Constantly changing airfares and schedules, thousands of available vacation packages, and a vast amount of travel information on the Internet can make travel planning frustrating and time consuming. To sort out the many travel options, tourists and business people often turn to travel agents, who assess their needs and help them make the best possible travel arrangements. Also, many major cruise lines, resorts, and specialty travel groups use travel agents to promote travel packages to millions of people every year.
In general, travel agents give advice on destinations and make arrangements for transportation, hotel accommodations, car rentals, tours, and recreation. They also may advise on weather conditions, restaurants, and tourist attractions. For international travel, agents also provide information on customs regulations, required papers (passports, visas, and certificates of vaccination), and currency exchange rates.
Travel agents consult a variety of published and computer-based sources for information on departure and arrival times, fares, and hotel ratings and accommodations. They may visit hotels, resorts, and restaurants to evaluate comfort, cleanliness, and quality of food and service so that they can base recommendations on their own travel experiences or those of colleagues or clients.
Travel agents also promote their services, using telemarketing, direct mail, and the Internet. They make presentations to social and special-interest groups, arrange advertising displays, and suggest company-sponsored trips to business managers. Travel agents no longer receive commission payments from domestic airlines, and agents face increasing competition from the Internet for low-cost fares. In an effort to find a niche in the market, many travel agents now specialize in travel to certain regions or for certain groups of people, such as honeymooners, grandparents, or ethnic groups.
Travel agents spend most of their time behind a desk conferring with clients, completing paperwork, contacting airlines and hotels for travel arrangements, and promoting group tours. During vacation seasons and holiday periods, they may be under a great deal of pressure. Many agents, especially those who are self-employed, frequently work long hours. With advanced computer systems and telecommunication networks, it is increasingly common for travel agents to work at home.
The minimum requirement for those interested in becoming a travel agent is a high school diploma or equivalent. Technology and computerization have increased the training needs, however, and many employers prefer applicants with more education, such as a postsecondary vocational award. Many vocational schools offer full-time travel agent programs that last several months, as well as evening and weekend programs. Travel agent courses also are offered in public adult education programs and in community and 4-year colleges. A few colleges offer bachelor's or master's degrees in travel and tourism. Although few college courses relate directly to travel or tourism, a college education sometimes is desired by employers to establish a background in fields such as computer science, geography, communication, foreign languages, and world history. Courses in accounting and business management also are important, especially for those who expect to manage or start their own travel agencies.
The American Society of Travel Agents offers a correspondence course that provides a basic understanding of the travel industry. Travel agencies also provide on-the-job training for their employees, a significant part of which consists of computer instruction. All employers require computer skills of workers whose jobs involve the operation of airline and centralized reservation systems.
Continuing education is critical, as the abundance of travel information readily available through the Internet and other sources has resulted in a more informed consumer who wants to deal with an expert when choosing a travel agent. Experienced travel agents can take advanced self-study or group-study courses from the Travel Institute, leading to the Certified Travel Counselor designation. The Travel Institute also offers marketing and sales skills development programs and destination specialist programs, which provide detailed knowledge of regions such as North America, Western Europe, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Rim. With the trend toward more specialization, these and other destination specialist courses are increasingly important.
Personal travel experience or experience as an airline reservation agent is an asset because knowledge about a city or foreign country often helps influence a client's travel plans. Patience and the ability to gain the confidence of clients also are useful qualities. Travel agents must be well-organized, accurate, and meticulous to compile information from various sources and plan and organize their clients' travel itineraries. Also, agents who specialize in business travel must work quickly and efficiently because business travel often must be arranged on short notice. As the Internet has become an important tool for making travel arrangements, more travel agencies are using websites to provide their services to clients. This trend has increased the importance of computer skills in this occupation. Other desirable qualifications include good writing and interpersonal and sales skills.
Some employees start as reservation clerks or receptionists in travel agencies. With experience and some formal training, they can take on greater responsibilities and eventually assume travel agent duties. In agencies with many offices, travel agents may advance to office manager or to other managerial positions.
