05/08/2014 02:14 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2014

Starry Eyed: A Gaze into the Travel Industry's Rating System(s)

And the big lesson learned from all those travel books you bought and Web sites you researched for the most radiant star rating? It was all a big waste of time because there is absolutely no authority anywhere delineating the star rating. The stars mean bupkis.

Believe it. Using stars as a simplified go-to critique goes back to at least 1915, and was used for books, something that was extended to film in 1928. At the time, three stars meant you were at the top of the heap. Jump ahead a few decades and we are now up to five stars, and hotels, safety systems, football and restaurants all jumped on the star wagon. And a few even went so far as replace stars (how passé) with diamonds, dots, asterisks or thumbs-up in the quest for being more profound or to the point.

But the open secret is that there are no universally-accepted, written-in-stone criteria on how or why something gets the rating it does. There is no overarching authority or "Star Bible" dictating the judgment process, so reviews can vary widely from critic to critic. It is not to say Zagat's is pulling stars out of thin air, but do a little comparison and you may find out that space that gets five stars in one review may get only three in another. The fact is that Zagat's has its own checklist, AAA has theirs, and Skytrax has theirs. They are all exhaustive and authoritative, but if their rating of a particular space or property is similar, it is literally by accident. And anybody who has gone to a five-star film and come out fuming about how it was a total waste will know that even top accolades don't always translate to audience-wide appeal. On the other side of the coin, how many films that were critical failures made box office boffo? Gladiator and Titanic are populated top to bottom with completely one-sided characters, and they made fortunes.

Hotels and luxury properties really get creative -- not with the icon, but the rating system itself. It is now not unusual to see spaces with six stars, and there are some properties that rate themselves (and it's not like they are biased, right?) a whopping 10 stars. And because there is no ruling body, PR agencies bringing new spaces online -- agencies, who, by the way, are hired by developers or, indeed, adjuncts of the developers -- are free to give bestow a galaxy's worth of the little five-pointed thingees with hopes to drum up attention.

I mean, seriously. Ten stars? We get it. It's luxury. But there are constellations with less. Worse, the higher and higher the count goes, the less and less the whole system will have meaning.

Now, it's not like a 10-star space isn't going to put its money where its great-big-target mouth is. Motel 6 is never going to get into a "star competition" with the Waldorf-Astoria -- no offense to Motel 6. Think of it like the Constitution of the United Kingdom: Everybody follows it even though it doesn't exist. In an industry as cutthroat as luxury travel, the risk of falling short keeps a surprising amount of egomaniacs in line.

But the reason may be a little hazy. It is one thing to compare a budget hotel to a luxury brand, but for travelers looking for accommodations from a selection of like properties with virtually the same amenities, things start to get cloudy. Be warned: There are plenty of five-star properties whose rooms look smack onto the backside of another building; there can be two First Class airport lounges with the exact same star rating but with entirely different amenities. A lack here may be made up with an embarrassment of riches there.

And that's when you have to do your research and even take notes and compare. Pick a vacation hot spot, any vacation hot spot -- Las Vegas, for example. That city is chock full of some of the best hotels and restaurants on Earth. And for the most part, unless you are hotel critic or a travel writer (like moi) whose very trade involves nit-picking, all those hotels, based their assorted mass of stars, can look like a herd of clones. I don't mean to say you have to get OCD in your research, but your vacation should be "your vacation," so peering through the stars and finding out why and how they get those little five-pointed thingees will go a long way in making the most of your experience. Read through the amenities list -- any hotel worth its salt has it online. You will find out who has the best Jacuzzi, the cheapest cocktail menu, the biggest bathrooms, or whatever must-have you, personally, must have. Screw the stars.

If anything, you'd learn that the Luxor hosts a gay pool party on Sunday, which, had you not known, could have led to either a happy surprise or some serious mortification for everybody involved. It's something included in the Luxor's star rating, but you would never know if the stars were the only things you looked at.