While I'm all for saving a buck, it's important to consider the comfort factor, especially when you're traveling with an active family. You may find a good night's sleep is something you've never valued more in your life. If you keep a few things in mind as you book your rooms, it's possible to serve both your wallet and your comfort needs equally.
For starters, consider the type of beds your family usually uses. If you and your spouse are used to a queen-sized mattress, you're not going to like a double (which is what many, many hotel rooms provide). It's okay to suffer through this for a couple of nights, but I wouldn't recommend a week of it. A queen or king will cost you a few dollars more, but it may be worth it every other night or so. Also, consider whether your kids are going to have to share a bed. Are they used to doing this? Is there someone in the family who would prefer a pull-out couch, a sofa, or a roll-away bed? These are good things to talk-over in advance, so that you can hunt for lodgings that accommodate these desires. If you have a very little child, they might be willing to camp out on the floor. Ask the hotel in advance whether they provide extra, free blankets on request. We occasionally accommodated two-year-olds by moving a pair of cushioned arm chairs together. They actually got a real kick out of that "special" bed.
Location, location, location!
As for cost-saving, start by arranging overnights out on the road away from major cities. A Marriott, Holiday Inn, Red Roof, or Travelodge is going to cost a lot less in Zanesville than it will in Cincinnati. And if you must stay in a metro area, staying out near a city's beltway is cheaper than being in a city center, even if you're using the same hotel chain. Also, many center city hotels do not offer free breakfast, while nearly all rural or beltway hotels do. This can be a big savings, especially if you're traveling with a large family. Not all of these free "Continental" breakfasts are created equal, but a quick survey of online customer reviews will point you toward the better chains and superior locations. I'll have more on that in a few paragraphs.
But there are more options out there than the typical roadside motel, and large families may be particularly interested in exploring these. First, check out suite hotels. You can fit five or six people into some of these units (rather than having to pay for two rooms elsewhere), and often, you have the bonus of a kitchenette where you can cook or microwave your own food (a lot cheaper than eating out!).
And while Bed and Breakfast homes and inns are often exclusive to adults, we've stayed in a dozen of these that not only welcomed our family, but served amazing, filling breakfasts along with some hearty conversation and tips on local sightseeing. Each B&B is different from the next, with varying and usually interesting proprietors. The people who run these places are pleasant as a rule (after all, you don't start a B&B if you're not a people person), and spending some time chatting with them usually gives you a little insight into the local mindset and disposition. Many B&Bs also include interesting architecture and unusual features. One of the most memorable for us was a so-called "Bed and Breakfast and Horse Hotel" in south-central Colorado. You stayed in the owner's split level, right next to their horse stable. And yes, some of the guests brought their horses! We found another one in southern Wyoming, where the resident Border collie was your constant companion every time you went for a walk on the property's many, lengthy trails. Then, there was the home near Williamsburg, Virginia, which was run by a descendant of Robert E. Lee! Bed and breakfasts can be pricey, but not always. A simple Google search for "B&Bs" in your destination city should get you up to speed.
When traveling in mountain regions during the summer, think about taking a one-night pit stop at a ski-resort. Most are still open, and offer off-season rates for spacious condos. Usually, the ski "village" still has a few restaurants and pubs open, and often, the ski lift is still available for a peek at the scenery. We've successfully pulled this off in Vail, Sun Valley, and Lake Tahoe, among other spots. I'll warn you that it's not always the cheapest way to go, but a lot cheaper than it would be during ski season, and the accommodations have always been very good.
Do Your Homework
As for peace of mind, I'm personally a big fan of online reviews. The website TripAdvisor.com is my favorite, because almost every hotel, motel, lodge and B&B is covered, and there are usually multiple reviews, each with a date stamp so you know how recent the reviewer visited. They even let property managers respond to complaints, so sometimes, you hear both sides of a dispute. Through these reviews, it's possible to get an idea of the cleanliness of a given hotel, how safe it feels, whether it's quiet (or right next to a busy highway), the helpfulness of the staff, and the proximity of the accommodations to local sights. I use TripAdvisor.com religiously, but I also take the smart approach to interpreting reviews. For example, one bad review next to ten good ones leads me to believe that the one sourpuss may simply be a hard-to-please type. Four bad reviews, however, and I don't bother reading any further. Never, never fall in love with a hotel based on website pictures and listed amenities until you finish searching for the dirt.
Another good rating system comes courtesy of AAA (yes, the non-profit auto club people) whose one-through-five-diamond rating system gives a good idea of the sort of quality you can expect at a given establishment. Recent prices are also listed in AAA's famous "state" trip guides. In fact, an AAA membership might be a good investment if yours is a traveling family, because many hotels offer discounts to members. I've found these to be $8-$12 dollars a night, typically, and sometimes more. Memberships run about $75 to $100, depending on the level of membership you select. And don't forget, you also get free road service and trip planning assistance.
Another accommodation option for families is the rental home. This can be a little trickier, and so it gets its own blog!