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In the cruise biz, early January through late February is known as "wave season" because it's traditionally the heaviest booking period of the year. This is a time when cruise lines and agents typically float some of the most attractive promotions. What's different about this year's wave? While we're not seeing the bumper crop of blowout sales that we did last year, cruise lines are still offering attractive ways to reduce your bottom line. The latest special offers are all about value-added incentives for earlybird booking: cabin upgrades, onboard credits, discounted or free excursions, and reduced deposits. Still, if you can be flexible about your travel dates, you may be able to save even more by holding out for a last-minute deal. In the cruise biz, "last minute" means booking less than three months ahead of your sail date. The best way to find out about opportunities as they become available is to visit the websites of several cruise lines and sign up for their e-mail alerts.

Here are some of the earlybird cruise incentives out there right now:

With its Year of the Freestyle Vacation promotion, Norwegian Cruise Line is offering a minimum two-category cabin upgrade on all sailings, and up to a six-category upgrade on select Caribbean sailings in the fall of 2010 (promo code UPGRADE). Need another good reason to book at least nine months ahead? Earlybirds can get up to to $400 in onboard credit (promo code PGOBC). The amount of credit is calculated on a sliding scale, based the length of the cruise and category of stateroom. Choose to sail the Caribbean on the newest ship in the NCL fleet, Epic, and you'll also get a 50% reduction on your deposit. Book online or call NCL at tel. 866/234-5647, or go through a travel agent.

Holland America Line's annual View & Verandah Sale delivers savings of up to 45% on oceanview and balcony staterooms. Also available: half-price deposits and reduced fares for third and fourth guests. Book online or call Holland America at tel. 877/932-4259, or go through a travel agent.

Book a three- to five-night cruise at least three months ahead with Carnival Cruise Line's Early Saver Program, and your per-night price can be as low as $55 per person. Book online or call Carnival at tel. 866/CARNIVAL, or go through a travel agent.

Parents willing to pull their kids out of school for two weeks for cultural enrichment should know that Disney Cruise Line is letting kids sail free (except for taxes) on its 10- and 11-night Mediterranean itineraries this spring. Children 17 and under traveling with full-fare adults can sail for free on sailings from April 24 to May 26, 2009. Book online or call Disney at 800/951-3532, or go through a travel agent. Be sure to mention booking code KFO.

CheapTickets has just announced its cruise blowout, with prices starting at just $42 a night per person. Some of the most family-friendly cruise lines are included in the sale, including Carnival (from $42/night), Royal Caribbean (from $56/night), and Norwegian Cruise Line (from $50/night). Some deals are sweetened further with free onboard credits, category upgrades, or reduced deposits. The sale ends February 4.

You may also want to check out the offerings of a cruise consolidator such as CruisesOnly (www.cruisesonly.com) or Just Cruisin' Plus (www.justcruisinplus.com), which feature a selection of family cruises priced up to 75% below brochure rates, along with some very nice sweeteners thrown in for good measure. A typical example: CruisesOnly is advertising four-night Bahamian cruises with Royal Caribbean at a starting price of $172 per person, with a $50 discount on oceanview staterooms plus a 10% discount on shore excursions.

A word of caution: Always read the fine print. Sometimes government taxes and port charges are not included in a discounted ticket, which can mean that your total bill ends up being heftier than anticipated. Find out exactly what all additional taxes and fees will cost before booking.

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