How many times have you stepped onto a crowded airplane and wished you were one of those lucky few up front flying first class? They get lots of leg room, a large and comfy seat, courteous attention and, perhaps, a complimentary glass of champagne even before the plane pushes away from the terminal.

What do you get? The dreaded middle seat, if you are unlucky, and a free soft drink or a $3 cocktail sometime in the next hour or so after the flight is well on its way. And inevitably a long wait at one of the too-few coach-class toilets when the pilot turns off the seat-belt sign.

No wonder that first-class upgrades are popular premiums in airline frequent-flyer programs. Travel in first class can be pleasant and relaxing. Back in coach class, you take the brunt of the airline's cost-cutting economies, stuffed into seating that increasingly seems to become more cramped.

There is an alternative for passengers who would like to travel first class but who do not qualify for upgrades and who don't want to pay the high price of a standard first-class ticket -- as much as three or four times the cost of a super-discounted coach ticket. Several of the major U.S. airlines offer special discounts on first-class fares at off-peak travel times for flights within the 50 states. As in coach class, first-class fares for travel between two points can come in a range of prices.

For example, Piedmont Airlines recently has been promoting first-class discounts of 40 to 50 percent off full first-class fares for travel anytime on Saturday and before noon on Sunday. Earlier this month, Piedmont quoted a full first-class round-trip fare between Washington and San Francisco of $1,122. But if you flew out and back on a Saturday, the first-class fare was only $454. By comparison, the cheapest coach-class fare was $358, just $96 less.

The discounted first-class fares are not widely known and are little publicized since only a small percentage of the flying public chooses first class. In fact, an official spokesman for Continental, when asked about his airline's discounted first-class fares, said they didn't exist. He corrected himself when it was pointed out that Continental's ticket clerks were selling them.

Depending on the airline, the first-class discounts may be available on all flights or only between certain cities. Also, some holiday periods may be blanked out for travel on these fares. Because of the restrictions on them, the fares probably will be of most use to travelers who can be flexible in their travel planning.

Why would someone pay $96 extra for a five-hour flight each way?

Certainly it's not a consideration for travelers on a tight budget or who are not overly troubled by crowded flights. But not everyone is looking for the cheapest fare. Celebrities may want the privacy, and for many other passengers first class provides the welcome comfort they can't get in coach.

One Washington business traveler says she acquired a taste for first class when she qualified for a series of frequent-flyer up- grades. Now she's reluctant to fly any distance on a personal holiday unless she can get a premium seat up front. "I didn't know what I was missing."

In the back of the plane, seating is arranged in a variety of configurations, but it's almost always a tight squeeze. On smaller planes, such as the heavily used 727s and 737s, the rows generally have three seats abreast on each side of the aisle or two seats on one side and three on the other. In wide-bodied planes with two aisles, the configuration may be three-five-two or two-five-two or some variation.

In first class, smaller planes have only two seats on each side of the aisle, and on wide-bodied planes with two aisles the configuration is two-two-two. The seats are wide and roomy, and, just as important, there is more distance between rows. Nobody sits in a middle seat. Additionally, first class provides more space for carry-on luggage, and a steward may even offer to hang up your suit jacket and overcoat, returning them to your seat when the plane has landed.

On United, the stewards attempt to greet first-class passengers by name (they have a cheat sheet with your seat assignment indicated), but sometimes they stumble, welcoming you with the name of the person in the seat beside you.

The roominess of first-class seating can be a blessing for people who are very tall or heavy, and for those who are elderly or have a physical problem such as a leg injury. It may even help someone who happens to be a nervous flyer or tends to experience a touch of claustrophobia. Some travelers may buy their way up to first class to celebrate a special occasion such as a honeymoon or an anniversary. There's a certain festive quality to going first class in anything you do.

Despite the enticing ads, dining up front is in reality no great gourmet delight -- no traveler should pay the extra fare just to get a better meal -- but some airlines do make a big production of their food service. While the folks in the back get their complete meal on a plastic tray, first-class passengers are served each course separately (appetizer, salad, entre'e, dessert) with proper china and real silverware. Usually, the attendant will spread a mini-tablecloth across your lap table. And cocktails and wine are complimentary.

