As thoughts of warmer locales and summer travels begin to swirl in your head, now is the time to start thinking about where to stay and how to get the best deal on your accommodations, the line item which often eats up the biggest chunk of your vacation budget. Staying in a rental home can be a smart way to save money, particularly when traveling as a family or with a group. But there is a strategy to ensuring you score a great deal. Here are five ways to keep more cash in your wallet when you're ready to book your stay.

See: 10 Questions to Ask Before Booking a Vacation Rental

When shopping around for a vacation rental, you may see one price listed as the nightly or weekly rate, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you need to pay that price. If you see a property that interests you, reach out to the owner or property manager to express your interest and ask for a lower rate. Or, reach out and suggest a rate you are willing to pay. This strategy is particularly useful if you're looking for a last-minute rental, you plan to stay more than one week or you want to stay during the off-season.

But if you choose to negotiate, be prepared to walk away or ultimately accept the rental price on the listing; some owners and property managers may not be willing to budge on the price if your dates coincide with a major event or holiday like Mardi Gras or spring break. Remember: Another renter willing to pay the full rate is just an email inquiry away. 

There's no question that vacation rentals in the city center and close to popular attractions like museums and theme parks will have higher nightly and weekly rates. Many may even have minimum stay requirements. But if you look outside of town, a few neighborhoods or cities away from the primary tourist areas, you may be able to score more affordable rental homes and condos.

While opting for a rental outside of town may limit your ability to walk from place to place or take public transportation around town, you may enjoy the quiet and serenity of a home outside city limits. 

See: Ways to Avoid Apartment Rental Scams

If you've already decided where you want to go for summer vacation or an early fall getaway, start looking and be prepared to book now for the best prices and selection of rentals. You may even find that you are able to negotiate on price, particularly with owners or property managers who would rather book you now at a reduced rate than scramble down the line to ensure the home does not sit empty that week.

If you choose to book early, look closely at the rental agreement so you're clear on the cancellation policy. Months down the road, should you choose to cancel your booking — maybe your plans change or you find an even better place to stay — you'll want to be able to easily exit the arrangement without paying a penalty. 

If you're flexible with your vacation dates or traveling during the off-season, you can find plenty of deals when you book late. You'll find more owners willing to negotiate on rates, as well as properties on vacation rental sites like HomeAway and FlipKey listed with discounted deals. Some sites, such as VRBO, even allow you to filter rentals by those offering special rates.

But in exchange for the potential savings, you'll need to be flexible in terms of location, views, amenities and property types (e.g., condo, cabin, single-family home). For example, if you're set on staying in a Victorian-style home in the heart of a historic district, plan on booking early rather than booking late.

It can be time consuming to hunt down the perfect vacation rental, so consider using a site that aggregates all of the rentals posted across the Web. Try Tripping.com to see listings from multiple vacation rental sites all in one place. When you're ready to see more details about a particular property or even book your stay, you can click through to the listing on the origin website.

For an even broader search, use AllTheRooms.com, which collects all of the available rooms posted across the Web, from hotels to hostels to vacation rentals, and lists them on one page for easy side-by-side comparison. This is a good option for those who aren't set on staying in a rental and would also be open to alternative accommodations if something better or more interesting pops up in the search results.

See: Do's and Don'ts for Booking Spring Break

About the author: Erin Gifford is a Washington, D.C.-based travel writer and founder of Kidventurous, an award-winning family travel resource. You can follow her on Twitter at @Kidventurous, connect with her on Facebook or get the latest tips and tricks for traveling families at http://www.kidventurous.com

Erin Gifford writes about family travel and travel trends for U.S. News & World Report. Her articles have also appeared on TravelChannel.com, TravelAge West, FoxNews.com, Fodors.com and ShermansTravel. A mother of four, she publishes Kidventurous, an award-winning family travel resource. She was previously a Smart Family Travel expert for Scholastic Parent & Child magazine, dispensing tips and advice to families interested in memorable vacation experiences, as well as a member of Merck's Active Family Project Play Council. Follow her on Twitter at @Kidventurous.

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