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The overseas catalogues for Elderhostel and Interhostel print their warnings and caveats in full-size type. In contrast to the glorious wish books of costly conventional tour operators, the two sponsors of educational programs for older people emphasize that the living will be Spartan and participants should be prepared to walk rough paths, eat in cafeterias and carry their own suitcases.

"Sorry, special diets cannot be accommodated," is the blunt assertion in the Elderhostel catalogue, a 138-page newsprint tabloid."Most rooms will be doubles and participants must always be prepared to share double rooms," says Interhostel.

Similar no-nonsense statements follow, including one about the difficulty of refunds. The advice to buy cancellation insurance is unequivocal.

Although there are no exams and no penalties, both organizations focus on education and expect participants to join classses and field trips. Officials say that people have been known to sign up just to get the inexpensive trip, housing and meals, but in subsequent years, at least at Elderhostel, these people may find they are no longer welcome.

But as usual, catalogues are going fast and trips are filling up.

Right now the summer catalogue for Interhostel, with 50 overseas trips, is being distributed from its home base at the University of New Hampshire. The spring catalogue, with some trips still open, is also available.

The Elderhostel international catalogue for summer offers hundreds of programs. Elderhostel's minimum age is 55, although younger spouses or adult companions may also attend.

This organization, now 21 years old and independently set up in Boston, originated at the University of New Hampshire.

Elderhostel groups are usually no bigger than 45; the average for overseas programs is 30, according to Cady A. Goldfield, a spokeswoman. Unlike Interhostel, it also operates university-based programs in the United States and Canada. They are hugely popular. Last year almost 250,000 people participated in North America; 25,000 are expected to join the overseas programs this year.

Elderhostel is involved in a gradual shift on the age issue. Late in 1994, it lowered its minimum age to 55 from 60, because of pressure from early retirees. A husband or wife of any age could also attend, but any other accompanying person had to be at least 50. Now, Ms. Goldfield says, the organization has dropped the minimum age for an accompanying person and expects that mothers and daughters, for example, will attend together.

New programs

A new program in the Elderhostel list offers seven nights in Prague and seven in Vienna, with the title, "Prague and Vienna: From Habsburg Capitals to Modern Europe." This is offered Aug. 9 to 24. The Austrian National Commission for Unesco is the sponsor of the program of lectures on the heritage of the cities. The price, with air fare from Kennedy International Airport, a double-occupancy hotel room and meals, is $2,980. The terms of the air ticket permit a stay of 21 days.

Another new Elderhostel program, with a home-stay component, pays homage to Americans in France, "From Ben Franklin to Franklin Roosevelt." This trip, from Sept. 7 to 20, involves five nights at a hotel outside Paris, with lectures on American visitors from the 17th century to Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, including visits to their houses and cafes, Giverny and its American Impressionist museum. Hostelers will stay for three nights with families in the Bayeux region and four nights at a hotel in the 18th-century section of Bayeux. The cost from New York, with double-occupancy hotel rooms, is $2,591. Other departure cities are available, and the air ticket permits a stay of 21 days.

Interhostel has a new program in Finland, offered July 19 to Aug. 2. Six nights in Helsinki and seven nights in rural Anjalankoski will cover architecture, history and the social welfare system. Sibelius's home will be visited and there will be a day trip to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. The Helsinki Evangelical College and the Kymenlaakso Folk School are the cooperating schools. This trip will involve considerable walking, some on cobblestone streets. The cost, in a double room or, for an extra $50, a single, is $2,535, leaving from New York.

An Interhostel program in Spain from Sept. 21 to Oct. 5 offers three nights in Seville, five in Salamanca and five in Madrid, with visits to the Prado, the Alcazar fortress, El Escorial monastery and palace, and Toledo. Politics, education and life in 20th-century Spain will be explored with assistance from the Colegio de Espana. The cost, with a flight from New York, is $3,125. There are some single rooms available for $475 extra.

Getting physical

Elderhostel has several bicycling programs and Interhostel has two walking programs.

From June 4 to 18, Interhostel is offering two weeks of walking in Ireland, including Galway, the Aran Islands, the Cliffs of Moher and Adare. Participants will stay in modest hotels in Galway and Killarney; lectures and presentations will focus on wildlife, agriculture and the Celtic people. The cost, with air fare, meals and hotel, two to a room, is $2,645 from New York.

Interhostel's French walking program runs from Sept. 5 to 19, covering Bordeaux and the Dordogne: four nights in Bordeaux, three in Sarlat, three in Rocamandour and two in Paris. "You must be a good walker," the catalogue says, for the three to five daily miles on unpaved, sometimes rocky, trails with hills. The American University of Paris is the cooperating school. Travel on Continental Airlines is included, as are meals and double-occupancy rooms in "comfortable" hotels; the cost is $2,625 from Boston.

Elderhostel's two-week bicycle trips in France cover the Chateaux of the Loire, offered 15 times between May 1 and Sept. 27, and the Basque country and Bordeaux, offered three times in September. Applicants must be able to do 25 to 35 miles a day on a three-speed bicycle. With departures from New York, the cost ranges from $2,333 to $2,592, depending on the date.

Elderhostel is at 75 Federal Street, Boston, Mass. 02110. Requests for catalogues by telephone are discouraged, but you can call (617) 426-7788, and the operator will transfer you to a recording device.

Interhostel is at University of New Hampshire, 6 Garrison Avenue, Durham, N.H. 03824; (800) 733-9753; fax (603) 862-1113.