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.

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, Va., 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 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.