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Relais la Suvera - PIEVESCOLA - Italy. A castle complex near Siena, is best known as the former home of Pope Julius II. Its layout befits its royal heritage with a Papal villa, a 12th century tower, a 16th century church, swimming pool, organic vineyards and formal 18th century gardens. Suite: Fox Suite in Villa Papale.

Pool or no pool. An executive alighting in town for a quick meeting may not care; parents checking in with kids may require it for their sanity. But for the hotel, not having a pool could mean the loss of a coveted star - and that affects everything from marketing potential to employee morale.

Ever wonder why, in some places, the spa consists of a lone manicurist crouched in a basement cubicle next to the broom closet that is passing itself off as a business centre? Stars are at risk, that's why. In London, two-star hotels have to have a bar, according to guidebook author Pauline Frommer, who has seen makeshift versions consisting of bottles of spirits lined up on dusty shelves.

The simple truth is there's no unified, global standard to judge hotels, resorts and inns; there's just a bewildering assortment of stars, diamonds, pearls or smiley faces awarded by private organizations such as Canada Select, the Canadian and American Automobile Associations, Forbes Travel Guide (formerly Mobil); by governments at all levels, including Corporation de l'industrie touristique du Québec; websites such as TripAdvisor; and increasingly by hotels themselves (six- and seven-star digs are common throughout the Middle East).

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Given the patchwork system, hotel experts caution travellers to be somewhat skeptical of ratings.

"Consumers still have to look for things like the location, amenities, features or even the view, if that's important for them," says Ted Teng, president and chief executive of The Leading Hotels of the World, an independent luxury hotels travel agent.

Teng and other industry experts say travellers need to do more background checks before checking in. Here's how to get started:

Look behind the diamond

A well-rated hotel by CAA/AAA or Forbes - which send dozens of inspectors to conduct thousands of anonymous annual inspections - is "a good place to start," Teng says. AAA's highest five-diamond rating and Forbes's five stars are prizes that hotels aspire to; like winning an Oscar, affirms Vivian Deuschl, corporate vice-president of public relations for Ritz-Carlton. Last year, AAA awarded five diamonds to a mere 0.28 per cent of hotels. But swaths of the globe go unrated, since the automobile associations visit hotels only in North America, Mexico and the Caribbean, while Forbes operates in North America and, recently, China, Hong Kong and Korea.

Both ratings designations are notorious for nitpicky checklists, and AAA/CAA has especially been criticized for favouring contemporary hotels over historic grand dames. (The Four Seasons in Toronto, for instance, reportedly missed a fifth star from the organization in part because of its diminutive bathrooms, which, along with teensy closets, are typical of older hotel architecture.) And don't hold your breath wondering how many stars the Ritz-Carlton Toronto will get when it opens in January: New hotels must wait a year before they can apply for rating.

Forbes will launch a new TripAdvisor-style website next year incorporating travellers' opinions, and will push further into Asia by 2012, says Shane O'Flaherty, president and chief executive. AAA, meanwhile, will start rolling out five-diamond winners throughout the year, to deliver more up-to-the-minute ratings information.

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Read online exposés and also send anonymous reviewers to hotels. And these newer sites are uncovering tempting nuggets: Oyster, for example, publishes full inspection reports online for each hotel, along with a "pearl" rating, and makes hotels searchable by useful features such as decent water pressure or free Internet. Oyster's priceless "Photo Fakeout" feature is a trove of hotel website images compared against reviewers' own snaps: Liberal use of Photoshop has been exposed this way, including obstacles airbrushed out of the view from a suite's window.

Alternatively, "guest" reviews posted anonymously to TripAdvisor, Expedia or Travelocity can make or break a hotel, since they often go viral, Deuschl notes. But hotels have reportedly been blackmailed with threats of nasty reviews unless a guest's stay is refunded, and have been accused of posting phony glowing reviews of their own. TripAdvisor spokesman Brooke Ferencsik doesn't deny this; he advises simply ignoring suspiciously effusive or negative comments. TripAdvisor lets hoteliers respond to critics online. But about 700 hotels and tour operators recently signed on with Britain's, a relationship management firm, to threaten TripAdvisor in the U.S. and Britain with legal action for allegedly not doing enough to curtail defamatory postings.

Follow hotel hot lists

This month, Condé Nast Traveler publishes its Readers' Choice awards issue, Institutional Investor releases its World's Best Hotels report and Forbes its annual star ranking. Travel + Leisure's World's Best rankings appear in August, kicking off a blitz of "hot list"-style issues, and Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report World's Best is published in September.

Find a brand you trust

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Leading Hotels of the World and Relais & Chateaux (two top collections) position themselves as more trustworthy alternatives to star ratings or guest-generated reviews. Like exclusive country clubs, they admit only a small fraction of hotels that apply to join their brand, and rely on trust: If you like one member hotel, the thinking goes, you'll like them all. It's a persuasive argument that is catching on: Starwood's Luxury Collection, Marriott's Autograph Collection and Hilton's Waldorf Astoria Collection represent a newer trend of major hotel chains starting their own branded collections.

How exact are hotel ratings? "We don't actually measure ice cubes or carry a stopwatch," AAA's Michael Petrone responds to critics of its exhaustive process. "Because nobody who travels in real life does that."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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