It wasn't a magic moment in her travel life. She'd driven right past Reading Pa., and days later learned that it's practically the outlet-store capital of America.

If you think about it, you might even know a traveler or two who's gone to California and never discovered sour-dough bread, or people who have passed through Richmond, Va., and missed the dazzling Russian Imperial jewels at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

The list of such major mistakes is endless, primarily because everybody's short of time for travel homework. The good news is that things are definitely looking up in the "quick fix" department -- at least for those planning to "Buy America."

Here's how:

Twenty states now have nationwide toll-free "800" numbers you can call from out-of-state to have free travel information kits sent to you.

Another seven -- Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Wisconsin -- have toll-free information numbers to call from neighboring states.

Most of the same 27 state offices say that during office hours, they'll also do their best to answer any questions.

All other state tourist offices except Nevada's accept phone requests for free travel information kits, and most offer at least some travel counseling by phone.

What all this means is that if you wish to be the first person on you block with all sorts of stupefying travel facts at your fingertips, you can do a lot by dialing. However, after a series of test calls, I also came to some other conclusions, namely the following:

State information offices are most useful if you are asking about special events, want maps or brochures, need directions or referral phone numbers, or are inquiring about state-run facilities.

They are usually not helpful if you are looking for price information, public transportation schedules or specific recommendations.

You can sometimes coax answers out of them. For instance, if you say, "Tell me about flea markets," you'll probably draw a blank. If you say, "What events are scheduled in Center City in August?" you could have a list read to you -- and a market might be on it. If not, fall back to asking about "arts and crafts" events. In other words, try to think in terms of large, less specific categories.

If you call an 800 number outside normal business hours (theirs, not yours, remember time differences), or simply when everyone is tied up or out to lunch, you may get a recording. If so, wait until the end because the system is generally hooked up to take messages, and some people really do call back.

If, as a message, you're leaving your name and address to receive the information kit, say whether you're in a hurry for it. They may be able to send it first class rather than the usual third class -- which often takes three to four weeks. Also, speak slowly and spell all names. Don't expect overnight service, though. It's sometimes possible but most travel offices use mailing services that involve time-consuming procedures, even for first-class mail.

The caller who rang the Tennessee travel officer for a list of gay bars in Nashville was referred to the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, and the woman who called Virginia for route information to avoid Washington, D.C., and the volcano ash from Mt. St. Helens was straightened out forthwith. A few states say they'll even do route-mapping for callers. But bear in mind that generally you shouldn't get your hopes too high or make your questions too taxing.

The nation-wide toll-free numbers? Okay, here they are (in some areas, you must dial the number 1 before marking 800): (TABLE) Alabama(COLUMN)(800) 633-5761 Arkansas(COLUMN)(800) 643-8383 Delaware(COLUMN)(800) 441-8846 Florida(COLUMN)(800) 874-8660 Georgia(COLUMN)(800) 241-8444 Idaho(COLUMN)(800) 635-7820 Maryland(COLUMN)(800) 638-5252 Minnesota(COLUMN)(800) 638-1461 Mississippi(COLUMN)(800) 647-2290 Montana(COLUMN)(800) 548-3390 Nebraska(COLUMN)(800)228-4307 New Mexico(COLUMN)(800) 545-2040 North Dakota(COLUMN)(800) 437-2077 Oregon(COLUMN)(800) 547-4901 Pennsylvania(COLUMN)(800) 323-1717 South Dakota(COLUMN)(800) 843-1930 Utah(COLUMN)(800) 453-5794 Washington(COLUMN)(800) 426-8668 West Virginia(COLUMN)(800) 624-9110 Wyoming(COLUMN)(800) 443-2784. (END TABLE)

(Florida, Georgia, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania specify that these numbers are good only if you're calling for brochures. They're not set up to answer questions.)

To call toll-free in state or from a neighboring state, check the information number, (800) 555-1212, since many states have several listings. To call those states that don't have toll-free lines, dial the state capital's area code and ask the information operator for the state tourist office. (Some are listed under "Department of Economic Development" or as part of the "Commerce Division.")