The Dirty Truth About Hotel Ratings

By Nicole Frehsee
August 11, 2011
Illustration by Jason Schneider
Think you know what a five-star hotel looks like? Think again. With no standardized system across the globe, hotel ratings can be confusing, not to mention totally unreliable. We investigated the four major systems out there—and ranked them in order of trustworthiness.

When Americans think of "five star" hotels, they conjure up images of on-site spas, white-gloved service, and pillow menus. That's no surprise, given that the dominant rating systems in the U.S. are two of the most trust-worthy on the planet—Forbes and AAA. In order to snag Forbes's highest ratings, for example, a hotel's staff must meet criteria such as greeting arriving guests curbside within 60 seconds and offering tasting samples to drinkers ordering wine by the glass. In Italy, on the other hand, where the rating system is government owned and operated, all it takes to score five stars is a 24-hour reception desk, receptionists that speak three foreign languages, and double rooms starting at 172 square feet.

There are more scoring systems than most folks realize, and they vary from country to country (and, in some cases, from city to city). That said, most ratings fall into one of four main categories: those operated by private companies such as AAA, those run by hotel booking sites such as, user-generated systems, and government-run agencies.

Bottom line: Consistency is an issue. In the past two years, several governments including Switzerland's and Germany's have overhauled their systems to be more uniform, and Brazil is following suit this year. Plus, in 2009, Europe's Hotelstars Union launched with the goal of establishing common classification criteria across the EU.

Despite the improvements, figuring out which hotel will provide the best value can still feel like cracking the Da Vinci Code. To help you make the most informed decision possible, we scrutinized criteria across the globe to suss out the meaning behind the stars. No matter where you're going, here is what you need to know before you book.


No. 1: Private-Company Rating Systems

VERDICT: Independent ownership, consistent criteria, and anonymous inspectors make companies like AAA and Forbes (formerly Mobil) Travel Guide reliable and unbiased.

Both AAA and Forbes have been rating hotels for more than half a century and provide regular, in-depth reports on what consumers can expect, from how many soaps in the bathroom to bedsheet thread counts. Every 12 to 18 months, for example, Forbes inspectors make incognito visits to up to 5,000 properties and complete a checklist of 525 questions: Are guests arriving in a taxi greeted curbside within 60 seconds? Does wine-by-the-glass service include a tasting sample? Findings are relayed in a 110-page report. Five-star spots feature virtually flawless service—if you only eat the cantaloupe off the breakfast-buffet fruit tray, for example, expect extra melon delivered to your table. Diamonds are the currency in the AAA system, where inspectors pay unannounced visits to 32,000 North American properties annually and rank them on a scale from one diamond (lowest) to five. But even single-diamond hotels have standards: In order to be AAA-rated, properties must adhere to a basic set of benchmarks relating to cleanliness and management (bathrooms must have mini soaps, for example), but don't expect a business center or even an elevator. On the other hand, in five-diamond hotels you can bank on a full on-site spa, 24/7 room service, choice of pillow filling (pick from goose down, silk, cashmere), even a personal butler. Outside of the U.S., Australia is one of the few other countries in the world with a private rating system, which also happens to be called AAA. The system is operated by the Australian Automobile Association, an organization similar to (but not affiliated with) North America's AAA.


No. 2: Hotel Booking Sites

VERDICT: Online booking engines such as use a combination of hired scouts and user ratings to review hotels, but generally reviewers aren't anonymous and the standards vary by country and company. These ratings are best used in conjunction with other review sites.

Orbitz and Priceline each has its own rating system, though neither publishes their ratings criteria on their website. The standards vary by company and country—which means a hotel in London won't necessarily be rated by the same criteria as one in New York City. (One major reason is the difference in room size between Europe and America; rooms tend to be smaller overseas, even in hotels that would otherwise score high marks.), for example, stations employees on every continent but Antarctica to suss out properties. While these scouts aren't anonymous—they actually work with hoteliers to improve hotels' star ratings—2 million unvetted consumer reviews provide another layer of feedback. Ratings are based on location, amenities, type of accommodation, and service.

No. 3: User-Generated Rating Systems

VERDICT: User ratings are more valuable en masse. The key is to focus on what the majority of reports seem to indicate about a property and to ignore extremely positive or negative reviews, which may be biased. Use these sites as a reference but not your sole reference.

