July 22, 2024

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How to Become a Travel Agent

How to Become a Travel Agent

How do you become a travel advisor (formerly known as a “travel agent”)?

In this guide to becoming a travel advisor, we’ve included key details about the nitty-gritty elements of the career, such as how to pick a business model; whether or not you should join a travel agent consortium (and who the major players are); how to acquire the necessary education for success; and how much money you can expect to make as a full-time agent.

Read on to find out how to switch careers and become a working travel advisor.

What Do Travel Agents Do?

If you’re interested in being a travel advisor, it’s important to understand that this is a demanding, service-oriented sales career. These days, travel agents are actually advisors who get to know clients and offer a concierge service (hence the shift away from the “travel agent” name which has a more passive connotation).

These days, travel agents are actually advisors who get to know clients and offer a concierge service (hence the shift away from the “travel agent” name which has a more passive connotation).

While many believe that travel advisors are experts in all destinations and travel products, they are actually experts in their clients. Advisors typically collaborate with a network of travel experts (aka “suppliers”) and then advise clients on the best custom travel solution. They book and plan all aspects of a client’s vacation, drawing on their industry expertise and personal relationships with hoteliers, cruise lines, tour operators and in-destination professionals.

Most importantly, travel advisors assist their clients every step of the way — from the planning process all the way through to the travel experience, helping clients navigate issues during their trips such as flight delays, medical emergencies, poor customer service and more. Many travelers refuse to travel without the support of a travel advisor, who they know will not only guarantee them the best planned vacation, but will advocate on their behalf when things go wrong.

Why You Should Become a Travel Advisor. Do People Still Use Travel Agents?

The recent pandemic caused historic travel restrictions and changing protocols, making a travel professional’s job harder than ever. But advisors rose to the task, expertly servicing clients and earning client trust (and business) for the long-term. 

Indeed, the old anxieties about the travel agent career being a dying breed have been replaced by great respect for travel agents and clients who would never dream of planning a trip on their own again. In fact, a recent survey found that 50% of people are more likely to use a travel agent today than in the past, a 14% year-over-year increase, due in part to the fact that most consumers (68%) believe that travel planning is more complex now.

And, of course, many of the pre-pandemic perks of being a travel agent still exist, such as the ability to work from home and travel the world. It’s no longer a secret that being an advisor is an exciting career option — particularly if your passions include learning about the world, mastering the logistics of travel and making people’s dreams come true (it might sound cheesy, but it happens). A love of selling, marketing, networking and running your own business does not hurt, either.

TravelAge West's Future Leaders in Travel Retreat hosts the industry's best travel agents under the age of 37.
TravelAge West’s Future Leaders in Travel Retreat hosts the industry’s best travel agents under the age of 37.
Credit: 2023 Future Leaders in Travel Retreat

We even launched a TravelAge West event — The Future Leaders in Travel Retreat — to serve the new generation of agents between the ages of 22-37. Attendees network with peers and participate in professional development sessions covering topics for travel agent success, such as how to tweak your company branding for better results, how to best work with suppliers, how to meet financial goals and how to advocate for a more diverse and inclusive travel industry.

What Qualifications Do You Need to Become a Travel Agent?

There are no formal qualifications needed to become a travel advisor. However, some four-year universities, colleges and trade schools do offer tourism degrees and courses, which could be helpful in setting up a successful career — but these programs range significantly and must be carefully vetted.

While no formal education is required to become a travel agent, degrees and/or work experience in the complementary fields of business, sales and marketing will come in handy for new travel advisors.

Travel advisors constantly educate themselves by attending the industry's best educational and networking events.
Travel advisors constantly educate themselves by attending the industry’s best educational and networking events.
Credit: 2023 Future Leaders in Travel Retreat

According to many top advisors, nothing beats working for a brick-and-mortar travel agency before launching an independent business as a travel advisor so that you can learn the ropes from seasoned pros. Host agencies and consortia usually have training programs for new advisors, and several agencies offer training programs to prospective agents as well.

Professional development focused on becoming a better businessperson is important, especially for independent contractors. In addition to reading trade publications such as TravelAge West, seek out supplier education programs and strongly consider new-to-the-industry courses and certifications.

The Travel Institute offers courses targeted to new advisors. But for those still unsure if being a travel advisor is the right choice, consider taking this 45-minute module that promises to “clear the fog” and provide the behind the scenes on the career.

