4-Star vs 5-Star Hotels: What’s the Difference?

5-star hotel lobby with lounge seating and wood panel walls

If you’ve ever stayed at a “4-star” hotel, you may have expected more personalized service and left disappointed. But then, maybe the difference between a 4-star hotel and a 5-star hotel was never clearly explained. That’s not surprising given all the different star rating systems of hotels in the world–and the differing expectations of guests.  

In this post, we explore the differences in a 4 star vs 5 star hotels. We’ll take a look at all the different rating systems around the world, what each star level offers, and help you decide whether upgrading to a 5-star hotel is right for you. So, read on to learn more about how star ratings work and why they can be so confusing. 

No Standardized Hotel Star Rating System 

Believe it or not, there is no global standard for hotel ratings. A private organization called the World Hotel Rating Project is attempting to standardize hotel ratings around the world, but as of now they are probably years away from reaching their goal. 

In North America, Forbes Travel, which uses a 1-to-5 star rating system, and the American Automobile Association (AAA), which uses a 1-to-5 diamond rating system, are the most widely recognized hotel raters that conduct hotel inspections. Both are private organizations, however, and have no broader oversight.

The hotel ratings of online booking sites Expedia and TripAdvisor are based on guest reviews, and many users ratings take into account the value provided relative to the hotel cost, making them even more subjective.

In Europe, the Hotelstars Union is a non-profit organization that has a standardized hotel rating system across many European countries. It was formed by HOTREC, a grouping of national trade associations representing the hospitality industry in each country.

a hotel sign on the side of a building in Paris

In the United Kingdom, the Automobile Association (AA) has been rating British accommodations, including hotels, on a 1-to-5-star rating system since 1905. It uses a long and specific list of criteria when its inspectors visit a property.

In other parts of the world, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, for instance, each has its own hotel star rating system, according to the Five Star Alliance, a travel agency for the world’s best hotels.

With all these different hotel rating systems, how can discerning guests make an informed decision when choosing between a four-star hotel and a five-star hotel? Price is usually a notable difference, but is the higher price of a 5-star hotel worth the premium over a 4-star? How can guests know what to expect when arriving at their lodging?

The Biggest Difference In Hotel Star Ratings Is Service

The short answer is that both 4-star and 5-star hotels offer superior accommodations, but a 5-star hotel will generally go one step further in anticipating guest wants and needs before guests ask for them. The level of service is elevated and more personalized.

5 star hotel concierge

Forbes Travel says that 5-star hotel staff “demonstrate intuitive, thoughtful, and anticipatory” service. For example, rather than just booking a dinner reservation for you, which a 4-star hotel front desk clerk probably would do, a 5-star hotel would have a dedicated concierge who would make sure you got the best table. They would also book a taxi to the restaurant–without the guest needing to ask. In addition, housekeeping would not only provide an exceptional clean, but they would also be extraordinarily helpful. Staff, in general, would show a genuine interest in your well-being, according to Forbes.

Likewise, the staff at AAA 5-diamond properties “meticulously serve and exceed all guest expectations,” according to the AAA tourbook. That’s a pretty tough bar to surpass.

For 5-star hotels in Europe, the Hotelstars Union rating criteria for a 5-star accommodation focuses on service details that are in addition to the physical amenities that a 4-star hotel must provide. For example, the 5-star European hotel must provide a 24-hour staffed reception desk, valet parking, a concierge, luggage service, ironing service, turndown service in the evening, and a personalized greeting such as a gift or flowers in the room. Without even one of these service offerings, the hotel won’t qualify for a 5-star rating.

The rating brochure of AA in the United Kingdom states that staff at 5-star properties must have “excellent social skills and anticipation of individual guest’s needs to create unique and memorable experiences.” Service at these properties must be delivered with “efficiency of an exceptional standard without detriment to other service areas.” A very high bar indeed. 

The Five-Star Alliance says that the staff at a 5-star hotel are “polite, attentive, discreet, and can anticipate guests’ needs.” The Five-Star Alliance even goes as far as saying its hotels must have a high staff-to-guest ratio, ideally above 2.5. 

