In Search of Luxury: What Does it Really Mean?

To most people, the word “luxury” relates to money. People associate luxury with designer labels, or exclusivity: people know who you are, and you’re part of something that not just anyone is eligible for. Hotels, clubs, credit card companies and airlines market themselves this way; you get discounts, rewards and points.

Yet somewhere not too far beneath that, “luxury” really means comfort. It relates to what makes people feel at ease, with no worries – and the assurance that they can easily get everything they need to continue feeling that way. “The key to our success is being able to accommodate whatever the guest might ask for,” says Chris Decker, general manager of an upscale hotel in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “It isn’t just the rooms or just the amenities, it’s the entire package. We try to accommodate all of our guests’ needs before they have to ask.” It all revolves around the service you receive; luxury could be as simple as maid service every day, or internet access. Whether it’s having things done for you—or just having access to these things around the clock—luxury means making life easier.

To help simplify the definition, organizations like the Mobil Travel Guide have originated well-known rating programs for lodgings, spas and restaurants. The American Automobile Association rates properties on a system of diamonds.

Named for the 75th anniversary of AAA when it debuted in 1977, the Diamond Rating system includes a full-time inspection staff of AAA “Tourism Editors” who do the legwork for you: they anonymously inspect, rate and maintain dialogue with managers of properties who have applied and been approved for the program. The criteria are specific and extensive, but boil down to “a combination of the overall quality, the range of facilities, and the level of services offered by a property,” according to the AAA Diamond Rating Guidelines. Specific areas considered include management style, exterior, public area and bathroom appearance and cleanliness, security, housekeeping and maintenance, furnishings, and illumination.  

Here is an abbreviated version of the AAA Diamond Ratings:

  • One Diamond: Appeals to budget-minded travelers. Meets basic requirements for comfort, cleanliness, and hospitality.
  • Two Diamonds: Expect the basic design elements and amenities with modest enhancements – and a moderate price.
  • Three Diamonds: Multi-faceted property with a distinguished style, to you’re your comprehensive needs.
  • Four Diamonds: Upscale in every area. Extensive array of amenities combined with a high degree of hospitality, service, and attention to detail.
  • Five Diamonds: “The ultimate in luxury and sophistication…the fundamental hallmarks…are to meticulously serve and exceed all guest expectations while maintaining an impeccable standard of excellence…an unmatched level of comfort.”

The Five Diamond rating is reserved for the upper echelon properties: less than .025 percent of all lodgings evaluated by AAA, or some 850 evaluations a year, receive the Five Diamond rating. 

With that in mind, here’s a thought: just because it’s a Five Diamond resort – and therefore more expensive -- does it offer the “luxury” that fits your lifestyle? What areas are most important to you to make your life the easiest? Here are some common, and “common-sense,” focal points for travel “luxury.”

Luxury relates to what makes people feel at ease — and the assurance that they can easily get everything they need to continue feeling that way.


Most trips involve traveling in an unfamiliar area – that’s often the point – but a trip can be a lot less stressful if the traveler doesn’t have to worry about getting stuck in traffic, paying for gas, or parking. If you rent a vehicle on your trip, getting lost is certainly not conducive to true luxury. To avoid these problems every traveler should look into the availability of a taxi service. Find resorts that will have taxis waiting outside the hotel. At least secure the number to a taxi service in the area.


Luxury-seekers probably don’t even stop to think that food is a basic needs in any case; we need it to feel at ease no matter where we are. In luxury travel, that translates into criteria like not having to wait until a restaurant opens. Some people may want breakfast during lunch time, or lunch in the evening. Resorts respond with around-the-clock room service, or stocked mini-fridges. “With 24-hour concierge service and 24-hour room service, our guests experience the service they deserve,” Decker says. Of course, if you want to eat at the most popular restaurants without waiting, there’s always the old stand-by: make reservations ahead of time.


Admit it: even on a pleasure vacation, you have a hard time breaking away from the cell phone or the PDA. Though you go on vacation to get away from the workplace atmosphere, some “connection” can actually make you feel comfortable. Most hotels and resorts have Internet access, whether in each room or in a separate area within the resort. Some offer both wired and wireless Internet service. Still, if you’re going to a remote location, check in with the resort and/or cell phone company to find out what the service is like in that area.


Fitness: More than one-fourth of U.S. travelers try to keep those extra pounds away by using a fitness center or gym while traveling (TIA). Many resorts and lodges offer on-site gyms and workout facilities. In Minneapolis, Decker’s hotel partners with an independent, 58,000-square-foot fitness center offering complimentary use for every guest. Some properties offer entire vacations based around shedding the accoutrements we normally associate with “luxury” and focus instead on the fitness of body and mind. Consider how much that exercise endorphin rush, or even just a little quiet solitude, fits into your definition.

Pet Travel: People don’t talk about it much, but many resorts don’t allow pets because the resulting smells and sounds can be the opposite of luxury. Yet 14 percent of all U.S. adults say they have traveled with a pet on a trip of 50 miles or more last year (TIA). If you’re a pet owner, you know that your pet is actually your child. Choose a resort that not only accepts pets, but offers special services for them. Luxury doesn’t have to apply just to human travelers!  

That luxury vacation is about being pampered. But pampered how? It’s your chance to define your own five-diamond experience – your own personal luxury!