User-generated sites are built on feedback from the masses: TripAdvisor, for example, features more than 50 million traveler reviews sounding off on nearly 495,000 hotels worldwide. While the company, which launched in 2000, bills itself as having "World's most trusted travel advice," the sheer volume of sources—and TripAdvisor's inability to vet them all for accuracy—make these reviews something to take with a grain of salt. (A general rule is to ignore the ecstatically positive and totally negative reviews in favor of those in the middle.) While the site has stringent guidelines ("reviews should contain only original content and no quoted material from other sources…we do not allow quoted material from personal email correspondence with a property manager") and even has moderators to flag posts that seem fishy (like a hotelier giving his property rave reviews, for example), there's no way to catch every questionable review. Even with the caveat, peer reviews can be helpful, as they're often more detailed ("the room smelled of moldy hotel carpeting") and straightforward ("the check-in staff was great, but the hotel was on a yucky street") than those from third-party organizations or tourism boards.


No. 4: Government-Run Ratings Systems

VERDICT: Government-run ratings systems may be self-interested—the better a destination's hotels, the more tourists it'll draw—and unregulated by a third party. Proceed with caution, and always refer to at least one or two other sources.

Most European countries have their own government-produced ratings, as well as countries in Asia, South America, and Africa. (There's no standardized system across Europe, but in 2009, an organization called the Hotelstars Union launched a drive to establish a common system across the EU. So far, 11 countries, including Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, are participating.) In Europe, reliability varies by country—the U.K.'s system is uniform across Great Britain and fairly trustworthy, though tourist authorities have toyed with the idea of including user reviews. In France, on the other hand, ratings aren't based on quality but on the presence of certain features (air-conditioning and bathroom facilities, for example). In Italy, a hotel can earn a single star just for changing the sheets on the beds once a week (don't let the bedbugs bite!). Also low on the reliability scale: Asia, South America, and Africa, where national tourism boards have no standardized criteria or oversight.



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12 Best Places You've Never Heard of

