Contrary to what you see on social media, being a travel agent is not always glamorous. While the opportunity to jet around the world is amazing, you also have to be available for your clients 24/7, regardless of the time zone. This profession requires a high level of attention to detail and impeccable organizational skills. To shed light on the reality of the job, we spoke to Katelyn O’Shaughnessy, a former travel agent, and Erina Pindar, a current agent. Let’s find out what their experiences in the industry have been like.
Enjoy a Decent Income and Travel the World Like a VIP
“Think of it as a lifestyle, rather than just a career,” advises O’Shaughnessy. While the pay may not be exorbitant, with a median income of $38,700 per year according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, Pindar explains that it could actually be much higher. “Agents can earn anywhere from $50K to $100K on the low end, and up to $250K to $500K annually,” she reveals. The unique perk of this industry is the opportunity to regularly enjoy discounted trips to luxury resorts sponsored by hotel companies. Just based on your Instagram feed, your friends will think you’re living the high life.
Travel agents primarily earn money through commissions based on the trips they book for their clients. In essence, you are a salesperson. If you work in-house at a travel agency (although these positions are becoming increasingly rare), you can expect to have a base salary along with a commission split. The specifics vary from agency to agency and depend on your level of experience. For example, if you have an 80-20 commission split, 80 percent of the commission goes to the agency while you keep 20 percent. With enough clients, you can become an independent agent, working for yourself while still being affiliated with a host agency. As an independent agent, you forfeit the base salary but retain your commission.
Independent Agents Need Insurance
If you choose to work as an independent agent, it is essential to have your own insurance. Mistakes happen, and you don’t want to be financially liable for any damages. O’Shaughnessy warns, “There are numerous things that can go wrong, and they will.” Therefore, having errors and omissions insurance is crucial. Although it can be costly, it protects you from paying out of pocket if you happen to make a mistake.
Travel Agent vs. Travel Adviser
On the surface, “travel agent” and “travel adviser” may seem interchangeable, but there are nuanced differences. While travel agents traditionally focused on booking accommodations, travel advisers take a more holistic approach to trip planning. Pindar explains, “If a client wants to go to Cabo for adventurous activities, we might suggest they choose the new Four Seasons hotel on the cape, rather than staying on the strip. There’s a lot more adventure on that side of the destination.” Travel advisers offer a broader array of services, providing clients with a comprehensive travel experience.
No Specific Training Required
Unlike professions such as real estate agents, travel agents do not need to pass a series of tests to prove their knowledge. O’Shaughnessy emphasizes, “When I started working as a travel agent right out of college, I knew nothing. I had hardly ever left my hometown of Portland.” You don’t need any specific skills or qualifications, although a basic understanding of history and geography can be useful. Travel agents come from various backgrounds, making it easy to switch careers and become a travel agent with minimal barriers to entry. However, Pindar notes that successful agents share a common trait: exceptional sales skills. Ultimately, being meticulous, an excellent researcher, and having strong attention to detail are essential qualities for this profession.
Specialize to Succeed
It is virtually impossible to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the entire world. Therefore, the most successful travel agents choose a specialty. Whether it’s cruises, African safaris, or trips to Italy, focusing on a particular niche helps agents stand out. O’Shaughnessy provides an example from her previous experience, saying, “[Before I started my company], I specialized in honeymoons and weddings, narrowing down to Tahiti, Fiji, Mexico, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. I knew every hotel, every restaurant, and every excursion in those areas related to romantic vacations.”
Traveling Comes with Responsibilities
While traveling is a regular part of the job, it is far from a vacation. Travel agents participate in “fam trips” (short for familiarization trips) every few months. However, both O’Shaughnessy and Pindar admit that these trips can be both amazing and exhausting. Pindar clarifies, “Ninety percent of the time when we travel, it’s generally for educational purposes.” Travel advisers need to have an in-depth understanding of destinations to provide valuable recommendations based on personal experience. Traveling for work requires attending breakfast meetings, spending the entire day engrossed in activities, and catching up on emails after dinner. “Despite the glamorous perception, it’s a lot of work,” admits Pindar.
Work, Work, Work – Even on Personal Vacations
Although some travel agents still take vacations for leisure, most will incorporate work-related tasks into their trips. The industry is relatively small, so hotel representatives may reach out when they see your travels on Instagram, inviting you to visit their hotel, check out renovations, or sample new menu items at the hotel restaurant – sometimes even at a discount! O’Shaughnessy explains, “It’s a double-edged sword. You have friends and freebies everywhere you go, but you can never truly travel without thinking about work.” Keep in mind that you are not traveling for free; discounts often come with certain expectations, such as generating business from your clients in return. Additionally, travel agents must cover their own travel expenses, just like any other traveler.
Holidays Can be Stressful
The “365” in 24/7/365 is not a joke. Holidays are the most demanding time of the year for travel agents since many clients choose to travel during these periods.
Building Relationships with Hotel Representatives
When you work in an agency, hotel representatives become a regular presence in your professional life. They visit daily to pitch their hotels to you, hoping you will recommend them to clients. As you specialize in certain destinations, you will keep encountering the same representatives during the fam trips, developing relationships that can prove invaluable. O’Shaughnessy highlights the importance of these connections, saying, “When you need a favor, such as room upgrades, having these relationships can be a game-changer.”
The Language of Booking Travel
Booking travel is akin to learning a new language. Every travel agency has access to a program called the Global Distribution System. It provides options for airfare, hotels, car rentals, and more. However, O’Shaughnessy warns that it is far from user-friendly. “You’d expect a clean interface like Expedia, but no, it’s more like using Microsoft in 1990. You need to know specific codes to perform basic tasks. For example, to search for flights, you have to type a symbol called the Cross of Lorraine (‡) followed by your request. It’s almost like learning to code,” she explains. It takes time to become familiar with the system.
Playing the Role of a Personal Butler
Be prepared to receive late-night calls from clients expecting you to address every detail, even if you already included it in their itinerary. O’Shaughnessy recalls a client calling her from a cruise ship to complain about the TV in her room not working. “It’s a challenging feat to call from a cruise ship,” she quips. While some requests might seem excessive, it’s essential to remember that traveling can provoke anxiety in people. As a travel agent, your job is to be available and ensure your clients are well taken care of. This personalized service is one reason why people continue to use travel agents rather than booking online.
Time is Priceless
Pindar emphasizes the responsibility that comes with planning someone’s vacation. “If you buy something, you can return it and get your money back. But if you spend $30,000 on a weeklong trip and it turns out to be terrible, you can never get that time back,” she says. Ensuring clients have the vacation they envisioned can be challenging, and it requires being available throughout their journey, even across different time zones. Pindar advises, “You have to act as their handler to make it happen.”
Thoughtfulness Leads to Customer Loyalty
Travel is a deeply personal experience, and the best travel agents understand what the individual traveler desires, whether it’s creating cherished memories with their family, embarking on an adventure, or gaining a deeper understanding of local culture. O’Shaughnessy shares an example from her time working with honeymoons and weddings, “I would use my connections to ensure my clients had a bottle of wine waiting for them in their room or a couples photo next to the bed. These personal touches are why people continue to use travel agents instead of booking online.”
The Future of Travel Agents
Contrary to popular belief, travel agents are not a dying breed. O’Shaughnessy asserts, “Every time I mention that I’m a travel agent, people are surprised that we still exist. But the truth is, we handle one-third of all travel bookings in the United States.” This industry remains profitable and shows no signs of fading away.
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