If you’re planning to travel soon, there’s a good chance you’ll do it by car. At least that’s the recommendation we’re hearing from many travel experts. If you have to travel a long distance you may want to consider a rental car. It’s a way to avoid putting so much wear and tear on your car, and you can even test drive a new model or get an upgrade to your current ride. If you’re going to rent a car, you can save money on the venture by checking out a few of these car rental hacks.

Book earlier, not later

You’re likely to get a better rate if you can book your rental car a month or two early. There’s plenty of inventory available at that time and you’re likely to get the car you want. But if you wait until the last minute thinking there will be cars to choose from, you’ve got another think coming. (Also, yes, it’s “another think coming.”)

You can always cancel your reservation without penalty if you don’t pre-pay for your car. And not pre-paying will also let you negotiate for a better price if you find one.

Rebook a better price after you make your reservation

One of our favorite car rental hacks is to negotiate with the car rental provider AFTER you booked it.After you’ve booked your rental car, go back and check the price every so often. If it’s dropped at all, request a price change. Depending on the rental company, you may be able to do that online although you may also have to call the car company’s 800 number.

This helps make the argument for booking the car on the company’s website, not a third-party website. The company may not want to give you a lower price if you booked through a third-party site. But if you do want to book on a third-party site. . .

Bundle up out there!

The best reason to book through third-party sites are for things like travel bundles. Sites like Expedia and Priceline offer combo packages where travelers can book rental cars, hotel rooms, and/or flights at discounted prices. That is, you can book a hotel and rental car for a cheaper price together than if you booked them separately. The same is true for plane + hotel, plane + car, or even plane + car + hotel.

Join the loyalty club, get free upgrades

Membership has its privileges, and that goes for rental car companies too. This is one of those car rental hacks that’s always working for you: You get better pricing, a better selection of cars, and if they’re available, you might even get bumped up a level or two. Now, that doesn’t mean you’ll go from a sub-compact to a luxury car, but you might get bumped from an intermedia to a full-size or a full-size to a luxury. (A friend once got bumped from a Ford Taurus to a Jaguar in Boston.) And in some cases, you can even skip the line and go straight to the lot to pick up your car.

But this won’t happen if you’re not a loyalty club member. That’s true of many of these car rental hacks: You should join the car rental’s rewards program, even if this is your only vacation this year. The benefits of membership are worth the two minutes it takes to sign up.

The ultimate in car rental hacks: Drive for free

Did you know that there is a need for people to drive rental cars from one location to another location? Companies like Transfer Car are looking for drivers to take cars from one place to another on behalf of rental car companies at no cost to the driver. Let’s say a car rental company needs a full-size car to be transferred from Boston to Orlando by December 21st. If you’re in Boston and are looking for a cheap way to get to Orlando, this could be an option for you.

As long as you’re a registered driver over the age of 18, you can get a rental car to get you from point A to point B. You can either see if there’s a car available for a date you want, a city you want, or some combination thereof. The trip ends up being free, although you may need a way to get back. Still, if you can cut one leg off a plane ticket, or only have to pay for a rental car for a couple days, this is a good option for you.

Never prepay for the gas fill-up

Car rental companies are happy to sell you the pre-paid fill-up to save you time and the headache of trying to find a gas station. But that can cost several dollars per gallon, especially if you’re driving an SUV and you bring the thing back nearly empty. You can save as much as $150 just by scouting around and filling up on your way back to drop off.

Do a Google Maps search before you leave on your trip, locate the nearest gas station, and then check the hours on the Google My Business listing to make sure they’ll be open when you’re planning your return. Filling up the tank may take another 15 – 30 minutes, but you’ll save yourself from taking a hit in your travel budget.

What are some of your favorite car rental hacks? How do you save money or get free upgrades? Share your thoughts with us on our Facebook page, or on our Twitter stream. You can also find us on our Instagram page at @TravelproIntl.

Photo credit: Atomic Taco (Flickr, Creative Commons)