Is it lumps of coal or heaps of goodies this season in the Christmas stockings of America's travel industry? A measure of both, it seems -- at least according to the results of a new survey of 5,400 travelers who rated the best and worst of this country's hotels, resorts, inns, spas, car rental agencies and airlines.

The best hotel chain in America? It's the Ritz-Carlton, barely topping its closest competitor, the Four Seasons. Of course, cost is a major factor. These two luxury-class chains are among the most expensive in the country. At the very bottom of the list is a budget chain, Super 8, which has 750 motels. They are astoundingly cheap, reports the survey, but "barren." The best "inexpensive" chain rated is Courtyard by Marriott.

The survey appears in three slender paperback guides published this month by Zagat, the outfit that solicits the opinions of frequent travelers for its popular series of restaurant and hotel guides to major American cities. The three newest books -- one each for the East, the central states and the West -- are among the latest crop of specialty guides to consider as last-minute gifts.

The selection includes a nicely illustrated tour of the impressionist landscapes outside Paris, as well as very practical guides to environmental vacations, good shopping in the Caribbean, bargains and adventures for travelers over age 50, America's historic inns and small hotels and the national parks of South America.

The three new Zagat guides, titled "United States Travel Survey" ($9.95 each), seem well-suited for business travelers who hop about the country making use of the various facilities rated in them. But their sometimes biting critical remarks are fun to read even if you rarely leave town. Some of Zagat's contributors consider the Super 8 chain "fine for the money," but its detractors claim "sleeping in the car is preferable."

The ratings are derived from survey forms submitted by volunteers who, says Zagat, average about one night a week on the road. About 1,500 lodging establishments at 58 major cities and resorts are individually reviewed. Each of the properties is qualified numerically from 0 ("poor") to 30 ("perfection"). The hotel chains, car-rental agencies and U.S. and major foreign airlines are graded similarly.

The Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons chains are both awarded a 26, which qualifies them as "extraordinary." Courtyard at Marriott, an inexpensive offshoot of the parent Marriott chain, rates an 18 ("very good") as a "wonderful alternative to overpriced hotels when you're willing to forgo full service."

The ubiquitous Days Inns, another budget chain with 1,000 properties, gets a 12 ("good"), but with a few quibbles. Some guests, says Zagat, find the properties "well run," but others liken them to "motel camping." The bottom-ranked Super 8 chain is awarded only a 10, which puts it just barely into the "good" category.

In other results, five individual properties earned 27s as the best hotels in the nation. They are the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, the Windsor Court in New Orleans, the Bel-Air in Los Angeles, the Ritz-Carlton at Laguna Niguel in California and the Halekulani on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. The Halekulani is credited with "absolutely the best service of any hotel in the U.S."

Three diverse inns and resorts also earned 27s -- the cozy Inn at Little Washington in Virginia; the hotel-like Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Fla.; and Boulders, a golf and tennis resort in Carefree, Ariz. The surveyors found the Virginia inn "very expensive but very special," calling it "the best bar none" for food and romantic lodging.

Zagat's survey names American Airlines as the best U.S. carrier, with a 19 rating, followed by Delta with an 18 and United and Midway at 17. United is called "a humdrum airline that used to be better." USAir gets a 14 as a "no-frills, pack 'em in airline." At the bottom of the heap domestically is much-troubled Eastern with an 11. "It's a disaster, but damn, they're trying," say Zagat's correspondents.

Regarding airlines, the survey points out that "the best in the U.S. is still not world class." Among major foreign carriers, Singapore Airlines is considered tops with a 25 ("excellent"). Passengers call it "airline heaven" with its fresh-cooked breakfasts and "attendants who really attend." Aeroflot, the Soviet carrier, manages only a 7 for its "military minimal decor," "antiquated equipment" and "rude service." But the line really does serve caviar for dinner.

To get the complete results of the survey, you will have to buy all three guides, which is as annoying as it is expensive. Reviews of the hotel chains appear in the guide to the Central States; car rental agency reviews are in the Eastern States edition; and the airlines are rated in Western States edition. However, each guide carries reviews of individual hotels and other lodging establishments within the region.

