ON THE TRAIL of the perfect guidebook: The goal is as illusive as the perfect in-flight meal. For that matter, the travel guide ranks about as high in literature as that microwaved hunk of beef served at 35,000 feet does in the world of fine dining.

Nevertheless, airline passengers sometimes have to eat, and travelers usually are better off not stumbling about a foreign place unawares, so we make do with what we get. But unlike the passengers, who at best have only two or three choices at dinner, travel-guide buyers are confronted with a bewildering array of books seeking to help them get the most out of a sightseeing vacation.

Despite the diversity, travel guides (as separate from travel books--personal accounts such as Jonathan Raban's journey down the Mississippi in a motorboat in Old Glory) seem prone to sharing the same bad habits. While travel books generally make better reading, travel guides--many of which appear annually--usually can be counted on to be more timely. And there seems to be a guide for practically everywhere.

As for the bad habits, one popular guide goes into boggling detail about the plush hotels waiting to snap up your $100 a day: The cocktail lounge of a recommended hotel, it points out, is decorated in natural wood, as if travel decisions are based on this kind of information. Another prestigious guide, trying to answer every conceivable question, makes sure the readers know the address of the Paris bus system headquarters, on the one- in-a-zillion chance they will someday need it.

Too many guides underrate the sophistication of the American traveler, unnecessarily devoting valuable pages to such preliminaries as how to pack. (The best advice can be said simply: Take as little as possible.) Often they are list-happy, noting, for example, the airlines that fly to the destination. (This kind of information is available, more up to date and free from a travel agent.) Or they are full of precautionary advice, like a worried Mommy and Daddy sending a kindergartener off to school alone for the first time. "Hey," you begin to think, "if this place is going to be such a hassle, maybe I shouldn't go."

A good guidebook (for a trip abroad, in this case) is one that introduces travelers to the life of the country they are going to visit, provides some historical perspective (especially for non-European nations, where most of us are somewhat hazy); points out a limited number of cultural, historical and scenic landmarks not to be missed (most of us won't be able to see everything, after all); and offers specific information on real problem areas (water impurity, health hazards, political unrest).

The most important thing I'm looking for, however, is how I, as an outsider, can experience--within reason-- something of how the people live their lives--which is what has lured me from home in the first place. I want something more than the view from the window of an air-conditioned tour bus. This means advice that urges me to visit an Indian marketplace in the Andes, travel by train through the villages of India, take a day hike on a quick trip through the Swiss Alps or simply enjoy an hour at a sidewalk caf,e in Paris.

Along the way, the guidebook should suggest a few hotels and restaurants that the author has found particularly intriguing--preferably in a wide price range. The more personal the better. Most sightseers don't spend much time in their hotels, and there are only so many dinners one can eat on two weeks in Europe, so that list doesn't have to be exhaustive.

Not least of all, the guidebook should be written with a zest that makes it a pleasure, not a chore, to read. You want the author to make your heart sing at the thought of the pleasures ahead. In the same series, each title is often written by a different author--or a committee of authors--so the quality of styles varies.

Some travelers question the need for a guide, arguing that tourists end up with their noses in a book and miss all the excitement that is going on around them. Or they exhaust themselves trying to visit all of the musts, and feel terribly guilty when they give up and head for a bar. But without some sort of guide, you might walk right past the birthplace of a favorite author or composer, not spotting the small plaque that says it's open to visitors every afternoon.

Beyond this, guides can be valuable planning tools, helping you choose where you want to go and how long you want to spend. Most of us have an idea of what we want to see in Western Europe, but how do you tackle Australia? In the more useful guides, the author makes strong recommendations of his or her choice of favorite places and describes why they appeal. After reading them and jotting a few notes, you can leave them at home, saving weight in your luggage. Others, with maps and detailed descriptions of sights, should be carried along for quick reference.

With all of this in mind, I sampled the latest selection of guidebooks on the market. To keep things within bounds, I limited the survey only to books that are a part of a series. I took only one book from each series (in each case, the publisher's volume on France or Paris) to be representative of how the series goes about its task of informing.

Why France/Paris? Because it's one of the most popular destinations abroad for Americans, and almost every series has a guide to it; because I've traveled the country north to south; and because travel bookstores say guides to France are their best sellers now that the dollar has become stronger there and France is a much better bargain than it has been in recent years.