1. LORD HOWE ISLAND, AUSTRALIA  RECOMMENDED BY Charles Veley, founder of most Trekked more than 2 million miles (so far) on his quest to see each country, territory, dependency, and island in the world. Charles Veley likes Lord Howe Island so much that he's been there twice. That means something for a man on a mission to collect every passport stamp in the world. The crescent-shaped island, a two-hour flight northeast of Sydney, is just seven miles from tip to tip, with a long white stretch of lagoon beach at its center and emerald green mountains at either end. Veley recommends renting a bicycle at Wilson's Hire Service (011-61/2-6563-2045, bikes from $5 a day), picking up lunch at Thompsons General Store (011-61/2-6563-2155, wraps from $6.75), and circling the island.  Don't miss the starfish in the tide pools near the lagoon and the hand-fed fish at the lovely and secluded Neds Beach. Wherever you go, you're not going to get lost; there's just one main street and only 18 small-scale hotels such as the 19-room bungalow-style Leanda Lei Apartments (, doubles from $165). "It's just you and fabulous white sand with the most beautiful palm trees all around."   CLICK HERE TO SEE THE 12 SECRET DESTINATIONS YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF   2. SAINT-SAUVANT, FRANCE  RECOMMENDED BY Zane Lamprey, host of Spike TV's Three Sheets. Hunts for bars, beers, drinking customs, and all things alcoholic for his televised, around-the-world pub crawl. He's downed Mekhong whiskey in Bangkok and vodka shots in a Moscow bathhouse. Yet for all the cocktailing bluster, it comes as a surprise that Zane Lamprey's favorite destination is quiet Saint-Sauvant (population: 517), in the heart of cognac country: "It's my fantasy version of France." Saint-Sauvant is a quintessential 14th-century village, with a fortified tower, four winding streets, and only one place to stay, the Design Hôtel des Francs Garçons. Outside, the hotel looks like any medieval building: thick walls, wood shutters, and a tiled roof. But inside, a team of seven French, American, and British architects has transformed everything. The reception is a modernist forest with black-and-white wallpaper hand-printed with leafless trees. Out back, a swimming pool abuts the village's 12th-century Romanesque church, a French cultural monument. There's not much else to Saint-Sauvant, which is fine with Lamprey. "They have a pace of life I could get accustomed to," he says. "Lunch lasts for at least two hours, and it may just be two pieces of bread and some ham and cheese. But for some reason, it takes the French a long time to eat a sandwich.", doubles from $127. 3. KEAHIAKAWELO, LANAI, HAWAII  RECOMMENDED BY Valerie Yong Ock Kim, film-location scout and professional photographer. Has scouted exotic spots for scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean, The Tempest, and Batman Forever, among other films. You need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get to Keahiakawelo, which could easily stand in for the surface of Mars in a Hollywood blockbuster. On the northwest side of Lanai-the least populated of the Hawaiian Islands-the sweep of red rock gardens and giant boulders pops against a backdrop of blue skies and ocean. "I don't know of any place else like it," says Valerie Yong Ock Kim. "The wind actually rolls the rocks around." Being in Hawaii, you can certainly decamp to the beach, but it's far more interesting to visit with Kepa Maly, the executive director of the Lanai Culture & Heritage Center (, admission free). "He makes the trip worth it," Kim says. "He knows all the stories." You can also get your fill of Hawaiian culture at Hotel Lanai's Lanai City Grille, where the menu is the work of Beverly Gannon, a founder of Hawaii's regional-cuisine movement (, doubles from $99, pulled-pork wontons $11). From your table, it's just steps to a plantation-style room at the hotel, where your dreams will likely be the stuff of fiery myths. 4. SUCRE, BOLIVIA  RECOMMENDED BY Laura Aviva, owner of L'Aviva Home. Tracks down indigenous, handcrafted housewares for hotels and interior designers, and for her online boutique, Sucre has year-round high temperatures in the mid-70s and a collection of whitewashed buildings that have earned it the name La Ciudad Blanca. But it's the culture that Laura Aviva found most alluring on a recent trip. "Even functional items like potato sacks were woven with lovely striped patterns," Aviva says. After checking into the Parador Santa María La Real, "a little hidden gem of a place" with vaulted brick ceilings and interior courtyards, Aviva headed to nearby Potosí and Tarabuco: "The women emerged from their houses and started asking if I wanted to see their tejidos ['weavings']. It's a great cultural exchange-and an opportunity to pick up some amazing textiles.", from $78. 