Learn how AAA inspectors rate hotels and restaurants
The hotel is never tipped off ahead of time. The AAA inspector could arrive on a Monday, a Friday, any weekday. This person, who we will call “Inspector 1” (an alias to protect the person’s anonymity on these unannounced inspections) travels around Washington all year long evaluating hotels and restaurants for the AAA Diamond Hotel Ratings program.
This could be a deluxe hotel in downtown Seattle, a family-run lodge on the islands or a brand chain in Tacoma, Spokane, Olympia or the Tri-Cities.
Inspector 1 assigns AAA Diamond ratings (known officially as Diamond designations) in Washington and parts of Oregon. And nobody knows when this inspector will come calling on their establishment, though a few wily hoteliers do mark their calendars around the one-year anniversary of the last inspection.
“It is usually a surprise,” Inspector 1 said. “You have people that have been working at that hotel for years, and they kind of watch. Once we start coming up on their one-year mark they’re pretty aware we will be coming. But it’s always a surprise and they never do anything ahead of time.”
In Washington state, 500 hotels/motels and other lodgings and 160 restaurants are enrolled in the AAA Diamond Hotel Rating program—a number that keeps growing.
Curious how AAA scores hotels and restaurants? Read on.
Inspector 1 typically heads straight to the front desk, identifies themself and asks for a tour of cleaned and vacant rooms. Normally, a member of the hotel/motel staff will come along. Once inside, the inspector takes note of the room’s general appearance, maintenance and condition.
Are the curtains bright and clean? Are there fresh towels folded in the bathroom? Is there any dust on the counters or under the heating unit?
The inspector then swabs a door handle, maybe a light switch and other high-touch areas. That sample is then tested on a portable machine for invisible molecules found in human cells. If the sample passes, it means the surface area where the swab was taken is clean. The purpose of this test is to determine that the room has been disinfected properly and clean (rather than just appearing so). The hotel/motel needs to pass this test to obtain a rating with AAA.
No hotel, regardless of the amenities and service, will be rated by AAA if it fails the basic cleanliness test.
“Housekeeping and maintenance are always pass/fail,” said Todd Cronson, regional manager of the AAA Diamond program. “If the property is dirty, you’re out of the program altogether and we won’t list it. Even an ‘approved’ place is going to be very clean and very well maintained.”
Tip: Many approved and Diamond Rated lodgings in the state also participate in AAA Washington’s discount program. All AAA members can qualify for generous savings at numerous hotels and restaurants in the state, northern Idaho, across the U.S. and internationally.
What’s on the AAA hotel inspection checklist?
From the rooms, Inspector 1 then heads to the common areas, like pools, spas and sitting areas. An establishment isn’t automatically slotted into a Diamond rated category; however, the hotel’s physical condition, touches and details, its amenities and level of service go a long way in determining the Diamond rating. (AAA rates facilities “Approved,” “Three Diamond,” “Four Diamond” and “Five Diamond.”) Hotels and other lodgings with Three Diamond ratings tend to be mid-range options, whereas Four Diamond and Five Diamond hotels would be on the upscale and luxury end.
Five Diamond rated hotels are extremely rare. Cronson said less than 1% of the inspected hotels obtain this level, and there were no Five Diamond hotels in Washington state as of July 2023. Before granting a Five Diamond rating, Inspector 1 would check into the hotel anonymously as a regular guest paying full price and stay overnight to test the hotel’s services and amenities.
Delivering a grade for AAA Diamond Hotel Ratings
Inspector 1 typically grades the hotel on the spot after a roughly 45-minute inspection and tells the management if they’ve passed or failed, as well as their Diamond rating if earned. Most hotel managers appreciate the feedback, even if the news is not always good.
“It’s not really delivering bad news, it’s more like sitting down and going over positives,” Inspector 1 said. “And then, if it does come out to a fail, going over the reasons why. Basically, it’s feedback.”
As with the hotels and other lodgings, restaurants are also ranked from “Approved” to “Five Diamond.” The evaluation is a bit different than with hotels, though. It’s totally anonymous. Inspector 1 doesn’t say they’re with AAA.
“Essentially, we’re sitting down and ordering a couple of courses of food and asking questions to the staff, and you’re evaluating the food, the ambiance and the service,” Inspector 1 said. “But that’s it. We don’t talk or say anything.”
AAA Diamond hotel ratings
AAA has rated more than 26,000 hotels and motels and 6,000 restaurants in North America. The program also scores establishments in Mexico, the Caribbean and, more recently, Costa Rica. This is an entirely voluntary program. AAA will evaluate any lodging with more than four guest rooms, including independents. Once in the program, the facility will be inspected once a year for its cleanliness, service and the amenities, such as its pools and common areas.
The lowest rating, “Approved,” guarantees to AAA members that the room and common areas were clean and well-maintained at the time of the inspection and met AAA standards.
The Diamond ratings include:
- Triple Diamond indicates the lodging has comprehensive amenities, is stylish and comfortable. Examples include The Hilton Garden Inn in Wenatchee, the Marriott Tacoma Downtown and the TownePlace Suites in Olympia.
- Four Diamond suggests an upscale establishment with superior service. The Grand Hyatt Seattle, the Westin Bellevue and The Davenport Grand Autograph Collection in Spokane are examples.
- Five Diamond is a world class accommodation with luxury amenities and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Some examples would include the St. Regis in New York, the Ritz-Carlton in Boston or the Langham in Chicago.
Back on the road
No doubt, AAA Diamond inspectors have a unique job. They spend much of their days on busy highways and lonely roads visiting hotels, motels and restaurants around the state and region to ensure that AAA members have clean, high-quality options.
But Inspector 1 wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It is super cool, I love my job so much,” Inspector 1 said. “There is a lot of traveling, a lot of interesting places, you know. We have some really interesting properties, and then there’s the Pacific Northwest in general. So, I love to work this part of the country.”
Before your next trip, be sure to check the AAA Diamond-rated hotels and restaurants at your destination. They each have Inspector 1’s stamp of approval.
— Written by AAA Washington staff
— Top photo: AdobeStock