Ski school lessons are an essential part of skiing safely and improving your technique, whether you're a beginning skier just learning how to stay vertical on skis or a seasoned skier interested in learning how to navigate bumps and powder.

Ski school lessons are offered at nearly every ski area across North America. They differ dramatically in price and quality from one resort to another. So, what should you look for when signing up for ski school lessons?

Ski school lessons are typically sold as either group or private lessons. Some resorts offer special interest clinics that may combine aspects of both. Group lessons typically accommodate six to nine students per class, are less expensive than private lessons, and are a great way for "never-evers," beginning, and intermediate skiers to learn the basics of skiing at affordable prices.

Group rates, depending on where you take lessons, range in price from as little as $30 for a 90-minute lesson at Mt. Baldy in Southern California to $95 for a three-hour adult lesson at Mt. Snow in Vermont. Mt. Snow, for example, makes it economical by offering the "Complete Experience" package including up to seven hours of instruction for $210. It can be redeemed in either consecutive or non-consecutive days, as long as you use them in the same year.

The flexibility of programs like this - many resorts have similar offerings -- allows you to take lessons over several ski trips, giving you plenty of time to ski with your friends.

Colorado's Breckenridge , as another example, features a "First-timer Discovery" package offering three full days of lessons, equipment rentals, and lift tickets for $272.

Always check with the ski school at the resort you are visiting for special deals before purchasing lift tickets, rentals, or ski school tickets. There are lots of packages available.

Private ski school lessons are generally more expensive than group lessons and offer all levels of skiers more personalized attention to their skiing. They allow you to improve at your own rate of learning instead of waiting for the other members of the group.

Private lessons are very popular with intermediate to expert skiers who want to break through learning barriers or want to be guaranteed a unique skiing experience, such as how to master moguls, powder or skiing through trees.

There's an added advantage: You can cut lift lines while skiing with an instructor, so you often get two to three times more skiing in a day. Private lessons range in price and lesson length from $50 for a one-hour lesson at Alpine Valley Resort in Wisconsin to $130 for a comparable lesson at Park City Mountain Resort, Utah. All day private lessons can run over $700 at destination resorts like Deer Valley Resort, Utah or Vail Mountain in Colorado.

On the surface, private lessons may appear to be cost-prohibitive and a luxury reserved for the rich and famous. However, most resorts allow private lesson students to bring along up to five of their friends. If you divide the total cost of the private lesson by the total number of students, you'll find that you end up with a better experience for the same price as a group lesson.

So, should you start with a less expensive group class or spend the extra money for a private lesson? It depends on you. Most beginning skiers do quite well in group lessons. You may enjoy the camaraderie of skiing with other students from all over the world if you're skiing at a large destination resort by yourself.

But, private lessons may be the way to go if you find that you're constantly held back by slower learners and you're not learning enough at the group's pace. Try both. Either way, you'll enjoy becoming a safer, better skier or snowboarder and get more out of your vacation dollar.