5. TUSHETI, GEORGIA  RECOMMENDED BY Jonny Bealby, founder of Wild Frontiers adventure travel company. Explores Niger, Laos, Pakistan, and beyond for trips to the world's most remote locations. You won't want to go to Tusheti if you're afraid of heights. Hidden deep in the Caucasus Mountains, the region's villages cling to dizzyingly steep slopes that are as picturesque as they are precarious. That's all part of the allure to Jonny Bealby, a Brit who has trekked across the Hindu Kush and journeyed on horseback along the Silk Road. Of Georgia's Tusheti region, the inveterate adventurer describes a land "with centuries-old defensive towers, mountaintop castles, and stone shrines," some of which, like Guest House Lamata, are being transformed into basic lodgings with simple wooden furniture. Newly open to visitors after the dissolution of the USSR and Georgia's Rose Revolution of 2003, Tusheti can now be explored on foot or from the saddle of a sure-footed horse. In fact, livestock is as common here as the fog. There are sheep grazing in almost every nook and cranny, from the rolling grasslands up near the ridged peaks down to the glacial lakes below them and all around the gorges coursing with white-water streams. You'll also pass through hamlets like Shenako, with a rough-hewn stone church and houses adorned with lacy wood balconies. At night, you'll be well entertained by the locals, whom Bealby describes as "the most hospitable and fun people in the world. There will be lots of toasting and playing of accordions. And you will find yourself drinking chacha, the local firewater, out of a ram's horn. You will just have to go with it.", doubles $15, doubles with three meals $30, horse rentals $21 a day, guides an additional $21 a day. 6. EASTERN ANTIOQUIA, COLOMBIA  RECOMMENDED BY Marta Calle, director of CB2. Commissions craftsmen and manufacturers across India, China, and Europe to create housewares for Crate & Barrel's lower-priced line. Marta Calle is on the move so much that it's fitting her favorite place is a road-the Vuelta al Oriente, in Colombia. The looping, daylong drive starts in Medellín at the Vía Las Palmas and heads southeast into the surrounding Andean towns before circling back to the city. "I've never seen so many shades of green in my life," Calle says. "Everywhere you look, there are flowers-orchids literally growing on trees." In El Retiro, 21 miles from Medellín, a sweet little guesthouse called Hotel La Antigua sits amid historic districts flanked by plazas and caballeros on horseback (, doubles from $65). Calle's favorite stop is Artesanías Caballo de Troya, a shop filled with watertight woven baskets, ponchos, and birdhouses (, ponchos from $7). The rare restaurant with a name, Queareparaenamorarte, has the feel of a colonial house and is run by Julián Estrada, a self-proclaimed food anthropologist who sources traditional Colombian dishes (, lunch from $12). The arepas are served with butter, filled with cheese, or paired with chicharrón-crispy fried pork rinds. "Wherever you go, three old guys with guitars come up and they play," Calle says. "They all sound the same, they all look the same, and they all know the same songs. No matter how old you are, everyone starts singing." 7. VERDUNO, ITALY  RECOMMENDED BY Rob Kaufelt, owner of Murray's Cheese, a New York fixture for 70 years. Explores cheese-making regions—Ireland, France, England, Spain, Italy—for artisanal products. One of the best dinners of Rob Kaufelt's life-and as a guy who essentially eats for a living, there have been plenty of great ones-was in the Piedmontese village of Verduno. "I was staying at the Castello di Verduno, and the restaurant there was just incredible," Kaufelt says. He describes plates full of white-truffled pasta dishes. Dinner was served in a red-walled dining room with soaring ceilings in a crumbling 18th-century castle. In good weather, you can decamp to the palm-dotted garden to sip Barolo made from local grapes and cellared in barrels beneath the hotel. The Castello makes an ideal base for a foodie pilgrimage through Piedmont. "The whole region is teeming with good food-I almost smashed up my car when a family of wild boars went running across the road in front of me once," Kaufelt says., sage-grilled trout, $24. 8. DOE BAY, WASHINGTON  RECOMMENDED BY Alex Calderwood, founder of Ace Hotels. Converts distressed properties (a bus station, a Salvation Army depot) into boutique hotels in New York and along the West Coast. Before he opened his first Ace Hotel in Seattle in 1993, Alex Calderwood threw a popular series of warehouse parties. His ability to define and create "cool" has organically grown into not just the Ace franchise, but also Rudy's, an old-school barbershop with 14 locations across the West Coast; and a marketing agency called Neverstop. To fuel all of his endeavors, Calderwood travels constantly, collecting ideas on what he likes-and doesn't. Over time, a theme has emerged: He's drawn to laid-back spots that blend high- and low-culture influences. Doe Bay, on Washington State's Orcas Island, is just his kind of place. "It's got a great blend of hippie kids mixed in with older hikers and naturalists," Calderwood says. The small inlet on the Pacific Ocean is home to an unassuming resort of the same name. "Doe Bay isn't a design spot. You're not going there to get pampered. There's nothing pretentious about it-and that's exactly what makes it great," Calderwood says. "It just feels right." Doe Bay's reception building looks like an old general store-albeit one festooned with colorful flags-and beyond that there's a small clutch of yurts, campsites, and old-fashioned cabins sprinkled through the woods and along the shore. For Calderwood, it's the sauna and hot- and cold-water soaking pools that bring him back. "The pools sit on a platform that overlooks the most incredible view of the bay, with other islands off in the distance. When you're done with the pool, you can run down a little path and jump straight into the sound." When not taking the waters, Calderwood takes a hike-to the top of Mount Constitution or to Mountain Lake in Moran State Park. "If you imagine a quintessential 1940s postcard of a fishing lake," Calderwood says, "this is it.", campsites from $45, cabins from $80, yurts from $85. 