BECOME A TRAVEL AGENT
Do you want to become a travel agent but don’t know where to start? If you’ve already done some research you probably discovered that there are as many ways to become a travel agent as there are people selling travel agent training packages and travel agent business opportunities. We do not sell any travel agent training packages or travel agent business opportunities and therefore we hope we can provide some unbiased information and good recommendations.
In this section we will start by providing some background information on the travel agent industry to put things in perspective. We will then identify the different types of travel agents based on their training, types of travel products they sell and office locations. Finally, we will outline what we believe to be the best way to become a professional travel agent with the highest probability of success. Along the way we will introduce you to various travel industry organizations with links for additional research. We also have one of the most complete list of travel agent training schools.
As with most other careers, a successful travel agent career is dependent on a good education. Anybody that tells you that you can become a travel agent without a good up-front travel agent training is lying to you. They are probably trying to sell you something and are only concerned about getting your money. Please be very careful and do your research before you make a decision.
IS THIS A JOB FOR YOU?
The travel industry today is a very exciting and vibrant industry, constantly changing with the latest technology. For some people this can be very intimidating and down right scary. For others it is just an opportunity. In order to succeed as a travel agent, you must be flexible, adapting to the latest technologies and trends.
To succeed as a travel agent, you must also have an outgoing personality, a passion for travel, and a strong desire to share that passion with others. When customers come to you, they may not always know exactly what they want. It is up to you to use your knowledge and experience to quickly analyze your customers’ wants and needs and put together a vacation package that exceeds their expectations and they will never forget.
However, being a travel agent is not for everyone. It requires a lot of hard tedious work. You have to interact with all kinds of people and always be friendly, courteous and treat people with respect.
The travel industry is also very competitive. It is part of the reason for the rise in home-based travel agents. Working from home keeps the overall cost low allowing you to more effectively compete with online travel agencies and suppliers that have their own online booking engines. Ultimately, the service you provide will distinguish you from all the online booking engines and keep customers coming back.
So analyze yourself, and be honest. Is this what you really want to do? If yes, then continue reading, the travel industry may very well be for you.
Travel agent jobs, along with the travel industry, have changed quite a bit over the years. It used to be that travel agents went through a travel agent training program and then worked in a storefront travel agency booking mostly air/car/hotel packages. The reservations were made via a computerized reservation system using short cut commands. This was usually a full time job during business hours. The customers either walked into the office or called in.
Four events in recent years significantly changed the travel industry:
The emergence and growth of the cruise industry and CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association). The CLIA certification and training programs created a new category of travel agents specializing only in cruises.
A significant increase in the number of tour and vacation companies that put together vacation packages that include air/car/hotel as well as sight seeing excursions and special activities. These vacation packages are usually cheaper than separate air/car/hotel bookings and do not require the use of the traditional computerized reservation systems. Today you can find vacation packages for just about any type of vacation anywhere in the world.
The internet along with reliable high-speed internet connections and powerful web based applications made it possible for travel agents working from home to provide the same level of service as those in a storefront office.
The tragic events of 9/11 helped to accelerate the changes that were already in process within the travel industry. For decades before 9/11, the travel industry consisted primarily of storefront agencies doing business as usual. However, in the late 1990s the industry was beginning to feel the pressures of the Internet and direct online bookings. The significant slow down in travel after 9/11 and elimination of airline commissions forced many of the traditional travel agencies out of business. The travel agencies that survived had to adapt to the new business conditions by selling more high commission leisure products such as cruise and vacation packages. Many also began hiring independent travel agents working out of their homes. Today, the home-based independent travel agent is the fastest growing segment of the industry.
THE FUTURE OF THE INDUSTRY
Knowing the history of the travel industry and observing current trends, we can make some fairly accurate predictions about the future.
One obvious trend is that the travel industry is growing worldwide and is expected to continue to grow for the foreseeable future. This is very positive for the future of travel agents.
The role of travel agents is shifting from order takers of simple flight/car/hotel bookings to travel consultants as the complexity of travel products and destinations increases. There is a definite trend toward using the Internet for the simple bookings and travel agents for more complicated cruises and vacations. This trend should continue as new vacation companies enter the field, new hotels and resorts are built, new cruise ships are put into service and new places around the world become popular tourist destinations. Although the online travel agency share of the total cost of travel may increase, there will be plenty of commission generating bookings to be made by travel agents to keep them very busy.
