Susan Pepper of Arlington had a holiday dilemma: finding a place for friends to gather on New Year's Eve without anyone driving home afterward on the one night when booze flows fastest.

"For all the public awareness [about drunk driving], there's still a lot of people who foolishly get behind the wheel and drive," said Pepper, whose group has decided to celebrate at a local hotel and spend the night. "Why set yourself up? It makes a lot of sense to stay in hotels."

While local governments and community groups promote holiday traffic safety with free cab rides, sobriety checkpoints and designated-drinker programs, many Washington area residents are opting to avoid the dangers of driving and overindulgence by staying where the party is.

Encouraged by hotel marketing campaigns, hundreds of area celebrators are spending up to $200 apiece, $350 per couple, for overnight party packages that include everything from champagne toasts at midnight to champagne brunches the next morning.

"Almost everybody stays the night," said Eddie Isom, manager of the Howard Inn on Georgia Avenue in Northwest Washington, which already has reservations for 350 party goers on New Year's Eve. "Nobody wants to be out on the streets New Year's Eve -- drunk or sober."

"People like the idea of relaxing in a hotel and having a good time and not having to worry about going home," said Leonard Hickman of the D.C. Hotel Association. More of the city's 75 hotels are offering overnight deals than ever before, he said.

Nationally, the American Hotel and Motel Association has launched a holiday campaign against drunk driving that advises revelers to call a cab or check in for the night, noting that "it's cheaper than court and a fine . . . or worse."

Local innkeepers see the promotion as a good way to fill empty rooms during one of their slowest periods. With Congress in recess, the hotels are without the usual business and government visitors. Most are offering significantly reduced rates, some of the area's most notable hotels among them.

In downtown Washington, rooms at the Capital Hilton that typically cost $155 a night for one person are available for a flat fee of $72 on the last night of the year.

At the Watergate Hotel in Northwest, couples can spend the night in a $180 deluxe guest room for only $19.86 apiece. But they must dine first at one of the hotel's gourmet restaurants at prices that begin at $95 a couple.

At Alexandria's Radisson Mark Plaza Hotel, which opened during the summer, New Year's Eve patrons of the hotel's restaurants and disco can get $120 rooms for $19.86 per person, based on double occupancy.

"If the room isn't filled, you're better off selling it for less. That's the thinking," said a Washington hotel spokesman who asked not to be named.

Most hotel overnight party packages for New Year's Eve include midnight-to-morning amenities such as four-course dinners featuring steak, veal or lobster, champagne, disco or ballroom dancing, and turned-down beds.

The "deluxe" rooms available range from those with color TVs and double beds to those with skyline views of Washington, king-size beds and maid service.

The Grand Hotel at 24th and M streets NW (formerly the Regent) is having an art deco theme party based on Greta Garbo's 1930s movie "Grand Hotel," and expects 300 people.

"At $350 a couple, it sounds expensive but it's not; parking's included," said Grand Hotel sales director Bruce Dyke.

For $125 apiece, party goers at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill can listen to the 1960s soul duo "Sam and Dave" and dine on smoked swordfish before settling into a deluxe room for the night. The hotel is setting up a dormitory where the children of party goers also can spend the night out, supervised by baby sitters from the YWCA.

Downtown Washington innkeepers say the prices have not deterred the city's yuppies and affluent older couples. And in Maryland and Northern Virginia, hoteliers say many suburbanites just want to spend the night closer to home.

At the Radisson in Alexandria, party packages are selling "briskly" and more than half of the patrons plan to stay overnight.

"Let's face it," said manager Alfred Matter, "people know there are going to be drunks out on the road."