The Independent Travel Agent Income Report, 2020
We’re swimming in data from our 2020 Travel Agent Income Survey! Want to jump into the data pool with us? I thought so.
In this report, we’re looking at independent travel agents1 with 3+ years of experience. What do we mean by independent? We consider an agent independent when they have their own accreditation number.
We’re particularly excited because this is the first year our dataset was large enough to home in on this segment. There’s very little concrete data on this type of travel agent. Because of our amazing supporters, we’re able to put a magnifying glass to examine the latest income trends among independent agents.
A high response rate affords us the ability to get really detailed with our data (hence, this report!). Our turnout was high, but when it comes to this segment, we weren’t able to get as granular as we like with some categories (e.g. calculating reliable regional income averages for every US region). We’d LOVE IT if you’d encourage your independent agent cronies to take our future surveys to ensure you’re well-represented in our data. 👇🏾👇🏾👇🏾
We’ll look at average income among independent agents, and how it’s impacted by experience, niche, product, industry engagement and more.
Quick note before I rush ahead: Presumably you didn’t go into selling travel for your love of statistics. When we use nerdy statistic terms, we'll link it to its definition in case you want a reminder or wonder why sometimes we use median instead of average. (Did you click the links? Pretty slick, right?)
The list and graphic below is teaser for all the great data that's to come:
- 76% of independent agents worked full time
- 67% reported that selling travel was their primary source of income
- 77% of respondents identified as women
- 84% of agencies were home based
- 57% plan to start charging fees due to COVID
- 57: median age of independent agents
- 13: median years experience selling travel
Independent Travel Agent Income Report, Infographic
Visual processor? This one’s for you: Here’s an overview of some of the data we gathered on independent travel agents.
The Big Reveal: Average Independent Travel Agent Income
This is the first year we’ve had enough data to parse out independent agent income. In 2019, full-time independent agents earned an average annual income of $59,976. This is 7% less than what their full time hosted peers earned.
Full-time independent agents earned an average annual income of $59,976.
When including part-time independent advisors into the mix, the income average registered at $49,388.
41% of independent agents experienced a sales increase in 2019. This is slightly lower than hosted peers’ 46% response rate.
How Many Independent Agents Are also Hosted?
Among independent agents, 30% were also hosted in addition to having their own accreditation.
Travel agents who were independent-only earned 34% more than agents who were also hosted.
Travel agents who were independent-only earned 34% more than agents who were also hosted ($53,441 compared to $39,881respectively).
However, it’s notable that independent-only agents had significantly more experience than those who were also hosted (14 median years compared to 8.5 years respectively). Curious to hear how experience impacts income? Read on :)
But first . . .
Independent Travel Agent Income & Hours Worked
In 2019, 76% of independent agents reported working full time, compared to 24% who worked part time. This is on par with hosted peers (where 74% sold travel full time).
As you’ll see below, the amount of time worked had a direct correlation to higher income.
FULL-TIME AND PART-TIME INDEPENDENT AGENTS, AN INCOME COMPARISON
Independent agents who worked full time earned significantly more than their part-time peers. In 2019, FT independent agents earned an average income of $59,976; This is almost 4x more than their PT peers, who earned $16,113.
In 2019, FT independent agents earned an average income of $59,976. This is almost 4x more than their PT peers, who earned $16,113.
As agents made the leap from PT to FT, their income increased nearly three-fold, then continued on a steady upward trajectory as they worked more hours. With one exception, this upward trend continued as full-time independent agents worked more hours.
The bar graph below illustrates the trend:
Generally, independent agents were rewarded for working longer hours. However, those who worked extraneous hours (60+ weekly hours) broke the trend, earning less on average than those who worked fewer hours. This could possibly be due to the fact that we were working with a smaller dataset.
(Spoiler! We’ll dish more on how products impact income soon :) ).
IS SELLING TRAVEL A PRIMARY SOURCE OF INCOME FOR INDEPENDENT AGENTS?
While 76% reported working full time, only 67% reported that selling travel was their primary source of income. This a lower response rate than their hosted peers (who responded at 74%).