Amenities and Accommodations are First Class at Five Star Hotels

This is not to say that physical amenities and property ambiance are ignored in the ratings. Forbes Travel raters evaluate 5-star hotels for beautiful and super-comfortable beds, distinctive cocktails and memorable meals at on-site restaurants, and guest room amenities that go beyond what’s typically expected and that are suited to the local environment. For example, guests at a 5-star hotel in a tropical locale might be provided an umbrella, flip-flops, and mosquito repellent in their guest rooms–something a 4-star might not provide.  

hotel pool with palm trees and pool loungers

For AAA, the physical attributes of a 5-diamond property–such as the building design, layout, and decor–are “extraordinary in every manner” and show “the ultimate in luxury and sophistication.” The accommodations are “first-class.” This goes beyond the refined, stylish, and “enhanced level of quality” guests would find at a 4-diamond property. Many hotels also include permanent luxury suites for longer term stays.

The U.K.’s AA has a long list of requirements for 5-star guest rooms, including a writing desk, wardrobes with interior lighting, and for in-room beverage service: chinaware, teapots, and a selection of specialty teas. To American guests, these amenities may appear unnecessary, but it all comes down to not only meeting but exceeding guest expectations in a particular locale.  

The Five Star Alliance is a little more modern in its criteria for the 5-star properties it represents. For example, its many 5-star guest room standards include outlets for personal electronics, including USB ports; digital key entry; a lighted, full-length mirror; and a flat-screen TV with international programming. That’s not to say that many four-star hotels will meet some of these criteria, but the 5-star hotel must meet all of them to qualify.

If all these different criteria still leave you perplexed, remember this: the main difference between a 4-star and 5-star hotel is that the 5-star provides an elevated level of personalized service and amenities. That doesn’t mean a 4-star can’t do the same in some areas, but to qualify as a 5-star, it must provide an unmatched level of service across all areas.

To further assist you in your decision-making, we’ve distilled the main rating systems we’ve discussed here to come up with the handy comparison chart below. Note that some of the points below may vary from hotel to hotel, but in general, this is what you can expect:

Service or Amenity4-Star Hotels5-Star Hotels
Overall level of staff serviceResponds promptly to requestsAnticipates guest needs and wants
Guest expectationsMeets expectationsExceeds expectations
WelcomePrompt check-inGreeted by name, personalized check-in, personal gift provided
Reception deskStaffed at least 16 hours/dayStaffed 24 hours/day with bilingual staff where appropriate
Luggage servicesBell-hop available upon requestProvided without needing to ask
BreakfastBreakfast buffetA la carte menu; in-room breakfast menu available
Room serviceAvailable at least 16 hours/dayAvailable 24 hours/day
In-room beveragesCoffee maker with choice of teas/coffee provided; mini-bar often availableEspresso/cappuccino maker, wide range of teas, freshly ground coffee provided; fully stocked mini-bar
On-site restaurant/barLunch and dinner available in attached restaurantRestaurant/bar noted for excellence, original cuisine and cocktails, wine list. Ideally multiple restaurants.
Concierge servicesAvailable by asking front deskDedicated concierge provides range of personalized services and activities, may include butler service
ParkingOn-site self-parking usually available; valet parking may be available for a feeValet parking available and often included without charge
HousekeepingProvided daily; room tidied upProvided twice/day if requested; evening turn-down service
In-room entertainmentLarge, flat-screen TV with international channelsLatest smart TV with on-demand viewing and gaming available
Laundry, dry-cleaning, ironing, sewing servicesAvailable upon asking and for a feeOften provided without charge or needing to ask
RelaxationSpa services often available on-site; swimming pool, often with poolside beverage serviceWorld-class spa and sauna often on-site. Jacuzzi and heated swimming pool with poolside dining available

The various hotel rating systems can be useful guides so long as you recognize what the hotels are rated on and what guests in that region expect. For example, a 5-star resort in Mexico is going to cater to different types of guests than a 5-star hotel in central London. It’s wise to adjust your expectations accordingly to avoid disappointment. 

4-star vs 5-star Hotels: How to Decide

Deciding between a 4-star vs 5-star hotel is a personal decision based on what you’re willing to pay and the services and amenities you’re looking for. For example, a fitness center is not specifically included as an amenity that differentiates between these two classes of hotels. So, if a fitness center is important to you, and you are comparing between a 4-star hotel with a gym and a 5-star hotel without one, this will have to be factored into the decision. 

The next time you’re faced with this decision, consider what you want out of your stay. Is it a special occasion worth splurging on a 5-star hotel? Or is it mainly a business trip with little time to enjoy the extra amenities? Only you can decide.