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How do hotels rate? Count the ways

"I bought a night in a three-star hotel in San Diego through an Internet auction site," a reader wrote, "but the room was nowhere near a three-star standard. . . . Do I have any recourse?"

Any discussion of hotel ratings starts with two facts:

+ The United States has no official hotel rating system, so it is meaningless to call a property here "three-star." A tour operator or Internet auction site can assign as many stars as it wishes to any hotel it is trying to sell.

+ Even in countries with official grading systems, the number of stars is usually based on physical measurements _ average room size, size of lobbies and public spaces, and such _ rather than condition and upkeep.

The two big Internet hotel auction sites, Expedia and Priceline, both assign their own stars to the hotels they list, and each describes its own categories.

On both sites, the star ratings are clearly their own and not taken from any recognized impartial source. The definitions are sufficiently fuzzy to cover a broad range of hotels in each grade.

Both programs note that many of their hotels are units of large, well-known chains with established reputations. But neither claims to base ratings on any onsite evaluations. And, as I have found on many trips, individual chain locations can often fall far below a chain's usual standards.

If you want independent hotel ratings, you have plenty of sources. The AAA and Mobil guides are widely recognized for consistent ratings in the United States, and you can't beat the Michelin Red guides for the European countries they cover.

The best way to avoid disappointment is to choose your hotel yourself, avoiding the auction sites and instead going through a travel agency or hotel discounter.

Ed Perkins is the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter.