When Baltimore travel editor Hugh Brannan and his wife visited Tidewater Virginia last fall, it was first class all the way. They rented a car, stayed in the finest hotels and feasted on the fanciest of foods.

The Brannans were typical affluent tourists in every respect but one - the tab for their week-long trip was paid for by the state of Virginia.

After an experimental program that began three years ago, the Virginia State Travel Service has decided that it's often cheaper to offer individual expense-paid trips to newspaper and magazine travel writers than to buy advertising space in their publications.

Writers seem to like the idea, too. "It's dynamite," said Brannan, travel editor of the Baltimore News-American who upon his return wrote a glowing article on the joys of travel in Virginia.

"Say it costs $400 for a writer to visit Virginia, said John E. Schwab, special projects director for the state travel service. "What gets in print would be like $2,800 worth of space we'd have to buy."

Schwab said this year's budget for the program is $6,000. "To tell you the truth," he said, "we have more money then we know what to do with."

More than 100 writers from across the country are invited to visit Virginia each year, and about one out of four accepts, Schwab said. So far, 58 writers have visited the state and their articles have been "100 percent favorable," Schwab said.

"Once in a while the writer will say . . . that an attraction is not all it's cracked up to be," said Schwab. "But most of the time the writers are absolutely ga ga."

According to the travel service, Virginia is the only state that does not bring writers in all at once, crowding them into buses and herding them to tourist attractions in a group.

"Most writers are very inquisitive and like to poke around on their own," Schwab said.

Writers plan their itineraries and the travel service takes care of the rest, picking up the tab for food, car and lodging.

The writers' favorite spots so far, Schwab said, have been Williamsburg, Charlottesville, the Shenandoah Valley, the Eastern Shore and Virginia Beach. Schwab said he was reluctant to reveal Virginia's travel writers program for fear that other states would copy it.

"This is not a junket," commented Hugh Brannan, who said that his newspaper cannot afford to send him on many trips. "This is an experiment," he said.

And it works, according to Schwab, because Virginia is "a super-nice state."