So you're planning to hit the slopes over Christmas vacation?

Let's be honest first of all.

Christmas vacation week is always busy at resorts across North America. It's the busiest week of the year at most places.

Add in pressure to have fun, worry over early season snow conditions, and need to plunk the money down early and at a time when lots of other demands are being made on the family treasury.

The trip that sounded like fun in July can start to seem fraught with peril by September.

Vacationers can reduce anxiety, find what savings exist, and match expectations with reality by planning ahead.

First figure out who is going. The more people involved, the more complex the planning, but also the more important. Something should be found to suit every taste. The grownups are probably going to appreciate fine dining more than the kids, while the kids likely will be more adept at launching off terrain park features.

Make a list of possible destinations, and match them with interests.

Ski school? Day care? SkiWEE? Fine dining? Pizza joints? Video game arcades? Sleigh rides? Santa and his elves?Torchlight parades?

Once the destination is chosen, figure out what kind of lodging works for the group.

What's on the radar? A five-bedroom, slopeside condo? Hop right on that one, because the big units go first, in descending order of size, until the choice is between a one-bedroom condo and a studio.

The best spots start to go over the summer, and by fall the choice has become limited, and what bargains were to be found early on are long gone. Some resorts bring back bargain pricing to fill vacancies at the last minute, but don't count on it as the basis for your vacation planning.

This also is the point when the realities of the family budget may be sinking in. Be flexible, and remember that quality time with family or loved ones may be better than quantity. The week-long vacation that sounded enticing in July may be giving way to a four-day stay.

Is the choice a drive-to resort, or fly-to destination? Driving costs less, requires a little less lead time, and can mean more money for lodging, meals, and accessories.

Plan to rent gear? Reserve this ahead of time, because even if a visit to a resort's ski rental operation makes the supply of skis seem endless, the top picks go fast.

Plan on putting the kids in ski school or SkiWEE?

Make reservations as far in advance as possible for two reasons  - price and choice. Think about which areas are appealing, in terms of what they offer, where they are, and what the trip will cost. Does a resort have something for everyone in the family? Is it a drive-to resort, or does it involve airplanes? Will the total cost of travel, lodging, food, skiing and equipment rental fit within the family budget?

Slopeside lodging is most desirable and fills fast. So does discounted lodging, and lodging with meals or lift tickets attached.

Plan on renting gear? Make reservations ahead of time.

Plan on putting the kids in ski school, SkiWee, or similar operation? Same advice, since spots during Christmas vacation week is one of the most expensive times to go skiing, but the weeks just before and after can sometimes offer some of the best bargains.

Need to choose between those two options? Go for the first week in January, since more terrain is likely to be open, conditions are likely to be better, and the crowds will have thinned.

Here are some strategies for skiing and riding during the holiday week.

Hit the slopes early, be in line when the lifts open, and ski through lunch without a break except perhaps for cocoa. You will probably beat most of the other skiers and riders onto the slopes. Then move around the mountain, heading uphill and away from the main base lodges, where most others will be arriving.

End your day on the snow early so you can enjoy the après ski activities ahead of the curve, for massages, dining, the pool, fitness center, sauna, or other fun activities.

You'll have missed much of the crowds throughout your day, and will sample all the resort of your choice has to offer.

Will you need babysitters? Best bet is, of course, to bring your own. Ask around at your lodge, condo, or at a courtesy desk in the base lodge. Ski area employees are always anxious to make a few extra dollars and many have plenty of babysitting experience. But, the demand will be high, so don't tarry.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all.