9. WUPPERTAL, SOUTH AFRICA  RECOMMENDED BY Sarah Scarborough, buyer for the Republic of Tea company. Works with the Rainforest Alliance and the Ethical Tea Partnership to find new products worldwide. Sarah Scarborough has lived from Alaska to New Zealand, and she's touched down on all continents. But the one place that thrills her every time is the South African town of Wuppertal, four hours northeast of Cape Town. She happened upon it while sourcing rooibos tea, which is made from bushes that grow in the surrounding Cederberg Mountains. "It's a pure, wild scene," says Scarborough, who is often greeted by farmers lugging their produce to market on donkey carts. "The air has a very minerally quality, and you can see forever." Despite the arid landscape, there's water everywhere. "My favorite swimming hole on the entire planet is outside of town. It's a bit of a treacherous climb down the side of a cliff to reach the water, but once you descend you can sunbathe on a water-worn rock in the shallows, play under the waterfall, then rest in the shade of cedar trees with the big blue sky above you," Scarborough says. For the evening, she recommends staying in one of the town's several cottages or pitching a tent at the Algeria Campground on the Rondegat River. "I've never been to a more perfect place to gaze at the stars.", campsites from $24, four-person cottages from $62. 10. NAMJE, NEPAL  RECOMMENDED BY Stephanie Odegard, founder and president of Odegard Inc. Works with craftsmen to create a line of hand-knotted carpets that preserve native handicraft traditions. there are No roads to Namje. The only way to get to the Nepalese village is along a series of footpaths with views of Mount Makalu, the world's fifth-tallest peak. Not that getting to those footpaths is easy; you'll have to wrangle a flight from Kathmandu to the town of Biratnagar, which is itself an hour's drive from the trailhead. Buddha Air offers daily flights from Kathmandu to Biratnagar, the closest access point to Namje (, one-way $125). It's no surprise that the place only sees a handful of outsiders a year. Stephanie Odegard came upon it while she was searching for local women to harvest fiber for her rug company. "After my trip to Namje," she says, "I felt like I'd never been farther away from home." Namje's isolation has been its saving grace. "The native Magar people live very close to nature, and there's an incredible amount of spiritual activity," Odegard says. You can climb to the top of Thumki Hill and visit the sacred burial ground where the villagers, who still practice animism, worship their ancestors. Odegard suggests staying at the Hotel Himalaya and trekking the footpaths between villages to catch the stunning sunrises and sunsets (, doubles $8). 11. BUFFALO, WYOMING RECOMMENDED BY Andy Holak, cofounder of the Adventure Running Company. Searches for backcountry tour routes that feature grazing bison, mountain lakes, and stunning peaks. An accomplished ultramarathoner, Andy Holak thinks nothing of running 50 miles in a day. On a recent long-haul race to Dayton, Wyo., he discovered Buffalo and immediately decided it was one of his favorite outdoorsy gems: "Buffalo has that nice mix of cowboys and kayakers." The town's undiscovered status means you'll have the trails to yourself, and its superb location at the foot of the Bighorns offers immediate access to some of the best recreation areas in the country. "It's one of the closest jumping-off points for climbing Cloud Peak," Holak says; at 13,167 feet, Cloud Peak is the highest point in the Bighorn range. But even mellow day hikes are rewarded with dramatic endings here, such as the one found at Bucking Mule Falls, which plunges 600 feet down a steep rock face into Devil Canyon. Drives, too, are almost distractingly scenic. It's hard to top a cruise in the car out to Crazy Woman Canyon, where a narrow dirt road hugs a creek and steep rock walls cast a golden glow. Then there's the excellent rock climbing at Ten Sleep Canyon and the plentiful cross-country skiing trails in winter. It doesn't hurt that Main Street is movie-set picturesque, with rows of well-preserved mercantile shops and saloons from the late 1800s now transformed into art galleries and outdoor outfitters. Holak's evening routine: bison burgers at the Bozeman Trail Steakhouse (888/351-6732, bison burger $13), ice cream from Dirty Sally's (, cones from $2), and a room at the awesomely Old West Historic Occidental Hotel (, doubles from $50). 12. ILES DE LA MADELEINE, SENEGAL  RECOMMENDED BY Anne-Laure Behagel,'s regional development officer for West Africa. Arranges micro-credit loans for entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and alleviate poverty. Anne-Laure Behagel has always loved islands. "I'm a sailor, and I'm impressed at how these marvels just pop up ou tof the sea," she says. Her current obsession? The Iles de la Madeleine, a pair of spiky, uninhabited outcroppings 2.5 miles off the coast of Dakar in Parc National des Iles de la Madeleine (admission and boat trip $9). "You'll wonder how on earth you'll manage to disembark with all those cliffs, but just when you expect it the least, a narrow passage opens onto a small lagoon," Behagel says. Climb the black volcanic peaks to spy on nesting cormorants and rare, red-billed tropic birds in the dwarf baobab trees. Once the sunset, La Cabane du Pêcheur, back on the mainland, provides an excellent refuge (011-221/33-820-7675, doubles from $77). SEE MORE POPULAR CONTENT: 10 New Wonders of the World 15 Places Every Kid Should See Before 15 10 Islands to See Before You Die 4 Most Common Reasons Airlines Lose Luggage 5 Credit Cards Every Traveler Should Consider

