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Last spring Continental canceled an evening flight out of Newark after two postponements, and at 10:30 p.m. I stood dismally in line to have my ticket revalidated for early morning.

I was calculating when I could get to bed and when I would have to get up again when I saw the man ahead of me using a cellular phone to reserve a hotel room."Don't hang up, please," I implored, and he soon let me speak to the Marriott people. I made a reservation and when I got to the luggage area, the van was waiting.

For a technology non-nut, it was a revolutionary event.

I was registered at the hotel in time to get a drink before the bar shut at 11 p.m., which would have been impossible if I had spent time going to a pay phone. I waited for an opportunity to rent a cellular phone to test other uses.

This summer, the Budget car-rental counter at the Minneapolis airport offered a portable cellular phone for $4.95 a day plus a per-minute charge for use, and we took it.

At first it was a frustrating toy, but we worked out the kinks. The best use was while we were out tramping through the longhorns' pastures and were able to announce the birth of a calf to other family members so they could come and look. We got a sharp signal on three long-distance calls home.

But on the value I envisioned - calling for help if a rental car broke down in the country - it was a disappointment, because nationally the network of towers that carry cellular phone signals is more gap than net.

Much wider coverage is not far off, particularly in rural areas, according to Wayne DuBois of BellSouth Mobility, which operates a cellular system. The trade publication Cellular Business expects 48-state coverage by the end of 1991.

But our problem was that our cellular phone was not set up to "roam" out of its home area.

As we drove south from the Twin Cities, we got a flashing "no service" signal about 50 miles from downtown Minneapolis. Had it been set up to roam, using the towers of other systems, we should have been able to pick up again in Waterloo, Iowa, but it was not adjusted to do this.

For anyone who wants to rent a cellular phone, either built into the auto, or one in a carrying case, which operates with batteries and an antenna, or by plugging into the car lighter outlet, there are certain urgent matters to attend to.

First, the phone is tricky for a novice.

The units are all supposed to have instruction books, but we got none. If you do not get a booklet, have the clerk take you through turning the phone on, dialing and getting an answer.

The clerk assured us that the directions on the decal on the device would be adequate, but the decal did not specify the number of the phone itself, nor did the rental contract, though it was supposed to, according to Budget.

The last three digits of this number formed the code that unlocked the phone for use, so after I hit the "lock" button in error, we had to go to a regular phone and ask Budget to tell us our own number.

We were never able to make the phone work on the lighter outlet in the car, but it worked immediately on its batteries when the little antenna was screwed in. If you get a portable, be sure you have an antenna.

You should also receive a copy of a map showing where your phone will function.

Ask to look at this map before you rent, because your route may make the phone useless within an hour. Find out if you can roam. People who own their cellular phones probably know how to program in the roamer feature on a rental unit.

The contract we signed set a value on each part of the package, and this is intimidating because this is what the renter owes if the equipment is not returned.

The portable device was valued at $2,850, the charger at $50, the battery device at $95, the antenna at $90, the case at $125 and the adapter for the lighter at $50.

Needless to say, I carried the phone with me when we parked. Experts tell me that "klunky" cellular devices like ours can be bought used for much less.

Beyond the $4.95 daily charge, the phone cost $1.49 for each minute of use, wherever we called, plus any tolls, which we charged to our home number by punching in the digits.

The meter shows we used the phone for 34 minutes in 10 days. Our total bill, with taxes, was $105.69.

The big car rental companies are not unanimous in seeing cellular phone rentals as the amenity of the future.

National Car Rental, which started out with a bang in 1987, has decided it is not worth it to install and remove phones from cars that may go out of the fleet in six months.

National originally installed phones to use the credit-card swipe-through feature for its express pickup service, Emerald Aisle. Their use as phones was really a side benefit, according to Michael J. Olsen, vice president for corporate communications.

Other technology for express pickup has been developed, he said, and phone rental is now available only in National-owned locations in Los Angeles and Denver, as well as some smaller franchise places. The charge is $5.95 a day plus $1.45 for each minute of use.

Hertz is going into heavily into two programs, one with phones that are built into the cars, generally larger models, and the other with portables. The built-ins may be requested but not reserved; there is no charge unless they are used. The charge is $1.25 a call plus $1.25 per minute of use.

Where available, the portables may be reserved, and the daily charge is $5.95, plus $1.45 a minute, $1.75 in New York. Both types are programed to roam, so the user can place a call wherever service is available.

A total of 900 portable phones are available with Hertz auto rentals in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Denver, Atlanta, San Diego, Phoenix, Washington, Fort Lauderdale, Seattle, San Jose, West Palm Beach, Las Vegas, Baltimore, Portland, Ore., Oakland, Burbank, Ontario, Long Beach and Anaheim in California and New York.

The 6,500 built-ins are in Hertz autos in Dallas, Houston, Oklahoma City, Baltimore, Hartford, St. Louis, Washington, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta and O'Hare Airport in Chicago.

Susan Donahue, a spokeswoman for Hertz, says that San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco will be added by the end of the year. The company's contract with GTE Cellular Comunications Corp. calls for 50,000 units ultimately.

Avis plans to have 9,000 Motorola units built into midsize and larger rental cars in the coming year. In mid-July, the only place they were available was Chicago, where 600 units had been installed. They cannot be reserved.

San Francisco was to be next, at the end of July, followed by other major cities, according to Demetria Mudar, a spokeswoman.

Like Hertz, Avis has no daily charge for the unit but charges $1.75 per minute of use. These units are programed to roam.

Budget Rent a Car is plunging into phones in a big way: Over three years the company, which now has only 300 phones in a few cities, plans to install 70,000 units in its busiest 100 areas. These will be built-in "hands free" units, which permit conversation while both hands are on the wheel, according to Jody B. Wilson, the spokeswoman.

In the first year, 10,000 units will be put in 50 airports, starting with Chicago. There will be no weekly charge for the units nor for any long-distance calls in the lower 48 states. Air time will cost $1.75 a minute. They will all roam.

Marty Katz, a Baltimore photographer, owns a raft of cellular equipment so he is never out of reach of a phoned assignment.

Once, Katz says, he always rode the Metroliner to New York because it had a phone. Now he carries his own unit and rides the regular train.

He also hails the value of owning a cellular phone when you are grounded in a plane and need to reach the person meeting you, or when the plane is unloading and you need to call a taxi.

Robert M. Mroz, the engineer in charge of the Baltimore office of the Federal Communications Commission, notes that agency rules do not permit use of a personal cellular phone while a plane is in the air.