Those who start their own agencies generally have had experience in an established agency. Before they can receive commissions, these agents usually must gain formal approval from suppliers or corporations, such as airlines, ship lines, or rail lines. The Airlines Reporting Corporation and the International Airlines Travel Agency Network, for example, are the approving bodies for airlines. To gain approval, an agency must be financially sound and employ at least one experienced manager or travel agent.
There are no Federal licensing requirements for travel agents. In 2004, however, 13 States required some form of registration or certification of retail sellers of travel services. More information may be obtained by contacting the Office of the Attorney General or Department of Commerce in each State.
Travel agents held about 103,000 jobs in 2004 and are found in every part of the country. More than 3 out of 5 agents worked for travel agencies. Around 14 percent were self-employed.
Employment of travel agents is expected to decline through 2014. Most openings will occur as experienced agents transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force. Because of the projected decline in employment and the fact that a number of people are attracted by the travel benefits associated with this occupation, keen competition for jobs is expected. Travel agents who specialize and can utilize the Internet to reduce their costs and better compete with other travel suppliers should have the best chance for success.
The Internet increasingly allows people to access travel information from their personal computers, enabling them to research and plan their own trips, make their own reservations and travel arrangements, and purchase their own tickets. As a result, demand will decline for travel agents who simply take orders, such as booking tickets for a specified date and time. Also, domestic airlines no longer pay commissions to travel agencies, which has reduced revenues and caused some agencies to go out of business. This change also has led many travel agents to begin charging fees for their services. To justify those fees, customers expect travel agents to provide good service and travel expertise. Opportunities may be better for agents who specialize in specific destinations, luxury travel, or particular types of travelers such as ethnic groups or groups with a special interest or hobby. Many consumers still prefer to use a professional travel agent to plan a complete trip; to deal with some of the more complex transactions; to ensure reliability; to suggest excursions or destinations that might otherwise be missed; to save time; or, in some cases, to save money.
Several factors should offset the adverse effect of Internet travel arrangement and the loss of revenues from airline bookings. For example, spending on tourism and travel is expected to increase over the next decade. With rising household incomes, smaller families, and an increasing number of older people who are more likely to travel, more people are expected to travel on vacationand to do so more frequentlythan in the past. Business travel also should rebound from recession and terrorism-related declines as business activity expands. Business travel also should increase as U.S. businesses open more foreign operations and businesses increasingly sell their goods and services worldwide. In addition, luxury and specialty travel should increase among the growing number of Americans with the available time and money for these more expensive trips.
Another positive factor is the increasing affordability of air travel. Greater competition among airlines, especially from low-cost carriers, has brought airfares within the budgets of more people. In addition, American travel agents now organize more tours for the growing number of foreign visitors. Also, travel agents often are able to offer various travel packages at a substantial discount.
The demand for travel is sensitive to economic downturns and international political crises, when travel plans are likely to be deferred. Therefore, the number of job opportunities for travel agents fluctuates. However, the number of travelers has risen recently, possibly reflecting demand from consumers who delayed travel because of terrorism and safety concerns. Demand for travel remains volatile, though, and trends could change at any time.
Experience, sales ability, and the size and location of the agency determine the salary of a travel agent. Median annual earnings of travel agents were $27,640 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $21,600 and $35,070. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $17,180, while the top 10 percent earned more than $44,090. Median earnings in May 2004 for travel agents employed in the travel arrangement and reservation services industry were $27,490.
Salaried agents usually enjoy standard employer-paid benefits that self-employed agents must provide for themselves. When traveling for personal reasons, agents usually get reduced rates for transportation and accommodations. In addition, agents sometimes take "familiarization" trips, at lower cost or no cost to themselves, to learn about various vacation sites. These benefits attract many people to this occupation.
Earnings of travel agents who own their agencies depend mainly on commissions from travel-related bookings and service fees they charge clients. Often it takes time to acquire a sufficient number of clients to have adequate earnings, so it is not unusual for new self-employed agents to have low earnings. Established agents may have lower earnings during economic downturns.