Although we sometimes do our research on the hotel search engines, in general, we have found it so much better to book direct. The likelihood is that you will get the best price, and there is always the chance of a room upgrade! You may accumulate points too, towards a free or upgraded night. Also, the search engines wont always have the 1 and 2 bedroom suites, to find those go direct to the hotel chains. Definitely become a member of all the major ones.
Some of the groups we use are Choice (which includes Quality and Comfort Inns, both often have suite, 1 and 2 bedroom set ups), Hilton Honors (for Homewood Suites that are perfect for families), IHG (Holiday Inns for suites, and sometimes 1 bedroom suites with sleepers and sometimes 2 bedroom, and Staybridge suites also for 1 and 2 bedroom if you are lucky), Wyndham Rewards for a range of often budget priced options, and Marriott (which include Fairfield Inn and Suites, Residence Inn and SpringHill Suites). They all have apps which make it easy to book when you are away from the desktop. Also google map your destinations to pick up the independant hotels, the google reviews will give you a feel for the standard of the hotel (clean and safe is what we look for, it doesnt need to be upmarket.)
Dont forget to use the promo codes. We use AAA and AARP, and the AARP membership has saved us heaps!
Mostly we chose not to prepay (card details just to hold the booking), to maintain some flexibility, but you can prepay if you are certain and then you may save another $10usd/night or so.
Something else we look for is whether breakfast, and sometimes an evening meal ("Reception", which can sometimes be a full buffett and generally occurs weeknights excepting Fridays) is thrown in. It makes it much easier to get away early if one can grab breakfast at the hotel, and much easier to clock up a longer distance of travel without hunger getting in the way. For this family of 4, 2 bedroom suites with some meals thrown in, (with a bit of research), make for an affordable and nice way to travel, and make it much easier on the family, especially so as the kids grow in age and want some personal space (from their loving parents!!).
Having said that, on some of our longer driving days options have been more limited, but we have still managed to get a room with 2 doubles, and a rollaway, which generally (but not always) are more comfortable than a sleeping sofa. Check the websites though, as not every hotel or hotel room configuration permits Rollaways, so confirm availability.
And for the one nighters, it is handy when the room you book is on the ground floor. No carting luggage up and down a flight of stairs.
I do try and book ahead as much as possible, as prices do seem to go up as you near your reservation date. But having booked, I will keep coming back to see if any better deals have presented themselves.
One tip to share, often the hotels for the towns are actually located just off a freeeway exit, and not near the historic or town centre. I wish we had learnt this sooner, for we would head for a specific location and check in, finding a hotel surrounded by Fuel and Fast food outlets but not much in the way of a scenic outlook. Not realizing, that the actual town centre was a mile or 2 away.
Half the fun is the unexpected, and occasionally it does go pear shaped. Our friends ended up spending the night sleeping in their car rental in a shopping centre car park, when they couldnt get a hotel room after a long days travel, but as their teenage son commented, at least they didnt have far to go for breakfast!