This means that 33% of independent agents did not sell travel as a primary source of income. We asked these agents how much of their overall income came from selling travel: The median response was 25%.
Income & Gender
77% of independent respondents to our 2020 survey identified as women. This is a lower response rate than hosted agents, where 82% of participants identified as women.
Independent women earned slightly more income than their male peers, $49,417 compared to $49,013. The higher earnings among women are statistically insignificant, earning a dollar and a penny to the dollar of their male peers.
This is a reversal of the trend that appears among hosted agents, where women earned 94¢ to the dollar.
Independent Agent Income Based on Years of Experience
The median years experience for independent agents was 13 years. This is slightly more experience than hosted peers, who reported a median of 12 years experience.
Typically, agents earn more as they gain experience. However, independent agents with 6-8 years experience reported the highest average income, earning beyond more than their senior peers.
Below you can see the breakdown of experience by income:
Why the anomaly? There's two factors that weigh in: 1.) The majority of independent agents in the 6-8 year experience category worked full time (93%). In fact, only one agent in that group reported working part time. As working full time had a significant impact on income, this helps explain their bump in income. 2.) Statistically, since we included multiple experience groups in our data, the data subsets were smaller, which may also cause some fluctuation.
Does Niche Impact Income for Independent Agents?
For the first time, we asked agents if they considered themselves “generalists.” 35.5% of independent agents considered themselves a generalist, booking whatever a client wanted. 35.5% reported having a niche, and 29% were working toward establishing a niche.
Agents who were set in their business model—whether being established with a niche or as a generalist—earned more than those who were working toward a niche.
Below is a breakdown of average earnings compared to niche development:
Those with a niche earned the highest average income; 42% more than generalists and 65% more than those who were working toward a niche.
However, it’s important to note that those who were working toward a niche also had the lowest median experience, 9 years, compared to 12 years for those with a niche, and 21 years for those who were generalists.
Generalists reported the most industry experience. This suggests that developing a niche used to be less common, but is becoming a more common practice for those entering the industry.
WHAT NICHES EARNED THE MOST INCOME?
We did not receive enough data from agents with a niche to calculate average income by different niches. This is in part because a.) we offered 16 niche choices on the survey b.) many independent agents opted to include a write-in for niche and c.) many agents reported they were a generalist.
The exception to this is independent advisors who sold luxury travel. This was the top-earning niche with an average income of $76,478 in 2019.
What Products do Independent Agents Sell the Most?
Examining travel products sold offered a clearer picture of the selling habit of independent agents. What did they sell?2
The most popular products sold among independent agents were:
- All-Inclusives: 32%
- Ocean Cruises: 23%
- FIT: 16%
In our prior surveys, ocean cruises have historically ranked as the number one product sold among hosted travel agents. This remained true for this year’s hosted agent report, with ocean cruises registering as the most popular product sold. Independent agents diverged from this historical trend, differentiating themselves from their hosted peers by selling primarily all-inclusives.
Here’s a full breakdown below:
Some products had a stronger correlation to higher income. Here’s a look at how product impacted income:
Those who primarily sold FITs earned the highest average income, $80,733. This is more than 2x the income of those who primarily sold ocean cruises, a product which registered the lowest average income of $35,341.
Independent Travel Agent Revenue Streams: A Breakdown
At risk of sounding like a broken record here, I want to point out that this is our first year where we had enough independent agents to run a report dedicated to their data. *High five!*
The downer is, we don’t have historical data to compare year over year (YOY). However, we’ve still got some great info for you! Instead of looking at YOY trends, we’ll take a peek at how the income breakdown compared to their hosted peers.
But FIRST! In descending order, here’s average income among independent agents in four different revenue categories:
- Commission: $44,602
- Other Income3 $7,433
- Service Fees: $6,807
- Consultation Income: $4,285
While we don’t have previous results to compare it too, earnings from the four different revenue streams mirrored trends among hosted agents:
When compared to hosted agents, independent agents earned slightly less income in each revenue category. The exception to this was “other” income, where independent agents earned 14% more.
Notably, independent agents who took our survey were slightly less likely to charge fees than hosted agents (47% compared to only 52% of hosted agents). This, in part, may account for why independent agents earned a lower average income than hosted agents.