In all, I found 15 books on France that fit roughly into the guidelines for the survey. A few are part of series that cover the world countryyby country, with a separate book for France. In other series, one book takes in a whole continent, and so I have looked at the section on France, which may run 100 pages or more. A couple are brand-new guides, with France as one of the inaugural offerings of what is planned as a larger series.

Some are quite general, trying to satisfy everybody from the first-timer abroad to the retired doctor and his wife from Columbus on their third Grand Tour. As a result, they are only of limited value to anybody. Others are specialized, aimed at the student traveler on a tight budget or the gourmand on the trail of Europe's finest restaurants. They can be very helpful.

Of the lot, one stood out as remarkably good. It is Seeing the Real Paris, by Ursula von Kardorff and Helga Sittl (Barron's, 314 pp.; paperback, $7.95), part of a new, fleshed-out series of city guides published by the people who have been putting out the very brief "In Your Pocket" references to American and European cities. Initially published in German, the English translation gets off to a rousing start with a vivid description of the Paris street scene:

"We are sitting, happily drinking wine, at Louisette's, the bistro of the Marche aux Puces, the flea market by the Porte de Clignancourt. Ahead of us a band of two accordions and a percussion instrument powerfully strikes up a hearty tune. All around us are the people of Paris-- picturesque, jovial, good-tempered, witty."

In a few words, the authors have described just the scene I want to put myself into. How much more inviting to read this book than most of the others that begin with, as one puts it, "The Hard Facts." In Seeing the Real Paris, the hard facts are summed up neatly in a "Key to the City" that, rightly so, concludes the book in an appendix.

From their initial glimpse of the Parisians, the authors offer an easy, first-day's tour of Paris "to set you in the right mood." It is an itinerary that includes a stroll through a flower market, a visit to Notre Dame Cathedral (you are in luck if the organist is on duty), a boat excursion on the Seine, a view of the city from the Eiffel Tower, a relaxing apertif at Place Saint-Michel, an early dinner at a romantic caf,e the authors have enjoyed, and--to end the day--a nighttime taxi ride to see the city lights followed by champagne at an outdoor terrace near the Arc de Triomphe.

What a day to remember--a mixture of the best of Paris that few first-time visitors would be able to orchestrate on their own--at least until they had spent more time in the city. In clear, lively prose, the authors lead us on a merry tour of Paris, nicely weaving in more- than-adequate historical and cultural background, and always careful that we have time to sample its everyday (and nighttime) pleasures.

One more example of their practical approach: Paris has 60 museums, and it would take two months to see them all. Save the museums--the Louvre and a couple more they recommend--for a rainy day, they urge, and make numerous short visits instead of one grueling marathon. In the key, they have listed the rest of the museums for travelers who revel in art treasures. (A real glutton for gothic churches would be better off buying a specific book on that subject rather than relying on a general guide.)

A book that attempts the same thing for the whole of France, and is moderately successful at it, is Fisher's France 1983, by Georgia I. Hesse (Fisher, 312 pp.; paperback, $11.95) This is one of a new series, Fisher Annotated Travel Guides, edited by Robert C. Fisher, previously editor in chief of Fodor travel books. It is aimed at the frequent traveler with an above-average income.

The book is highly subjective, which is great, awarding one to five stars to selected attractions, restaurants and hotels. In this case, I think, the longer list of places to eat and stay is justified for people who have been to Paris or France before and are looking for new places. Itineraries are described (with care taken to point out caf,es en route), and the hard facts are kept to a minimum. But the style of writing in this volume, an over- enthusiastic gush, is wearing.

Frommer's Dollarwise Guide to France, 1983- 84, by Darwin Porter (Frommer, 500 pp.; paperback, $7.95), also offers a lively look at French life styles, with excellent advice on experiencing the most from a trip there. Publisher Arthur Frommer, whose first book, Europe on $5 a Day, flooded the continent with America's jeans and backpack generation in the '60s and '70s, puts out several series. Europe on, which inflation has made $20 a day, is part of a series for budget travelers. The "Dollarwise" guides, looking at specific countries, list food and lodging places from budget to deluxe.

Like Frommer's budget books, Dollarwise Guide to France is particularly good for travelers who are going to wander through France by train or rented car without advance reservations, since the emphasis is on accommodations. When you arrive in a new town, you have a wide selection of places, very well described, from which to choose. This is a book less useful as a planning guide than as the handy reference to carry along. (Of all the France guides, I'd read Seeing the Real Paris before I went and pack the Frommer.)

