In a tight economy, a winter ski vacation may seem an extravagance, but penny-pinching skiers can adopt numerous cost-cutting strategies this season and still look forward to their annual holiday on the slopes. A ski vacation isn't cheap, but it also doesn't have to bust the family budget.

The gloomy news this winter is that air fares have jumped substantially over last season, primarily because of the steep rise in fuel prices as a result of the Iraqi crisis. Virtually all skiers flying to distant slopes will be affected. Skiers who choose to drive also will feel the bite in higher prices at the gas pump. Obviously, one way to save money is not to travel any farther than you have to.

If you do head for Europe, the news is even bleaker. The value of the dollar has dropped this year in relation to major European currencies -- by as much as 24 percent since May -- which means the cost of a transatlantic ski holiday has become increasingly more expensive. Already, at least one tour operator, Steve Lohr's Ski Holidays of Jersey City, N.J., has boosted the price of its ski packages to Europe by 3 percent over rates published originally in this season's brochure.

On the bright side, a number of ski areas in this country have taken heed of the state of the economy and have put together moderately priced ski packages, or they are offering good incentives to take a ski holiday during less-expensive off-peak periods early and late in the season. Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico, a major destination, has announced it is not raising lift-ticket prices this year.

At $32, the Taos adult ticket price is 75 cents less than a one-day adult admission to Disney World in Orlando, a fact that has not gone unnoticed in the ski industry. The United Ski Industries Association of McLean, a trade organization, argues that the cost of a skiing vacation compares quite favorably with a Caribbean cruise or a trip to the Disney amusement parks. For the price, very few ski lift lines these days stretch any longer than the midday wait at a Fantasyland ride.

For a more-affordable ski vacation this season, the association's advice is to scale down your expectations. Instead of a posh resort, such as Aspen in Colorado and Deer Valley in Utah, pick a more modest family ski area, such as Grand Targhee in Wyoming. Rather than staying in a luxury hotel at slope-side, make do in a condominium apartment, bed-and-breakfast inn or motel a shuttle bus ride away from the lifts. Lodging rates tend to drop the more distant you are from a resort's base lodge.

And skip the extras. The new 300-room Hyatt Regency at spiffy Beaver Creek in Colorado boasts of its complimentary ski valet service. At day's end, guests hand over their ski equipment to attendants who store it overnight. Meanwhile, your boots are dried on special European machinery. All of this is very nice, but the extras are reflected in the hotel's room prices. From Dec. 22 to March 31, rates for a room for two range from about $350 to $475 a night.

If a budget price is essential, consider the opposite end of the price range in lodgings -- a bunk in a group dorm. They can be found at such large and popular resorts as Aspen, Park City in Utah, Big Sky in Montana and Sunday River in Maine. The venerable Chateau Apres Lodge in Park City charges just $15 a night for a bed in two 26-bunk rooms -- one each for males and females. The lodge restaurant serves a full breakfast for about $3.50 per person, and full-course dinners begin at about $6.50. And the lodge is within easy walking distance of the lifts. (The rate for two people in a private room is $46 a night.)

Eighteen years ago, I took a three-week ski vacation in Aspen, which I could afford only because I stayed in an inexpensive eight-man dorm room. Back then, the drawbacks of a dorm hardly mattered for the chance at skiing Aspen every day for 21 days. One late night one of the guys snuck his girlfriend into his bunk. The rest of us ignored the couple the best we could. But as the woman tried to slip away just before dawn, she lost a contact lens on the floor. In the minute or two she took to find it, we were all wide awake and struggling to stifle giggles.

Among the ways to trim the cost of a ski vacation this season:

Drive to your destination. Instead of flying, four skiers in a car sharing the cost of gas can each save hundreds of dollars on the cost of a ski holiday. Families who opt to drive reap similar savings.

From Washington, northern New England is a manageable day's drive away. Once you get there, you don't have to pay extra for a rental car, and you can choose cheaper lodgings farther from the slopes.

Ski mid-week. Most U.S. ski resorts reduce lift, lesson and equipment rental prices on weekdays. This season, a group of 17 prominent Vermont ski areas is introducing new "Vermont Sunday Take-Off Packages." The packages offer reduced rates designed to appeal to skiers willing to start their vacation on a Sunday afternoon or Monday morning. They are available throughout the season, except over holiday weeks.

Each of the resorts offers a different package, as described in the official Vermont Ski Vacation Guide. At Pico Peak, for example, you get lift tickets for Sunday afternoon through Friday; five nights' lodging in a slope-side condominium; and a five-day membership in Pico Peak's health center. The price is $350 per person (double occupancy), which includes taxes. Children 14 and under can stay free with their parents.

Dedicated skiers might be hesitant to give up the traditional seven-day, Sunday through Saturday, ski vacation. But a shorter ski week further reduces the cost of the trip, and you are not really missing much. Weekends often can be the worst time to ski because of the crowds.

For a copy of the 28-page 1990-91 Vermont Ski Vacation Guide: Vermont Travel Division, Dept. PK, 134 State St., Montpelier, Vt. 05602, 802-828-3236.

If you decide to fly, fly mid-week. For years, skiers bound for a traditional ski week have booked their departure flight for Saturday and flown home the next Saturday or Sunday, making the weekend a peak period for air travel to mountain destinations. As a result, weekend air fares often are more expensive -- if you can find an empty seat. One reason for the weekend crush has been that many resort lodgings required a minimum seven-night stay from Saturday through Friday. Increasingly, however, this policy is being abandoned, and skiers are finding it easier to check in and check out on weekdays.

