Travel agents assist individuals or groups who will be traveling by planning their itineraries, making transportation, hotel, and tour reservations, obtaining or preparing tickets, and performing related services. There are over 88,500 travel agents employed in the United States.
History of Travel Agent Career
The first travel agency in the United States was established in 1872. Before this time, travel as an activity was not widespread, due to wars and international barriers, inadequate transportation and hotels, lack of leisure, the threat of contagious disease, and lower standards of living. Despite the glamour attached to such early travelers as Marco Polo, people of the Middle Ages and the 17th and 18th centuries were not accustomed to traveling for pleasure.
The manufacturing operations that started in the industrial revolution caused international trade to expand greatly. Commercial traffic between countries stimulated both business and personal travel. Yet until the 20th century, travel was arduous, and most areas were unprepared for tourists.
The travel business began with Thomas Cook, an Englishman who first popularized the guided tour. In 1841, Cook arranged his first excursion: a special Midland Counties Railroad Company train to carry passengers from Leicester to a temperance meeting in Loughborough. His business grew rapidly. He made arrangements for 165,000 visitors to attend the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. The following year, he organized the first “Cook’s Tour.” Earnest groups of English tourists were soon seen traveling by camel to view the Pyramids and the Sphinx, gliding past historic castles on the Rhine, and riding by carriage to view the wonders of Paris. The “Grand Tour” of Europe soon became an integral part of a young person’s education among the privileged classes.
Over the next century, the development of the railroads, the replacement of sailing ships with faster steamships, the advent of the automobile and the bus, and the invention of the airplane provided an improved quality of transportation that encouraged people to travel for relaxation and personal enrichment. At the same time, cities, regions, and countries began to appreciate the economic aspects of travel. Promotional campaigns were organized to attract and accommodate tourists. Formal organization of the travel industry was reflected in the establishment in 1931 of the American Society of Travel Agents.
In the past decade, travel agents have accommodated a great increase in family travel. This increase is in part a result of greater leisure time. As long as leisure time continues to grow and the nation’s standard of living increases, there will be a need for travel agents to help people in planning their vacations wisely.
The Job of Travel Agents
The travel agent may work as a salesperson, travel consultant, tour organizer, travel guide, bookkeeper, or small business executive. If the agent operates a one-person office, he or she usually performs all of these functions. Other travel agents work in offices with dozens of employees, which allows them to specialize in certain areas. In such offices, one staff member may become an authority on sea cruises, another may work on trips to the Far East, and a third may develop an extensive knowledge of either low-budget or luxury trips. In some cases, travel agents are employed by national or international firms and can draw upon very extensive resources.
As salespeople, travel agents must be able to motivate people to take advantage of their services. Travel agents study their customers’ interests, learn where they have traveled, appraise their financial resources and available time, and present a selection of travel options. Customers are then able to choose how and where they want to travel with a minimum of effort.
Travel agents consult a variety of published and computer- based sources for information on air transportation departure and arrival times, airfares, and hotel ratings and accommodations. They often base their recommendations on their own travel experiences or those of colleagues or clients. Travel agents may visit hotels, resorts, and restaurants to rate their comfort, cleanliness, and quality of food and service.
As travel consultants, agents give their clients suggestions regarding travel plans and itineraries, information on transportation alternatives, and advice on the available accommodations and rates of hotels and motels. They also explain and help with passport and visa regulations, foreign currency and exchange, climate and wardrobe, health requirements, customs regulations, baggage and accident insurance, traveler’s checks or letters of credit, car rentals, tourist attractions, and welcome or tour services.
Many travel agents only sell tours that are developed by other organizations. The most skilled agents, however, often organize tours on a wholesale basis. This involves developing an itinerary, contracting a knowledgeable person to lead the tour, making tentative reservations for transportation, hotels, and side trips, publicizing the tour through descriptive brochures, advertisements, and other travel agents, scheduling reservations, and handling last-minute problems. Sometimes tours are arranged at the specific request of a group or to meet a client’s particular needs.
In addition to other duties, travel agents may serve as tour guides, leading trips ranging from one week to six months to locations around the world (see “Tour Guides”). Agents often find tour leadership a useful way to gain personal travel experience. It also gives them the chance to become thoroughly acquainted with the people in the tour group, who may then use the agent to arrange future trips or recommend the agent to friends and relatives. Tour leaders are usually reimbursed for all their expenses or receive complimentary transportation and lodging. Most travel agents, however, arrange for someone to cover for them at work during their absence, which may make tour leadership prohibitive for self-employed agents.
Agents serve as bookkeepers to handle the complex pattern of transportation and hotel reservations that each trip entails. They work directly with airline, steamship, railroad, bus, and car rental companies. They make direct contact with hotels and sightseeing organizations or work indirectly through a receptive operator in the city involved. These arrangements require a great deal of accuracy because mistakes could result in a client being left stranded in a foreign or remote area. After reservations are made, agents write up or obtain tickets, write out itineraries, and send out bills for the reservations involved. They also send out confirmations to airlines, hotels, and other companies.
