Booking ahead is essential, as is shopping around. You simply cannot expect to simply show up at a hotel and get a good rate. Most hotel chains reserve their best room rates, and they limit their numbers. Once those low cost rooms are booked, they are simply no longer available.
It is also important to book ahead because it can be difficult to gauge the demand for lording in a particular area, even if you are familiar with your destination. Special events of which you are unaware could cause a spike in hotel demand, and hotel prices, and leave you either paying an arm and a leg for a place to sleep, or, worse yet, find yourself without a place to stay at all.
It is also important to take advantage of all discounts to which you may be entitled, and not be shy about asking for discounts. Many hotel chains and independent hotels offer discounts to those in the military, senior citizens, and members of travel clubs like AAA. If you think you are entitled to a discount, be sure to ask, and be sure to verify that the discount has been applied when you arrive.
In addition, many hotel chains offer programs that are similar to airline frequent flier programs. These programs reward loyal guests with free nights and other rewards. It is important to sign up for these programs whenever you can. Most of these programs are free, so signing up will cost you nothing, and you could end up with a free hotel stay.
When looking for those great hotel deals, a number of web sites compare hotels by price, star level, and even proximity to certain tourist attractions. It is always best to search several of these sites, since not all hotel chains participate in every comparison site.