We anticipate there will be a shortage of professional travel agents in the next few years. There are a lot of people entering the field but many of them are treating it as a part time hobby rather than as a serious career and therefore cannot replace the travel professionals that will be retiring or moving on to other positions.
Finally, a few years ago the airlines reduced and eventually eliminated commissions on airline tickets. The travel industry responded by charging service fees. More recently, the major cruise lines also eliminated commissions on flights purchased with cruise packages. Commissions on the cruise portions were not affected. Some say this trend in reduction or elimination of commissions will continue. Others say that it will be very difficult for these companies to further reduce commissions due to the very large selection and complexity of these products. We also do not anticipate any significant changes in the commission structures for cruise and vacation packages in the foreseeable future. First of all, cruise and vacation companies are not under financial pressure to reduce cost like the airlines. Also, airline tickets are very simple commodities where the only variables are the destination and price. Cruises and vacations are more complex products with many decision-making variables. These companies need experienced travel professionals that are knowledgeable of these products and destinations to sell the right cruise or vacation to their customers.
TODAY’S TRAVEL AGENTS
Travelers today are more demanding of their travel agents than ever before. Studies have shown that most people research their destinations on the Internet before they see a travel agent. This puts a lot of pressure on the travel agents to be knowledgeable of the products and destinations they sell. However, there is such a large selection of travel options and destinations that it is virtually impossible for one person to be a specialist in everything. Therefore, many travel agents today specialize in specific types of travel, lifestyles or destinations.
The historical events mentioned above helped to create three main categories of travel agents based on training, certification and type of service they provide:
Full Service Travel Agents: Full service travel agents are exactly what it means, full service. They can book any kind of travel, vacation package or cruise to any destination. This requires the highest level of education and training including the ability to use the computer reservation systems for airline tickets, car rentals and hotel bookings. The IATA/IATAN ID Card identifies them as full service travel agents when dealing with travel suppliers. Many full service travel agents also hold certificates from The Travel Institute. This distinguishes them as professional travel counselors.
Cruise and Vacation Travel Agents: This is not an official travel industry category. It is a description we use to identify a growing number of travel agents that do not fit the strict definitions of the above categories. Cruise and vacation travel agents sell both cruise packages and vacation packages. Some are cruise only travel agents that also sell vacation packages. Others are former full service travel agents that no longer wish to book airline tickets, car rentals and hotels.
There is another category known as referral agents. These people are not true travel agents. They have very little if any travel agent training and no industry certifications. They are lured by bogus multi-level schemes and outfits known as card mills with tempting quick-and-easy money making opportunities that usually include web sites, fake travel agent ID cards and outrageous travel agent discounts. We encourage everyone interested in becoming a travel agent to be on the look out for these scams and follow the procedure outlined here. The strict requirements for listing in our service are intended to filter out these travel agent imitators.
As with many other professions, recent advances in computer and Internet technologies have made it possible for travel agents to work from just about anywhere. Today, there are two primary locations for travel agents’ offices.
Agency-Based: These are travel agents that work out of an office inside a travel agency. This is typical of the traditional travel agents mentioned at the top. Also, agency based travel agents are usually full service, unless they work for a cruise only travel agency.
Since home-based travel agents can have access to the same computerized booking systems as agency based travel agents, we do not discriminate against them in our listing. Instead, we look at the travel agent’s certification, knowledge and experience and make sure they have access to the booking systems necessary to provide good service.
The ability for travel agents to work out of their home also made it possible for them to be fully independent of the travel agency. As a result, today we have two distinct employment relationships between the travel agents and travel agencies.
Direct Employees: These are travel agents that work directly for the travel agency. The travel agency withholds income taxes and provides everything the travel agent needs to work, including office space, equipment and supplies. The travel agency also provides benefits such as paid vacation and insurance. Typically, direct employees are also agency based.
Independent contractors: Independent contractors (ICs) do not work directly for the travel agency. They are independent business people that happen to be travel agents. These travel agents provide their own office space and equipment such as computers, phones and the necessary office supplies. Most are home-based. Some may have their own store front offices in a strip mall or office plaza. The travel agencies through which ICs do their bookings and provide other essential services are known as host agencies. Earnings are based strictly on the amount of business booked, the commissions generated by those bookings and the conditions specified in the contract between the ICs and host agency. In general, the travel agent share of the commission ranges between 60% and 90%. These travel agents are not guaranteed any income. There is also no limit on how much they can earn. It all depends on how much they sell.