Restaurants With Spectacular Views

Savings-minded travelers may not always be able to spring for the loftiest hillside hotels, but a single meal at a spectacularly situated restaurant can be a worthy splurge. From glacial peaks to ancient rain forests—even an underwater dining room in the Indian Ocean—we've rounded up 11 unforgettable places to pick up a fork. See the views for yourself. 1. CHEZ MANU Argentia The untamed Andes from the southern-most city in the world.You might not expect to find world-class French food in a frontier city that's more or less at the ends of the earth—which makes Chez Manu an even more pleasant surprise. Set on a hill about a mile north of Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego and the southern-most city in the world, the restaurant first impresses visitors with its remarkable perspective on Beagle Channel and the daily parade of icebreakers and ocean liners departing for the Great Southern Sea and Antarctica. And then there's the food. Naturally, fish figures prominently—particularly cold-water species from the bay, such as black hake, salmon, and herring, to which expat chef Emmanuel Herbin applies his own suitably French twists (seasoning with anise and herbs, say). Also worth a try: Herbin's takes on Patagonian lamb and Fuegian rabbit, served in an aged mustard sauce.Best Deal Centolla (king crab) is abundant here, and preparations such as centolla gratinada "Chez Manu" come in well below splurge territory ($24). 2135 Fernando Luís Martial Ave., Ushuaia, Argentina, 011-54/2901-432-253,, entrées from $15. 2. JULAYMBA RESTAURANT Australia Primordial paradise in the midst of the jungle.Consider it a total-immersion meal. Part of the Daintree EcoLodge & Spa in northern Queensland, Julaymba Restaurant brings travelers right to the heart of the world's oldest rain forest. The 40-seat restaurant's terrace juts out over an ancient freshwater lagoon while tangled vines drape from the canopy above. From every direction, diners hear the sounds of some 430 species of birds, plus tree frogs, wild turkeys, and wallabies thumping through the brush. But it isn't just the soundtrack that's authentic here—the distinctly Aussie menu incorporates pepper berries, wattle seeds, and other native foods used by the local aboriginal Kuku Yalanji people, many of whom work in the restaurant. Make like a local, and order either the smoked crocodile or the kangaroo steak.Best Deal The lunch-only fish-and-chips special—it's made with local, line-caught barramundi and chips ($17). Daintree EcoLodge & Spa, 20 Daintree Rd., Daintree, Australia, 011-61/7-4098-6100,, entrées from $29. 3. PERCHIC Dubai  Over-the-top architecture in the world's most outrageous city.For all the glamour, glitz, and grandeur that have come to define Dubai (or at least its skyscrapers), Pierchic stands out for being just the opposite: understated, low-slung, and thoroughly vernacular in its architectural style. Its wooden beams blend right in with the simple, 500-foot jetty that connects the over-water dining room to Jumeirah Beach and provides enough distance to take in the man-made Palm Jumeirah Island and the full height of Burj Al Arab's 1,000-foot-tall glass sail. Despite the restaurant's waterfront location, much of its top-notch seafood is imported from around the world: butter-poached Canadian lobster, Tsarskaya oysters, and organic Irish salmon confit. Best Deal The seafood lover's degustation menu, which includes an appetizer, an intermediate and a main course, and a dessert ($43). The menu changes daily, but expect options such as brown shrimp panna cotta, pan-fried oyster, and crème brûlée. Served daily from 1–3 p.m. Al Qasr Hotel, Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai, 011-971/4-366-6730,, entrées from $27. 4. ITHAA Maldives  Scuba views from beneath the ocean.It's like dinner theater for the dive set—and there's not a bad seat in the house. Ithaa is located 16 feet below the surface of the Indian Ocean. Its tunnel shape and glass walls reveal a breathtaking seascape of unspoiled coral atolls, schools of parrot fish, and giant stingrays to 12 lucky diners. The menu is rich with decadent dishes like caviar, line-caught reef fish and rock lobster, but if you'd rather not look out the window for your ordering inspiration, seared veal tenderloin and button-mushroom soup make for suitable substitutions. And while the four-course lunch menu is undoubtedly a splurge, it's still cheaper than getting certified to scuba. Note that tables can only be reserved two weeks in advance.Best Deal An 11 a.m. daily cocktail hour opens up the space to curious travelers who can't quite justify the cost of a meal (though the cocktail event itself is a splurge at $55 per person). Conrad Maldives hotel, Rangali Island, Maldives, 011-960/668-0629,, six-course dinner from $320 per person. 5. BOSCO BAR Russia A view of the country's most famous gilded square.Of the nine restaurants, bars, and cafes within the upscale, three-story GUM department store in Red Square, Bosco Bar hits a rare sweet spot: There is a bona fide social scene, plus impressive sightlines and prices you can actually stomach. While the shopping center itself draws wealthy Muscovites browsing Hermès, Cartier, and Armani, savvy travelers stake out seats in the 1970s-inspired bar on the square, where they can see Lenin's mausoleum, the Kremlin, and St. Basil's Cathedral all at once. The menu, like the space itself, straddles the new/old divide, with inventive salads (quail with beets and roasted foie gras; smoked salmon, arugula, and potato) and traditional favorites such as beef Stroganoff and borscht. Best Deal Red Square, red soup: A bowl of borscht goes for $16. GUM Department Store, 3 Red Square, Moscow, Russia, 011-7/495-627-3703,, entrées from $11. 6. 