Spending the night in a ''bed and breakfast'' instead of in a hotel is one increasingly popular way to cut vacation costs. Bed and breakfasts are popping up from Nantucket to downtown Los Angeles, and accommodations can range from a condominium in a high-rise to an antique-filled room with its own fireplace. Once available only in rural areas or small towns, bed and breakfasts can now be found in large cities, too, and at very attractive prices.
Although bed and breakfasts vary tremendously, in price as well as style - and in whether or not they offer much in the way of breakfast - owners of nearly all share a desire to provide visitors with something special. The key is to find the one that caters to your needs.
One thing to keep in mind: Hotels are often intentionally situated near highways, beaches, or business areas. A B&B may well lack this convenience. Travelers for whom time is of the essence should think of B&Bs as just one of many options.
There are two types of bed and breakfasts: those you contact directly and those that accept reservations only through a referral service. Since the bed-and-breakfast movement in the United States is new, the various referral services operate differently - some require small membership fees, and others do not; some focus on a particular area or city, others cover the entire country; some collect fees for the host homes, others do not. Most people have found that the directors of the bed and breakfast referral services tend to be as friendly as the hosts they represent, and are happy to answer your questions by phone or with a short letter.
When contacting these services, try to be as specific as possible about your needs: if you will be traveling with children or animals, if you will be traveling on business and need the use of a private telephone or parking facilities, if you will need to be in a downtown location close to public transportation, or if you'll be on vacation and would like access to a swimming pool, the beach, tennis courts, or a golf course.
Making a reservation at a bed and breakfast is not like making a reservation at a hotel, where you can call at any hour of the night or day and usually find a room available. Keep in mind that a bed and breakfast is someone's home, and most people who have opened their homes will go out of their way to make you feel comfortable, but they cannot be expected to provide the services of a large hotel with bellhops and waiters.
On the other hand, expect the unexpected: hot blueberry muffins awaiting you in the morning, fresh flowers in your bedroom, and a hostess willing to lend you a bicycle and baby-sit your children or pets while you're off exploring the town.
If you plan to stay at a bed and breakfast, you should make reservations as early as possible, especially during their busy season. Referral services usually operate only during regular business hours.
Here are three paperback books that provide good descriptions of bed and breakfasts in all 50 states, as well as in Canada. There are also listings of referral services, and line drawings or black and white photos of several of the bed and breakfasts. Bed and Breakfast U.S.A.; A Guide to Tourist Homes and Guest Houses, by Betty Rundback and Nancy Ackerman. New York: E. P. Dutton. $5.95 Bed and Breakfast American Style, by Norman T. Simpson. Stockbridge, Mass.: Berkshire Traveller Press. $6.95 The Great American Guest House Book, by John Thaxton. New York: Burt Franklin & Co. $7.95
One person who has compiled a directory of associations of bed and breakfast operators is Robert R. Bensen (Box 118, Burlington, Vt. 05401). If you send him listings, including many in Canada and some in Bermuda, England, Ireland, and Mexico.