PLANS TO CHARGE FEES?
Charging travel agent fees is one way to stabilize and increase a travel agent’s bottom line. In 2019, 47% of independent agents charged fees.
Despite its correlation to higher earnings, the majority (53%) of independent agents did not charge fees. However, in light of COVID, attitudes toward charging fees may have shifted among independent agents.
This year, we asked independent agents who didn’t charge service and/or consultation fees if they would consider charging them in light of COVID.
In response, 57% reported that they planned to charge fees due to COVID.
Curious to learn more about charging fees? Watch HAR’s webinar, The Evolving Landscape of Fees During COVID.
BOOKING VOLUME FROM WEBSITE BOOKING ENGINES.
HAR also asked respondents about income from online booking engines in our survey. 84% of independent agents reported having a website.
Of those that did have a website, only 27% of agents reported having an online booking engine. The average income from online booking engines for these agents registered at $596.
Among agents who reported having a booking engine on their site, 53% reported they yielded no bookings via this channel.
Among agents who reported having a booking engine on their site, 53% reported they yielded no bookings via this channel. 37% received 1-5 bookings:
Agency Models of Independent Travel Agents
How do independent agents run their business and how does it impact income? In this section, we’ll take a peek at whether or not agency location (home-based vs. storefront) correlated with higher income.
Additionally, we’ll also look at how many independent agents have independent contractors (ICs) and/or employees.
HOME-BASED OR STOREFRONT AGENCIES?
The majority, 84% of independent agents, were home based. Independent agents with storefront agencies earned more than 1.5x than those who worked from home.
Independent and hosted agents shared many commonalities when it came to business practices. However, agency location was another point of divergence: Independent agents were much more likely to own storefront agencies than hosted agents, 16% compared to 6% respectively.
INCOME FOR INDEPENDENT AGENTS WITH EMPLOYEES AND/OR ICS
Independent agents were more likely than hosted agents to have independent contractors (ICs) and/or employees: 51% of independent agents had ICs or employees whereas only 25% of hosted agents reported the same.
51% of independent travel agents had ICs or employees.
Below is a breakdown of what percentage of independent agents reported having ICs and/or employees:
A slim majority, 51%, of independent travel agents had ICs and/or employees. It was most common for independent agents to have ICs only (36%). However, 7% had employees only and 8% had both ICs and employees.
Taking on employees and/or ICs had a tremendous impact on earning potential. Below we take a look at how having ICs and employees impacted income for independent agents:
Solo independent agents earned significantly less than those who had ICs or employees: agents with ICs earned nearly 2x more than solo agents, and agent with employees earned almost 2.5x more.
How many ICs and employees did independent agents have?
those who have taken on agents reported a broader range of ICs compared to employees.
Below, we list the range and median of ICs as well as FT and PT employees:
Industry Engagement Among Independent Agents
A majority of independent agents, 83%, belonged to a travel association. These three organizations received the highest volume of responses:
- ASTA (American Society of Travel Advisors) and/or ASTA-SBN (ASTA Small Business Network), 45%
- CCRA (Computerized Corporate Rate Association), 44%
- CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association), 37%
Association membership is one point where independent agents diverged from their hosted peers. While these three organizations also registered in the top three for hosted agents, only 7% of hosted agents had a CCRA membership and a much larger percentage of hosted agents belonged to ASTA (54% compared to 45% of independent agents).
ASTA MEMBERSHIP AND INCOME
45% of independent agents were members of ASTA and/or ASTA-SBN. Independent agents who were ASTA members earned 37% more income than those who did not belong to ASTA.
Independent agents who were ASTA members earned 37% more income than those who did not belong to ASTA.
ASTA members are also more likely to sell travel as a primary source of income. Among ASTA members, 80% reported that selling travel was their primary source of income. This is higher than the overall average of 67%
For our survey, travel agents had an opportunity to select from 11 different travel agent certification options (or write one in). The overwhelming majority of independent agents have at least one certification, 87%. The top three certifications among independent agents were:
- Destination Specialist/ Vendor Certification: 61%
- Travel Institute’s CTA (Certified Travel Associate): 25%
- CLIA’s ACC (Accredited Cruise Counsellor): 18%
Independent agents with at least one certification earned $51,573 on average. This is 4% more than the overall average of independent agents ($49,388).4
Independent Travel Agent Income, by Region
In our survey we looked at the number of respondents and average income by region.