In addition to taking courses, seek out mentorships with successful travel advisors and find host travel agencies that provide these resources to new advisors. 

Finally, all travel agents — no matter what their training — must stay up to date with the latest in travel products and destinations by reading trade publications and developing close relationships with travel suppliers, many of whom offer specialist training. 

Pick a Travel Agent Consortium and/or Host Agency That Complements Your Business Model

As a new travel advisor, you have your pick of business models and can incorporate, form an LLC or become an employee.

Loving working from home? You can become an independent contractor for a host agency. Prefer collaborating with peers on a daily basis and want to learn the ropes from seasoned advisors? Consider applying for a job at a local brick-and-mortar travel agency.

Signature Travel Network is one of several consortia that travel advisors can join for education, events, marketing help and more.
Signature Travel Network is one of several consortia that travel advisors can join for education, events, marketing help and more.
Credit: 2023 Signature Travel Network

No matter what you choose, joining a host agency and/or a travel agent network, aka a consortium, is a must, and understanding the differences between a consortium and a host agency is a key first step.

According to TravelAge West editor Emma Weissmann, “a consortium’s benefits are not purely financial, although many advisors will admit that membership, which typically includes booking incentives and group rate pricing, has had a major impact on their bottom line.”

A consortium’s benefits are not purely financial, although many advisors will admit that membership, which typically includes booking incentives and group rate pricing, has had a major impact on their bottom line.

Travel agent networks such as Virtuoso and Signature Travel Network also offer an array of marketing programs, educational events and networking opportunities created to enhance relationships with a set of vetted tour operators, cruise lines, hotel companies and more.

In this story about top travel agent networks, Weissmann breaks down the five largest travel agent networks by how they help their members, how they are different from each other and more.

ASTA is the advocating body for travel advisors.
Credit: 2023 The American Society of Travel Advisors

Another organization that new travel advisors should familiarize themselves with is American Society of Travel Advisors, aka ASTA, which aims to “facilitate the business of selling travel through effective representation, shared knowledge and the enhancement of professionalism.”

Choose Your Niche and Build a Brand: From Disney Travel Agents to Luxury Travel Advisors

To be a successful travel advisor, you must know who your ideal client is. Where do they like to travel and how do they want to get there? Answering these questions will help you develop your travel niche, which could be as specific or broad as you would like.

Some advisors focus on one region of the world, one type of travel (e.g., safaris or cruises) or broader travel categories such as luxury travel, family travel or adventure travel. Some travel advisors even focus on topics as specific as selling theme park vacations to Disneyland.

RELATED: How to Become a Disney Travel Agent

If you want to attract the right audience, you need to ensure the image you’re sharing about yourself — from your in-person sales pitch to your online persona — aligns with your travel planning styles, values and professional goals. 

“From customer interactions and social media posts to multichannel marketing methods and brand partnerships, everything you do should be in line with the brand identity you began with,” writes contributor Michelle Juergen in this article about the key factors present in a strong travel brand.

Social media is one of the best ways for new (and younger) travel advisors to communicate their passion about travel advising, while showing off their trip — and travel planning — style.

From customer interactions and social media posts to multichannel marketing methods and brand partnerships, everything you do should be in line with the brand identity you began with.

In particular, newer-to-the-industry travel advisors have used Instagram to build a strong brand, prospect for dream clients and remain top of mind with existing clients.

How Do Travel Agents Make Money and Get Paid?

Travel agents get paid through fees and commissions. Whether advisors should charge fees remains a contentious topic, though more travel advisors are requiring service fees these days as a way to add to their bottom line, assert their value and account for hours spent planning and rebooking trips.

All agents can agree that working with travel suppliers that pay fair commissions is key. The more you sell, the more commission you will make — but there is a lot of groundwork that needs to be done in order to start selling.

In this story, eight “million-dollar travel agents” (as in: that’s how much travel they sell in a year) share how they’ve achieved financial success as an advisor and what other agents can do to step up their knowledge regarding the business side of travel. Spoiler alert: Becoming a successful travel advisor relies on meticulous, hard work, ranging from early-morning wake-up calls from clients who are halfway across the globe to establishing a savvy business plan before making your first booking.