1-ALTITUDE Singapore A lofty view of a sparkling metropolis.The 63-story OUB Centre, on Singapore's version of Wall Street, is crowned by 1-Altitude, a three-level venue that offers the best views in the city—plus main-course-quality bar snacks such as wood-fired pizzas, satay platters (spicy Thai beef, chicken, and pork), and Turkish flat bread with dips. The cocktails run the gamut from classic (mojito) to creative (The Narcissist is a tempting combination of Russian Standard vodka muddled with peach, freshly squeezed lime, and rosemary-infused raspberries). The year-old hotspot is always buzzing with young Singaporean professionals, who are keen to kick back after a day's work and survey the skyline, Marina Bay, and the army of container ships plowing through the South China Sea beyond.Best Deal Good selection of affordable New World wines, from $13 a glass (cocktails start at $16). OUB Centre, One Raffles Pl., 63rd level, Singapore, 011-65/6438-0410,, pizzas from $20. 7. KUKLOS Switzerland  Alpine splendor overlooking Lake Geneva, Mont Blanc, and the Matterhorn.Talk about making the rounds. Patrons of Kuklos, a futuristic, glass-walled restaurant in the Bernese Alps, don't have to choose between scoping out Lake Geneva, Mont Blanc, or the Matterhorn during their meals. All they have to do is be patient. Every 90 minutes, the circular second-floor dining room makes a full 360-degree rotation, revealing new spans of snowcapped scenery all the while. The menu skews traditional—with Gruyère-and-vacherin fondue and rösti, a Swiss riff on a potato pancake—and the dress code is casual, for a clientele of mostly skiers and mountaineers. What's more, even getting to the restaurant is an experience: Diners access the mountaintop by way of a 10-minute cable-car ride from the town of Leysin, nearly 2,600 feet below. Best Deal The "panorama gourmand" package covers round-trip gondola fare (normally $26 per person) and a three-course meal ($80) for two for $160—a savings of $52.1854 Leysin, Switzerland, 011-41/24-494-3141,, entrées from $25. 8. ROCKY POINT RESTAURANT California, U.S.  The most scenic coastline in America.America's most scenic route presents mile after mile of picturesque vistas—for everyone but the driver, who's focused on navigating the Pacific Coast Highway's notoriously twisty path. The perfect reward for playing chauffeur? A seat on the oceanfront patio at Rocky Point Restaurant, roughly halfway between Big Sur and Carmel. From any of the 15 casual, wooden outdoor tables, guests can soak up views of coastal mountains and rock-strewn shoreline—and, if they're lucky, spot dolphins, sea lions, otters, and whales in the waters beyond. Hearty dishes such as prime rib, New York strip, and swordfish steak—all cooked over a mesquite-fired grill—provide suitable fuel for the next leg of the journey.Best Deal The four-course early-bird special costs less than most dinner entrées and will keep you in your seat through sunset ($22). Served Sun.–Fri., 5–6 p.m. 36700 Hwy. 1, Carmel, Calif., 831/624-2933,, entrées from $24. 9. ALMA New York, U.S.  America's most celebrated skyline.It's a fact: Searching out the most expansive views of the Manhattan skyline requires leaving the island itself—which the devoted clientele of Alma, a three-level Brooklyn dining institution, have been doing since the restaurant opened in 2002. Seeing the Statue of Liberty, too? That's just a bonus. Regulars know to show up early—in the spring and summer there's a no-reservations policy for the 50-seat rooftop garden. Standouts on the nouvelle Mexican menu include a pork-stuffed chile relleno and tangy chilaquiles in tomato sauce, both of which are also available in the main, second-floor dining room—sans the view.Best Deal Arguably, the sights are best seen in daylight—which works for your wallet, too. The average brunch dish (say, a pollo adasa torta with roasted tomatoes and greens) costs half as much as comparable dinner options ($8.50). 187 Columbia St., Brooklyn, N.Y., 718/643-5400,, entrées from $16. 10. VIEW HOTEL Utah, U.S. Iconic buttes and majestic spires."Monument Valley is the place where God put the West," remarked John Wayne, who helped put the valley on moviegoers' maps by filming Stagecoach there in 1938. Seventy-plus years later, the landscape is just as cinematic, as the folks behind the 95-room View Hotel well know. The on-site restaurant takes full advantage of its location amid the valley's majestic spires: A large bay window overlooks East and West Mitten Buttes, so named for their resemblance to the woolly hand warmers, and natural light floods the space all day. Ambitious early birds can watch the sunrise from one of the few tables lined up along the window (the restaurant opens at 7 a.m.). But arriving later has its benefits, too—like tasting Chef MacNeal Crank's updated takes on his grandmother's traditional Navajo recipes, such as fry-bread tacos or red chile posole, rich with buttery hominy. Best Deal The all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet ($6). Monument Valley Tribal Park, U.S. Hwy. 160 and 163, Monument Valley, Utah, 435/727-5555,, entrées from $12. 11. BOUCAN RESTAURANT St. Lucia, West Indies  Tropical treasure from the heart of a chocolate plantation.Calling all chocolate lovers: Boucan Restaurant might just be your dream come true. Every last item on the menu incorporates some form of cocoa, from a green salad tossed in white chocolate dressing to sautéed prawns with chocolate tapenade and, of course, desserts: a chocolate tart, cacao crème brûlée, and espresso-and-dark-chocolate mousse, to name a few. It's a fitting theme for the brainchild of two British chocolatiers who opened the restaurant (along with the 14-room Hotel Chocolat) in February 2011 on the site of St. Lucia's oldest cocoa plantation, established in 1745. Even dreamier than the indulgent dishes? The jungle-draped views of the Piton Mountains, lush, twin-peaked mountains that rise almost 2,600 feet above sea level on the volcanic island's southern coast.Best Deal Every dinner reservation from now until December 1, 2011, comes with a complimentary cocktail from a menu that includes chocolate daiquiris, cacao Bellinis, and cacao-pulp martinis (a $10 value). Hotel Chocolat, Rabot Estate, Soufrière, St. Lucia, West Indies, 011-758/457-1624,, entrées from $15.

