A few years back, I asked a travel agent to book a complicated itinerary to South America for me. She came back with an air fare of more than $2,000, which I thought was too high. So I talked to another agent, a specialist in South American vacations, and she was able to quote a more acceptable fare of $1,400. How could there be such a discrepancy?

The easy answer is that one agent knew her business and the other didn't, but there's more to it than that.

The first agent was one who normally catered to business travelers within the United States, and she did that job quite well. To her credit, she admitted up front that she knew nothing about South America but would tackle my request anyway. She actually sounded relieved when I told her I wasn't satisfied with the results. Obviously, she didn't much like working in unfamiliar territory.

The second agent, the specialist, quickly won my confidence with her obvious knowledge of South American airlines and air fares. Among several suggestions, she advised me to delay my tentative departure for several days to take advantage of a lower fare and to alter my itinerary slightly for even more discounts. The specifics aren't as important as the savings she achieved.

I learned an important lesson from the experience: You ought to choose a travel agent with a great deal of care. And that means finding not only an agent who is honest, friendly and hard-working, but one who has at least some expertise in your destination or the willingness to do the necessary research to become adequately informed. The right agent can smooth your path and save you big money.

As in any profession, the proficiency of agents can vary. There are stars and there are laggards, and they may work for the same agency. In addition, an agent skilled in one aspect of travel -- such as business travel -- may know comparatively little about tennis resorts or bicycling holidays in France, and vice versa.

Currently there are about 200,000 travel agents working in some 35,000 agencies in the United States, and the number is growing. As an indication of their importance in the travel industry, they account for 83 percent of airline ticket sales, 95 percent of cruise sales, 90 percent of package tour sales, 50 percent of car rentals and 25 percent of hotel bookings, according to the American Society of Travel Agents in Alexandria. The vast majority offer their services at no charge to the traveler. Their income is derived from commissions paid by airlines, lodgings, rental car agencies and tour operators.

The society, along with at least two other trade organizations -- the Institute of Certified Travel Agents in Wellesley, Mass. and the Association of Retail Travel Agents in Arlington -- monitors the practices and ethics of the profession. Nevertheless, travel agents have come under sharp criticism in the past couple of years.

Consumer Reports Travel Letter, a publication of Consumers Union, suggested last year that agents might be guilty of bias by recommending only those travel suppliers -- hotels, car rentals, tours and cruises -- that paid them the highest commissions. In 1988, Arthur Tauck, president of Tauck Tours, a major U.S. tour operator, publicly questioned the geography skills of younger travel agents. And increasingly, clients unhappy with the way a vacation turned out have filed suit against their agents seeking a refund and damages for lost time. Newsweek magazine in its Dec. 10 issue cited the case of a couple who is suing an agent for $50,000 for sending them to an island resort hotel that was under renovation.

Some of the criticism is probably justified. On the other hand, a number of the court suits are "bizarre" and "outrageous," charges Paul Ruden, senior vice president for legal affairs at the American Society of Travel Agents. He contends that agents at times suffer as the most convenient targets of blame for mishaps over which they had no control -- such as lost luggage or an overbooked hotel.

Travelers turn to agents for diverse needs, requiring them to have the skills both of a counselor and a computer-wise research whiz. At one extreme, some clients show up with no idea of where they might want to go on vacation. "Give me some ideas," they say, according to numerous travel agents. Their opposites are the adventurers for whom travel is a lifetime pleasure. These folks tend to draw up their own itineraries and choose the hotels themselves. They use a travel agent to find the best air fare and car rental rates and to relieve them of the chore of actually booking the hotels.

Few travelers, however, can do without an agent, if only to book a flight. The nation's air fare structure is so complex -- and fares change so frequently -- you really do need professional help in finding the lowest fare that meets your needs.

What Should You Expect From a Travel Agent? In large part, the answer depends on knowing what kind of agency you are dealing with. You may want to choose an agent or agency based on the nature of your trip. Among the varied types of agencies:

Specialists. "Travel agents are becoming increasingly specialized," says Philip G. Davidoff, president of the American Society of Travel Agents. "Some deal exclusively with leisure travel while others reserve only business travel."

