Shoppers are slapping down the plastic at checkouts more frequently this holiday season, leading to a steep increase in charge volume from last year's levels, major credit card companies said Wednesday.

Visa International reported charge volume of $16.8 billion during the period between Thanksgiving and Dec. 14, an increase of 16.5 percent from the comparable period in 1991. Coupled with a 23 percent jump in transaction volume, Visa expects the fourth quarter to be "one of our best ever," said spokesman Brad Hennig.MasterCard International reported $2.4 billion in charges for the first week of December, up 20.3 percent from the previous year. American Express said its retail charge volume gained 16.5 percent in November vs. a 4 percent gain in 1991.

Increased consumer confidence, holiday credit card promotions, lower interest rates and growing usage at grocery stores all are contributing to the increased volume, industry executives and analysts say.

Card interest rates averaged 17.98 percent in October, down nearly a full percentage point from the year earlier, according to Ram Research Inc. of Frederick, Md., a company that follows the industry. A number of low interest rate cards have debuted over the past year, including the highly publicized GM Card, a venture between General Motors Corp. and Household International.

"When you compare it to last year, the pricing was not very good and I think that is a big factor," said Robert McKinley, president of Ram Research. People's Bank of Bridgeport, Conn., a thrift with large credit card portfolio, said volume is up 20 percent on its cards, which offer an 11.5 percent rate.

"Sales are definitely booming," said Ronald T. Urqhart, a People's vice president of consumer credit.

Visa said it has increased its share of markets such as grocery stores and fast food outlets this year. Those areas of business historically had been dominated by cash and checks.

As a result, Visa sharp increase in volume "indicates people are using Visa to pay for lower-cost items," said Hennig.

Some of that volume is from the growing use of debit cards. They are basically an automatic teller machine card with a Visa logo that deducts the charge from a customer's checking account, not a line of credit.

Visa, with 142 million cards nationwide, also said people are buying smaller items for the holidays.

"They're not buying the washer and dryer, they're buying the neckties," Hennig said.

Visa expects annual charge volume to grow 14 percent in 1992, up from 8 percent the year before. MasterCard predicts 10 percent annual growth in charges against 6 percent the year ago.

That bodes well for banks, which find credit cards one of the most profitable line of business.