It used to be that if you were planning a trip, you'd stop off at a bookstore and pick up the appropriate Fielding's, Fodor's or Frommer's guide -- or, if you were a traditionalist, the Baedeker's. You found the names of a couple of hotels, some restaurants and a few museums. It was easy.

Now you might choose from several dozen guides for such well-traveled countries as Britain or France, from 600-page general guides to volumes for particular cities or regions, to books on specific interests, such as wines, hiking, cycling or shopping. Even travelers to less-visited countries can find a surprising variety of books -- witness the advent of such volumes as "Southwest China off the Beaten Track" and "Backpacking and Trekking in Peru and Bolivia."

Then, as befitting the intelligent traveler of the 1990s, you would not stop at buying guidebooks, but would peruse several classic travel books. (Author and literary critic Paul Fussell offered this differentiation between guidebooks and travel books: "The guidebook is to be carried along and to be consulted frequently for practical information. . . . The travel book, on the other hand, is seldom consulted during a trip. Rather, it is read either before or after, and at home, and perhaps most often by a reader who will never take the journey at all.") These might include D. H. Lawrence's "From Sea and Sardinia," say, if you were planning an Italy trip, or Paul Theroux's "The Old Patagonian Express" if headed for South America.

You also would pick up the latest copy of Granta, the literary quarterly that has featured pieces by such contemporary travel-writing demigods as Jonathan Raban and the late Bruce Chatwin. And then, maybe then, after many hours of sorting through guidebooks and devouring every printed word available, you would be ready for a spontaneous and unrehearsed two weeks of vacation.

Maybe it's because members of an information-obsessed society quite naturally switch this predilection for detail to vacation time, perhaps it's because travelers have become more selective and demanding as mass travel has become cheaper and more areas that were inaccessible or difficult to reach have been opened up. (Witness Americans' interest in trips to Vietnam so soon after a bloody, protracted war there.) But as one who annually receives hundreds of books about travel, I am still astonished at the growing number and variety of volumes available -- there's even "Going Places: the Guide to Travel Guides," the massive (772-page) book put out by Harvard Common Press.

Martin Rapp, a director of the Traveller's Bookstore in New York, recalls that when Traveller's opened in 1981, it held about 1,000 books. Now it offers more than 3,000 guidebooks, travel books and even works of fiction with travel as a theme.

"I think the interest in travel books really started about five yearago," Mr. Rapp says. "First, travelers began to have more money. And then the young people who were in college and used the Lonely Planet guide to Southeast Asia ['South-East Asia on a Shoestring'] had gone much further afield. Travel to exotic places was the norm.

"Also the adults -- people who had been to Europe in the '50s and had done the 'If this is Tuesday this must be Belgium' trips -- wanted to explore the countries more. If they were going to France, they would go not just to Paris but to the Dordogne or Normandy."

Mr. Rapp says the Lonely Planet guidebook series, begun in th early '70s for the budget-conscious and socially conscious traveler, not only piqued interest in exotic destinations but helped bring about changes in guidebooks' contents, especially readability, down-to-earth advice and cultural awareness.

Recently, needing to research a minor detail in a story on Mexico, I went to the bookshelf and was struck by the options: "Mexico 1990" (Bantam Travel); "Mexico: Places and Pleasures," by Kate Simon (Perennial Library); "The People's Guide to Mexico," by Carl Franz (John Muir Publications); "Mexico: a Travel Survival Kit" (Lonely Planet); "The PenguinGuide to Mexico" (Penguin); "Birnbaum's Mexico 1990" (Houghton Mifflin); "Hidden Mexico: Adventurer's Guide to the Beaches and Coasts" (Ulysses Press); and "Fielding's Mexico 1990" (Morrow).

While veteran travelers can recall the stuffiness and turgid prose of guidebooks only a few decades ago, these were almost uniformly well-researched and well-written. I detected little of the condescension that marked old guidebooks, and discovered much historical and social context.

Few details were overlooked, and the irreverence was delicious. "Mexico: a Travel Survival Kit," advised: "If you want luxurious, high-priced hotels, sanitary -- some would say sterile -- environs, and scads of gringos blowing their two-week-a-year vacation wads, Cancun is the place." "The People's Guide," a breezy, personal book, even offered a little section on "Desserts, Junkfood and Candy" and a whole chapter called "Booze and Cantinas."

"Older guidebooks offered primarily practical information," Mr. Rapp says. Now you need to provide specialized books -- to specific areas, to specific needs, such as shopping, driving, history, wine."

AThis emphasis on providing new reporting, historical and cultural backgrounds, and readable texts in guidebooks puts pressure on publishers in an increasingly competitive field. This is how publicist Jan Butchofsky describes the award-winning "Hidden" series ofguidebooks: "Our books are directed toward a more adventurous reader and traveler, who wants to be aware of scenic highlights and properties, but in addition wants to know more about the location through which they are traveling -- the historic aspect -- and be kind of an eco-traveler." (And you thought you were just going for a week in the country.)

With so many guidebooks purporting to be the "real" or "inside" expert, Ms. Butchofsky says, "This is where our writers really are investigators -- we're constantly seeking out new areas of discovery. That's a full-time job. Nothing goes in print that hasn't been personally inspected."

Should this search for the ultimate travel experience be too exhausting, there are always the travel books. Through such new paperback lines as Atlantic Monthly's Traveler series and the Vintage Departures series, classic travel writing has been made abundantly available. Many of these books were published in the last 20 years but were forgotten or were out of print; for example, Colin Thubron's "The Hills of Adonis," amagnificent account of a trip to Lebanon in the mid-1960s, was just published by Atlantic Monthly. Earlier this year, Atlantic Monthly reprinted "Journey to the Alcarria: Travels Through the Spanish Countryside," by Camilo Jose Cela, the 1989 Nobel Prize winner.

Such contemporary writers as Chatwin and Mr. Theroux, along with such veterans as Eric Newby and Redmond O'Hanlon, helped bring about a renaissance in travel writing in the past few decades. Now it is not uncommon for a book such as Joe Kane's "Running the Amazon" to make the best-seller list, as it did last year.

In fact, Chatwin and Mr. Theroux have shown that travel books can be among the freshest and sharpest of non-fiction. For one thing, travel books demand that the writer be something of a curmudgeon, not easily impressed and preferably at least a little surly, in the grand tradition of such venomists as Evelyn Waugh. Mr. Fussell writes in "Abroad," his classic study of English literary traveling, that "the Terrible Place is a staple in between-the-wars British travel writing because it offers an opportunity for the traveler to luxuriate in a precious image of its antithesis, which is always Continental in its fixtures and usually French or at least Mediterranean, and thus part of the I Hate It Here response to England and to modern industrialism."

Such vivid writing almost makes readers want to cancel plane and hotel reservations and spend the time off reading travel books. But good travel writing also makes one want to take off as well, if not to replicate a trip written about then to discover the essence of travel: "the thrill of quasi-felonious escape," as Mr. Fussell so aptly puts it. And who would not want to experience the joy and wonder described by Lawrence in "Sea and Sardinia":

"This Sunday morning, seeing the frost among the tangled, still savage bushes of Sardinia, my soul thrilled again. This was not all known. This was not all worked out. Life was not only a process of rediscovering backwards. It is that also; and it is that intensely. Italy has given me back I know not what of myself, but a very, very great deal."

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