google-site-verification: google3f3736d98883db6a.html Stars in your eyes: understanding the Italian hotel rating system
  • Gary

Stars in your eyes: understanding the Italian hotel rating system

Updated: Dec 23, 2019

If I asked you to imagine a 5 star hotel somewhere in Australia, my guess is you’d probably think of a lovely spacious lobby: probably with a fountain, a team of concierge staff, and plush well-appointed rooms with gilded doors and gold-plated taps – maybe a spa; and you’d largely be right.

Nice, clean, central and full of character - but only 1 star....

You can find the criteria we use for selecting the hotels we use on our small group tours of Italy on our website at www.viaggioitaliatravel.com.au or send us an email at gary@viaggioitaliatravel.com.au.


In Australia the star system is generally easy to follow. It’s broadly a graduated rating of hotel quality: 4 star is going to be better quality than 3 star, 5 star is better than 4, and so forth. But one thing we learned early on about travel in Italy is that – whilst they also use a star rating – how those stars are determined is different: so much so that comparing hotels simply using the stars they are allocated can be like comparing apples with oranges – or if you like, pizza with gelato. And if I’ve just muddied the waters for you, then let’s spend a few minutes unmuddying them.


Now, just like in Australia - and many other countries - Italy uses a 5 star hotel rating system (mind you, like here extra stars are starting be added and who knows where that might end) and the stars do essentially correspond to some minimum requirements of the structure, furnishings, qualification of personnel and the quality of services offered.


In Australia, Star Ratings Australia acts as an independent body that oversees and audits hotels against around 200 criteria that are consistent across the country. Italy, too, has regulatory bodies who rate each hotel against a checklist and produce a final score that determines how many stars that hotel has. So far, so good.


But here’s where the similarity ends.


The essential difference is that in Australia, the star system specifically uses measures of quality in determining a hotel’s rating, whilst for Italian hotels, things like the size of the lobby and whether there’s an elevator in the building can be the deciding factors in what the rating will be.


So if you’re wanting gold-plated taps, a spa and a view of the Colosseum, they aren’t going to be reflected in the stars beside the hotel sign, as these stars have little to nothing to do with the rooms themselves - apart from things like how many towels are provided. And - importantly for me - there’s no consideration anything remotely subjective such as the beauty of the decor or comfort of the beds, or for scoring quaintness or - for that matter - luxury.


And just to cloud things a little more, the star system is only partly national. Some criteria are regional, meaning a 3-star hotel in Venice might not have to meet the same criteria as a 3-star hotel in the Rome. They’ll be close, mind you, but they’re not working off of the same checklist.


(Now, in case you have an interest in all things technical, the minimum standards of services that hotels must provide were established by the Decree of 21 October 2008 and you can find it online although it might not be a fascinating read for you, however, as it is only published online in Italian; but you can find a translated version of the criteria for each star rating here).


So whilst acknowledging that specifications can vary across regions, here are some of the minimum standards that establishments should meet to achieve a particular star, to provide you with a general overview:


One star rating

The front desk should be staffed at least 12 hours a day. The standard size for double rooms should be 14 square meters. Staff should clean the rooms once a day and change the bedsheets once a week.


Two star rating

A one star hotel bumps up to a two star hotel if it has an elevator and the staff clean the sheets at least twice a week.


Three star rating

Three stars mean the hotel contains features and amenities consumers can expect from most modern establishments: reception must operate 16 hours a day and the receptionists need to speak a foreign language. Staff need to be dressed in uniforms, a bar service must be available and the rooms must have Internet and a private bathroom. (Please note: many 1- and 2-star hotels provide private bathrooms.)


Four star rating

A four star hotel must have its staff clean and reset the entire room daily, and replace bedsheets and towels daily as well. The hotel must offer a laundry service and there must be as many parking slots as 50% of the total number of rooms. Room measurements also get upsized in this rating: a double room should be 15 square meters in size while the bathroom should be at least 4 square meters.


