A GDS Primer: What is the GDS and Which Travel Agents Need It?

March 21, 2023
What is the GDS and who needs it

In short, the Global Distribution System (GDS) is a travel agent’s motherboard for booking airline tickets and other sorts of travel goodies (like hotel and car). So it might seem pretty odd for me to show up here and say that many travel agents don’t necessarily need it.

That’s right. If you are a leisure travel agent, there’s a huge whopping huge chance that you don’t need to use a GDS. If you want to become a corporate travel agent though? That's a whole different story. Much more on this later, but before we get there . . . a brief history of the GDS!1

Before the Dawn of the GDS

It can be easy to confuse the GDS with a Central Reservation System or Computerized Reservation System (CRS). CRSs are automated inventory-tracking systems that were (originally) owned and run by individual vendors (like airlines, car companies and hotels).

American Airlines created the first CRS system in 1946. And while this helped automate inventory for vendors, travel agents did not have direct access to that inventory. Travel agents would need to call the airline’s booking center, who would then contact one of their CRS operators, then relay the results to the travel agent over the phone (literally, like playing telephone). It took a lot of people power to book a single airline ticket. Travelers booking their own ticket? Forget about it! 

Booking airline tickets before the GDS
Booking Airline Tickets before the GDS - Life Archives 1943

Thanks to IBM, these CRS systems became progressively more sophisticated throughout the late 50s to the 70s. Simultaneously, travel agents became progressively more annoyed by all the hoops they had to jump through to book a ticket—they wanted it to be more automated on their end too.

Nowadays, GDSs function as an umbrella for many many CRS systems. It’s like a CRS motherboard. (In fact, many vendors outsource their CRS systems to a GDS.)

The GDS Today

The GDS started out as a distribution channel for many airline carriers and later expanded to carry inventory of hotels and car rentals. But for the purpose of our article, we’re focusing on the airline component of the GDS.

There are many GDS options, and each GDS system will has access to their own pool of carriers, many of which are overlapping. The three GDSs are:

  1. Amadeus,
  2. Sabre,
  3. Travelport (which is the parent company of Apollo/Galileo and Worldspan).

Literally hundreds of airlines can be logged into a single GDS system, to which thousands upon thousands of travel agents globally have access. That’s the win win situation of the GDS . . . travel agents have access to zillions of different airline fares, and many airlines’ inventory is accessible to the zillions of travel agents who are booking flights for their many many clients.

The advantage for airlines is that they are spared some of the legwork of trying to market to individual consumers—and their product is in the hands of thousands of consumers through the collective pool of agents that book through the GDS.

The advantage to travel agents is that the GDS not only can show you many fares from multiple airlines, but it also offers a great depth of information about each flight in one place. The carrier, the times, the costs, the class of the seat, aircraft type and so much more. It’s a smorgasbord of options. So if you’re booking a high volume of tickets, it’s great to have access to every minutiae of information from multiple carriers in one go.

Simple, right? Just point and click and get your tickets. Nooooooo sireeeee. That could not be further from the truth.

Green Screen and GUI: The Evolution of the GDS

What is the GDS? (and who needs it?)

In today’s world, the GDSs have a bit of a split personality. There is the old school, traditional GDS commonly called “the green screen.” Then there’s the hip side of the GDSs, which people will call “point and click” or “GUI” (Graphical User Interface). Essentially, it’s a more intuitive and prettier looking version of the GDS.

But of course, it’s not that simple. Sigh.

1. The Green Screen: There’s No Such Thing as GDS for Dummies

Most of the time, when people are talking about the GDS, they are talking about the green screen. If an ad for a travel agency job says you need to know how to use Sabre, what they mean is you have to be able to navigate the green screen side of Sabre (not just use GUI).

Let me be blunt: unless you’re some kind of prodigy, the GDS green screens are not user friendly. Be afraid, be very afraid. It’s not like supplier portals and online travel booking sites where you can rifle through your choices, do a price comparison, and click on what you want. Voila. (Watch some videos and read up on what travel agents do and how they do it.)

Using a GDS is a technical skill (think computer coding), and to use it really well is an art. Having experimented with it a few times myself, I have serious respect for travel agents who are fluent in the language of a GDS.

