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updated 2/10/2009 10:09:16 AM ET 2009-02-10T15:09:16

At what time of year can you score the best cruise deals — those that include free upgrades, onboard credit and other perks?

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The time is now. The cruise industry's “wave season,” which takes place between January and March, is when cruise lines showcase their very best offers for the year to come. All offer major sales during this time frame, and if you're a savvy shopper, you can take advantage of these promotions to get a great deal on your next cruise vacation. We'll show you how.

What is ‘wave season’?
Historically, the early months of the year are when a large percentage of cruise travelers book their vacations at sea. The combination of a new year with an empty calendar and, for most of us, chilly winter weather gets travelers thinking about sunny island getaways and the vacations to come. So, bookings take off. To capitalize on this cruise booking state of mind, cruise lines and travel agents offer extra incentives — typically free perks and reduced cruise fares — in the hopes that the promotions will be the final push travelers need to book those cruises.

How do I get the best deal?
Wave Season is not for everyone. If you want a dirt-cheap cruise fare — perhaps one of those less-than-$50-per-night deals that you can brag about to your friends — you may be better off waiting for a last-minute sale. Wave Season deals are for travelers who want value for money, such as an upgrade to a nicer cabin or free onboard credit for some guilt-free indulgence at the spa or onboard boutiques. Fares are generally discounted, but they don't hit rock-bottom at this time.

To get the biggest bang for your buck, follow these three steps:

Figure out the ballpark cost of your cruise
To know if you're getting a deal, you have to know what the average price you'd normally pay is. Do some research on typical fares for the itinerary you have in mind. Remember that a 12-night Mediterranean cruise will have a much higher base price than a five-night Caribbean getaway — you'll want to compare apples to apples. And don't just look at fares. If you're interested in free upgrades, you'll need to know the price differential between an outside and a balcony cabin; if it's onboard credit you're after, plan out how much you might typically spend on spa treatments, excursions, drinks and souvenirs. If you're hoping for free airfare, look up the cost of airfare between your hometown and your homeport.

Evaluate the sales
As you look for sales through the cruise lines or your favorite travel agency, be an active — rather than a passive — deal-hunter. Read the fine print, because sometimes the discount or perk being advertised won't apply to the specific itinerary or cabin category you're interested in. Don't forget to check expiration dates, too; some lines give you only a few weeks to take advantage of their offers, while others give you a couple of months. These steps let you evaluate what this year's promotions are and how good they are. For example, Regent's 2009 free shore excursion promotion is an amazingly good value, while Carnival's free upgrade within cabin categories is much less of a draw.

Another helpful trick
Always compare cruise line promotions with the same sailings sold through an agent. Often, agencies will offer additional incentives above what the cruise lines are offering. For example, Celebrity's 2009 promotion offers up to $200 credit and a reduced deposit. But, if you book a Celebrity cruise through Cruise Club of America, you'll also receive prepaid gratuities. If you don't see any advertised discounts, call and ask. Sometimes agencies are able to offer better perks and prices than they list on their Web sites and in promotional materials.

Compare cost benefits: Now that you've got all the information, compare the offers. Is the free upgrade on one line still more expensive than a regular balcony cabin on another? Would you prefer one agent's onboard credit or another's extra cruise fare discount? Are the deals good enough to make you want to book now, or do you need prices to drop further before you plunk down a deposit? If the numbers work out, congratulations. You've made an informed decision. Now it's time to book that cruise and start dreaming of sightseeing in Europe, sunbathing in the Caribbean or even dog-sledding in Alaska.

And if the Wave Season sales aren't tempting enough, or if you're just not ready to book yet, don't fret. Cruise lines will hold plenty of last-minute, three-day or extra-value sales throughout the year for you to find great deals. But unlike Wave Season, you just won't know when those sales are coming.

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