SEE YOUR TRAVEL agent," say the advertisements. Late last month he did, and shortly thereafter left with his two sons for the Caribbean island of Antigua.

Well, he did get off. Only not that smoothly. At the airport he was asked for his passport. His answer was, "What passport?" It was the first news he'd had that he'd need papers proving his and his children's nationality. n

What followed was a sweaty hour's wait while airline personnel tried to get agreement from Antigua authorities that an affidavit would be acceptable. It finally came, seconds before the plane was set to go but in time to get them on.

When he got home, though, he was still angry enough to see his travel agent once more. He asked, of course, why he hadn't been told he'd need documents.

"I thought you knew," was the answer.

Tell that story to longtime professional agents and they'll sigh. Such things shouldn't be, but naturally they can be. No field is immune to negligence or incompetence, yet a funny thing happens when you try to figure out what constitutes inadequate or improper travel counseling. What you find is that apart from laws on fraud, there are remarkably few rules that spell out to the public what is and isn't a travel agent's responsibility. Similarly, there has also been a lack of standards by which to measure proficiency.

The shortage of guidelines has long troubled responsible travel agents, aware of the ease with which untrained people can enter the field and the public perception that lumps all agents together as if each were interchangeable with the others.

But now some people in and out of the business think they see a step in the right direction. On Nov. 1, the American Society of Travel Agents, a trade group that claims roughly 9,000 agent members among the United States' nearly 17,000 agencies, will hold its first proficiency examinations to test agents for basic-level skills.

Although aimed principally at persons with six months to a year's experience, the tests are open to anyone in the business -- ASTA members and nonmembers alike. Eventually ASTA hopes to see some 8,000 of the nation's more than 100,000 agents sign up. Results, though, won't be made public unless the individual test-takers give written consent. However, presumably those who pass will want the fact known in hopes that it will be regarded as a sign of skill by travelers looking for counseling and ticketing.

Whether tests can establish much more than that the agent knows airline ticketing procedures, of course, remains to be seen. And they still don't lay out what travelers have a right to expect when they use an agent's services.

By most definitions, a travel agent is someone who plans and coordinates travel arrangements -- usually without charge, since agents earn commissions from the airlines, hotels and other suppliers they book you with. Beyond that, though, what's involved?

For instance, is it any and every travel agent's duty to know and tell clients that there's a postal and telephone strike in the place they're going? Should agents say to travelers who want to visit the Caribbean in September, "You do know it's the hurricane season?" Are they obliged to point out to customers paying for air tickets with credit cards that it's likely to take six weeks or so for a refund if they cancel?

"Any agent with brains makes a point of telling the customer anything and everything related to enjoyment or safety," says Joseph Murphy, president of the Institute of Certified Travel Agents, an association of "advanced" agents that began its own testing program in 1964 and now has 2,000 "graduates" and another 3,000 Certified Travel Counselor program enrollees.

By the same token, Murphy is acutely aware that many "agents" don't know their business and that, even for those who certainly do, the task of keeping up is endless, sticky and tricky. He cites as an example the story of an agent who called for a reservation recently at a San Francisco hotel and got not one word about the strike in progress despite his question," Do you think my client will be comfortable?"

He also knows the dilemmas that candor and cautionary advice can lead to.

"Sometimes clients get angry if you 'correct' them. You get someone going to Bermuda in midwinter. If you tell them it's a bad time and they're making a return honeymoon trip, you're on dangerous ground. You try to ask instead what they have in mind. If it's swimming, well then you're bound to tell them."

ICTA and ASTA, though, both have a "code of ethics" for their members that provides an outline of what should and shouldn't be. ICTA's, for instance, says that the general public has the right to expect professional competence and ability, a high degree of up-to-date knowledge of industry developments, accuracy, honesty, integrity and objectivity. A Certified Travel Counselor is also not to resort to improper sales techniques or misleading advertising.

ASTA's code adds that at the time of initial payment, clients must be informed in writing of any fees for changes or cancellations.

But how do such terms translate? Is an agent who has no automation system and maybe flubs finding you the lowest air fare "competent"? What if you're not told of a cholera epidemic? Does the agent who didn't know about it lack the proper "high degree" of knowledge?

Are they're acting "improperly" if they sell you a hotel-and-transportation package (for which they make more than they do selling the ingredients separately) but don't cost-out the items to see that you're getting as much or more for your money? Do they "misrepresent" if they don't point out that you may be locked into hotel arrangements you could otherwise easily change if they proved unsuitable?

A lot of travelers conclude that they don't even know the right questions, much less the right answers. As a result, many skip using travel agents altogether or become "shoppers," going from agency to agency, picking up tid-bits like pieces in a puzzle. A growing number have also been seeking answers after the fact, taking travel agents to court when there are disputes that can't be resolved amicably or through the offices of ASTA or a consumer organization.

This increased use of the small-claims court has prompted ICTA, in partnership with the Insurance Company of North America, to commence a "risk management" study. It's aimed at determining ways to reduce both the problems and the number of them that wind up in court.

According to Murphy, what they're finding is that frequently travel agents are being blamed for something that's really the fault of someone else -- a transportation company, hotel or other supplier. Secondly, they're puzzling over what to do because, as Murphy puts it, "No one puts anything in writing anymore." Given this situation, he says travel agents may have no proof and may be effectively sued by travelers who simply forget that they had received warnings or instruction.

Yes, but part of the problem, say critics, is that travel agents want it both ways. They want to be accepted as "professionals" like accountants and lawyers but they don't want similar responsibility and liability. For instance, for at least a score of years, both insurance companies and ASTA's consumer department have dealt in judgements of what IS IMPROPER OR WRONGFUL (ASTA responds in the form of "recommendations," such as "We think compensation may be in order") but neither has deemed it a duty to put its findings together in any kind of consumer bill of rights.

Why not? "The negative side of travel isn't necessary to dwell on. We think that having ASTA as a place for redress for anything that isn't delivered to you in the most important aspect," says Curtis Nabors, ASTA's executive vice president. "With 40 million travelers and an average of about 1,500 complaints, it would seem we serve better by offering people brochures, films and speakers programs to enlighten them on the use of travel agents and encourage realistic expectations."

Actually the small claims court doesn't compile specifics either. It's not a court of record and its decisions aren't circulated as they would be if they were "legal precedents." What usually happens is that the court makes decisions by trying to determine what any reasonable prudent travel agent would do under the same circumstances.

However, as Arthur Schiff, ASTA's legal counsel, points out, higher standards of performance are called for from anyone claiming a higher standard of expertise. In other words, a Certified Travel Counselor who's passed the ICTA course had better be good because he or she is certainly more liable under the law.

So if it's still hard to perceive what you can count on a "good" travel agent to do, be glad about the new ASTA tests, too. They help underscore the fact that there are lemons and there are peaches. And they do give you clues you can use to tell the difference.