The guide divisions at AAA and Mobil employ trained inspectors who evaluate properties incognito. The ratings thus awarded are based on independent, honest evaluations, both say. AAA has been formally rating hotels since 1963, and Mobil has been doing so since 1958, though AAA began publishing detailed hotel descriptions gathered by field inspectors starting in 1937.

?We have 65 full-time inspectors out there hitting properties day in and day out,? Mr. Petrone said. Each inspector visits about 650 hotels a year. Four- and five-diamond properties, as well as three-diamonds deemed to have potential to rise in class, also receive anonymous and exhaustive overnight-stay inspections.

For those hotels, there are two steps in the annual rating process. First is that anonymous overnight inspection, when everything from carpets and televisions to room service and staff attitudes is evaluated. Then, usually months later, comes the personal visit to the hotel manager, and a guided tour to check out all the hotel?s facilities anew.

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