Afterward, when it's time for the in-flight movie, coach class passengers pay $4 for earphones, but there is no additional charge in first class. And some airlines still bring heated washcloths at the end of the flight so first-class passengers can freshen up before they step off the plane. It is a nice way to fly.

However, it is important to remember that meals and movies and other first-class amenities are available only on longer flights. On short flights of an hour or so, all you may get is a roomy seat and a complimentary cocktail.

So how can travelers treat themselves to first-class comforts?

One way is to enroll in a frequent-flyer program and earn qualifying mileage. This way you travel first class at coach-class prices. Another is to consider one of the discounted first-class fares offered by the following airlines. If comfort is important to you, it may be worth the additional fare.

Piedmont: Piedmont offers a discount of 40 to 50 percent off its standard first-class fares for travel all day Saturday and Sunday before noon.

To obtain a discount, you must make a reservation and purchase the ticket 14 days in advance of departure. Discounts are available only for round-trip tickets. There is a 25 percent penalty for a cancellation, but travelers can change their itinerary prior to departure without penalty, provided they fly on a Saturday or a Sunday morning.

Eastern: Eastern offers two types of first-class discounts on its domestic flights.

One is an "excursion" fare, which requires a seven-day advance purchase, a Sunday overnight stay and a maximum stay of 21 days. It is good for travel any day of the week. There is a 50 percent penalty for cancellation.

The other -- and less expensive -- is a 14-day advance-purchase fare for travel on weekends, either all day Saturday or Sunday before noon. There is no penalty for cancellation, but any changes in itinerary must be made 14 days in advance.

Earlier this month, Eastern quoted a full first-class round-trip fare between Washington and Jacksonville, Fla. at $608. The excursion first-class fare was $325. The 14-day Saturday/Sunday morning fare was $278. As a comparison, the lowest discounted coach fare was $140.

Continental: Continental has a first-class excursion fare, available with a seven-day advance purchase. A Saturday overnight stay is required, and there is a 25 percent penalty for a cancellation or change in itinerary.

Between Washington and Denver, Continental is quoting a full first-class round-trip fare of $930. Its excursion round-trip fare is $442. This compares with $240 for the lowest coach fare.

Delta: Delta's discounted first-class air fares are for late evening or early morning flights. The hours vary but generally include flights between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.

Between Washington and New Orleans, Delta is quoting a full first-class round-trip fare of $990. The night discount fare is $682. The lowest coach fare is $178.

Some airlines have rewarded their best frequent-flyer members by welcoming them into first class on a standby basis.

For example, United recently mailed out a set of four premier upgrade stickers to its Mileage Plus passengers who have flown 25,000 miles within a calendar year. Each sticker is good for an upgrade on a flight of under 2,750 miles (or two stickers for a round trip), and both a member and a companion are eligible to use them with any coach fare.

The day before departure, the frequent flyer phones to see if there are any first-class seats available on the flight. If so, seat reservations are confirmed, and the next day at the check-in desk an upgrade sticker is applied to the ticket. A couple would use all four stickers for one round trip.

United is selling additional sets of four stickers to eligible Mileage Plus members for $150.

PARIS ON FOOT: Air France is distributing a new edition of "Paris a` Pied," a free 17-page guide to seven walking tours in Paris and several day trips not far outside the city. The tours are outlined on a fold-out map.

For a copy, send a legal-sized stamped and self-addressed envelope to Air France, "Paris a` Pied," Dept. NYCDX, 2039 Ninth Ave., Ronkonkoma, N.Y. 11779.

SPRING TRAINING: It seems only yesterday that baseball's World Series was in full swing, but already Sunball, a New York specialty tour organizer, is taking reservations for its "Spring Training Tours."

Sunball has put together a series of week-long packages in March to major league training camps in Florida and Arizona. Baseball fans can spend the week keeping an eye on their favorite team or visit as many training camps and teams as they have time and energy for. A typical tour includes a game a day for six days.

