Travel Agent Career Outlook | What You Need to Know
I work with travel agents. Inevitably when I tell people what I do, I get a puzzled look and then I'm asked, "Does anyone even use travel agents anymore?" or "Is it viable? I mean, nowadays? A travel agent career?"
It sure is, my friends!
Ironically, COVID's existential threat to travel advisors’ careers also cemented the importance of using a travel advisor. This is, in part, thanks to mainstream media love that lauded the importance of using an advisor.
This article will take a look at a the outlook of a travel agent career from someone who is deeply embedded in the travel advisor community. Please, join me! :)
Pent-Up Travel Demand Is Real (& So Is Demand for Travel Advisors)
Before the pandemic, US residents spent 1.8 billion on leisure trips and 463.6 million business trips in 2018. In the same year, travelers spent 1.1 TRILLION on travel in/to the U.S. alone. 1
While 2020’s pandemic outbreak pulled the emergency brake on industry momentum, advisors who started or sustained their travel agency during the pandemic have been rewarded with extreme pent-up travel demand.
This pent-up demand is translating to higher sales for most agencies. According to a Travel Weekly survey, 17.5% of advisors "are booking at a rate far beyond that of 2019", 13.6% report "business is about the same as in 2019," and the majority, 52%, reported that "bookings are coming in but have not yet recovered to 2019 levels." Of the remaining respondents, 16.9% reported they continue to book at a rate "far below that of 2019."2
And we've even got the good ol' government on our side. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has the travel agent career growth at 20% for the next decade (2021-2031). I've been tracking this data for over 15 years and even with taking the pandemic rebound into consideration, double digit growth from the BLS is pretty jaw-dropping.
HAR's ongoing travel advisor survey and their ensuing industry reports also help us gauge the career outlook for travel agents. Travel is recovering, but will anyone actually use an advisor? The short answer is YES.
The longer answer is up next :)
Question #1: How Many People Actually Use a Travel Agent?
44% of travelers who didn't originally use a travel advisor before the pandemic plan to when they begin traveling.
There’s pent-up demand for travel. Travelers are ready to get back on the road, and they’re already booking trips. ARC reported an February 2023 Travel Agency Air Ticket Sales Increase of 54% YOY.
But the better news is that pent-up demand also translates to a higher demand for travel advisor services. Erika Richter, Senior Director of Communication for ASTA, noted 44% of travelers who didn't originally use a travel advisor before the pandemic plan to when they begin traveling and 97% of those who used a travel advisor pre-pandemic will continue to do so.
And it’s not just the travel industry that’s noticing the increased need for travel advisors. The Boston Globe, Consumer Reports, Wall Street Journal, and Barron's all recently published pieces about the importance of travel advisors.
In the agent of everyone feeling burnt out and overwhelmed with the options they have access to, travel advisors play a key role in making the entire booking experience a positive one. Check out Barry Schwartz's amazing TED talk on the paradox of choice and you'll understand why travel agents will always be needed. You'll also understand why buying spaghetti sauce—with all those darn options—is exhausting!
While we don't have exact data on the number of people that use a travel advisor, we do know that nearly 3/4 of cruise bookings are made by travel advisors. And this is straight from the horse's mouth! That's right, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), owned by their 53 cruise line members, found that not only do travel agents account for the vast majority of cruise bookings, the CLIA State of the Cruise Industry 2023 states that younger generations are more likely to use a travel advisor than older generations.
Mic drop moment, is it not?!?
But it goes beyond cruises. Traditional travel agencies still sell a significant chunk of land based leisure vacations including custom trips, tours, all-inclusive resorts, etc. and sell about 1/3 of all air tickets.
And we'll end it with this factoid: PhocusWright, a market research firm in the travel industry space that leans heavily towards online travel agencies (OTAs), released their 2023 report on traditional travel agencies title "U.S. Travel Agents: Optimism Abounds". I think they say it best:
Phocuswright has been researching the U.S. travel agency landscape since 2006. Our initial study examined the possibility of travel agency extinction. Instead, with business models changing, and new tools and technologies emerging, the need for professional, personalized services has stood the test of time. Travel agents are not only surviving; they are thriving.
Question #2: Why would anyone use a travel agent anymore when they can just book online?
If the travel industry experienced any silver lining to COVID, it's this: travelers began to recognize the value of using a travel advisor.
A traveler can't "test drive" a vacation, but you know who can? That's right. A travel agent. Wouldn't it be valuable to have someone who knows what they're doing? Someone that has connections at the property, has toured the ship, or has visited the destination (a number of times)?