In our listing, we also do not differentiate between direct employees and independent contractors. From the perspective of providing good service to the customer, it does not make any difference. Again, we look at the travel agent’s certification, knowledge, experience and the booking systems they use.
There is also the option of starting your own independent travel agency. We do not recommend this for somebody just getting started in the travel industry. We think it is best to start working directly for or as an independent contractor with a reputable travel agency. After you have gained some experience and have learned the ins and outs of the industry, you can make a well-informed decision if this is the right option for you. This will significantly increase your probability of success.
HOW MUCH MONEY CAN YOU MAKE?
At the end of 2007, the US Department of Labor reported that the mean annual income for travel agents was $32,190 with the top 10% making over $47,650. Studies have shown that travel agents that hold certificates from The Travel Institute or CLIA earn significantly more than their non-certified counterparts. That is why we stress training, education and certification so much. The more you know the more effective you will be as a travel agent and the more money you can expect to make.
HOW TO BECOME A TRAVEL AGENT
Becoming a travel agent, like most other professions, is a serious long-term commitment. If you want to be successful, you will have to invest some time, effort and money for a good education and training. It will make you a better, more effective travel agent and will result in increased sales and earnings that will more than compensate for the initial time and money spent.
There are three types of schools for travel agent training.
Colleges: There are a number of colleges that offer certificate or Associate degree programs in travel and hospitality. They provide the broadest and most thorough training. With a degree from these colleges, you can easily change careers into other areas of the travel and hospitality industry such as tour group development, sales, marketing and management. When you have a good education in the world’s largest industry, the possibilities are endless. This however is also the most expensive way to enter the travel business. The cost is well worth it for the high quality of education and training you will receive. (See our list of colleges and training schools)
Travel Agent Training Schools: These are specialty schools that offer accelerated travel agent training. Their ten to sixteen week programs provide a little bit of everything you need to get started as a travel agent, including the use of the computerized reservation systems, sales and marketing training, and an overview of travel destinations. The advantages to these schools is that they force you to complete the program very quickly and you get the benefit of interacting with the teachers and other students. You can find these schools in just about any large metropolitan area. (See our list of colleges and training schools)
There are two organizations that offer additional training and the certifications that are recognized and respected by the entire travel industry. The certificates from these organizations are what you often see following the names of professional travel agents. They have earned the right to display those certificates with pride.
The Travel Institute: The Travel Institute provides two travel agent certificates. They are the Certified Travel Associate (CTA) and the Certified Travel Counselor (CTC). The CTC certificate is the highest level of certification you can get. It is proof that you are an educated, experienced and professional travel agent.
Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA): CLIA offers four certificates specializing in cruising. They are the Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC), Master Cruise Counselor (MCC), Elite Cruise Counselor (ECC) and the Elite Cruise Counselor Scholar (ECCS). Their programs offer in depth cruise industry and cruise destinations training as well as sales and marketing.
Certificates from these organizations are a good way for real professional travel agents to distinguish themselves from the amateurs and travel agent imitators working for card mills. To qualify for listing on our web site, a travel agent must either hold a certificate from either of these organizations or be enrolled in their certificate programs.
On the Job Training
When you complete the travel agent training, you will receive a degree or some kind of certificate. All that shows is that you have completed the bare minimum necessary to get started as a travel agent. In addition to the learning through on the job experience, travel agencies offer many other training opportunities. These include additional training on how to use the computer reservation system (CRS) used for booking just about everything as well as training products from suppliers, travel organizations and tourism boards of various destinations.
As with many other careers, continuous education is very important in the travel agent profession. There are many opportunities ffor continuous education such as classes from CLIA and The Travel Institute, seminars at conferences and trade shows, supplier presentations and familiarization trips.
The next three organizations are critical to full service travel agents that book airline tickets.
Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC): Although ARC is a corporation not just an organization; this is a good place to introduce it. ARC provides the accreditation that travel agencies need to sell airline tickets. It also processes travel agency issued documents, facilitates the transaction of funds between travel agencies and airlines and provides training to travel agents on how to use the ARC resources.
The organizations below are funded and supported by travel agents. They provide information and support to their travel agent members. This includes but is not limited to conferences and political lobbying on behalf of travel agents and the industry. Some even have local chapters where the travel agents can meet for support, exchange information and address local issues.
There are a number of weekly and monthly travel industry publications. They provide the latest news and insight in the travel business, information on travel suppliers and destinations, informative how to articles and updates on the latest software and other tools of the trade.