Advance Reservations of Park City, a tour organizer specializing in 26 Rocky Mountain ski resorts, has put together numerous week-long packages that begin with a Thursday flight to take advantage of lower air fares. Among the destinations is Winter Park in Colorado, which Jolene Sabey, a senior reservationist, cites as an excellent value for family skiers. The resort is one of the state's oldest and largest, but it lacks the classy reputation of Aspen and a ski vacation there tends to be cheaper.

A customized seven-night package for a family of four (one child under 12, one over 12) at Winter Park begins at about $2,900. The rate includes round-trip air fare from Washington, transportation to Winter Park, seven nights' lodging in a one-bedroom condominium with a living room sleeper, lift tickets for four, trip cancellation insurance and taxes.

The condo is located on the Winter Park's free shuttle bus network, so a rented car is not necessary. The only additional expense is lessons and meals, some of which you can prepare in the condo to save money. For information: Advance Reservations: 800-453-4565.

Ski free. It's an option being offered this season to first-time skiers at a number of U.S. resorts, among them Crested Butte in Colorado. The resort has dubbed its program the "Learn to Ski Free Package for Never-Ever Skiers." Participants get free lift tickets, lessons and equipment rentals for the duration of their stay.

The package is a great bargain for couples in a situation where only one skis but the other wants to learn. The drawback is that the program is available only at the outset of the ski season, from Nov. 25 to Dec. 14, when snow conditions might be chancy. You must purchase a lodging package. The rate for a minimum of three nights begins at $90 per person (double occupancy) for a room in a lodge on the shuttle bus route to the lifts.

A beginner who has completed the three-day program can continue to ski and use rental equipment free for the rest of the vacation, and any additional lessons are offered at half price. A skiing companion sharing the room can purchase a lift ticket for $15 a day ($10 off the daily rate), and daily lessons and rentals are half price. For information: Crested Butte, 800-544-8448.

Shop around. Many ski destinations have central reservation offices with toll-free numbers. You can check with favorite resorts for the best lift and lodging package for your budget. You may be able to find last-minute bargains or budget packages not listed in the standard brochures, according to the United Ski Industries Association. Toll-free numbers can be obtained from the 800 Directory, 800-555-1212.

An exception to the free call is the new 900 number established by the Ski Maine Association, representing the state's 12 largest resorts. For 99 cents a minute, you can get current information about lodging rates and packages, and the call subsequently will be transferred to a specific resort for reservations.

Special packages that change from week to week may be offered that are available only to callers, says the association. The line, which goes into operation Nov. 15, is 900-22-MAINE (62463).

Ski the off-peak weeks. Each resort sets its own calendar, but the off-peak weeks beginning before Christmas and from the end of March to closing in April offer the best bargains. At some resorts, January is also considered an off-peak period. At Crested Butte, the daily lift ticket price for adults is $25 from Nov. 22 to Dec. 14 and April 1 to April 7. From Dec. 15 to March 31, the peak-season price is $35 a day.

Skip the giants. The big resorts offer more exciting skiing, but you also pay $35 a day or more for a lift ticket. A number of smaller resorts offer good skiing on substantial acreage at cheaper prices. Among those cited by the United Ski Industries Association: In Utah, Brighton, $20 for a daily lift ticket, and Alta, $21; in Colorado, Berthoud Pass, $17, Ski Cooper, $18, and Monarch, $23; in Idaho, Brundage Mountain, $19; and in Montana, Bridger Bowl, $21.

Pick a package. "With purse strings tightening," reads a press release from Sugarbush, the fashionable Vermont resort, "cost-cutting measures are in vogue." Sugarbush has put together inclusive packages that, it says, are 10 to 15 percent off what you would pay if you purchased lift tickets, lodging and meals separately.

For example, the five-night downhill package, at $93 per person (double) a night, includes lodging in a country inn, breakfast and dinner, daily lift ticket, meal tax and gratuity, resort shuttle service and daily membership in the Sugarbush sports club.

Ski packages are offered by resorts, airlines, tour organizers such as Steve Lohr and Advance Reservations and travel agencies.

Search out special deals. At various times of the season, resorts offer discounts to seniors, college students and others. Parents may want to find special deals on child care arrangements or price breaks on lift tickets for youngsters. Take advantage of any that benefit you.

At Jay Peak in Vermont, child care is free from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily for all children, ages 2 to 7, staying in the resort's Hotel Jay or the Jay Peak Condominiums. A supervised dinner hour is part of the program.

At Steamboat in Colorado, children 12 and under ski free when their parents purchase a five-day lift ticket and stay five days at a participating lodge or hotel. A maximum of two children qualify for a two-parent family; one child for a one-parent family. Free equipment rentals also are offered on a one-for-one basis for each parent who rents.

At Stratton Mountain in Vermont, you get a 20 percent lodging discount at Stratton Mountain Inn and Village Lodge if you rent a car from Hertz during nonholiday periods. The rental also entitles you to a $5 discount on Stratton lift tickets at mid-week and $7 on weekends. Room reservations must be made 14 days in advance, and there is a two-day minimum.

Dine cheaply. The budget-saving tactics you adopt on a summer vacation can be put to use on a ski holiday. Even Aspen has cheap burger cafes and spaghetti houses to cut the cost of meals. The season I slept in an Aspen dorm, I also saved additional money by toting raisins and nuts in my pockets so I wouldn't have to pay high cafeteria prices on the slopes. I preferred a hot meal, but you do what you must to be able to ski.