It is an important distinction. An agent whose major responsibility is booking business travelers into city hotels is unlikely to acquire much knowledge of romantic country inns here or abroad. This kind of expertise is the province of an agency such as Lifestyle Travel in Washington, which caters to vacationers. Marika Delgado, the manager, says it is not unusual for her firm to plan a detailed sightseeing itinerary for clients incorporating a series of bed-and-breakfast inns. Delgado has just returned from a vacation trip to Cancun in Mexico, where she spent much of her time checking out hotels at the popular beach resort. She also keeps a large file of travel articles from newspapers and magazines for reference.

Tauck, whose business depends on leisure travel sales, is optimistic that more agents will go into the leisure side of the business in the years to come. In the '80s, he says, corporate accounts seemed to be the way to make money. But that business has been snapped up by big agencies. Meanwhile the market in leisure travel is expanding and opening new opportunities for smaller agencies.

Agents also specialize geographically. Look at the "Travel Agents" listing in the Yellow Pages of the telephone book, and you will see ads citing experience in the Caribbean, Alaska, Scandinavia, Hawaii, Mexico, South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. A travel agent "can't know everything," says Jonathan Chase of Travel Advisors of America, a Washington firm focusing on Eastern Europe. To survive, the agent "has to pick a niche." To keep abreast of his specialty, Chase made a scouting trip in October to Albania, which has begun opening its doors to American travelers.

In line with the trend toward specialization, the Institute of Certified Travel Agents introduced courses two years ago designed to qualify travel agents as "destination specialists." Currently, there are courses for the South Pacific, the Caribbean and Western Europe. (Travelers who want information on agents who have successfully completed one or more of the courses can write to the institute at 148 Linden St., Box 56, Wellesley, Mass. 02181. Enclose a business-sized envelope, stamped and self-addressed.)

In addition, other agencies specialize in such specific activities as cruising, hiking and bicycling and vacation villa rentals. As many as 150 cruise ships sail the world's seas, according to Ron Bitting, president of the National Association of Cruise Only Agencies, which has 800 members. It takes a specialist's knowledge, he says, to match a passenger's interests with a compatible ship. (A list of local cruise-only travel agencies can be obtained by writing the association at P.O. Box 7209, Freeport, N.Y. 11520. Enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Specify no more than three states.)

Rebaters. So named because they return part of their commission to clients, the rebaters aim for the traveler interested in the lowest price available for airline fares, package tours and cruises. They are few in number, and the leader among them is Travel Avenue of Chicago, which formerly was called McTravel.

The rebaters offer little or no travel counseling, a staple at most travel agencies. Instead, they deal only with travelers who know precisely where and when they want to fly or what package tour or cruise they want. You phone with the details, and the agency searches for the best price.

Travel Avenue charges a fee of $8 per person to handle the sale of a domestic airline ticket. But it returns a 7 to 12 percent commission, depending on the airline. For example, if the lowest-priced fare to your destination, less taxes, is $300, you would get back a sum up to $36 (when the commission is 12 percent). Subtract the $8 fee, and the net saving is $28. Such rebates can be substantial on high-priced cruises, tours and international air fares. For information: Travel Avenue, 800-333-3335.

Limited-service agencies. The new travel operation introduced in July by Sears -- Sears Vacation Travel -- falls into this category. Sears is selling package tours and cruises, but only to specified destinations. You can't ask Sears to book you into Europe, because as yet it offers no European tours.

Currently, Sears can send vacationers to Honolulu, Las Vegas, Orlando, San Juan, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Nassau in the Bahamas and the all-inclusive resorts on Jamaica. The package price, which varies depending on choice of hotel, includes round-trip air fare, accommodations, a rental car or hotel transfers, sightseeing tours where applicable and trip-cancellation insurance.

Also offered are Club Med packages in North America and cruises in the Caribbean on Carnival Cruise Lines. Other tour destinations and cruise lines will be added as the program expands, according to Martin Hanaka, the agency's president.

