I wrote this article on travel agent careers because I work with travel agents. Inevitably when I tell people what I do, I get a puzzled look and then they ask it, “Does anyone even use travel agents anymore?” or “Is it viable? I mean, nowadays? A travel agent career?”
This article is needed. Why? Because there is a huge misconception about the extinction of the travel community, and that’s far from the truth.
The phrase “Travel Agent Career” is NOT an oxymoron. Yes, I concede travel agents could have been classified as endangered when their numbers plummeted. Honestly though, what industry wouldn’t go into steep decline with The Trifecta—commission cuts, 9/11, and online competition—coming at them? I’m happy to say that 10 years later, travel agents can be taken off the endangered species list. It took a few years, but the industry found an equilibrium between supply and demand. While the agent population may be much smaller, it’s stable and healthy.
If you’re dreaming of a career as a travel agent, we’ve got tons of info on starting a travel agency from home. You may also want take a peek at our resources page—we link to a whole slew resources that will help you get to know the industry!
Question No. 1: Where are the travel agencies?
If being a travel agent is a career, then why are there so few travel agencies on Main Street? Two things: First, for reasons discussed above (The Trifecta), travel agency numbers have decreased. You’re probably still skeptical about becoming an agent. I get it. I realize that a travel agency storefront is not a common sight. This brings me to point number two.
Travel agencies aren’t tied to storefront anymore. People don’t realize there are tens of thousands of home based travel agencies. You know that saying, when one door closes, another opens? Well, when The Trifecta hit, lots of doors closed … but another door opened: The internet. This gave travel agents the ability to work from home. With commission cuts lowering agency profits, many storefront travel agencies moved to home based models, where there was little to no overhead.
Fewer storefront travel agencies may offer an illusion that travel agents aren’t around anymore. But don’t be fooled. PhocusWright found traditional travel agencies booked $95 billion in sales in 2011 1. Yes, billion. That’s means about 1/3 of the US travel market booked by these so-called extinct travel agents. Even better news, the number of home based travel agents is growing—up from 31,000 in 2006 to 40,000 in 20112. So travel agent careers abound—just in a different location!
Question No. 2: Is there money in being a travel agent?
By default, when we say travel agent career, doesn’t career imply there is money in it? A career isn’t a career unless you can actually make a living off of it, right?
Travel Agent Salary 101: Read our in-depth article on how much travel agents make. Spoiler alert—It’s a real way to make a living, folks.
The Cliff Note Overview: The amount you make varies by if you are a leisure agent or a corporate travel agent, employee or independent contractor. There are travel agents that find great niches and pull in over six digits. Those going at it full time (both employees and independent contractors) can make a decent living from it. Keep in mind that if you’re starting up a home based travel agency it takes a few years to build your repeat and referral client base so factor in that you’re starting a business.
Also keep in mind that a travel agent career has amazing perks. It offers the chance to travel to beautiful destinations and to have great experiences, a chance to travel and get paid or write it off. Have you read our story from our ATMEX trip? Plus, if you open your own agency you get freedom and flexibility in addition to travel perks. Need we say more?
Question No. 3: Does a travel agent career have opportunity?
Yes, yes, and YES! While logic may tell you the reduced numbers mean reduced opportunity, let me tell you a little secret about the travel agent industry. We’re in dire need of fresh blood. You already know travel agents are booking 1/3 of the US travel sales. Did you know that the travel agent population is aging and not enough people are coming into the field to replace them? That, my friend, spells out a huge O-P-P-O-R-T-U-N-I-T-Y for those that are thinking of a travel agent career! Travel Market Report has a great series of articles on the issue of attracting young talent to the industry. I also want to make it clear that attracting new blood is just as important to our industry as attracting young talent! There are opportunities in a travel agent field abound for young people, retirees, new parents looking for a way to stay home with their kids—all are needed and welcomed with open arms.
Question No. 4: Why do people need travel agents when they can book their own travel?
People certainly can book their own travel but whether or not they should is a whole different question. To me, a big reason people don’t book with a travel agent is lack of education. In certain situations, like leisure domestic airline tickets, people can book their own tickets and I have no qualms. It’s fairly simple to look up MSP-JFK and compare pricing. Since travel agents don’t make money on domestic tickets (read more on how travel agents make money), it’s often more expensive to book domestic air tickets through an agent.
But, if you’re spending thousands of dollars and choosing between hundreds of different options—wouldn’t it be nice to have someone that knows what they’re doing? Someone that has connections at the property, toured the ship, or has visited the destination? Even better, what if they asked you questions you’d never even thought of like, ‘Is premium brand liquor important to have included in your resort?’ or ‘The number of people in this group tour is 40, are you okay with this size or prefer a more intimate group?’.
And I’m not just spewing fluff here. A 2016 study by the American Society of Travel Agents found that 22% of American used a travel agent — up from 14% from three years earlier. People are using travel agents! And Millenials led the way for using travel agents in the study, with 30% choosing to go with a pro.
A perfect way to break down why a travel agent career is reality even with the option to book online is the TED talk “The Paradox of Choice“. It explains how the overwhelming amount of choices decreases satisfaction and increases paralysis. After watching this, you’ll understand why travel agents will always be needed.
Here’s a link to an article by travel blogger Erin De Santiago. As a non-travel agent, she had some pre-conceived notions that were pretty similar to every other skeptic out there. I absolutely love this article because she hits the nail on the head—a travel agent career is beyond the ability to research and book online.
I also love this well-reasoned article by Time magazine. They acknowledge that just because travel agents are no long the sole channel for booking travel, it doesn’t mean that travel agents have become extinct. Time argues (so beautifully) that the internet gives travelers too many choices and they feel overwhelmed; they want a trusted screener to help them out. And who better than a travel agent?
I want to do one final analogy. I bought a foreclosed duplex a few years ago—real fixer upper. It has a total of 19 rooms—splashed with colors varying from blood red with sparkling gold trim to eggplant purple. It was hideous.
You know the saying, “You don’t know what you don’t know?” That was me.
I’m a novice painter but after my first few rooms, I was feeling pretty proud of my accomplishments. Then, a peculiar thing happened. As I continued painting, I was learning enough to realize my paint jobs weren’t—GASP!—professional! I made mistakes that would have been common sense to a pro and my end results were nowhere near the level of professional’s.
After painting all 19 rooms, I’d become a few things: more efficient, better at painting, and barely good enough to appreciate the skills of professional painters. But I also learned there was a huge divide of skill and expertise between me and a professional painter—I had a long way to go!
The same goes for travel. You can book it yourself, but until it’s something you do day in and day out, you can’t appreciate what a real pro does. Someone that books travel all the time knows the nuances of travel—what to do, who to get it from, how to get the best deal, how to avoid mistakes.
Want to Try It Out?
A travel agent career means you live, eat, and sleep travel. Everyone likes to think they’re a travel expert because they can Google it. But in reality, there is a lot more to being a travel agent than meets the eye, don’t you agree?
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You’ve finished this mammoth of an article, congrats! I hope that after reading it, you’re not only a travel agent advocate but that if you’ve dreamt of a travel agent career but didn’t think it possible, you now know it is.
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Hi, I’m Steph! I specialize in working with people looking to start and/or grow their travel agencies. I’ve worked with thousands of agents and helped them learn more about the travel industry… and I’m happy to help you out too. If you’ve found this article helpful, please help give it some love via like/tweet/share or drop us a comment! Learn More About Steph>>
Photo Credits: Zitona, Platonides, Kotzian