Five star rating

Five star hotels must have receptionists who can speak at least three languages, and the reception must be open 24 hours a day. Single rooms must be 9 square meters and double rooms must be 16 square meters to be considered as five star quality.


Now, when we drill a little deeper there are all kinds of quirky impacts this system has that really need to be considered when comparing hotels. Take, for example, the case of a lovely hotel in central Rome that has very limited parking (as many will given they are located in centuries-old palaces). That hotel won’t ever achieve a 4 star rating simply because of that criterion. You can also never find a 6 room 4 or 5 star hotel, no matter how good the service or facilities (and there are so many great little family-run places throughout the country where you will be treated like royalty), or one that doesn’t have a restaurant, bar area and a room reserved for meetings – but how often do you need these when you are travelling? Speaking of bar service, 5 star hotels must have the bar open at least 16 hours per day (I can usually manage getting by on just 12 hours…. And yes, I know they serve more than alcohol, but it’s hardly a deal breaker for me, given the options usually available nearby in the larger cities).


And apart from lack of car parking, those smaller hotels in central old historical parts of town (where it’s best to stay) that have been established in beautiful old buildings that were once the homes and palazzos of rich aristocrats can’t change the sizes of lobbies and guest rooms. Nor has it been easy for some to accommodate the relatively recent phenomenon of indoor plumbing: those silly Renaissance architects spent too long on glorious ceilings and inlaid walls and simply didn't plan for a private bathroom in every chamber of the palazzo. So bathrooms can be small and wedged into one corner of the room: there was simply no other way to do it. Rooms can still be luxurious even if they’re smaller, but those room sizes alone will keep an Italian hotel from being given more stars. And let’s add to the list that those architects of long ago also didn’t cater for the invention of the elevator, so these can also be small or only start on the second floor – if they exist at all.


So what it boils down to is that whilst the Australian rating system focuses tightly on quality, in Italy the system focuses on facilities and amenities, and nothing to do with aesthetics, charm, or any of the things that can capture the heart and make a stay so memorable. Even a 1-star hotel could be well located with great management and have as much if not more charm than a 4-star hotel in the same city – even if it doesn’t have a 24-hour reception desk and the lobby is small. Depending on what facilities are important to you, it’s not a good idea to automatically assume that 1- and 2-star hotels are places to avoid: many smaller hotels will never get to 4- or 5-star levels even if they’re beautiful inside.

A room in a 1 star hotel in Florence. Email me and I can tell you which one (we have no connection to them - it's just one we saw in 2016 on our hotel inspection trip).

So am I saying you should ignore the star ratings on Italy hotels? No, it’s just that you shouldn’t rely solely on them to determine how nice a hotel is.


The bottom line for me is that when I’m looking for where to stay in Italy, I pay more attention to things like the hotel’s location, the actual list of amenities offered by that specific hotel, and pictures on the hotel’s website than to how many stars it has. I read reviews, but always in the understanding that some less than satisfactory reviews often represent the lack of homework put in by the guest than any fault by the hotel. (Breakfasts are a typical example. The number of reviews where people complain about the lack of eggs or sausages is generally a reflection of the writer’s lack of understanding about how Italians approach breakfast, but that’s the topic for a future blog.)


My preference when looking for a hotel in Italy is usually for something in the 2- or 3-star hotel range – indeed for most of our tours, that what we use. I’m happier in a well-located funky old palazzo with a ton of character that only has 2 stars against its name than I am in a more modern (but to me sterile) 5-star room outside the city centre.


I’d rather use the money I’ve saved on accommodation on dining out on fantastic local food at a great ristorante or trattoria.


Then again, maybe that’s just me. The beauty of life is that we are all different and can have different opinions (but I’m definitely right about this….).

You can find the criteria we use for selecting the hotels we use on our small group tours of Italy on our website at www.viaggioitaliatravel.com.au or send us an email at gary@viaggioitaliatravel.com.au.

 Brisbane, Australia 

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