Once you speak to a travel agent that knows their stuff, just like an expert in any field, you'll be blown away. Take a listen to the knowledge these advisors have that their clients get to tap into:
An air expert
A Group expert
A production travel EXpert (Moves Bands around on world tours)
a Destination wedding and honeymoon specialist
A luxury travel expert
a cruise specialist
A Destination Specialist (Japan)
Still need a little more tangible info? We've got that too. Here's a few articles to give you a better idea of what a travel advisor can bring to the table:
- Using a Travel Agent Vs. Booking Online: Hard data on how travel agents save travelers time and money.
- 3 Real-Life Ways a Travel Agent Can Save You Money That Expedia Can't: Want a few one-liners next time someone brags about booking online and not needing an agent because they are experts on everything? This one's for you.
People certainly can book their own travel but whether or not they should is a whole different question.
Travel planning may be fun, but Americans spent a ridiculous amount of time planning and booking vacations (to the tune of 23 hours). This is to say nothing of the stresses of the actual travel itself—let's be honest, hiring a good travel agent can be the difference between a vacation nightmare and a vacation fairytale.
So why doesn't everyone hire a travel agent? I think it's primarily because of a lack of education. When people think of travel agents, they likely have a very limited idea of what a travel agent does—they just press a button and book a ticket right? Wrong.
Advisors are experts in destinations. They offer insider tips and perks. They have visited the destinations and have direct connections with industry partners. They save you time, money, and increase the overall value of your vacation experience.
So yes, there is inherent value to travel agents!
Question #3: What's the travel agent career outlook?
Okay, so travel agents may have survived extinction. Multiple times. But are we talking about a healthy population or did they move from extinct in the wild to critically endangered?
We've already established that people will travel and plan to use travel agents. But do the numbers support this? The latest BLS travel agent headcount lands at 55,300.
One other thing to mention. BLS info on travel agent career growth is a tad misleading. Why? Because the BLS looks primarily at travel agent employees. What does this mean? Their count excludes self-employed advisors, which is the business model of most travel agencies nowaday. In their own words, "Estimates do not include self-employed workers." 3
By excluding this "self-employed worker"—aka. 99.9% of our site visitors—their data artificially isn't truly reflective of the number of travel advisors out there. Any new or seasoned travel agent employees who decided to go rogue (or hosted) and set up shop independently are no longer counted as travel agents. Anyone who enters the industry hosted or independently accredited? Not counted.
This brings us to Part II of the question, "How many self-employed travel agents are there?" . . .
Question #4: What's the self-employed travel agent career outlook?
HAR teamed up with ASTA (American Society of Travel Advisors) to try to estimate the number of ICs using ASTA’s membership data plus HAR’s host agency profile information.
Here’s what we know:
- In 2019, ASTA estimated that there are 40,000 (engaged) independent contractor travel agents in the US.
- ASTA’s independent contractor membership grew from there, doubling from 1,900 to 4,000 between 2019 and 2020.4
- According to the Travel Institute's 2018 study, The Changing Face of Travel Agents, "Agents have shifted from working primarily as employees (71% in 2008) to working primarily as independent contractors or ICs (62% in 2017)."
Our own analytics here on the HAR homefront echo sentiments of a robust travel agent career outlook among self-employed travel agents: Since its inception, approximately 11,566 agents have completed our 7 Day Setup program, which helps aspiring travel agents kickstart their travel agent career by starting a home based agency.
Question #5: You're biased because you love travel agents, right?
Ha! Got me there. We are biased, and we do love travel agents. :)
A big part of what we do on the site is educate people about the travel industry and help people become travel agents. It's an area we eat, sleep and breathe. And because we've helped so many people start their agencies, we also are the best people to know whether a travel agent career is actually doable!
Whether you start your own agency or become an employee at a travel agency, I can attest that a career as a travel advisor is feasible . . . and down right fun!
One final analogy.
I bought a foreclosed duplex many years ago—real fixer upper. It had 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 a professional's.
After painting all 19 rooms, I'd become a few things: more efficient, better at painting, and much more appreciative of the skills required of professional painters. When it came to painting skills, there was a huge divide between me and a professional painter—I had a long way to go to even come close to being an expert!
The same goes for travel. You can book travel yourself, but until it's something you do day in and day out, you can't appreciate what a real pro does.
Someone who 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 Out a Travel Agent Career?
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?
If you're interested in a travel agent career, stop by our resources page to get started. Better yet, check out our free 7-Day Setup Program.
Our week of daily emails will walk you through the steps you need to take before getting your travel agency off the ground! What more could an aspiring agent ask for. 🙂
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.
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published in July of 2020. We update it annually the most current data! Our most current publish date is listed above.]
- Source: U.S. Travel Association, US Travel Answer Sheet. ↩
- Source: Travel Weekly, May 11 2022 ↩
- Source: BLS, https://www.bls.gov/oes/2019/may/oes413041.htm ↩
- Source: Jackie Friedman, ASTA Vice Chairman and Secretary, at ASTA’s press conference at ASTA’s Global Convention. Tuesday, August 24th, 2021. ↩