One of the most influential ``authorities' travel professionals use for rating hotels is a four-volume publication that costs $370 - and it may mean less than you think.Ratings sources such as AAA and the Mobil Travel Guides, according to an article in the current issue of Esquire, are strict in their criteria.

The AAA publishes a 21-page ratings guide that spells out down to the veneer on chairs what it demands. Mobil Travel Guides' criteria appear similar to AAA, but Mobil claims they are more flexible.

But any time you rely on your travel agent or corporate travel manager for a hotel recommendation, particularly for a foreign location, chances are good that the rating comes from the four-volume ``Official Hotel & Resort Guide,' published by Reed Travel Group. It provides the only uniform standard for rating hotels worldwide.

Problems begin with the ratings. You need to know how they work. OHRG starts with three basic levels - deluxe, first class and tourist. Within each category are the additional divisions of superior and moderate.

So you get nine designations - superior deluxe, deluxe, moderate deluxe; superior first class, first class, etc. There also is another level, limited service first class, describing hotels with good guest rooms but limited public areas.

In OHRG's world, superior deluxe is the best, a really special luxury hotel. Moderate tourist is the least favored.

Notice that a hotel rated first class is actually smack in the middle of the ratings spectrum - fifth from the top - so when your OHRG-toting travel agent promises a first-class room, expect nothing more than a decent hotel with decent services.

The big question is how the OHRG arrives at its ratings. The publication draws a lot of its information from outside sources - data supplied by the hotels themselves and critique cards filled out by guests.

Guests' reactions also are a staple of other guides. But AAA sends out 60 inspectors to cover just under 20,000 hotels in North America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Mobil maintains a staff of 135 field inspectors for 17,000 North American lodging properties; their recommendations for four- and five-star ratings are reviewed by senior evaluators and, finally, by a ratings committee.

OHRG claims an editorial staff of 15 covering more than 27,000 hotels a year.

Management acknowledges that the staff relies pretty heavily on information provided by the hotels under ``review;' some people in the business say OHRG does not visit hotels at all.

Whatever the truth, with a group that small covering a world this big, and with rating criteria that are never divulged, all you can hope for are broad, general guidelines.

Virtually all ratings services are geared primarily to the leisure traveler. For the business traveler, the vinyl- or leather-bound guest service directory AAA requires in its five-diamond hotels might not be as important as the public fax machine in the three-diamond place down the block.

The domestic guidebook most oriented toward business travelers may be Mobil's ``Major cities' edition, which provides information on 53 big and semibig business destinations in the United States.

In countries such as France and Italy, there is a government hotel rating system. Guidebook people say that creating such a system here would only inject bureaucracy and politics into the process.

For now there are guidebooks in your bookstore, OHRG's ratings, Glenn Eichler wrote in Esquire, and the recommendations of your friends who have returned from a trip cheerful and ptomaine-free. Consult a guidebook - then call your friends.

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