Travel agents must promote their services. They present slides or movies to social and special interest groups, arrange advertising displays, and suggest company-sponsored trips to business managers.
Travel Agent Career Requirements
A high school diploma is the minimum requirement for becoming a travel agent. If you are interested in pursuing a career as an agent, be certain to take some computer courses, as well as typing or keyboarding courses, in your class schedule. Since much of your work as a travel agent will involve computerized reservation systems, it is important to have effective keyboarding skills and to be comfortable working with computers.
Because being able to communicate clearly with clients is central to this job, any high school course that enhances communication skills, such as English or speech, is a good choice. Proficiency in a foreign language, while not a requirement, might be helpful in many cases, such as when you are working with international travelers. Finally, geography, social studies, and business mathematics are classes that may also help prepare you for various aspects of the travel agent’s work.
You can also begin learning about being a travel agent while still in high school by getting a summer or part-time job in travel and tourism. D. G. Elmore, president of Gant Travel, a national chain of corporate travel agencies, suggests that interested high school students find a job in a travel agency, doing whatever they can do. “I would advise them to get a job doing anything from tearing down tickets to delivering tickets. Anything that brings them in contact with the business will go a long way toward getting them a job,” he says. “If they did that their senior year in high school in a major city, they’d have a job by the end of the summer, almost certainly.” If finding a part-time or summer job in a travel agency proves impossible, you might consider looking for a job as a reservation agent for an airline, rental car agency, or hotel.
Travel courses are available from certain colleges, private vocational schools, and adult education programs in public high schools. Some colleges and universities grant bachelor’s and master’s degrees in travel and tourism. Although college training is not required for work as a travel agent, it can be very helpful and is expected to become increasingly important. It is predicted that in the future most agents will be college graduates. Travel schools provide basic reservation training and other training related to travel agents’ functions, which is helpful but not required.
A liberal arts or business administration background is recommended for a career in this field. Useful liberal arts courses include foreign languages, geography, English, communications, history, anthropology, political science, art and music appreciation, and literature. Pertinent business courses include transportation, business law, hotel management, marketing, office management, and accounting. As in many other fields, computer skills are increasingly important.
Certification or Licensing
To be able to sell passage on various types of transportation, you must be approved by the conferences of carriers involved. These are the Airlines Reporting Corporation, the International Air Transport Association, and the Cruise Lines International Association. To sell tickets for these individual conferences, you must be clearly established in the travel business and have a good personal and business background. Not all travel agents are authorized to sell passage by all of the above conferences. Naturally, if you wish to sell the widest range of services, you should seek affiliation with all four.
Currently, travel agents are not required to be federally licensed. The following states require some form of registration or licensing: California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington.
Travel agents may choose to become certified by the Institute of Certified Travel Agents (ICTA). The ICTA offers certification programs leading to the designations of certified travel associate (CTA) and certified travel counselor (CTC). In order to become a CTA, you must have 18 months of experience as a travel agent, complete a 12-course program, and pass a written test. In order to become a CTC, you must have five years of experience, have attained CTA status, take a 12-course program, and pass a final exam. While not a requirement, certification by ICTA will help you progress in your career.
The ICTA also offers travel agents a number of other programs such as sales skills development courses and destination specialist courses, which provide a detailed knowledge of various geographic regions of the world.
The primary requisite for success in the travel field is a sincere interest in travel. Your knowledge of and travel experiences with major tourist centers, various hotels, and local customs and points of interest make you a more effective and convincing source of assistance. Yet the work of travel agents is not one long vacation. They operate in a highly competitive industry.
As a travel agent, you must be able to make quick and accurate use of transportation schedules and tariffs. You must be able to handle addition and subtraction quickly. Almost all agents make use of computers to get the very latest information on rates and schedules and to make reservations.
You will work with a wide range of personalities as a travel agent, so skills in psychology and diplomacy will be important for you to have. You must also be able to generate enthusiasm among your customers and be resourceful in solving any problems that might arise. Knowledge of foreign languages is useful because many customers come from other countries, and you will be in frequent contact with foreign hotels and travel agencies.
Exploring Travel Agent Career
Any type of part-time experience with a travel agency will be helpful if you’re interested in pursuing this career. A small agency may welcome help during peak travel seasons or when an agent is away from the office. If your high school or college arranges career conferences, you may be able to invite a speaker from the travel industry. Visits to local travel agents will also provide you with helpful information.
If you are already pursuing a travel or hospitality career in college, you might also consider joining the Future Travel Professionals Club, organized by the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA). Membership allows you to network with professional members of the ASTA, attend chapter meetings, be eligible for scholarships, and receive two newsletters. For more information contact the ASTA.
There are about 88,500 travel agents employed in the United States. Agents may work for commercial travel agents, work in the corporate travel department of a large company, or be self-employed. Travel agencies employ more than 8 out of 10 salaried agents. About one-tenth of agents are self-employed.
In addition to the regular travel business, a number of travel jobs are available with oil companies, automobile clubs, and transportation companies. Some jobs in travel are on the staffs of state and local governments seeking to encourage tourism.