Travel offices eventually may open in Sears retail outlets, he says, but currently the operation is handled by phone. All trips booked with Sears can be charged on the SearsCharge Card for extended monthly payments. For information: Sears Vacation Travel, 800-767-1111.

Fee-based counselors. The time may come when more travel agents, especially those who offer detailed travel counseling, will charge a fee for their time. Only a few do so currently. One such agency is Off the Beaten Path of Bozeman, Mont. It specializes in travel to the Rocky Mountain West from Canada south to New Mexico.

Typically, the firm will put together a detailed, day-by-day itinerary for a two- or three-week trip that includes recommended driving routes, lodgings, restaurants, side trips and such recreational activities as hiking, trail riding and white-water rafting, and it will make reservations where needed. The fee begins at $350.

For $150, you can get advice on lodgings and sightseeing, but no itinerary is prepared. For information: Off the Beaten Path, 109 E. Main St., Bozeman, Mont. 59715, 406-586-1311.

Full-service agencies. They range in size from giants such as American Express with offices throughout the world to one- or two-person operations in neighborhood shopping malls. Regardless, you can turn to them for help in arranging almost any type of trip.

Larger agencies may be able to provide specialists in a variety of destinations, and many have separate staffs for leisure and commercial travel. Because of their size, they often can obtain discounts on accommodations, rental cars and cruises.

Smaller firms generally count on personalized attention to attract loyal customers. Some firms have joined large consortia as a way of getting the same kinds of discounts available to the large agencies.

One drawback to almost any agency of any size is that they may not be aware of the offbeat cultural, literary, garden, scientific or even adventure tour offered by universities or nonprofit organizations such as the Oceanic Society and the Sierra Club. You have to keep alert to mention of them in newspaper travel sections and travel magazines.

How Good Are Travel Agents? Many agents are eager travelers who enjoy their work and put in long hours for modest pay, say industry leaders. But there are problems in the profession, and travelers using an agent should be aware of them.

In the view of Arthur Tauck, most of whose tours are sold through travel agencies, younger travel agents are probably more adept at computers -- which means they might do a better job of finding the best fares. But older agents generally know their geography, and they have traveled more. If you want help on a complicated itinerary, you probably should seek an agent with experience. Tauck suggests asking, "Have you been there?" It is valuable advice.

Twenty or 30 years ago, almost any travel agent could be expected to put together a detailed itinerary to distant destinations for an independent traveler. But that was before the modern package tour, says Paul Bessel, who heads the Association of Retail Travel Agents. Nowadays, many agents -- and probably most -- concentrate on selling packages or cruises, because they are easier to handle, take less time and usually are more profitable.

A package may be an all-inclusive escorted tour or simply air fare, lodgings and hotel transfers for independent travelers. Packages are popular, because they usually are cheaper than the same arrangements made by an individual. Tour organizers get discounts because of their volume of business, which they pass along to the traveler.

A travel agent should be able offer a variety of packages from which to choose. Packages vary in quality, and an agent should be your guide to what is best for the amount of money you want to spend. One drawback to packages is that accommodations often are in large, bustling hotels. There may be no package deal for the quaint little inn in the Caribbean you prefer. If your agent recommends a package, make sure it is something you want.

Inexperience is a recognized concern in the profession, and one reason may be low pay. The opportunity to travel at substantially reduced rates is a perk that attracts many people -- especially those who enjoy traveling. But in Washington, the starting salary for an agent is only about $14,000 a year, according to Talula A. Guntner, an assistant professor of travel and tourism at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale. Some agents start work right out of high school,having traveled very little. An agency manager might earn $25,000 to $50,000 annually after a few years.

Guntner, a former travel agent, instructs aspiring travel agents in how to research a trip for a client. In her opinion, agents don't have to visit a place to know about it. "I tell my students, 'No one expects you to know the whole world.' " Guntner recommends, however, that agents take advantage of deeply discounted "familiarization" trips to popular destinations available to the tourism industry.

