Travel Agent Career Outlook | What You Need to Know

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?"

Sigh. This article is needed. Why? Because there is a huge misconception about the extinction of the travel agent 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 after a rough patch, travel agents were officially 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. We also have info on a ton of travel agent training and education options (for new and experienced agents) that might interest you. Not enough? 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: Why would anyone use a travel agent anymore when they can just book online?

Would you buy a house without a housing inspection? Would you buy a car without test driving it first? No. Probably not. So why would dropping a good amount of money on a vacation be any different? 

If a traveler is spending thousands of dollars and choosing between hundreds of different options for what might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—wouldn't it be nice to know exactly what you're getting into? Sure, 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? Knows what different products are available, inside and out? Someone that has connections at the property, has toured the ship, or has visited the destination (a number of times)? 

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?"

Sure. People certainly can book their own travel but whether or not they should is a whole different question.

In the fact, the renaissance of online booking has made travel agents even more valuable, more in demand. Why? Because travelers are so overwhelmed with choices.

Travel planning maybe fun, but Americans spend 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 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. 

This may be one reason ASTA just rebranded their organization from "American Society of Travel Agents" to "American Society of Travel Advisors"—to emphasis that the present-day travel agent does so much more than book a ticket (which, by the way, is not so simple as a click of a button). They have extensive knowledge and expertise. They understand their clients needs and respond to those needs with appropriate recommendations. They have industry connections with suppliers and advocate for their clients if things go south. They curate memorable travel experiences, and ensure that all is smooth sailing. 

So yes, there is inherent value to travel agents! But you're probably reading this because you have hesitations that a travel agent career is viable. So while it's nice and fine that we can sing travel agent praises all day, it begs the question . . . 

Question #2: Okay, but how many people actually use a travel agent? 

There's no question that the travel industry as a whole is thriving. In 2017 (in the U.S. alone): 

  1. $1,036 Billion in Traveler Spending
  2. $718.4 Billion Direct Spending on Leisure Travel (domestic and international)
  3. $317.2 Billion Direct Spending on Business Travel 1

Alright, alright. No no doubt that travel is on the rise. But how many of these travelers actually book with a travel agent?

More and more, travelers are recognizing the value of working with travel agents. I'm not just spewing fluff here. A 2016 study by ASTA found that 22% of Americans from households earning more than $50,000 used a travel agent — up from 14% from three years earlier.

Yes. People are using travel agents! And Millennials led the way for using travel agents in ASTA's study, with 30% choosing to go with a pro. Yup. Those kids with the iPhones and electronic doo-dads and constant and immediate access to online booking engines are going with travel agents. Why? Because they know that it's completely bonkers how much time Americans spend planning and booking travel

Don't believe me? Will you believe Brian Robertson, Vision Travel COO? 

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. You'll also understand why buying spaghetti sauce—with all those darn options—is exhausting!

I know it's hard to convince people that travelers still need and use travel agents. The thing is, it's our responsibility as an industry to educate the traveling public about the value of a travel agent.

After all, if we can't convince you—reading this because you WANT to be a travel agent—of your own value, how can you expect to convince anyone else? Want a few other resources to help you walk the walk? We have some. 😊

  1. Using a Travel Agent Vs. Booking Online: Hard data on how travel agents save travelers time and money.
  2. 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. 

Question #3: How many travel agents are there?

Okay, so travel agents may have survived extinction. But are we talking a healthy population or did they move from extinct in the wild to critically endangered?

We've already established people travel and use travel agents. But do the numbers support this? If a travel agent career is so robust, then why do sources like the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) keep talking about the decline of travel agents? The BLS numbers say one thing, Steph, and you're spouting off rainbows and butterflies!

So, how many travel agents are really out there? It's a fair question. It seems like it should be an easy enough question to answer, but it turns out that getting an accurate travel agent headcount isn't so simple.

I know, I know. You're wondering, if it's such a promising career path, why does the BLS currently project a 12% decline in travel agent careers from 2016-2026? 2

Well, their info on travel agent career growth is not only misleading, it's untrue. Why? No, not because I'm biased (although admittedly, I'm totally on Team Travel Agent!). Their numbers are inaccurate because they exclude self-employed agents from its count. 😲 

According to the BLS site, the job count does not include self-employed workers . . . (that's right, hosted and independent agents)! Let that sink in, because it's pretty monumental.

In their own words, "Estimates do not include self-employed workers." 3 By excluding "self-employed worker"—aka. most of 31,000+ subscribers to our newsletter—their data artificially skews toward a decline of travel agent jobs. 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.

Why would they do such a thing?! Well, it turns out it's hard to document independent travel agents. Yup. Entrepreneurs are like wild horses roaming free along the ocean shores, unburdened by the reins of a corporate 9-5 schedule and all but invisible to data-mongering entities like the BLS. (Note: That was Mary's visualization of things, all I could visualize was those darn rainbows and butterflies again...)

I assure you that Travel agent careers are alive and kicking—not kicking the bucket. 

This brings us to Part II of the question, "How many travel agents are there?" . . .

