Travel Agent Career Outlook | What You Need to Know
Back in the days of yore, I wrote this article on travel agent careers because I work with travel agents. Inevitably when I'd 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?"
Why? Because there was a huge misconception about the extinction of the travel agent, and that's far from the truth. To make things more complicated, a little-known virus called COVID-19 plagued the travel industry in early 2020, just as travel sales were on their way to hitting all-time highs.
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 and ongoing advocacy from industry organizations like the American Society of Travel Advisors.
This article will take a frank look at where the travel advisor segment stands now and the brighter future where the travel agent career is headed.
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. (If you write that out, it's 1,100,000,000,000 and I only know because I had to google, "how many zeros are there in a trillion" to make sure.)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 already translating to higher sales for some 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
Advisors' attitudes are reinforced by a greater intent to travel as the industry gains momentum in its recovery. At the time of publication (May12th, 2022):
- TSA checkpoint numbers registered 35% higher than 2021 volumes. (This is 13.5% below the same day in 2019.)
- IATA predicts air passenger numbers will fully recover in 2024.
- Compared to 2019 travel spending, the US Travel Association’s spending forecast predicts a 99% recovery by 2023, with domestic leisure travel having already exceeded 2019 volume, ahead of schedule.
We're in a better place than we were, and HAR's ongoing travel advisor survey and their ensuing industry reports will also help gauge going industry recovery. So we know that 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 August 2021 Travel Agency Air Ticket Sales Increase of 328% (from 2020).
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 at the ASTA Global Convention that 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.
What this means is that advisors’ measures to rebuild, to advocate for greater congressional support, and to resume operations are not merely a matter of salvaging the industry. It’s doing the hard work of rebuilding the industry to place it on a trajectory toward a more promising future.
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. 😊
- 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.
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.
This of it this way . . . 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, and more in demand. Why? Because travelers are so overwhelmed with choices.
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. If you don't want to take my word for it, you can check why these 25 travelers love their advisors.
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 #3: How Many Travel Advisors Are There?
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 60,500.
If a travel agent career is so robust, then why do sources like the Bureau of Labor and Statistics cite a low 5% increase in travel agent careers from 2020-2030?3
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. In their own words, "Estimates do not include self-employed workers." 4
By excluding this "self-employed worker"—aka. 99.9% of our site visitors—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. Anyone who enters the industry hosted or independently accredited? Not counted.
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.
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.
This brings us to Part II of the question, "How many independent travel agents are there?" . . .
Question #4: How Many Independent Travel Agents Are There?
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? 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.
Please indulge this hypothesis . . . Agencies such as ASTA (American Society of Travel Advisors), the Travel Institute, and the HAR crew here tell a completely opposite (and more inclusive) story about travel agent career growth than the BLS. Here’s what we know:
- In 2019, ASTA estimated that there are 40,000 (engaged) independent contractors in the US.
- ASTA’s independent contractor membership grew from there, doubling from 1,900 to 4,000 between 2019 and 2020.5
- 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)."
- On the latest publication date of this article (listed above), site activity increased 16% from the same time period in 2019.
Our own analytics here on the HAR homefront echo sentiments of a robust travel agent career among hosted travel agents: Since its inception, approximately 11,566 agents have completed our 7 Day Setup.
This is my long way of saying that the BLS ignores the largest growing segment of the industry: independent travel advisors. They are by and far the fastest-growing travel advisor segment, and cannot be ignored!
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 prove your existence.
Question #5: Is There Money in a Travel Agent Career?
The pandemic outbreak made this question a whole lot more complicated. To be frank, the latest data on travel agent income makes me cringe.
In 2019, 10% of hosted agents earned over 100K.
Since we have a full report on COVID's impact on travel advisor income, I'm not going to spend too much time focusing on those numbers. That aside, allow me to rip the bandaid off fast. Here's the median income for independent contractors in 2020. We break divide this segment between those who are hosted and those that are independently accredited. Here's a summary:
Before the pandemic outbreak, travel advisor incomes were hitting an all-time high. In 2019, 10% of hosted agents earned over 100K. Right now the big question is, will the industry get back to that golden era? The good news is that all signs point to yes. Here's why.
Question #6: 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 on Team Travel Agent.
Here's a link to an article that profiles 25 travelers and why they love their advisor. Their reasons run the gamut from amazing industry connections to insider info, to travel perks, to understanding the importance of value (and that's just the beginning!). Here at HAR we also have our own take on the advantages of using a travel advisor versus booking online.
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.
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 it 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?
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: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/sales/travel-agents.htm ↩
- 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. ↩