Take a listen (or read the transcript) to our podcast with Karen Hurlbut, of Hurlbut Travel, as she describes working within the GDS and shares what she uses the GDS for, and what she books with consolidators. The answer may surprise you! 

To learn the GDS green screen takes intense training, and to become proficient takes tons of practice and constant use. That means daily use with a mentor (for at least 6 months to a year), not just booking a ticket for a client every few weeks. Even then, you still gotta keep using it on a regular basis to remain a GDS speed demon (think of being fluent in a language).

Here's another great listen (or read the transcript) with Lary Neron of Airfare Consultant. He did price management at WestJet and then left to start his own agency. His knowledge of how the GDS works and tips and tricks to booking is something every travel agent should listen to.

This, my friends, is why host agencies and travel agencies aren’t jumping up and down to teach you the GDS (if they even offer it). It’s hard. Here’s what a booking in an Amadeus green screen looks like:

Are you still awake? Whoa, right?! (FYI: An experienced GDS user will be able to do that at about 10,000x the speed in the video.)

2. GUI: A Brighter Future for the GDS?

The GUI is the point-and-click version of the GDS. You may have heard of options such as Sabre Red 360 and TravelPort+. So why doesn’t everyone use it? Here’s the problem: At its current stage of development, even GUI users need to understand the language of the green screen. As Ann Waters, president of the $40M Conference & Travel agency and Apollo user said,

Ann Waters, President of Travel Leaders-Conference and Travel
Ann Waters


“It’s not inputting the information new agents have problems with, it’s interpreting what the GDS is sending back to the agent.”

—Ann Waters, President of Travel Leaders-Conference and Travel


Essentially, the GUI interface isn’t quite there yet . . . and developing this technology is reeeeeally expensive and comes with a lot of growing pain. Sure it’s got perks (like being easier on the eyes and allowing agents to book airline ancillaries) but here’s what happens: You type in that you want a ticket from JFK to LAX on [enter date] and click search. You think, “That was so easy, just like searching online. So intuitive! I’m definitely a natural at this.”

That is, until it spits back at you the cryptic type and command lines you see on the green screen GDS. What in the world?!? Yup. That’s the problem. While new agents can partially navigate the GDS with the GUI interface, the code that comes back still has important information like fare types and rules that the agents really needs to understand. So many agents, in the end, need to learn the green screen (and find it faster) regardless.

If they don’t know exactly what they’re doing . . .

Risks of Booking with the GDS

To book in the GDS, you must have an IATA/IATAN accreditation number, in addition to an ARC accreditation number if you’re located in the United States.

As a new agent, you can’t get these accreditation numbers because they require a lot of experience. So you come into the industry under a host agency (more on what a host agency is and a list of host agencies) and use their accreditation number instead.

And heck, your new host agency has a GDS! They’ll just give you that login information along with your Disney log in, right? Wrong. No freakin’ way. Because of the complexity of booking air tickets (or anything) with the GDS, there’s a huge margin for error. And these errors can cost a pretty penny. And this is to say nothing of fraud, which is another can of worms in the GDS world.

Enter travel agency debit memos. In short, debit memos are fines to travel agencies for making a mistake when booking with the GDS. Yes, even an itty bitty innocent mistake or typo. It may not seem like a biggie when you have one or two, but when you sell hundreds of tickets, these fines risk start adding up right quick. In 2015, there was a total of $530-capital-M-million-dollars issued to ticketing agencies.

This is why a host agency cannot afford to let a new agent use the GDS without rigorous training. It’s just too risky. At the end of the day, since the ARC accreditation number is assigned to the host, they will be the ones responsible to pay the big bucks to the carrier or carriers that issue the debit memos.

And the risk doesn’t even end there. When a host or travel agency uses the GDS, they must negotiate long, complicated and specialized contracts with their GDS provider. Somewhere in this contract, the agency commits to selling a certain amount of air segments. And if you miss your goals? Expect there to be financial penalties.

So even if you do have mad GDS skills, you may be better off going with a host agency's accreditation.

Do I Need the GDS?

