Here's a test for money-minded travelers: Name the top 10 U.S. travel freebies.
No, there's no official list, but yes, there really are at least as many something-for-nothing offers available for the asking. Many have been around a long while, but the infrequent traveler may miss them. Each of the following is a guaranteed cost-cutter.
1. First prize for outstanding travel freebies goes to the interpretive tours and living history programs at the national parks and forests. Having learned that Disney doesn't have a copyright on family entertainment, these folks have developed some winning "show and tell" presentations.
Samples: At George Washington's birthplace, 40 miles east of Fredericksburg, Va., you can watch everything from baking in earth ovens to the tending of livestock at a typical 18th-century working farm. At Hopewell Village in Elverson, Pa., blacksmiths, carpenters, hostelers, charcoalmakers and candlemakers show what went on in a 19th-century iron-making village.
Elsewhere you can catch dramatizations of historical events, sit in on campfire programs, let naturalists and archeologists guide you around old Indian territories. The lesson may be: "Never limit a national forest or park to its natural wonders."
2. If you make your own travel arrangements, one big bonus is freebie phoning. Instead of dialing long distance, or dialing to comparison-shop air fares, faraway hotels, car rentals or other travel needs, your first move ought to be to check either in your phone directory or with Information at (800) 555-1212 for an 800 toll-free number.
It's no longer just chain hotels that have such 24-hour central reservation and information numbers. More than 1,000 independents plus 400 hotel chain members are now hooked up with Inres (800) 323-1776, a quick-answer outlet. If you don't know anything about, say, New Orleans accommodations, Inres can spiel off what it has according to the price you want to pay.
Remember, too, (800) 323-4182 for the USA Travel Information Center. This is a government-funded question-answering service that will do its best to field your queries on everything from dude ranches to hotels with helicopter pads - though it can't give recommendations or any definitive word on prices.
3. If you're not an automobile club member, you can usually get some free trip-routing help from a state or city visitors bureau. The USA Travel Information Center can provide addresses. In turn, many of them - though by no means all - can send easy-to-read trip maps, with mile-by-mile descriptions of the scenic, recreational and historic assets of the area it covers.
4. The same state and local tourist bureaus are freebies in themselves in that they're a no-charge source for all sorts of information. The most useful giveaways: state highway maps and information on state parks and fishing areas, local city maps, hotel price lists, descriptions of places to go and things to do, news of special events. Be specific in asking for what you want, saying where and when you're going.
Even so, you're likely to learn that some bureaus aren't as well-organized as they might be. For instance, in areas where they have excellent free facilities like swimming pools and tennis courts, you'll still probably have to contact other outfits such as a city's recreation department.
5. Often it's also the recreation department - or a nongovernment operation such as a historical society - that can tell you what's likely to be one of the most fascinating freebies around, a walking tour led by a historian or architect. These make memorable experiences as well as good ways to meet other vacationers or locals.
6. Of course, lots more information is on tap in guidebooks, available free right in your own public library. And don't overlook the library where you're headed. It's likely to have current information as well as locally published books and brochures unavailable elsewhere. While you're still in the early planning stage, ask about the National Directory of Budget Motels, published annually by Pilot Books, 347 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016. It's skimpy and not entirely accurate but does give names and addresses of some of the lower-priced accommodations chains. For automobile tourers, another useful book is the Rand McNally Road Atlas, which carefully marks the most scenic roads in color.
7. Not yet on any maps are all the freebie sightseeing tours. Among the most impressive are those offered by giant factories like Ford and Levi Strauss. Food and drink manufacturers are likely to hand out free samples, and some other consumer-product makers sometimes sell samples or "seconds" at low-priced shops on the premises. A partial list is available in a free booklet, "American Industry Tours and Visits," from Consumer Information, United States Travel Service, U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington, D.C. 20230.
8. Also free on request are the directories of different motel and hotel chains. These directories often include facts like who gives discounts for repeated visits, where "kids eat free" and who provides free airport transportation.
9. Often there are freebie rewards just for being you. Some places go all out for honeymooners, others for teachers, families visiting relatives in the service, anyone over 65. Just now, for instance, Greyhound has expanded its "helping hand" program to include escorted tours. Companions of disabled passengers who require help already travel free on the Greyhound system, but now the transportation part of their Greyhound tour will be free as well.
10. An easy-to-bear freebie is also available from the Deak-Perera banking and foreign exchange company in the form of commission-fare traveler's checks. They have 53 offices worldwide including one at JFK airport in New York and others at airports in Miami, San Juan, Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. However, they're not alone in making this concession. Barclay's traveler's checks are free at all Barclay banks except in California.