It's true! Bargains abound at factory outlets in and near Reading, Pa.

Right off the top, shoppers save by not paying sales tax on clothing and food. (Both are necessary items, according to Pennsylvania Law.) I saved enough in just sales tax to pay for two nights (double occupancy) in an AAA-rated three-star motel, one dinner and one breakfast ($37).

The $44 saved at Beauty Classics on E. King Street, Ephrata, where Butte Knit and Evan Picone outfits are 25 to 60 percent off, more than paid for three days of hiring a daytime sitter for my three sons.

But remember that preparation is crucial for a successful trip.

First, order a marvelous map for $1.50 from Outlet Country, P.O. Box 3235, Reading, Pa. 19604. All outlets and hours are listed, so you can decide the best daily itinerary.

While you are waiting the three weeks for the map, practice walking for 12 straight hours in the most comfortable shoes you own. Do not allow yourself to sit down longer than absolutely necessary.

Practice juggling large loads of awkward items to build up your biceps. Most stores do not have carts.

A discount, remember, is not a bargain unless you can use it. One outlet had Oscar de la Renta jeans at two for $10. Marvelous. Right?Wrong! Unless you can squeeze into one of the two dozen sizes 4s, the two 6s, or needed the size 20 and 22.

Most stores, however, have excellent selections in all sizes of current merchandise, with seconds and irregulars well-marked. The amount of acceptable flaw varies greatly. What is irregular to the manufacturer doesn't necessarily matter to the shopper. One Haymaker blouse by Izod, for example, had a hangtag that said "100 percent wool," while the neck label said "60 percent cotton, 40 percent polyester." I brought it home for $6.

Extra thick threads, clearly marked on Carter's durable children's playshirts, brought prices as low as $2.19, giving bargains by the bagful at the Lancaster store.

Other flaws made some clothes useless: rips, wrong style or color, two left sleeves on a jacket, twisted pants linings.

The biggest temptation is to buy too many things because the quality clothes feel good, fit well and are relatively inexpensive. (The prices beat those at military exchanges.)

Normally, I would not even consider a Givenchy outfit. But at 75 percent off, I can handle the dry-cleaning bill. I couldn't pass up the $11.45 sweater and $19.45 wool skirt at Talbott Mills.

Gloria Vanderbilt velour sweaters cost $6; two yards of 60-inch quality wool, $5; men's Banlon shirts, $4. Corduroy jackets started at $20.

Another plus at Talbott was a private ladies' room, part of the communal fitting room.

One of my favorite stores was David Crystal, where Master Charge and Bank Americard are accepted. Men's long-sleeve sweaters ran $9-$14, long-sleeve shirts, $10; Britches Slacks, $15, Calvin Klein three-piece suits, $139. Bill Blass, Yves St. Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Geoffrey Beene and other brands were available at a substantial saving.

The best of the outlets had the same current items -- with lower prices -- as Woodies and Garfinckel's.

The wastes of time -- mainly in downtown Reading around both Moss Street and N. 9th Street -- had selections three seasons old, in strange size combinations, and for non-bargain prices.

It's essential to shop carefully, I found during my January trip. Some conglomerate centers had good buys (such as Capezios for $5), but Cannon and Burlington towels were offered at Sears prices.

The Vanity Fair complex is probably Reading's most famous outlet, where all lingerie and robes are half off. The selection of sizes (bras to DD), colors and styles was super. But some dresses were outdated.

In the same group of stores -- next to a cafeteria rest stop -- Oneida offered half off on silver and pewter, though in a limited number of patterns. Black & Decker and Rockwell International power tools and McGraw Edison small appliances had a good variety, generally at one-third off suggested retail prices.

My second favorite store, also in the Vanity Fair complex, was Reading China and Glass. This huge version of Alexandria's Dockside had most items at 20 to 60 percent savings. Most stoneware, including Noritake, was half price. Copco, Farberware and Club Aluminum were 40 to 50 percent off. There was not much saving on Spode and Lenox serving pieces, but some Hummels were 15 percent off.

This store will mail or ship your purcases home if your truck is too full by this time for their wicker, candles, or Hoan cooking accessories.

Other bargains: My friends and I stayed at a well-kept Dutch Colony Motor Inn for $25 a night ($20 single rate). North of Ephrata on Rte. 272, Zinn's Country Diner had a novel breakfast menu. All prices were crossed off, with new prices 20 cents lower.

At another diner, Thomas' on Penn Avenue, a four-course dinner with homemade soups and desserts, averaged $4.50. Not the Sans Souci, but certainly tasty and nourishing replenishments for night-time shopping.

Liquor was a non-bargain since Pennsylvania operates on a state store system. (But alcohol dulls the bargain-shopper's senses, anyway.)

Surprisingly, Reading residents seem to be similar to many Washingtonians; they don't take advantage of local attractions. Nearly every shopper we talked to lived at least one hour from Reading. Sales people shopped at their own stores, but at few other outlets.

In all, I spent $372.43, an estimated $783.62 in Washington retail stores. Expenses, including sitter, gasoline, lodging and food, were $93.07, giving me a savings of $318.12. Plus, it was a vacation of sorts, my first time away from the family. I will go again.

Most outlets are open six days a week, with some open Sunday afternoons and several evenings. The trip from I-95 and the Washington Beltway to Reading is about 150 miles. Take I-95 north to I-695 west around Baltimore, I-83 to York, Rte. 30 east to Lancaster, then Rte. 222 northeast to Reading.