As you start searching for a career in the travel field, you may begin by working for a company involved with transportation and tourism. Fortunately, a number of positions exist that are particularly appropriate if you are young and have limited work experience. Airlines, for example, hire flight attendants, reservation agents, and ticket clerks. Railroads and cruise line companies also have clerical positions; the rise in their popularity in recent years has resulted in more job opportunities. Those with travel experience may secure positions as tour guides. Organizations and companies with extensive travel operations may hire employees whose main responsibility is making travel arrangements.
Since travel agencies tend to have relatively small staffs, most openings are filled as a result of direct application and personal contact. While evaluating the merits of various travel agencies, you may wish to note whether the agency’s owner belongs to ASTA. This trade group may also help in several other ways. It sponsors adult night school courses in travel agency operation in some metropolitan areas. It also offers a 15-lesson travel agency correspondence course. Also available, for a modest charge, is a travel agency management kit containing information that is particularly helpful if you are considering setting up your own agency. ASTA’s publication Travel News includes a classified advertising section listing available positions and agencies for sale.
Advancement opportunities within the travel field are limited to growth in terms of business volume or extent of specialization. Successful agents, for example, may hire additional employees or set up branch offices. A travel agency worker who has held his or her position for a while may be promoted to become a travel assistant. Travel assistants are responsible for answering general questions about transportation, providing current costs of hotel accommodations, and providing other information.
Travel agents may also advance to work as a corporate travel manager. Corporate travel managers work for companies, not travel agencies. They book all business travel for a company’s employees.
Travel bureau employees may decide to go into business for themselves. Agents may show their professional status by belonging to ASTA, which requires its members to have three years of satisfactory travel agent experience and approval by at least two carrier conferences.
Travel agency income comes from commissions paid by hotels, car rental companies, cruise lines, and tour operators. Due to the rising popularity of Internet travel sites, which enable customers to book their own flights, airlines no longer pay commissions to travel agents. This has been a big blow to those in this career, and it is a trend that will probably continue.
Travel agents typically earn a straight salary. Salaries of travel agents ranged from $18,150 to $45,210, with a median annual wage of $28,670, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2005 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates. In addition to experience level, the location of the firm is also a factor in how much travel agents earn. Agents working in larger metropolitan areas tend to earn more than their counterparts in smaller cities.
Small travel agencies provide a smaller-than-average number of fringe benefits such as retirement, medical, and life insurance plans. Self-employed agents tend to earn more than those who work for others, although the business risk is greater. Also, a self-employed agent may not see much money for the first year or two, since it often takes time to establish a client base that is large enough to make a profit. Those who own their own businesses may experience large fluctuations in income because the travel business is extremely sensitive to swings in the economy.
One of the benefits of working as a travel agent is the chance to travel at a discounted price. Major airlines offer special agent fares, which are often only 25 percent of regular cost. Hotels, car rental companies, cruise lines, and tour operators also offer reduced rates for travel agents. Agents also get the opportunity to take free or low-cost group tours sponsored by transportation carriers, tour operators, and cruise lines. These trips, called “fam” trips, are designed to familiarize agents with locations and accommodations so that agents can better market them to their clients.
The job of the travel agent is neither as simple nor as glamorous as some might expect. Travel is a highly competitive field. Since almost every travel agent can offer the client the same service, agents must depend on repeat customers for much of their business. Their reliability, courtesy, and effectiveness in past transactions will determine whether they will get repeat business.
Travel agents also work in an atmosphere of keen competition for referrals. They must resist direct or indirect pressure from travel-related companies that have provided favors in the past (free trips, for example) and book all trips based only on the best interests of clients.
Most agents work a 40-hour week, although this frequently includes working a half-day on Saturday or an occasional evening. During busy seasons (typically from January through June), overtime may be necessary. Agents may receive additional salary for this work or be given compensatory time off.
As they gain experience, agents become more effective. One study revealed that 98 percent of all agents had more than three years’ experience in some form of the travel field. Almost half had 20 years experience or more in this area.
Travel Agent Career Outlook
The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that employment of travel agents will decline through 2014. Most airlines and other travel suppliers now offer consumers the option of making their own travel arrangements through online reservation services, which are readily accessible through the Internet. Thus, travelers are becoming less dependent upon agents to make travel arrangements for them. The American Society of Travel Agents reports that approximately 21 million consumers were booking their travel arrangements exclusively online as of June 2002. Additionally, airlines have eliminated the flat commission they pay travel agencies. This has reduced the income of many agencies, thereby making them less profitable and less able to hire new travel agents. Since these innovations are recent, their full effect on travel agents has not yet been determined.
However, consumers should continue to spend more on travel and tourism over the next decade, which will help employment prospects for travel agents. There will also be many opportunities to plan tour services for foreign visitors vacationing in the United States, and to arrange frequent trips for businesses with overseas offices. Despite the challenges travel agents face, there are still many people who prefer their services over online booking, as they appreciate the efficiency, value, professional knowledge, and face-to-face contact that travel agents provide.
For More Information:
- American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA)
- CTA – Certified Travel Associate
- Society of Government Travel Professionals
- U.S. Travel Association