During peak summer and winter holiday seasons, Disney's least expensive inside staterooms can cost more than $1,000 a night for a family of four. But at other times, even desirable cabins with verandahs can be booked for less than half that amount.The $6,000 fare our family recently paid for a seven-night Caribbean cruise in late August did not feel like a steal. But the same itinerary cost twice as much for a Dec. 19 sailing.

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Actually, fares for the holiday cruise range from $9,700 for an inside stateroom to $31,000 for a one-bedroom concierge suite. To get a good deal on Disney Cruise Line, it helps to understand the Walt Disney Co unit's unique position in the marketplace that keeps prices high, says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of Cruise Critic (cruisecritic.com/), a review and travel information site.

Disney compared to other cruise lines
Disney is a much smaller player than market-dominating cruise companies such as Carnival Corp or Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd and has added capacity slowly to avoid the fire sales other lines use to move unsold cabins, Brown says.

"Disney is very conservative, very careful," Brown says. That means the usual bargain-hunting strategy of booking at the last minute often will not work. In fact, fares typically rise over time as the ships fill, said Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix, CEO of vacation resource site MousePlanet (mouseplanet.com) and a veteran of 20 Disney cruises.

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Rather than discounting fares for poorly selling cruises, Disney tends to offer "kids sail free" promotions or other add-ons, she says. Savvy buyers are already snapping up the least expensive and most desirable cabins for next summer, Brown says. For high-season travel, "you need to plan at least a year in advance."

The best time to take a Disney cruise
Instead, bargain hunters should consider traveling during the school year, when most families cannot. They should also seek out longer trips, especially cruises across the Atlantic or through the Panama Canal which the company uses to reposition its ships. For example, a 14-night transatlantic cruise that sails May 15 from Port Canaveral, Florida currently can be booked for as little as $1,890 per person, or $270 a night for a couple.

Note that it is now industry standard to add gratuities directly to the bill, and Disney charges $12 per person per day to cover room stewards (called hosts and hostesses) and dining room servers. That added up to $336 for our party of four.

Vincent-Phoenix also suggested looking for cruises out of less popular ports such as Galveston, Texas or Miami.

Extras and add-ons
While Disney ships do not have casinos, they do have spas with costly treatments, and therapists who push expensive products. Disney-sponsored excursions, souvenirs and professional photography packages can inflate the bill, as can the aforementioned adults-only restaurants, which charge additional amounts ranging from $35 to $85 per person.

In some cases, the add-ons are worth it. We had amazing meals at the restaurants on our ship, and the week-long pass to the spa felt like a good investment at about $100 each.

On the other hand, we found most of the excursions overpriced. We booked a good all-day snorkel trip at St. Martin via TripAdvisor.com for much less than Disney charged. At Castaway Cay, Disney's private island in the Bahamas, excursions are quite unnecessary. There is plenty to do for free.