IT'S protect-your-budget time.

Unless you're a backpacker or an easy-to-please, foot-loose and fancy-free type, preconfirmed (if not prepaid) land arrangements may be essential to a successful, cost-controlled vacation abroad this spring and summer.

Those bargain air fares -- Laker, Public Charter, etc. -- solve only part of the low-cash problem. If you decide to play it by ear and gamble on taking potluck for accommodations when you arrive overseas, you might find yourself in the stew. All the best rooms may be booked in some areas. And the price definitely won't be right.

That's one good reason for taking a tour package (a subject covered in detail elsewhere on this page). Perhaps a case can be made that some prepackaged tours (especially in those instances when they are based on an air fare that any individual can buy separately) do not really represent substantial savings for the average consumer. But they would still represent a convenience.

Without condoning any misrepresentation of a travel product -- or those occasional over-exuberant descriptions -- I should point out that:

Tour wholesalers and retailers are in business, and to stay in business in a highly competitive field they have to offer a salable product that also earns them a satisfactory profit.

There may be a legitimate difference in opinion about how much money is actually saved at certain times by the consumer who elects to buy a particular package (transportation, transfers, hotels, meals, sightseeing), instead of personally selecting and "packaging" the ingredients (assuming he or she could obtain either the identical ingredients or substitutes which would be truly comparable -- and assuming a comparable air fare).

If a traveler wants to "package" his own trip, he must decide if the expenditure of time is worth the amount of money he believes will be saved. And he must also make his own personal evaluation of certain tangible and intangible benefits of prepackaged travel compared to individual travel, which is still an excellent alternative for many people who can afford it.

It is not a simple matter for the inexperienced buyer to figure out all the costs of separate items in a packaged tour (for many reasons), and whole-salers/operators and their retail travel agents normally will neither break down the costs for a client nor indicate the markup (considered private business data) -- and they are not required to do so.

If you decide to buy a package, you should be sure to read all the fine print, compare brochures, and consult a knowledgeable travel agent who can vouch for the wholesaler/operator. You should ask what you can expect in the way of adjustment if you must complain later about the product or service actually delivered, and be sure to request details on trip insurance if the information is not provided.

Certainly it is true that a more enlightened travel industry is becoming more responsive to the needs and rights of the travel consumer, sometimes under the pressure of events. On the other hand, in recent years travel agents, tour wholesalers, airlines, cruise lines and the consumers themselves have often taken turns taking it on the chin.

Lately, while the travel game heated up, the dollar cooled off, prices rose in an inflationary spiral and airline deregulation began, consumers learned more about their rights. Sometimes members of the industry have deserved criticisms, sometimes they have been unjustly accused, and many times they have merely been slow to catch up with current trends. Some conditions still exist.

But there are fresh winds, and if both the travel industry and the travel consumer can behave reasonably, with patience and goodwill, during the next decade, perhaps it will be fair sailing for everyone. Assuming, of course, that this country does not suffer a major energy crisis and travel is not treated unfairly by the government. Gasoline rationing could have a serious effect on the industry which, according to Travel Trade, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) recently said contributes "over $115 billion to the economy, supports about 5 million jobs and is one of the top three industries in almost all of the 50 states." Inouye fears travel might once again be ruled "nonessential."

Aside from what may be happening at the gasoline pumps, two recent developments in the industry seem of special interest to travelers at this time, and deserve brief mention. The first was a refreshingly frank statement by Aldo Papone, then president of the Travel Division of American Express, who has since been elevated to the post of president, Card Division. Here are a few pertinent quotes, as reported in Travel Weekly:

"What we should not forget is that the "product" that we deliver in the travel industry is often amorphous and its very character is subject to varying interpretations by seller and buyer, and among various buyers, who are free to read into our advertisements their own expected reality...

"Those of us in the wholesale business are perhaps remiss in not being sufficiently concerned about product integrity to ensure that what we are describing to our customer meets their realistic expectations... the average client (and unfortunately, many retail travel agents) does not have sufficient knowledge of the destination to form for himself or paint for others a realistic picture of what a vacation in a particular destination will be like.

"When people purchase vacation packages, they are often dissappointed... all it would have taken was a bit more realistic descriptive material, including potential negatives, or an experienced travel agent...

"I believe that the consumer has a right to expect that travel products and services will be delivered as described... Moreover, the consumer has a right to expect fair pricing... In addition, customers should feel confident that their monies, paid in advance for travel products and services to be delivered, are held separately by travel entities in escrow or other protected accounts.

"And, finally, the customer has the right to expect that, like other businesses, travel companies will be on the spot to address legitimate complaints and satisfy them with refunds or substitute services that will alleviate the problem areas as perceived by the customer.

"These legitimate expectations... we must deliver, and we must do it voluntarily before it is mandated to us by others, often unfamiliar with the travel industry..."

The second industry development was the announcement by the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) of a projected national advertising campaign to improve the image of travel agents by explaining what they do. If plans are carried out, the theme, "What We Go Through To Get You There," will appear soon on radio, TV and in national magazines -- though some agents and many hoteliers have complained about the "negative sell" approach and urged modification.

There are officials both within and without the industry who believe that some type of licensing (state or federal) of travel agents is essential. Others do not view licensing as either necesssary or desirable. Without formally requiring professional operating standards, however, there may be a limit to how much the advertising campaign alone can do to improve the long-term public image of the agent.

ASTA, of course, continues to work in many ways to help agents give better service and for the past 10 years has been involved in educational efforts, though its main activity concerns trade matters. But one organization, the Institute of Certified Travel Agents (ICTA), through its certified management study program, has taken a special approach in its efforts to raise the professional standards of all travel agents solely through education.

ICTA, headquartered in Wellesley, Mass., has about 2,500 agents who, upon completion of the prescribed study course, will be awarded the designation Certified Travel Counselor. The CTC is generally considered the highest professional rating a travel agent can attain, though ICTA does not imply that agents without the rating are not competent.

The Washington ICTA study group has an arrangement with George Washington University's department of Human Kinetics and Leisure Study in which ICTA uses the university facilities for its sessions and GWU students attending the meetings get credit for courses related to travel and transportation.

There are about 14,000 travel agency locations in the United States which are authorized to sell airline tickets. They'll be happy to offer travel suggestions -- like, for example, Mexico remains a good travel buy due to the devaluation of the peso. Just don't mention Moctezuma's Revenge if you go.