KNOWLEDGE. We can’t stress this enough. Knowledge will be the cornerstone of your career and the key to your success. The knowledge you obtain in your initial training. Knowledge of travel destinations. Knowledge on how to use the booking systems and other tools of the trade. Knowledge of travel suppliers such as tour companies and cruise lines. Knowledge of your customers and the ability to analyze what they want. This last one will come from experience. If you are lacking in any of these key areas, you will not be as effective and successful in your career.
Therefore, let’s summarize the key steps to becoming a professional travel agent. This may not be the only way to start your travel agent career, but we think it is the best way.
Start off with a good initial training. This is very critical. Check out the colleges and training schools in our list as well as your local phone directory for any schools in your area that we may have missed. Also check out our recommended online school.
In an effort to save money, many people try to enter the industry without the proper training. They think that just because they may have traveled or cruised a few times or booked a few trips on the Internet, that somehow qualifies them to be travel agents. They are fooling themselves and doing a great disservice to their customers.
Hook up with a good reputable travel agency, either as a direct employee or as a home-based independent contractor. We recommend you select an agency that is ARC certified. This will give you the most options in the type of travel or destinations you may want to specialize in. There are also a few reputable cruise only agencies if you just want to sell cruises. If you sign up with a host agency as an IC, make sure it can provide you the products, services and support you will need such as computerized reservation systems, web sites, and additional training.
If you want to work as a direct employee in a storefront travel agency, please check your local phone book for a list of travel agencies. If you prefer to work as a home based independent contractor through a host agency, there are a number of host agencies to choose from. The two most complete lists of host agencies can be found at Travel Trade magazine and NACTA.. Some local storefront travel agencies may also have independent contractors working through them.
Get your own IATA/IATAN ID Card as soon as you qualify. It is proof to suppliers that you are a real travel agent and can qualify for travel discounts and free upgrades. However, this card and the travel discounts should not be the main reason for becoming a travel agent. The total experience of selling travel and being a part of this exciting industry should be your driving force.
Apply for a CTA certificate from The Travel Institute. If you expect to sell a lot of cruises or would like to be a cruise specialist, then also apply for an ACC certificate from CLIA.
Above are the main steps to becoming a professional travel agent. Below is a list of additional things most travel agents do to improve their knowledge, experience and effectiveness.
It may look complicated but it is not. The key is to start with a good education and to join a reputable travel agency. Everything else will fall into place.
If you are not sure if travel agent career is for you and you would like additional information, the only book we recommend is Travel Perspectives: A Guide to Becoming a Travel Professional by Ginger Todd and Susan Rice. It will provide good insight in the day-to-day activities of professional travel agents and serve as a reference if you do decide to become a travel agent.
SCAMS TO AVOID
This subject was briefly touched upon earlier when we defined travel agents based on their training, certification and type of services they provide. Here we present additional information to easily identify and avoid them if you want to become a professional travel agent. On the surface they appear to be very legitimate and their offers are very tempting. These business opportunities are geared for those that want to make quick and easy money without training or work, not real travel agents. However, most of them do not generate enough commissions to pay the yearly membership fees. Also, they have a very high turn over rate indicating that the probability of success is very small. If you join these outfits you are almost guaranteed to fail and the money and time you spend will be totally wasted.
Read about the charges by California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown against one of these outfits. It will give you a greater insight on the issue. YYTB Faces Legal Action in California for Illegal Pyramid Scheme
Below is a list of some of the characteristics associated with these questionable travel agent business opportunities. Read the information on their web sites very carefully and see if you can identify any of these characteristics.
Some are multi-level marketing schemes. You will not find this business model with any legitimate travel agency. Real travel agents earn their income by selling travel products not questionable business schemes.
Some offer their own travel agent ID cards. These outfits are also known as card mills. Real travel agents do not want these fake cards. Real travel agents carry the real identification cards respected by the travel industry as proof of their knowledge, experience and professionalism.
Most ask their members to direct the customers (usually just friends & relatives) to a web site or call center to make the booking. Company officials know that these travel agent imitators are not qualified to sell any travel products. On the other hand, real travel agents look forward to working with their customers and would never refer them to a web site.
Some may tell you that you don’t need any travel agent training to be a travel agent. This is an absolute lie. Common sense tells us that in order to provide good service to their customers, real travel agents must know as much as possible about the travel products and destinations they sell. Legitimate travel agencies never make such statements.
The cost to join is just under $500.00. If they charged $500.00 or more, it would trigger more regulatory oversight. They also charge $100.00 or more annual fee to remain in their program and monthly fees for a web site.