One of the unique things about working as a travel agent is the cost of living in an agent's region isn't necessarily reflective of their earning potential since commission levels depend on supplier contracts. While commissions are influenced by a whole lot of different factors, where an independent travel agent lives isn't one of them: An agent who sells Disney in MN is going to get the same commission as the agent who sells Disney from NY (even if their NY rent is 3x the cost).
In 2019 the top-earning income average the Pacific Coast region. For independent agents, we didn’t receive a high enough response rate to discern average income by all U.S. regions and Canada: Below the graph depicts average income among regions with a sufficient response rate:5:
Among independent agents, Pacific Coast registered the highest average income, $80,261. This is two times the lowest-earning region, Southeast. However, we resist pointing to any regional trends since most regionals did not have a high enough response rate.
The Coveted Six-Figure Travel Agent Income! (Known as the K-Rex Advisors!)
Two years ago, we started the time-honored tradition of looking at what percentage of agents take home $100,000+ in income. These agents have affectionately become known as: The K-Rex Advisors.
This year, 17% of independent agents reported their travel income was $100,000 or more. I’m going to pause, because this is a complete mic drop moment . . . we're thrilled to see so many agents reaching this milestone!
Are you curious to know what these K-Rex advisors’ secret sauce might be? We were too. Here’s the gossip:
- 53% had over 200 clients, 13% had 101-150 and another 20% had 51-100 (WOWZER!)
- 67% charged service fees and 40% charged consultation fees
- 93% had at least one certification
- 87% belonged to a travel association
Where Are You Going When Travel Is Wheel’s Up?
Perhaps the most anticipated data of all, is the answer to this question: where are you going to go when travel restrictions are no longer.
The majority of independent travel agents (57%) want to hightail it outta the United States (or Canada) and visit another country. A lot of independent agents are itching to cruise too (27%).
Independent agents are less enthusiastic about road trips (9%), and 7% will go anywhere so long as it’s away from their partner, pets, and kids.
Data Is the Gift that Keeps on Giving . . . Stay Tuned
Um. Wow. That was pretty thrilling. If you're as excited by this data as the HAR crew, then you're definitely in the right industry!!!! We are cooking up other great information including a report on new-to-industry agents, a demographic report, and travel agency employees (a first ever!).
A Huge THANK YOU
I'd like to credit our phenomenal participation rate to our t-rex suits and our shining personalities, but the fact of the matter is that in order to get this great data, we rely on industry partners who support our work and push the survey out to their networks. Who are these fabulous host agencies, franchises, and travel organizations?
A colossal thank you to these hosts and franchises: ASTA, Travel Leaders Network, Ensemble, Destination Wedding University, Gifted Travel Network, KHM Travel Group, Nexion Travel Group, Travel Planners International, Travel Quest Network, and Uniglobe Travel Center.
This data doesn’t just materialize in my brain. Far from it! Huge thanks to this year's data whisperer, Bridget Lee, who endured a barrage of Slack messages from me in the middle of the night. April Oliveira created all the snazzy images and infographics for all our survey reports this year. (Let’s face it, it’s the part that really gets your attention).
Steph Lee, HAR’s founder, is the brainchild of this whole survey project. Without Steph, you’d be by your lonesome without this leading industry data.
Full-time independent agents earned an average annual income of $59,976. When including part-time independent advisors into the mix, the overall average registers at $49,388.
- Being independent-only had a huge correlation with more income: Agents who were independent-only earned an average of $53,441. This is 34% more than agents who had their own accreditation in addition to being hosted.
- 76% of independent agents reported working full time, compared to 24% who worked part time. However, only 67% reported that selling travel was their primary source of income.
- The median experience for independent travel agents was 13 years. This is one more year experience than hosted peers, who reported an average of 12 years experience.
- Independent primarily sold all-inclusives. This deviates from their hosted peers (who reported that ocean cruises were the most common product.)