Also on the agenda are a briefing by a baseball writer, opportunities to meet some of the players and officials, visits to a team's mid-morning workout and such baseball-related entertainment as old baseball movies and a baseball trivia competition.

There are departures March 2, March 9, March 16 and March 23. The price varies but is generally less than $1,000 per person. This includes round-trip air fare, first-class hotel accommodations for six nights, all ground transportation and guide services.

For information: 1-800-I-LUV-SUN (1-800-458-8786).

LONDON SHOPPING: Great Britain has made it easier for American visitors to reclaim the value added tax (VAT) charged on purchases they are carrying home with them. The tax is 15 percent, which means on large purchases the refund can be substantial.

By the end of this year, about 10,000 London shops selling antiques, clothing, jewelry, leather goods, china and glass are expected to be displaying window signs tht read "London Tax Free Shopping."

Visitors making a purchase in any of these shops will be given a sales voucher and a prepaid envelope addressed to London Tax Free Shopping. On departure, the vouchers and the purchased items should be shown to British customs. An official will stamp the vouchers to certify them. The vouchers should immediately be mailed in the envelope provided. If they are mailed from outside Great Britain, postage is required.

The program guarantees that within four days of receiving the vouchers, it will mail out a single refund check in U.S. dollars. London Tax Free Shopping charges a 3 percent service charge on combined purchases totaling up to 500 pounds (about $800) but no fee on amounts in excess of 500 pounds.

ISLAND INNS: Three bed-and-breakfast inns on tiny Solomons Island in Maryland are being promoted by the Calvert County tourism office. About a 90-minute drive southeast of Washington, Solomons, a small fishing community, sits at the mouth of the Patuxent River where it flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

For visitors, its attractions are the water views; its handful of good seafood restaurants; several tourist shops; the excellent Calvert Marine Museum, which celebrates life on the Chesapeake, and nearby Calvert Cliffs State Park for scenic hiking. A relaxed stroll around the island itself takes about two hours.

The inns are:

Back Creek Inn: Built in 1880 as a waterman's home, the structure has recently been restored. It offers four rooms with private bath and three sharing baths. The back deck overlooks Back Creek, and the inn has a pier for guests arriving by boat. Bicycles are available for sightseeing. Daily rates range from $50 to $75, depending on the room. A full breakfast is served. For information: 1-301-326-2022.

Davis House: Victorian in design, the large 1904 home was the project of a shipbuilder who located it about 150 feet from the mouth of the Patuxent. It has five bedrooms sharing three baths. Winter rates through March 30 are $55 a night for two people on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and $45 a night the rest of the week. A full breakfast is served. For information: 1-301-326-4811.

Willow Point Bed and Breakfast: Surrounded by water on three sides, the inn has a sweeping lawn that overlooks Solomons harbor (and a swimming pool for summer visitors) and a large dining room with a panoramic view. The structure dates back 150 years. It offers one room with private bath and three rooms sharing a bath. Winter rates (through March 31) are $55 to $65 a night for two. A full breakfast is served. For information: 1-301-326-4023.

GUEST GRIPES: What do hotel guests complain most about?

Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report, a monthly newsletter aimed at travelers with the money to pay for the best in accommodations, listed the 15 gripes most frequently cited by its subscribers.

They are: soft mattresses, thin pillows or the lack of extra pillows, unsatisfactory bedside reading lamps, skimpy towels, mediocre soundproofing, inadequate lighting in the vanity area, too little counter space around the sink, not enough closet or drawer space, those theft-proof hangers you can't remove from the closet, lack of luggage racks, noisy air conditioning, poor TV reception, no full-length mirror, no extra rolls of toilet paper and windows that don't open.

BUSINESS BRIEF: An Orlando hotel is offering a novel solution for business travelers who don't want to miss important calls when they are away from their room. The hotel rents out a pager, which will operate within a 50-mile radius of the hotel.

Guests at the Holiday Inn-Central Park simply leave a credit card impression to check out a pager. If they get a call, they are buzzed. If a guest doesn't respond to the page, a message is taken and the message light turned on in the guest's room. The rental fee is $2.75 a day.