How do you know there's a rise in independent travel agents?

Okay, so maybe getting a tally of independent travel agents is almost impossible. (Wild horses, am I right?) So how would anyone know whether or not the numbers are growing? Please indulge this hypothesis . . . 

Agencies such as ASTA (American Society of Travel Advisors), the Travel Institute and the HAR crew here (which have deep knowledge of the travel agent industry, I might add) tell a completely opposite (and more inclusive) story about travel agent career growth than the BLS.

Case in point:

  1. ASTA's Independent Agent Report 2016 Edition indicated that "45% of NACTA travel agents are hosted by a host agency." That's a whole lotta agents to exclude from a travel agent career count!
  2. According to the Travel Institute's 2018 studyThe 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)."
  3. Our own analytics here on the HAR homefront echo sentiments of a robust travel agent career among hosted travel agents: Approximately 1,330 people signed up for our free 7 Day Setup to help launch their new travel agencies, just last month. 

It's a complete flip flop from what BLS reports of employment status in the travel agent sector over 9 years! So until the ratio of independent to travel agent employees reflects these realities, they are not be a reliable source for indicating the travel agent career outlook. 

So next time someone says to you, "I didn't know there were still travel agents," you can politely direct them to this article so you can spend your time booking travel rather than trying to justifying your existence.

Question #4: Where are all these independent agents?

If a travel agent career is sustainable, then why are there so few travel agencies on Main Street? Fair question. Two things: First, for reasons discussed above (The Trifecta), storefront travel agencies have decreased in number.

Not what you think of when you think travel agency.

Second thing: Travel agencies aren't tied to a 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 hurting 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 they are. They just aren't sitting in cubicles anymore! Phocuswright reported in 2011 that there were 40,000 home based travel agents—and increase from 31,000 in 2006.[4. Source: Phocuswright

Still have cold feet? Well if the travel habits of Millennials is any indicator, then the future looks good for travel agents: According to Travel and Leisure, "millennial travelers reported a 16 percentage-point increase in their intention to vacation in 2017."

Icing on the cake? "33 percent of millennial respondents say they intend to utilize the services of a travel agent over the next two years — that’s twice as many as Gen Xers (17 percent) and Baby Boomers (18 percent)."

Question #5: Is there money in a travel agent career?

When we say travel agent career, doesn't the term "career" imply there's money in it? A career isn't a career unless you can actually make a living off it, right? 

We have plenty of data on travel agent income and salary—most recently from our 2018 travel agent income report which indicated a 16% increase in average travel agent income from 2017. In keeping with this upward trend, 83.4% of agents reported sales growth from the previous year.  

Why do I point this out? Not because I want to brag about the fact that independent travel agents are thriving (well okay, maybe I do a little) but to show the glaring difference between the 16% income increase reported by HAR and the miniscule 2.36% increase reported from BLS: 

 It's not a matter of who's right and who's wrong. It's a matter of perspective.

The BLS reports slow growth in a travel agent career because it focuses on travel employees which are subject to salary caps. But independent agents don't have to wait for their boss to give them a raise because they are the boss. Independent agents are not limited to hourly wages and annual raises that barely cover cost of living. So while independent agent income is less predictable than an employee wage or salary, there's more income potential. In fact, in 2017, 11% of hosted agents earned over 100K. 

What are our long term salary number for independent travel agents? That remains to be seen since we've only been tracking the data since 2017, but frankly I can't wait to find out. But we have more cold hard numbers in our freshly updated Travel Agent Salary article here, which I promise will lead you down a rabbit hole of extensive travel agent income resources. 😉

The other thing to remember? It's not all about money.

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? Heat not your thing? How about Alaska?

Plus, if you open your own agency you get freedom and flexibility in addition to travel perks. Need we say more? Well, we have a lot more to say about it:

  1. Travel Agent Income Report, 2018
  2. Which Travel Agent Specialties Generate the Most Income? (2018)
  3. Travel Agent Salary

But you're biased because you love travel agents, right?

Okay, so maybe you think we're biased because we love travel agents. Well, we are biased, and we do love travel agents. So let's bring in some opinions from people who aren't necessarily Team Travel Agent.

Here's a link to an article by travel blogger Erin De Santiago. As a non-travel agent, she had some preconceived notions that were pretty similar to every other skeptic out there—that travel agents just Google the same stuff anyone can. But her article hits the nail on the head—a travel agent career is much more than 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 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.

When you're not an expert, you're too unskilled to realize it.

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 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 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 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 Travel Agency Challenge

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 :) 

In Closing

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..

Photo Credits: Zitona, Platonides, Kotzian

Footnotes

  1. Source U.S. Travel Association
  2. Source: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/sales/travel-agents.htm from 2016 to 2026
  3. Source, BLS 
About the Author

Steph Lee

Hi, I’m Steph! I specialize in connecting travel agents to industry resources. I’ve worked with thousands of agents and helped them learn more about the travel industry or grow their business… 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!

If you’re looking for me, I leave a trace where ever I go! You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Pinterest as 'iamstephly'. 🙂