Other new specialty guides include:

"A Guide to the Impressionist Landscape" by Patty Lurie (Bulfinch, 135 pages, $16.95): Much of the countryside outside Paris has changed little since such 19th-century impressionists as van Gogh, Pissarro and Cezanne made it the subject of their paintings, writes author Patty Lurie, an American painter living in Paris. A student of impressionism, she turned detective to seek out the specific sites of many of these paintings, among the world's most famous.

The result is a wonderful little guide organized in the form of day trips by train -- "as the Impressionists had done before me" -- into the suburbs of Paris and to the outlying countryside and the Normandy Coast. Her explorations took her to Auvers-sur-Oise, where van Gogh and Cezanne painted; to Moret-sur-Loing for Pissarro and Sisley; and to Bougival for Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley.

For many of the sites, Lurie includes both a color reproduction of the original painting along with a color photo of the place as it now looks -- taken from about the same point where the artists might have set up their easels. The comparisons are fascinating even if you are not contemplating a Paris trip.

In the commentary, Lurie provides detailed instructions on getting to dozens of sites as well as thoughtful observations about what you see there. In Auvers-sur-Oise, for example, she guides her readers to the village church, which was the subject of one of van Gogh's final masterpieces, painted in 1890. At mid-afternoon in summer, she says, you can see the shadows as van Gogh did.

The artist recreated the church with exaggerated colors that flood the canvas, she writes, although in truth the structure seems rather old and drab. "At first one does not see the greens, blues, yellows and browns that van Gogh painted while standing on the dusty path," but "the colors and movement that {he} saw in his subject, and wanted us to see as well, come to life as one waits and observes."

"Environmental Vacations" by Stephanie Ocko (John Muir, 235 pages, $15.95): An environmental vacation, as defined by author Stephanie Ocko, is participation in a volunteer science project "that involves helping scientists in their fieldwork, on land and at sea." It also may mean "helping people in need." In effect, you pay for the privilege of working as a helper for an archaeologist, a botanist, a zoologist or other scientist.

The emphasis is definitely on work, and some projects are very labor intensive. Assignments can be hot, buggy, dirty and tedious. In developing nations, you may sleep in primitive lodgings and eat strange foods. So why would anyone pick such a vacation? It's a chance "to make a difference in some part of the world," says the author, who has signed up for five volunteer projects. Additionally, it can be both a learning experience and, very often, a delightful adventure.

The book provides a good, comprehensive introduction to this offbeat kind of vacation. Ocko describes the various organizations that solicit paying volunteers -- among them, Earthwatch and the University of California's Research Expeditions Program -- noting, where necessary, some of their foibles. If you show up at a research site and don't like what you find, it's doubtful you will get any of your money back.

And she presents what appears to be a fairly realistic picture of what a volunteer might expect -- the negatives as well as the positives. Some scientists, accustomed to working with graduate students or hired help, may try to turn volunteers into day laborers without providing any compensating intellectual stimulation. Boredom is always a possibility after the initial enthusiasm wears off.

"Featherbeds & Flapjacks, A Preservationist's Guide to Historic Bed and Breakfasts, Inns and Small Hotels" by Suzanne G. Dane and Barbara E. Sturni (Preservation Press, 282 pages, $12.95): The emergence of a bed-and-breakfast industry in America has saved historic homes and buildings "from the wrecking ball" throughout the country, according to the foreword to this new lodging guide. About 20,000 B&Bs now take in guests in every state.

From them, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has picked 450 that it calls the "most attractive" and "most interesting." All of them are historically significant, and most are more than 50 years old. Another important factor in the selection is the authenticity of any restoration work. Sadly, many old homes and inns have been subjected to "dramatic remuddling," says the guide, that have obliterated their original characters.

In the Washington area, four inns are listed for the District of Columbia, 35 for Virginia, 17 for Maryland and three for West Virginia. They are found in or near colonial towns, Civil War battlefields and other historical attractions.

This guide is of value primarily to history buffs and travelers interested in preservation techniques. Historically authentic though the inns may be, some of them are not necessarily the best places to stay in terms of comfort, romance, good service and good food. From personal experience, I know that at least a few of those included in the guide do a less-than-adequate job of welcoming guests.