Among the a-continent-between-two-covers guides, Myra Waldo's Travel Guide to Southern Europe, 1983-84 (Collier, 755 pp.; paperback, $9.95) is especially informative and readable, with a snappy pace and a good deal of wit, though there is a tendency to be a bit motherly, too. But who will doubt her forthright advice: "French banks are calculated to drive Americans crazy . . . so unless absolutely necessary avoid them." She lists the must-see sights in Paris, and outlines trips within the city and throughout the country. If you are trying to decide which European countries you should visit on a whirlwind vacation, this will be helpful.

In the pocket-guide category (wallet-size, easy to carry), American Express has come out with a new series to eight popular destinations in the United States and Europe. The American Express Pocket Guide to the South of France (Simon and Schuom tster, 256 pp., $7.95) is remarkably comprehensive despite its compact size, with good color maps and, better yet, several interesting car tours. The prose is lively, the author is liberal with his opinions and there are even capsule biographies of famous people associated with the region from B to V (Brigitte Bardot, Vincent Van Gogh).

Other guides in the survey offer valuable assistance, but their appeal is more limited. Here is a capsule look at the rest:

The Michelin Green Guide to Paris (Michelin, 178 pp.; paperback, $3.95): Excellent maps and descriptions of almost any site of historical or cultural interest, including 13 pages on the Louvre alone. But for most of us, it's probably too much unless we can linger in Paris for weeks. More than a few tourists have overdosed on cathedrals and castles. The Michelin Red Guide to Paris and Environs (Michelin, 65 pp.; paperback, $3.95) rates hotels and restaurants, but with little descriptive information.

The Blue Guide to Paris and Environs (Norton, 288 pp.; paperback, $14.95): Very detailed guide to historical and cultural landmarks in rather dry prose. For the history scholar, the art lover, the architect and archeologist. (In this scholarly category, there is another rather expensive hardback series, Nagel's Encyclopedia- Guide, but the book on France won't be published until September.)

Let's Go: The Budget Guide to France, 1983 (Harvard Student Agencies, 465 pp.; $7.95): For the student or recent graduate on a spartan budget. Best for practical information such as cheap lodging in youth hostels and university dorms, but the touring information is tedious going.

The Best of France by Henri Gault and Christian Millau (Crown, 624 pp.; paperback, $13.95): Just out in English by two of France's most famous critics of fine food and lodging. They rate the restaurants from 1 to 20 (only two in Paris get a 19; nobody gets a 20) and tell why in sharp, opinionated, fun-to-read commentary. For the gourmand.

Stephen Birnbaum's Europe 1983 (Houghton Mifflin, 1,212 pp.; paperback, $13.95): The highlights in straightforward prose, but there's nothing there to send you scrambling to a travel agent. (These volumes-on- a-continent are best for planning-selecting the cities and countries you want to visit. If you decide to spend most of your time in one or two countries, then it would be wise to invest further in specific guides to each place.)

Fodor's France 1983 (Fodor, 565 pp.; paperback, $12.95): Everything is here, but the bulk is overwhelming, and it is light on personal favorites.

Fielding's Low-Cost Europe 1983 (Fielding, 863 pp.; paperback, $7.50): An A-to-T (for Tours) listing of France's major cities. In Paris (under P, though most other guides lead with the capital) the entry is mostly hotels and restaurants. Quick and dry.

The Holiday Guide to France (Random House, 128 pp.; paperback, $3.95): For a brief guide, this is well done. A good, quick reference for tourists trying to decide where else in France besides Paris to go, with a historical synopsis that ranks with the best in the survey. The prose is lively and the advice is pointed: "Many Americans . . . have learned from a visit to France that the pursuit of pleasure is not necessarily a vice."

Rand McNally's Pocket Guide to France (Rand McNally, 128 pp.; paperback, $3.95): Color pictures and maps but it doesn't come close to The Holiday Guide to France.

Baedeker's France (Prentice-Hall, 316 pp.; paperback, $12.95): A big name in travel in the last century, but this reprise is at the bottom of the list in more ways than one. It, too, is an A to V (for Vosges) listing of cities, and it reads like a dusty encyclopedia.

Poor France. Such an enchanting place, but so many of these guides don't really seem to know it. That's what makes Seeing the Real Paris particularly welcome. The authors say "we have walked and ridden far more than a thousand miles throughout Paris," and a hundred times "we were disappointed," but, they add, they "were delighted 500 times." It shows. It shows.