She calls it "a dream career" -- a perk-packed job featuring free and discount trips to virtually every vacation spot on earth.

But along with "the fabulous fringes of being a travel agent," notes Evelyn Echols, director of International Travel Training Courses, Inc. (believed to be the granddaddy of travel schools), "come some enormous responsibilities.

"Next to medicine, travel agents are in possibly the most personal business there is. To plan a trip you've got to ask a lot of questions and really get to know your client's likes and dislikes, their financial situation, even their food preferences.

"And each client is entrusting you with two of the most important ingredients in their lives -- their money and their time. That one- or two-week vacation may be the one time they have all year to really enjoy themselves. It's an enormous responsibility to see that someone gets great satisfaction out of their trip."

Despite the economy, "Travel industry prospects," Echols claims, "have never been brighter. Jobs for well-trained people in the travel industry are booming.

"About 80 percent of travel industry business is not leisure travel -- it's business travel, which includes things like students going to college. Then there's been an enormous influx of foreign visitors touring the United States."

Tight money, she says, hasn't stopped Americans from taking vacations. "It's just fostered new trends. People may cut their vacation down from three weeks to one week or 10 days, but they're still going places.

"And the cruise business has become gigantic, possibly because people know exactly how much they'll be spending. Except for their bar costs, or items they buy in port, everything is paid beforehand so they can budget the trip better.

"Americans are beginning to buy more package tours for the same reason. Tourism is the largest private employer in 26 out of the 50 states, and tourism is expected to be the world's largest industry by the turn of the century."

Traditionally, inexperienced people interested in travel agentry could get a job and learn the business from experienced staffers. "But now," says Echols, "there's a heavy emphasis on computers, and travel agencies don't have the time to train people like that anymore."

Instead, travel schools like hers (one of a handful in this area) teach courses such as "Introduction to Steamship Travel" and "Basic Ticketing."

But in 1962, when Echols moved to Chicago and "retired" after 20 years of owning a New York agency, "There was no such thing," she claims, "as a travel training school."

The idea for her school began at a social event when she boasted to several judges that she could train some hard-to-teach reform-school students.

"I went to the airlines, steamship agencies, hotels and asked if their people would help teach. The 15 girls did such outstanding work that I wanted their graduation to be spectacular.

"I got an airline to offer a plane so they could get their diplomas in the air, Marshall Field's to dress them and Elizabeth Arden to do their hair. The media heard about it, and we had more press on that plane than students.

"People who read about the graduation kept calling the papers to see where they could take the travel course. That kind of interest started the first school."

ITTC, Inc., now has four schools (with the Washington school run by one of Echols' prize pupils), and "hundreds" of other schools have followed. The ITTC course is offered five times a year -- at night for 17 weeks or during the day for 6 weeks -- for $1.650.

"Right now almost one-third of our students are teachers," says Echols, with about two-thirds women. "We have retirees, PhDs, real-estate agents, disenchanted nurses, re-entry women. We tend to be a barometer for how jobs are going in other industries.

"We won't accept anyone we don't think we can place," adds Echols, who says they place 92 percent of graduates with travel agencies, airlines, government agencies and tourist offices.

The first criteria for acceptance is personality. "This is not a business for an introvert. You've got to have wild enthusiasm for travel. We'll accept a high-school graduate with good credentials -- B grades -- but most of our students have college diplomas or some college."

Salaries, she admits, "are low -- about $10,000 -- to start. But an experienced travel counselor can make upwards of $20,000, and the travel departments of private companies pay better -- beginning at $12,000 or $13,000. And some companies work on commissions that will boost your salary.

"The more you travel, the more knowledgeable a travel agent you become. Hardly a week will go by without an invitation to a new hotel opening, or cruise ship, and the agency owner will usually designate someone to go. Many airline associations, hotels and cruise ships offer travel agents special discounts, and some agencies will give you a $400 or $500 travel allowance."

But "You shouldn't," warns Echols, "go into travel agentry just for the fringes. It's an extremely complex business. Learning the tools of the trade -- the volumes of guides, atlases and hotel indexes that you've got to be able to use quickly -- is hard work.

"It's a constant challenge to keep up with what's happening in the world. No two clients or trips are the same, and there's lots of homework to be done. You've got to maintain an enthusiasm and be able to please people -- because you build a business by word of mouth from satisfied customers.