TravelAge West's Trendsetter Awards recognizes travel advisors who are passionate, innovative and hard-working.
TravelAge West’s Trendsetter Awards recognizes travel advisors who are passionate, innovative and hard-working.
Credit: 2023 TravelAge West

Of course, there are other ways to measure success beyond money. Travel advisors that sell a lot of one supplier are often invited to special events to honor their achievements. And host agencies and consortia also honor top selling advisors with special events. 

There are also industry awards that can really raise your star in the industry. TravelAge West’s Trendsetter Awards is one of the most prestigious awards for travel advisors and recognizes agents in four categories, including Rockstar Agent Under 40, Best Use of Social Media, Best Targeted Marketing Idea and Best Group Booking. Nominees are fully hosted to attend the TravelAge West WAVE Awards gala in Los Angeles.

How Much Money Do Travel Agents Make?

According to May 2020 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean hourly wage for a travel agent is $22.43, and the mean annual wage for a travel agent is $46,650.

The data also shows that Washington is the top paying state for travel agents, with a mean wage of $62,040. Prospective advisors should note that this data encompasses complementary professions in addition to leisure travel agents. Advisors should also take into account that not all advisors work full-time hours so part-time advisors may be driving down the mean annual wage. 

The Travel Industry Survey 2022, published by Travel Weekly (a sister publication of TravelAge West), finds that nearly half of full-time travel advisors (48%) make under $50,000, while 33% earn $50,000-$100,000. Nineteen percent of full-time travel agents earn more than $100,000. The survey reveals that the first two years are the hardest, with 69% earning less than $25,000.

How Much Does it Cost to Become a Travel Agent? 

Travel advisors typically pay their host travel agency a yearly and/or monthly fee in order to receive the benefits from their host, in addition to a commission split. For example, at Travel Planners International, advisors belonging to the host agency can expect to pay somewhere between $1234 to $2074 for training, startup costs and their annual fee. The variability in cost depends on multiple factors, including the agreed upon commission split. 

Can You Become a Part-Time Travel Agent?

The short answer is yes, you can become a part-time travel agent. Many travel advisors start off part-time as a side hustle while they are building their clientele and expertise. Some travel host agencies, such as Fora, even recruit part-time travel advisors.

Constantly Educate Yourself on Travel Products and Best Business Practices 

Ask the most successful travel agents about how they are at the top of their game, and they will tell you that they never stop learning. Destinations and products change rapidly, which is one of the key reasons TravelAge West exists (and has been at the center of the travel advisor community for more than 50 years).

It’s important to try out hotels, tour operators, cruise lines and other travel products for yourself on familiarization trips, aka fam trips. But there’s no way to do it all on your own.

RELATED: A Travel Advisor’s Guide to Industry Terms

Sign up for our newsletters to stay up-to-date on what’s new in your favorite destinations and travel niches; check our homepage often for new stories; and subscribe to our biweekly print magazine, TravelAge West, which includes subscriptions to our soft-adventure publication, Explorer, and our family travel publication, Family Getaways.

We’re the only travel trade publication that writes in an engaging consumer-magazine style — but with the modern travel advisor in mind — and we specialize in professional development articles and first-hand reviews of cruises, hotels and destinations.

Hear From Your Peers

Many of the stories you’ll read from TravelAge West involve research, first-person experiences and interviews with travel suppliers and your peers: fellow travel agents. Who better to share how to sell a certain travel niche — such as heritage travel in search of family roots — than a travel advisor who excels at this kind of trip?

We often pick the brains of destination specialists in our destination guides and itineraries — and regularly spotlight innovative and inspiring travel advisors in profile pieces and on our Humans of Travel podcast. Our Need to Know travel research series captures how the travel agent community is affected by trending issues in the travel space.

How to Become a Travel Agent in California

In California, travel sellers must register with the attorney general for the state and display the registration number on all advertising. If a travel seller does not follow the law, consumers might be able to “recover money they paid for travel services not provided by a registered seller of travel.”

Other states with seller of travel registration laws include Florida, Hawaii, Iowa and Washington. Be sure to check your state’s rules and consult with a travel industry lawyer if the rules are not clear.

Congratulations on Becoming a Travel Agent and Joining Our Community

New travel agent, we have your back. If you’ve used the search engine on our site (located in the header), and you can’t find what you’re looking for, please comment below or directly email us at [email protected] with your questions. We’ll do our best to direct you to an appropriate resource or craft a story just for you.