In an article last year entitled "Is Your Travel Agent Biased?" "Consumer Reports Travel Letter" cited a three-week review it made of ads in the travel trade press. The newsletter found numerous travel suppliers -- airlines, hotels, tour operators and cruise lines -- offering agents special prizes and other incentives that were much higher than the usual 10 to 12 percent commission. Travel agencies that accept "unusually large commissions and gifts without full disclosure," concluded the monthly, "cannot claim to be impartial professional counselors."

Not so, says Bessel of the Association of Retail Travel Agents. "Anyone in the travel agency business knows that the only way to survive is to have repeat clients. And the only way to keep a client is to make what's best for the client the agent's number one interest. If clients get the slightest indication you're not working in their best interests, they will take their business elsewhere." It is something to keep in mind if an agent is pushing a package you are hesitant about.

Commissions, of course, are essential to travel agents, and the pursuit of commissions does affect the way they do business. I sat in on a conversation of agents last week in which one said he is occasionally approached by clients looking for help in finding bed-and-breakfast inns. But he admitted he knew very little about them, even inns in the Washington area, because most of them don't pay commissions.

Lawsuits against agents by unhappy clients appear to be increasing, says Ruden of the American Society of Travel Agents. He thinks one reason is that some travelers may be expecting too much from their agents.

For example, a good travel agent will only sell tour packages offered by tour operators with a known record of reliability. But even reliable operators have gone bust in recent years, leaving travelers stranded. "I don't think agents should have to investigate {an operator's} financial stability," says Ruden. "How do they do it? They can't do it."

Nor should an agent be expected to warn a client that a foreign hotel has no smoke detectors or sprinkler system, he says, unless a client requests the information in advance. However, if the agent is aware of remodeling underway at a hotel or resort, the client should be alerted. And travelers should be informed of any official State Department advisories warning of security hazards abroad.

To date, the issue of how extensive a briefing agents should provide their clients is unresolved. Many agents are very thorough -- informing travelers of such problems as street crime in Europe's capitals, potential airline strikes or the hazards of too much tropical sun. But is the agent who fails to warn of some hazard legally responsible? The answer may come in the courts.

"A travel agency can do everything right," says Guntner, the college professor, "and then they cross their fingers. The airlines can lose your bags, or the hotel is overbooked."


How do you find a good travel agent?

Check credentials. Is the agent or the agency a member of either the American Society of Travel Agents (20,000 members) or the Association of Retail Travel Agents (3,500 members)? These organizations emphasize education, and members must adhere to a strict code of conduct. The society operates a consumer affairs office to resolve client complaints with travel agents and tour operators. For information: American Society of Travel Agents, 1101 King St., Alexandria, Va. 22314, 703-739-2782.

Is the agent a certified travel counselor? The designation is awarded by the Institute of Certified Travel Agents to travel agents or other travel professionals who have successfully completed a five-part travel-management program and 16 hours of essay exams. Only agents with at least five years' experience can enroll. More than 13,000 agents have received the designation. A list of local certified travel counselors can be obtained by writing the institute (see above).

Look for experience. Find out "when the agency first opened and how long agency staff members have been in the travel field," advises the institute. "Beware of rapid turnover within the agency." For a complicated itinerary, you may want someone with years of experience.

Get references. Ask travelers you know to recommend an agent they use.

Visit the agency. Neatness counts, says the institute, because it indicates the agency is well organized. "Agents have access to a wealth of information about the proliferation of air fares and travel options ... but they must be organized to get to them." Is the agency well-stocked with brochures? You may want to compare several packages at your leisure.

Ask about special services. Many agencies provide free ticket delivery and toll-free numbers, says Davidoff of the American Society of Travel Agents.

Satisfy yourself that the agent is conscientious. A good agent will ask probing questions to find out what kind of trip most interests you and how much you want to spend, says Guntner. The agent may also direct you to guidebooks, brochures and other reading to help you reach a decision. Some agencies stock guidebooks, travel videos and travel magazines.