BUGS BUNNY once threw a baseball around the world, and it returned to him plastered with luggage stickers: an image, like any great cliche, instantly recognizable. Even the untraveled knew.

But would they know today? Picture the typical luggage retrieval room for international arrivals. Under a white, low-ceilinged glare, here comes the phalanxes of suitcases, jerking into line like ducks in a shooting gallery. About 60 percent are identical: drab, boring and anonymous. And if the passengers are Americans, today's most meager sticker users, there's not a luggage sticker in sight to break the monotony.

Just now and then a refreshing vision swaggers through the rubber tassels: a bag whose flanks are a pastiche of tattered paper, like a poorly tended outdoor billboard in March; a bag shouting its identity; a bag proclaiming a heritage of hostelries like some fickle medieval jouster flaunting the simultaneous plumes of many bawds. It's a rare sight, this throwback to the Roaring Twenties.

But it's a sight that may be coming back. Gundrum Moll, spokesman for the

But it's a sight that may be coming back. Gundrum Moll, spokesman for the Brussels Hilton, says that "according to observations recently made by our front office staff, luggage stickers seem to be fashionable again. During the last months they were repeatedly requested." At the Tokyo Hilton, Richard Handl says, "We discontinued the stickers once, but due to popular demand and because competitors are issuing stickers, we resumed issuance."

At worst, luggage stickers throughout most of the world have been only in a moderate recession in recent years. Nowhere but in the United States did stickers plunge into near-total eclipse. In a just-concluded sticker survey covering more than 200 hotels (plus assorted countries, agencies and carriers) we found no hotels in Chicago, Las Vegas or New York that would own up to having a sticker on premises. But there were some distinguished exceptions to the U.S. sticker vacuum.

No less a hotel than San Francisco's Mark Hopkins still offers stickers, and gets excellent response from them. The same goes for Inter-Continental's Miami and Maui properties, and the Kahala Hilton at Honolulu. The Boar's Head Inn of Charlottesville, Va., still honors the sticker tradition for small, delux independents.

Are those who caparison their luggage with colorful bits of advertising mere provincial bumpkins who make only the occasional trip? Emphatically not, the survey revealed. Some findings:

Fiona Porter, of the Hyatt Kingsgate of Sydney, Australia, has observed that airline crews are the biggest collectors. L. p. Croasdaile of the Sydney Hilton confirms. Recent travelers in India report the same phenomenon, especially among European crews. Various hotel people, like Judy Jackson-Alm of the Hyatt Regency in Vancouver, say Oriental travelers are the most enthusiastic.

Rudi Scherb of Hawaii's Inter-Continental Maui, though, insists that Polish people are the world's most persistant sticker collectors, a view shared by Khalid Syed of the Lahore Hilton in Pakistan. Harold Kniss of the Rotterdam Hilton adds popular musicians to the list. Several hotels, including London's Kensington Hilton, find that tour directors themselves are the most active sticker users. But almost all the hotel people contacted agreed that children are always relentless in the pursuit of stickers.

Yet why have most Americans been shunning stickers in recent years? "It's in to be anonymous," shrugs one Virginia hotel man. Others hint at a misguided fear of appearing unsophisticated or Ugly American-like.

For those who don't have such worries, stickers are fun, and the collector is bound only by self-imposed rules or traditions. Take the matter of that basic accessory, the suitcase itself. Some limit its adornment to stickers legitimately obtained and affixed en route. Others scrounge stickers from any available source, and even send pleas through the mail. Still other collectors view festooning their suitcases as irrelevant and, as Monica Burke of Inter-Continental says, use their stickers to decorate such stationary domestic objects as coffee table tops, room divider screens and photot albums. A surprising number end up on auto bumpers.

Whatever their fate, an examination of well over 100 current stickers reveals a wide range of artistry and execution. It also divulges a nearly unanimous reliance on peel-off backs. Such technology demolishes the occasional testy contention that stickers can "damage" expensive luggage. The problem, actually, is not that modern stickers adhere too well, but that they may fall off too quickly, especially from fabric or grainy surfaces.

