"Travel agents," touts instructor Evelyn Echols, "offer one of the last free services on earth.

"Even for a short trip, why go through the hassle of calling every airline to find the best routes and fares when a travel agent will do that for you, free?"

To find a good agent -- they're paid by commission -- Echols suggests that you:

1. Ask friends or relatives to refer you to a travel agent they have found helpful, or call the American Society of Travel Agents (in the District, 659-3597) and ask them to refer you to a member agent near your work or home. ASTA affiliation assures that the agent meets certain qualifications, and provides an avenue of recourse if something goes wrong.

2. "Walk right out" if the agent "just offers you a bunch of brochures. This is a service business, and lack of enthusiasm tell you from the outset that you're not dealing with a service-oriented agent."

3. Remember that a good agent will ask questions about what you like and want before making a recommendation. "One of the first things an agent should do is find out if you're an opera buff, a golf buff or whatever, and how much you want to spend."

4. Consult an agent as soon as possible. "Americans tend to procrastinate about making arrangements. Then they blame the travel agent when they can't get reservations."