Travel agents have never been all that well understood by the traveling public. But now may be the most important time in years to make sure yours is a good one.

The vast majority of the country's roughly 30,000 travel agents still charge consumers nothing and make their money by taking commissions from hotels, airlines and tour operators to whom they send business. But now - as computer-savvy consumers gain access to information that agents once had to themselves, and travel providers increase their efforts to sell tickets directly to travelers and airlines reduce their commission rates for agents - agencies are scrambling.Recent examples suggest that some of their new strategies will be clever, innovative and likely to save consumers money and win loyalty.

One of most promising agency ideas is a new offer from Travel Network Ltd. of Englewood Cliffs, N.J. - a large travel agency with its own frequent-flyer program, completely separate from the airline programs.

Travel Network (800-222-2220), a franchise with $850 million in sales last year and 340 outlets in the United States and abroad on Sept. 1 introduced its Matching Miles program, which allows agency customers to accrue credits by booking flights through Travel Network on any of eight major U.S.-based airlines.

Once travelers' mileage hits a certain target level on one airline, they may redeem their Matching Miles for flights on any of the eight participating carriers. For a domestic coach ticket to a major U.S. city: 25,000 miles on a single airline. For a coach ticket to Hawaii: 40,000. South Pacific coach tickets go for 120,000 miles.

There are drawbacks. Enrollment is free, but members are required to buy all tickets through the same location and keep their boarding passes as proof of flights. There are blackout dates during which reward tickets are unavailable. Mileage expires three years after it is earned.

Travel Network acquires its award tickets by buying from airlines at high-volume discounts. Participating airlines are America West, American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, TWA, United and USAir.

Sometime in 1995, Brent plans a second phase of the program to allow travelers to accrue matching miles for non-air-fare bookings such as cruises and package trips. And beginning Jan. 6 on the Internet, Brent expects Travel Network to offer its Electronic Travel Agent (ETA) program on which travelers can book flights themselves but earn double credit through Travel Network as a reward for saving reservation agents time.

American Express is testing a similar idea at some of its San Francisco and Florida outlets. Randy Petersen, publisher of InsideFlyer magazine, predicts a surge of travel agency interest in such programs. Consumer Reports Travel Letter calls Matching Miles "a considerable challenge" to American Express and other agencies.