The GDS does have a time and place! Here’s a few reasons why an agent might want/need to use the GDS:

  1. Corporate Travel Advisors: Corporate travel agents book a whole lot of air, so the GDS is pretty much a must for them. This can either be a travel agent who books on behalf of corporate clients, or an appointed individual at a corporation who has the capacity to book air for all their employees.
  2. Agents Booking Complex Itineraries: If your specialty is around the world tickets or you have a steady stream of clients with multi-stop air itineraries, the GDS will be a necessity. 
  3. High Volume Booking of Air-Only Travel: I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what other travel agents other than corporate agents book reeeally high volumes of air. It might be an advisor who focuses on booking air to a specific international destination. Who knows! But if that’s you, let me know what your niche is!!

If you fall into one of these categories, check out this article on how to become a corporate travel agent. Even if you don't want to sell corporate, it offers strategies to learn the GDS system. Essentially if you’re not booking airline tickets multiple times each working day and you were never trained in the GDS, you probably don’t need to use it. This includes most Leisure Agents.

One of the reasons that most leisure agents don’t need the GDS is because the air will be included in a vacation package by the tour operator, or you can book it with the cruise line and you don’t need to use the GDS.

If you’re only booking a few flights here and there, there are ways to nab tickets for your clients without having to labor through the GDS.

Booking Air Without the GDS

If the GDS doesn’t seem practical for your agency, and you have a client who wants an air-only reservation that’s not already included in a package you’re selling, here’s a few strategies:

  1. Use an Airline Consolidator: When you become a travel agent you will have access to airline consolidators. A consolidator is a wholesaler of international airfares that works with travel agencies (not the general public). You can either book net fares, published fares (the rate available to the general public), or commissionable fares. This article is a great resource that will provide more detailed information regarding the types of airline fares.
  2. Book air directly through the airline's site and charge a service fee: Just remember to compensate yourself for your time . . . especially if the client is, errr, particular. Charging a service fee is one way to offset the cost of your valuable time.
  3. Ask clients to book their own air-only reservations: If it’s not worth your time, it’s not worth your time. 
  4. Use your host’s or consortium's online booking tools: Your host may have an online booking engine for air. Revelex is one example of these tools . . . they are user-friendly booking engines that are linked to the host’s GDS (so agents get the advantage of a host’s airline contracts in the GDS without having to learn the process). 
  5. Ticketing Desk: Some hosts have a ticketing desk service that can book flights on behalf of agents (see image below on how to find out if a host has a ticketing desk). Usually there are applicable fees and certain service hours, so you'll want to ask about that. If your client is flying international, first or business class, always look into a ticketing desk at your host agency or a consolidator first to see if there are any commissions (rather than booking it on your own).
Host agencies with air ticketing desks

But . . . I’m Losing out on Airline Commissions! (No, you’re probably not)

Yes, airlines do have commissions. No, they are not as common as you think.

The simplest way to say this: If you’re booking domestic non-premium seats, forget about commissions. If you’re booking international air, especially first and business class, commissions are a possibility. A possibility. Not a certainty.

I won’t go into things here, but you can read more on travel agent commissions here (airlines and otherwise). But at the end of the day, for most leisure agents, it’s frankly not worth their time to learn the GDS.

In Closing/ Major Thank Yous

The GDS is no walk in the park! Do you use it? Do you wish you could? Are there other places where you book air-only reservations with your consortia or host agency? Please let us know in the comments (literally, we’re begging you)!!

Last but not least, thank you to Marc Casto, CEO and President of MVC Solutions, Ann Waters, President of Travel Leaders—Corporate and Events, Sandy Armstead and Christy Young, corporate agents at Safe Harbors Business Travel, a branch of Tzell Travel Group, and Jason Block, CEO & Managing Partner of WorldVia, a division of Tzell Travel Group. We would have floundered without their willingness to share their agencies' GDS experiences with us!


  1. Sources Travel Weekly, Wikipedia,  
About the Author
Mary Stein - Host Agency Reviews

Mary Stein

Mary Stein has been working as a writer and editor for Host Agency Reviews since 2016. She loves supporting travel advisors on their entrepreneurial journey and is inspired by their passion, tenacity, and creativity. Mary is also a mom, dog lover, fiction writer, hiker, and a Great British Bake Off superfan.