The Evolution of the Travel Agent
If you enjoy travel and are looking for a career in sales, consider becoming a travel agent. While many people book travel online, others prefer working with a professional. Mothers, particularly those with young children, are often attracted to travel sales because agents can work from home and enjoy a flexible schedule. In addition, successful travel agents can earn significant discounts on travel for themselves and their families.
Also known as travel consultants, travel agents sell travel products to clients, often providing comprehensive information about travel destinations, resorts, hotels and tours. This is a profession that has changed a lot over the past few decades: Before the late 1990s, many people used travel agents to book every aspect of every trip they took, including flights to see family members, business travel and family vacations.
As more travel vendors, such as airlines, hotels and even cruise companies set up websites, travelers began to bypass travel agents and work with vendors directly. In addition, searchable travel discount sites made it easy for consumers to compare prices and find deals. Vendors, particularly airlines and hotels, slashed or eliminated travel agent commissions entirely, reducing a major revenue stream for travel agencies.
Still, many consumers do use travel agents to book all or some of their travel. One survey showed that 28 percent of participants had used a travel agent over the past 12 months, a 2 percent increase over 2015. Moreover, even millennials are now making use of offline travel agents: One study showed that 44 percent of travelers in this demographic felt that using a travel agent was "worth it."
While far fewer travel agents are now in business, many are succeeding in this industry. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, successful travel agents now specialize in particular destinations, specific types of travel (such as ocean cruises or all-inclusive resorts) or demographic niches, such as travel for people with disabilities or solo travel for seniors.
Travel agents usually have at least a high school diploma, and some may complete an educational program offered by a vocational school or community college. Many travel agencies provide on-the-job training to new agents as well. In addition to general training in travel planning, many travel vendors and tourism boards for popular destinations offer continuing education programs to agents.
Some travel agents seek professional certification through a variety of programs, such as the Travel Institute or the Cruise Lines International Association. Requirements vary but typically require completing coursework, documenting work experience and passing an exam.
According to the BLS, the median annual wage for a travel agent as of May 2016 was $36,460. The bottom 10 percent of earners made less than $20,670 annually, and the top 10 percent earned more than $61,890.
About the Industry
Most travel agents, 79 percent, work for travel agencies and travel reservation services. Fifteen percent are self-employed. Many travel agents work from home and have a relationship with a "host" travel agency that manages vendor relationships, processes commissions and provides liability insurance for its independent agents. Your work environment will obviously depend on whether you choose to work in a traditional agency or from your home office.
Your success as a travel agent depends, in part, on your willingness to travel. This is because clients are more likely to go along with your recommendations if they know that you've traveled to the destinations that you recommend, stayed in the hotels that you offer to book or have sailed on the cruise ship that you are promoting. Travel vendors, professional organizations and agencies often organize meetings, tours and trips at reduced rates for agents.
The BLS reports that most travel agents work full-time, and you should be prepared to have to work with clients during the evenings and weekends. Clients do occasionally encounter travel emergencies, and you may be called upon to provide assistance, such as arranging new accommodation or rescheduling a flight.
Years of Experience
Travel agents can expect to earn more as they gain experience in their field. According to a survey by PayScale.com, earnings correspond to experience as follows:
- 0‒5 years: $32,000
- 5‒10 years: $34,000
- 10‒20 years: $36,000
- 20+ years: $41,000
Job Growth Trend
The BLS cautions that employment for travel agents is expected to decline by 9 percent between 2016 and 2026. This is largely due to the ability of consumers to easily shop for and book their own travel plans online.
There is a silver lining to all this, however. First, the BLS also notes that as more travel options become available online, consumers may become confused and decide to leave the task of travel planning to a professional, particularly if the traveler has special needs or concerns. In addition, older travel agents will continue to retire, creating more job openings.