This points up a weakness of the guide. It does not provide a critical evaluation of the inns and the quality of services they offer. Instead, what is presented is simply a physical description of the inn and its furnishings, from information provided by the innkeepers themselves, along with details on room rates and guest facilities.

"Shopping and Traveling the Exotic Caribbean" by John W. Edmiston, Nancy B. Edmiston and Bruce Bennett (Impact, 292 pages, $13.95): Someday I would like to see a popular guide to understanding the cultures of the Caribbean. Ah well, this is not a perfect world, and shopping seems to be an appealing pastime for many tourists abroad. So we have been witness in recent years to a proliferation of shopping guides.

At least two growing series are on the market. One is Bantam's "Born to Shop," a title I find repugnant for the mindlessness it implies. The other is the Impact series, which tends to be more culturally sensitive. Both series tell the traveler where to find the best buys for a wide variety of goods. But you learn more about a place you are visiting when Impact is pointing the way. The Impact guides are particularly good in evaluating local arts and handicrafts while providing a historical or cultural context.

In the Dominican Republic, according to "Exotic Caribbean" -- the latest Impact guide -- colorful porcelain figures of women in native dress are a popular tourist buy. But none of the women has a face. The reason, explain the authors, is that the faceless figures represent the concept of "every woman." Without features, they are all equal.

Despite its title, the guide covers only the largest or most-visited Caribbean destinations -- Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, St. Martin/Sint Maarten, Barbados and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Included also are Bermuda and the Bahamas, which really aren't Caribbean.

"Unbelievably Good Deals & Great Adventures That You Absolutely Can't Get Unless You're Over 50" by Joan Rattner Heilman (Contemporary, 252 pages, $7.95): I suspect you had better be careful whose stocking you drop this guide into. But if your over-50 friends are comfortable with their age, they should find it a helpful resource. It is a good compilation of various discounts and programs offered older travelers in this country and abroad. Though many are available at age 50, the best deals really come when you are 55, 60 or 65.

Now in its third edition, "Unbelievably Good Deals" lists senior discounts for U.S. and foreign airlines, U.S. hotels and motels, car rental agencies, ski resorts and European railways. Also included are tour operators catering to the senior market, organizations that help you find a travel companion and specialty travel publications for seniors.

At 50, of course, many travelers remain quite active. As the book notes, you must be at least 50 to join a national ski club called "The Over the Hill Gang." Members get excellent discounts on lift tickets and rentals at major ski resorts throughout the country.

"South America's National Parks" by William C. Leitch (Mountaineers, 286 pages, $15.95): Unlike our own national parks, those in South America are in great need of visitors, writes the author of this excellent new guide. Many of the parks, which preserve fast-disappearing natural landscapes, receive adequate government funding only to the extent that foreign visitors show up to tour them.

South America remains an offbeat destination for American travelers, and those who do make it south generally stick to the capital cities. But new roads are making it much easier to venture into the countryside and the continent's diverse array of national parks. More than 160 parks have been established to protect unusual wildlife and vegetation or scenic treasures. They can be found in mountains, deserts, jungles and grasslands.

Author William C. Leitch, a biologist and former Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia, has selected 32 parks in seven countries -- Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. His criteria are that each offers a rewarding experience and is reasonably accessible to the average tourist.

Many of the parks remain quite primitive, but this is not true for Argentina's Nahuel Huapi, which, writes Leitch, "is to Argentines as Banff National Park is to Canadians: a honeymoon destination that also offers summer music festivals, winter ski races, regional museums, and elegant Old World hotels and restaurants." And it all can be found in a spectacular Andean mountain setting.

Also of interest:

"Innconference Catalog" by Roberta Homan Gardner (Innconference, 176 pages, $40): A full-color, hardback guide to 51 American inns that cater to small business conferences and other corporate meetings.

"ADC's Pocket Atlas of Washington, D.C. and Vicinity" ($6.95): A handy reference that fits easily in your car's glove compartment.

"Romantic Island Getaways" by Larry Fox and Barbara Radin-Fox (Wiley, 234 pages, $12.95): Lodging advice for the Caribbean, Bermuda and the Bahamas.

"Maryland: Off the Beaten Path" by Judy and Ed Colbert (Globe Pequot, 151 pages, $9.95): Sightseeing suggestions not far from home.