receive.
In addition to that, I often find elevated dining experiences, more interesting decor, and feel like the hotel is just better equipped all around to accommodate my needs. It usually results in leaving me with a very memorable experience when I leave and sometimes I’d even say I’m a bit blown away.
But the difference between a four-star and five-star hotel is not always as dramatic as you might think, especially if the service is not up to par.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.