A travel agent is a harried traveler's best friend. Amateurs who have attempted to arrange their own airfare, hotel accommodations or vacation schedule know that can be frustrating and fruitless without the insider savvy of a travel agent. But travel agents don't just book reservations. They give advice, weather forecasts and restaurant suggestions, too.
The training required to become a travel agent is highly specialized; many agents have certifications from long courses. Even with their training and indispensability to their clients, travel agents aren't very well paid. Airlines have "capped" the commissions that they used to pay travel agents to a flat rate for fares over $500; previously an agent received 10 percent of the total fare, regardless of the price. It's not as if travel agents have a light work schedule, either. They often stay at their desks until at least 7 p.m. or later if a client should call with a missed flight or a lost passport. Travel agents generally choose their career path out of a love of travel and customer satisfaction, rather than expectations of fame and wealth.
With the popularity of travel web sites like Orbitz, Expedia and Priceline soaring, some may think the job outlook of travel agents would be dim. But no! According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, travel agent employments are expected to increase slightly in upcoming years. Travelers don't want to have to worry when they're vacationing, and having a travel agent watching their back provides a lot of comfort, especially as travelers visit more and more exotic locations.
However, while there is a wealth of job opportunities for travel agents right now, it is something that is never stable for agents entering the job market, since the travel industry is easily upset by economic fluctuations and international political crises.
While some colleges might offer degrees in travel and tourism, or industry-related courses, other degrees may help, as well. Employers sometimes look for potential agents who have graduated with degrees in communication, geography, foreign language or even computer science. Courses in accounting and business management are also a wise investment, as many agents consider starting their own agencies (in fact, according to the BLS, 13 percent are self-employed). Six- to 12-week programs offered at community colleges and continuing education programs are comprehensive and are usually sufficient training for beginning travel agents.
Travel agents work in a variety of environments. Most work for traditional travel agencies, while others work for tour operators, visitor's bureaus, cruise lines and other reservation offices. Some agents start as reservation clerks or receptionists in agencies, advance to office manager or other managerial positions, and eventually move on to become full-fledged agents. Agents in larger firms often specialize by type of travel (leisure vs. business), or by destination (The Galapagos Islands vs. Iceland).
Travel agents who wish to advance quickly can take advanced courses from the Institute of Certified Travel Agents. Upon completion of the courses, an agent becomes a certified travel counselor. The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) offers a correspondence course, as well. These certifications can be helpful for those wishing to start their own businesses, as is gaining formal supplier or corporation approval (airlines, ship lines and rail lines), since approval is necessary before travel agents are authorized to receive commissions. Certain states also require some form of registration or certification of retail sellers of travel services.
Although many travel agents receive "a rude awakening" when they find their hopes of "glamour and jet-setting" have exceeded the reality of the job, others do not seem to mind the "evenings behind the desk" because they feel a "genuine obligation" to their clients. As one respondent explains, "It is an ego boost to know that someone halfway around the world needs you." There are also perks in the job, like "discounted or free travel," although an agent's demanding schedule leaves "hardly any time to use all the free tickets."
It is easy for travel agents to become frustrated and "overburdened," especially because some clients consider them to be responsible for every aspect of their vacations. As one agent puts it, "They expect me to control the weather." The commission caps "have devastated the morale" of many agents, though many continue to work in the industry because they "love working with people and the travel is some consolation for the stress."
Discounted travel; Make people happy
Long hours; High stress level; Low pay
Friendly; Organized; Extroverted; Meticulous
Average about 45 per week
Median salary: $29,210
High school diploma or equivalent; Certified travel counselor or ASTA certification; Good writing, computer and sales skills