- Independent agents were much more likely to own storefront agencies than hosted agents, 16% compared to 6% respectively.
- Those who primarily sold FITs earned the highest average income, $80,733. This is more than twice as much as those who primarily sold ocean cruises, a product which registered an average income of $35,341.
- Independent agents with storefront agencies earned 1.5x more income than those who worked from home.
- 51% of independent agents had ICs or employees, whereas only 25% of hosted agents reported the same.
- Income levels were equitable between women and men. Women earned slightly more, $1.01 to each dollar men earned.
- When asked about association membership, ASTA received the highest response among independent agents. ASTA members earned 37% more income on average compared to those who were not.
Past Income Survey Results & Data
If you're still sticking around, you must really be invested in contributing to great industry data. Sign up below and never miss participating in a future report:
You’re not full of info? You want to gorge yourself on more great data? Sate your voracious curiosity and a look at HAR’s income survey archive (which includes results to every survey we’ve conducted since the beginning of HAR)!
The Method to Our Madness
Wow, I gotta say: I’m impressed you’ve made this far. Kudos to you. Here’s the dealio:
This report includes independent travel agents with 3+ years of experience. What does it take to get your own accreditation? Check out HAR’s resource on accreditation.
THE NITTY GRITTY
We know some of you may be seriously loving our data and looking for a few more details on the process.
1. 88 respondents met our criteria to be included in our report. Here's our criteria below:
- They’re independent. Some are also hosted (this data is reflected in the report)
- They have 3+ years of experience: It's unlikely that agents will earn significant income in the first year or two of setting up shop. Why? 1.) It takes time to develop a book of business. 2.) Even if you hit the ground running, commissions aren't remitted until client travel is complete or after final payment, which can be a year or more in the future.
- They agreed to share their income information. Seems obvious, but we can’t report numbers if a respondent doesn’t share them with us :)
- They’re active agents: We only took income averages from agents who reported an income of $500 or greater.
Don't worry, we'll still have loads of helpful data coming out on new agents, travel agent demographics, and travel agent employees in our forthcoming reports!
2. Income data is pre-COVID. HAR’s income survey was conducted in July and August of 2020. All respondents used their annual 2019 income numbers to complete our survey.
3. Income reported is before deductions. We recorded income before deductions because agents are all over the map in terms of expenses. Some agents write off 100% of their income. Some agents write off nothing. For this reason, we look at gross income.
4. Some outliers were removed. If you made $9 million in individual sales, we’re really happy for you! But extremely high outliers for individual sales (not agency) sales were removed to present a more accurate picture of what earnings to expect.
5. Sometimes we used the median amount when we calculate our data: What is a median? Median is the middle value of a dataset. For example, the median age of independent agents was 57 years. This means that 50% are older than 57 years, and 50% are younger. We also use it when looking at experience. The median is less impacted by outliers (compared to averages) and offers a more accurate picture of age and experience distribution.
6. We calculate income using averages: Average is the sum of a group of values divided by the number of values in the group. To calculate our income averages, we first remove extreme outliers (see #4).
7. Once we got really wild and even included a range:The range is the lowest and highest value in a set of responses. We only used range in this report to talk about the number of ICs and employees to get a sense of how folks run their agencies.
8. In most cases, we round to the nearest percent or dollar. What can I say? It's easier on the eyes when you're wading through so much data. (Sorry, decimal points. We still love you.)
- By “independent” we’re referring to travel agents with their own accreditation. This includes independent agents who may also be hosted. ↩
- "Other" products include those with a response rate lower than 10% incl. (in order of volume) River Cruises (6%), Airlines (4%), Hotels (2%), Disney (1%), and Safaris (1%) ↩
- Other income includes additional travel-related income including (but not limited to) bonuses, overrides, coaching/mentoring, speaking engagements, car wraps etc. ↩
- In this report, since very few agents reported having no certification, the average income of that segment skewed disproportionately low, $34,293. Due to that, we’re choosing to compare it to the independent agent baseline income of $49,388 ↩
- We did not receive enough entries from Canada, Appalachia, Heartland, Mountain, and New England to offer reliable averages for those reasons ↩