Last fall President Obama declared that travel agents are non-existent anymore. This caused a big uproar in the industry and brought to light a problem in the travel agent community. A lot of people had forgotten about travel agents — their value, their expertise, their existence! Since then however, we are seeing an abundance of stories about travel agents and how invaluable we are.
I’m not certain if this new exposure is to blame, but recently I have had quite a few friends ask me about becoming a travel agent. Some seem to be basing this on the “perks” travel agents get or the glamor of the job. I have to say though there is a big difference between booking travel and being a travel agent. A more appropriate title is travel adviser or travel consultant. In this day and age, anyone can book travel online. It’s fairly easy. But the job doesn’t end or even begin there.
Being a travel adviser means you advise your client on the best travel plans to meet their needs. You may have traveled to Walt Disney World more times than you can count, but your preferences may not be the same as your client’s preferences. Even getting to a destination may be different for you. You need to know all about every possible option and why one would be better for your clients than others.
Booking the travel isn’t the end of your job either. You need to consult with your client about what they need to make their trip the best it can be. You will need to book transfers, dining, special events, tickets, offer suggestions of activities and excursions. You’ll need to know as much as you can about a destination, about every destination you sell – how things work at the airport, getting to the hotel, what to do. This can be very fun, but it can also be very challenging. If your client wants reservations for specific dining locations or events, it will mean getting up much earlier than you would like. If they want you to book shore excursions, etc., you may need to stay up much later than you want.
You’ll need to stay in contact with your client until they travel and even after they return. You also need to be prepared to be “on call” at a moments notice. Emergencies can and do happen anytime. I have had clients call at 10 pm because Hurricane Irene cancelled their flight the next morning and needed to reschedule, or the one who called first thing on a Saturday morning because one of the kids spiked a fever in the night and the trip needed to be cancelled. I have been called on a Sunday morning when a group of my clients were going on a cruise with a group booked by another online agency and all of their luggage was lost. Each party called their travel agents for help. I got on the phone and immediately tracked the luggage down, not only for my guests but for their friends as well. It took a couple hours of follow up to make sure it was all received but it was my job.
Recently when I spoke to one person about being a travel agent, I told her how a travel agent is paid. In most cases, you will work on commission. Some agencies charge service fees to work with them but many do not. You will work with your client to decide the best vacation, book their travel, set up transfers, dining, etc. and advise them on various aspects of their trip. They will go on their trip and a few days to a few months after they travel, you will get paid. If something happens and they cancel before traveling, you may not get paid (unless they have insurance that protects your commission). If your customer service is good, they may come back to you and there will be other clients too, but you will work for free on some and in most cases, you won’t get paid until they travel.
This same person told me it was ok, she wanted to be a travel agent “as a hobby”. This brings me to the most important part. You should never work as a travel agent as a hobby. This is a job that requires dedication and many, many hours. If you are booking travel, you will want to work with someone who is a professional, someone who understands the job and doesn’t take a break just because they don’t want to work. If you are in it as a career, not just for the perks, you need to be aware of what is involved. You may be required to be licensed or insured in your state or community. Insurance may be optional, but can you withstand a claim and pay attorney’s fees to defend yourself if something goes wrong?
What if your client was booked on the Costa Concordia? What steps would you have taken when the ship started sinking to help them?
While travel is very glamorous, travel problems can be very difficult. You need to be prepared to handle the situation immediately and calmly when it happens.
So as a client looking for a professional agent, what do you look for? There are a number of things, and these are not all inclusive. You will want to find someone who has been accredited. If you are looking for a cruise, someone who has achieved an ACC, MCC or ECC with CLIA that shows they have much experience and knowledge when it comes to cruising. They take many courses, inspect different ships, cruise on different lines and book a significant amount of cruises. For general travel a CTC or CTA from The Travel Institute shows more general knowledge.
If you are looking for a Disney vacation, look to see if they are with an agency that is designated as an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner, but also that they have completed the College of Disney Knowledge and have continued their training. Check to see if the agency is Better Business Bureau accredited. It takes time in business to reach this accreditation. Also, if the agency is accredited by IATAN, this also shows they have been established for awhile and have good standing. It is easy for travel agents to get other agency identifiers to be able to book travel, but this doesn’t make them qualified to be a travel counselor.
Don’t become a travel agent for the “perks”. I have had many people tell me how great it is that I get to go to the Disney Fantasy Christening or to Peru for business. It is great and an honor but very few travel agents get to do that. You must be a professional and work very hard to get these perks. Do you want discounted travel? Yes, you can get that but mostly on last minute plans. If you want to go on that first cruise to a destination or want a specific room, you had better book it far in advance and it is unlikely you will get a discount.
Being a travel consultant is very rewarding and also very challenging, but I wouldn’t trade it for another job. Could I make a lot more money doing what I did before? Absolutely! I’m not saying anyone thinking about a career as a travel agent shouldn’t, I’m saying that you need to evaluate this and your reasons before making a decision. And don’t do it as a hobby.