I'm a very cheap person so I'll throw in my thoughts about my favorite companies.
Before telling my tips I'll tell a bit about my habits. I don't fly much so no tips there. When staying somewhere I only care more about cost, cleanliness, and safeness more than luxury. Unless I am seeking out a specific feature such as a indoor pool or hot tub. Most of my traveling is in the South, so my experiences might be different than how a brand might typically be in other places.
Credit Card- I use a Discover Card primarily. I don't have a need for a travel card or branded card (More explanation why in hotel section). Discover always gives at least 1% cash back, while offering a 5% cash back in categories every quarter. I use these to my advantage by mass buying gift cards in the respective quarter. This means gas, restaurants, Amazon, etc. They also offered a six flags deal about every other year. The reason I stick with Discover is their cash back can be applied to your account, or choose from a list of about 100 places to get extra money on the card. For example $20 of cash back can get you a $25 gift card to a restaurant. You can also shop online through their site and get extra cash back. I double dip the Discover Deals with another site like Upromise, eBates, MyPoints, or SwagBucks. I can get potentially up to 10-20% back off of a simple purchase. Their customer service is also fantastic, another reason I stick with them.
Gas- I am loyal to Speedway. The stations are clean, have good food and drink offerings, and have the best rewards system. If you work it right with gift card purchases, I easily earn a $200 gas card each year and that goes a long way in my Honda Civic! I'm not knowledgeable on car engines, but I'd say using the same brand of gas each time doesn't hurt anything. If I go outside of Speedway territory, I typically stick to Shell or BP to ensure good quality fuel.
Hotel booking / general thoughts- No matter which brand you go with- book through the actual company instead of a third party like priceline. If you ever get in a bind it is a bigger mess to fix. After you pick a hotel brand family and stick with it, the deals, promos, and rewards balance out the discounts anyway.
I also recommend staying somewhere with breakfast unless you really want to eat somewhere specific where you are. This can save money and the time of stopping somewhere else.
TripAdvisor is always your friend. A 10 second glance will tell you if a hotel or restaurant is a good or bad idea.
If you are road tripping, put water and other drinks and a bag of snacks in your car. You can get ice at hotel and it beats paying triple for a late night coke from the machine.
Hotel Brand- coasterbill gave some great tips for Choice, but I'm going to share why I went with Wyndham instead. Wyndham consists of a wide range of brands which honestly needs some consolidation. I normally go on the cheap end as long as its clean and safe, but have the flexibility to stay somewhere nicer. I have the flexibility of cheap and mid range, while companies like Hilton, IHG, or Marriott don't have a value option. Drury and LaQuinta are great, but not enough of them for me to be loyal. Here is why Wyndham for me:
-Like Choice, they have properties everywhere, and in different income brackets.
- If worked properly- their rewards program can be very lucrative. Again, it depends on how and where you travel. You get a free night for 15k points, or a go fast award for 3k. The go fast award is using 3k points plus some cash based on property. I've save tremendous money with that. In peak time the $150 night turns into a $40 plus 3k points. It is also fairly easy to earn status and more perks. Each stay (even 1 night in a cheap motel) earns 1,000 points. There is always promotions going on to give bonus points. I typically earn enough points for a award every 1.5-2 nights. I normally stay in different hotels every night in the same town to maximize points- especially if I'm alone. You can redeem at any property, ranging from the cheap, mid range, luxury, and even the condo timeshare units.
-More thoughts on Wyndham Brands:
- Wyndham / Wyndham Grand- Very nice properties, compare to Crowne Plaza, DoubleTree, Marriott, etc. Only stayed at a couple of these. Normally only in large cities.
-Wyndham Garden- these can be really good or really bad. Typically these are rebrands of another hotel. Most are fine.
- Knights Inn- Just don't do it. Most of them are drug dens or bug infested that need to be shut down. Plus most have no breakfast.
- Howard Johnson / Travelodge- These range greatly in quality and amenities. Typically in big cities they are pretty bad and I wouldn't do it. However in tourist or rural areas these are normally ok. For example- Travelodge now brands itself with the National Parks, and most that I know of near a park are pretty good.
Hawthorn Suites- Never stayed at one, more of them up North than in the South. Haven't heard any major complaints.
Microtel- I really like these. Rooms are consistent. Most have at least 1 hot item for breakfast. Not many have a pool though if you want one. They have an option of 1 queen bed rooms, good cheap option normally if traveling solo.
Ramada- These can range in quality and amenities but are normally nice. A lot are rebrands of older Marriott type or old Holidome Holiday Inns. They all have good breakfast, free at some places, extra at others. If breakfast isn't free, I typically stay somewhere else for same cost.
Wingate- These are really nice. Think Courtyard or Hilton Garden with free breakfast. Some have pool some don't. There aren't
many of these and are normally the priciest Wyndham option in town.
Days Inn- you will see the most of these. I've never stayed in a bad one but I can thank Trip Advisor for that. Typically least consistent brand. Will have breakfast for free, typically continental but some can surprise you. I normally don't stay at these in big cities, not because of the property but usually loud and late clientele. If I can stay at another Wyndham property for $5 more I'll do it.
Super 8- This brand has really improved and is the most consistent value brand. Most properties are renovated now, I really like the new furniture and beds. Each room has pictures on the wall of a local site and it adds a nice touch. More likely than Days Inn to have better breakfast. You can still get a dud but this is my most stayed brand.
Baymont- this is my favorite brand, and if I'm not crashing for simply getting off the road, I'll normally splurge if its within $10 more of the Days or Super 8. They always have a great breakfast options, and the beds are the best non luxury I've stayed in. Typically a lot better clientele and amenities.
Thats a lot of info, hope that helps! Let me know if you have questions about Wyndham or their rewards. I can normally have a good Super 8 value night for half the cost of a Hampton or HIExpress, while having the option of a Baymont, Wingate, or Ramada for a little less.
Dollywood is also my home park, also can answer any questions about the Smokies