There are a few holdouts of earlier technology. The sticker at Clark's Amer Hotel in Jaipur, India, has nothing at all on the back, and must be slapped in place by a bellman armed with a large paste-pot. Equally ungummed is the handsome sticker of the King George Hotel in Athens, in use for 40 years, and now frankly yellowing with age. It is apparently the oldest sticker in active use today, and what a supply they must have laid by in 1939. Only two hotels contacted by the survey still use stickers with wettable glue backs, both of them Hiltons in Israel.

All things considered, the Oriental Hiltons may be "world class" in sticker design, with the Jakarta Hilton's the most elegant of all. The hotel offers two entirely different styles: a plastic overlay creating a plum-and-gold foliate pattern; a larger one dominated by lacquer red. Either one is too beautiful to risk leaving unprotected in the slovenly world of baggage bashers.

So, for that matter, is the Kuala Lumpur Hilton's sinuous triangle of gold and blue, and the bright orange and gold jitterbugging of the Singapore Hilton's circle. The latter's distribution of 60,000 stickers annually ranks, by our calculations, at the top of the world's heavy hitters but tied with its local rival, the Hyatt Singapore, and the Buenos Aires Sheraton. (For the statistically-inclined, next come the Sheraton Stockholm, the Hyatt Pattaya Palace of Thailand, and the Lima Sheraton, each with an annual outlay of 50,000 stickers.)

Inter-Continental has made sticker use a company policy since the chain acquired its first hotel in 1949. Currently with 82 hotels in 48 countries around the world, Inter-Continental's stickers colorfully reflect local trademarks: a leopard in Zaire, a fleur de lis in Paris, the stunningly proud trademarks: a leopard in Zaire, a fleur de lis in Paris, the stunningly proud back of a wet brunette adjusting her bikini bottom in the Rio surf. "Stickers are contained in the writing kit in each guestroom. They're also available through the bell captain," a spokesman said, thereby articulating today's nearly universal, industry-wide standard. But "some hotels affix them automatically; some do not." The survey found that automatically clapping stickers to guests' luggage is more commonplace in the Orient than elsewhere.

The common bond of Hyatt's quatrefoil logo apprears in all manifestations of the chain's stickers, but individual creativity takes over from there. The sticker of the marvelously-named Bali Hyatt is, oddly, plainest of the lot. The most lavish, beguiling Hyatt sticker is the Hyatt Regency Hong Kong's, a marvel of crimson, silver, silver, and white.

Sheraton tends toward smaller stickers the size of a playing card, blazing with the strong color. City names explode from the European Sheraton's emblems, while stylized local sights (the Sphinx for Cairo) are on most others. The Istanbul Sheraton offers a tiny, silver dollar-size suggestion of the Constantinople skyline. Definitely among the world's most soigne' stickers is the little jewel of the Sheraton San Cristobal of Santiago. It's a glistening taffy color, and could be the wrapper for an expensive chocolate.

For design excellence in small packages, you'd want the urbane film overlay of Gstaad's Palace Hotel in Switzerland, perhaps to stick beside the simple, squashed oval of the Boar's Head Inn of Charlottesville. A far different air is conveyed by such a rare specimen as the Rambagh Palace sticker from Jaipur, blatant as a Rajasthani turban, and just as prized a souvenir. And for sheer traditionalism -- a pleasant harking back to the 1930s -- there's the blue and gold circle of Japan Airlines' President Hotel, Jakarta.

Hotels aren't alone in issuing stickers, and at last three non-commercial entries are worth including in any roster of sticker all-stars. Panama's national tourist office annually broadcasts 200,000 based on the colorful mola quiltwork of Cuna Indian women. The Barbados Tourism board offers a fine rendition of a flying fish by noted illustrator Paul Davis. The U.S. Virgins dispense an American eagle sticker that manages to be simultaneously dignified and raffish.

Thus, a surprisingly hardy institution has stuck around from steamer trunks of the '20s to naugahyde-skin satchels of the '70s -- and certainly beyond. For in a way that nothing else can do, these gaudy, fragile ornaments recall the places we have seen and the fun we have had, and mark the memories "paid in full."