5 Credit Cards Every Traveler Should Consider

You and your credit card have been through a lot together. You used it to buy your new laptop and your vacation to France, to pay the electricity bill and support your weekly Whole Foods habit. There have been good times, of course, like when your card provided insurance for your rental car. But ask yourself, what has it really done for you lately? Hiked its Annual Percentage Rate, added mysterious fees, punished you for 'foreign transactions' on your trip to Mexico? It's time to put your spending power into a credit card program that values—and rewards—your wanderlust. Citi Gold/AAdvantage Visa Signature Card Best for: domestic travelers who often fly to the same destinationSo you visit your grandmother twice a year in Cincinnati and fly home to Santa Barbara on all major holidays? This Visa card features a 'Reduced Mileage Awards' program that allows cardholders to fly to select AA destinations for 7,500 fewer miles on a round-trip ticket. If you spend just $750 on the card in the first four months, American Airlines will award you 25,000 bonus miles, enough for a domestic round-trip flight. You'll earn one AAdvantage mile for every dollar spent, and there are no blackout dates for travel on American Airlines or their American Eagle and American Connection domestic carriers. Annual fee after first year - $50. Chase Sapphire Preferred Best for: globetrottersLet's say it together now: no foreign transaction fees. That means you won't be charged extra for using your card anywhere overseas, a crucial benefit for international travelers. The Chase Sapphire Preferred also lets you turn your points into miles with a 1:1 exchange into United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Korean Air, and British Airways, or other travel programs like Amtrak Guest Rewards, Hyatt Gold Passport, Marriott Rewards, Priority Club Rewards, and Ritz-Carlton Rewards. The introductory offer is tempting: spend $3,000 in the first three months and you'll earn 40,000 miles, roughly $500 towards travel rewards. Annual fee after first year - $95 Starwood Preferred Guest/American Express Best for: hotel connoisseurs and travelers to Latin AmericaAlways wanted to stay at the W Barcelona or the St. Regis New York? Starpoints earned on this card can be redeemed at over 1,000 hotels in nearly 100 countries. The first time you use your card, you'll earn 10,000 Starpoints, enough for a free night at a 4-star property. You can also transfer your Starpoints on a 1:1 basis into more than 30 frequent flier programs. Travelers to Central and South America win especially big with this card—Starpoints are instantly doubled if you transfer them into LAN's frequent flier program. Annual fee after first year - $65 American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card Best for: big spendersDo you put more than $2,000 a month on your credit card? This program will triple your points when you buy a plane ticket and double your points when you spend on gas and groceries. Because the annual fee is on the steep side, this card is a much better deal if you rack up a lot of charges on your card each month. Your earned points never expire; use them on any airline, anytime, by reserving a flight through American Express Travel, or transfer them into your preferred frequent flyer program—points can also be redeemed for retail and dining gift cards. Annual fee after first year - $175 United MileagePlus Explorer Card Best for: United frequent flyersIn addition to giving you two miles per dollar spent on United Airlines tickets, the United MileagePlus Explorer Card offers cardholders a free checked bag on any flight in the system (United charges $25 for the first checked bag, saving you up to $100 on baggage fees for a round-trip flight since this benefit is also extended to one companion on the same reservation), and a 30,000-mile bonus when you spend $1,000 in the first three months. Miles will never expire as long as your account remains active, and cardholders can book award travel on any United Airlines flight at any time. You'll also get two free United Club passes per year (a $100 value) and enjoy priority boarding on all flights operated by United. Annual fee after first year - $95