Carl Clark, a telephone company engineer, wanted to take a cruise with his wife, Earnie, but didn't want to pay for it with an arm and leg. Last summer he booked a Caribbean cruise with a discount specialist and saved $600.

Clark paid $1,300 per person for sea and air costs and enjoyed superior food and entertainment aboard one of the largest of the ocean liners. The Memphis resident liked it so much he has booked exactly the same cruise this summer and got it for $50 less than before.Unfortunately, the pickings won't be so good for travelers in general this spring. Prices for airfare, hotels and restaurants are all predicted to creep higher and rental car price hikes may exceed reasonable limits.

The bargains will go to smart shoppers who travel at off-peak hours, book with discounters or take advantage of greater variety in hotel accommodations.

Air fare prices are likely to rise 5 percent over last year, said Bob Vinatieri, travel cost expert for Runzheimer International, a management consulting firm that specializes in travel costs. The strike at Eastern Airlines could produce an additional short-term hike. And it could make discount flights to Florida (a big route for Eastern) harder to find than a chicken's chin.

Rising real estate values are predicted to add 4 percent to hotel bills, and last year's drought may boost restaurant prices 5 percent.

Vinatieri expects rental cars prices, which jumped 9 percent last year, to accelerate another 8 percent because of tax law changes, the declining value of used cars and tougher state laws on charges permitted for collision damage waivers.

But all is not bleak.

"The two-week family station-wagon vacation is dying," said Vinatieri, who notes that two-career families are increasingly opting for shorter three- and four-day weekend getaways. That meshes well with the travel industry, which is pushing to separate the business and leisure traveler.

The best air fare discounts will be for travelers who avoid peak business travel hours and stay at their destination through a Saturday night. Convention hotels are offering more leisure travel discounts through the use of computers, which keep closer track of room availability on weekends. Lots of car rental agencies give weekend travel discounts and also chop rates for reservations made a week or more in advance.

Hotel chains such as Holiday Inns, Inc. Marriott Hotels, Inc. and Ramada, Inc., are building a variety of properties that include suites, deluxe hotels, resorts and courtyard inns. If you don't need convention rooms and a big lobby, you can get a lower price at a courtyard inn. Quality Inns, Inc. and La Quinta Motor Inns, Inc., are rapidly adding budget highway inns with rooms for $30 or less.

An ocean rippling with cruise ships continues to make the Caribbean a bargain, and there are new cruise discounts that allow children 18 and under to travel with their parents for $300 or less for both cruise and air fare.

Other bargains are available for those who know where to look.

Consider an airfare consolidator - a broker who sells airline tickets at reduced prices directly to travelers. Consolidators also act as wholesalers selling large numbers of seats through travel agents. Air carriers make deals with consolidators when they believe they can't sell any more tickets at regular prices.

The disadvantages are that a traveler often can't book sooner than 30 days in advance, and he may have to leave on a Tuesday. If the flight is cancelled, he usually can't switch to another airline. And he may not know the name of the airline until he buys his ticket since airlines don't want to anger passengers who bought at higher fares.