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Travel Agents

Planning your vacation or a career trip can be frustrating and time consuming. Many travelers, therefore, seek the assistance of travel agents--specialists who have the information and know-how to make the best possible travel arrangements, with their clients' tastes, budgets, and other requirements in mind.

Consider, for example, the contrast between arrangements for an executive with a tight schedule and for a family of four on a restricted budget, both planning a visit to Washington, D.C. For the executive, an agent might arrange a first class flight, a hotel suite that could be used for career meetings, and a limousine ready upon arrival for career calls. For the family, on the other hand, the travel agent would recommend less expensive, off-season, all-inclusive packages and special air fares. The agent would describe a wide range of hotel facilities and arrange the most economical but pleasurable trip. The agent also might arrange for car rental or bus tours, suggest local tourist attractions and restaurants, and acquaint the family with the city's climate. For international travel, the agent might also provide information on customs regulations, required papers (passports, visas, and certificates of vaccination), and the most recent currency exchange rates.

When making travel arrangements, travel agents consult a variety of sources for information on departure and arrival times, fares, and hotel ratings and accommodations. Most travel agents rely on computers for up-to-the-minute information on fares and schedules. They often use their own or co-workers travel experiences as a basis for making recommendations. Travel agents may devote some of their time to visiting hotels, resorts, and restaurants to rate their comfort, cleanliness, and quality of food and service. Travel agents also do considerable promotional work. They may give slide or movie presentations to social and special interest groups, arrange advertising displays, and meet with career managers to suggest company-sponsored trips.

Working Conditions

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. They may be under a great deal of pressure during busy vacation seasons. Many agents, especially those who are self-employed, frequently work long hours. When they do travel, travel agents usually get substantially reduced rates. Sometimes hotels or resorts offer travel agents free promotional holidays.


Travel agents held 144,000 jobs in 1990 and are found in every part of the country. Nearly one-half of all travel agencies are in large cities; one-third, in suburban areas; and one-fifth, in small towns and rural areas.

Many travel agents are self-employed. Generally these persons gained experience and recognition in an established travel agency before going into career for themselves.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Travel courses are offered in private vocational schools, adult education programs in public high schools, community colleges, and 4-year colleges. A few colleges offer a bachelor's and a master's degree in travel and tourism. Although few college courses relate directly to the travel industry, a college education is sometimes desired by employers. Courses in computer science, geography, foreign languages, and history are most useful. Courses in accounting and career management also are important, especially for those who expect to manage or start their own travel agencies. Several home-study courses provide a basic understanding of the travel industry. Employers prefer applicants with computer skills. Since these are becoming increasingly important, a significant part of training courses and on-the-job training consist of computer instructions.

Persons can prepare for careers as travel agents by working part time as reservation clerks or receptionists in travel agencies. As they gain experience, they may enter either a formal or informal training program given by the agency, take on greater responsibilities, and eventually assume the full workload of a travel agent. In large travel agencies with offices in many cities, travel agents may advance to office manager or to other managerial positions. Experience as an airline reservation agent also is a good background for a travel agent. Broad experience as a national or international traveler is an asset, since the ability to speak with some personal knowledge about a city or foreign country often helps to influence clients' travel plans.

As a sales representative, the travel agent must be pleasant and patient. Agents often must demonstrate their efficiency and sense of responsibility to hard-to-please clients.

Experienced travel agents can take an advanced course, leading to the designation of Certified Travel Counselor, offered by the Institute of Certified Travel Agents. Another recognized mark of achievement in this field is a certificate of proficiency from the American Society of Travel Agents. It is awarded to those who pass a test covering the duties of travel agents.

Travel agents who start their own agencies must gain formal conference approval before they can receive commissions. Conferences are organizations of airlines, shiplines, or rail lines. The Airline Reporting Corporation, for example, is the conference of airlines. To gain conference approval, an agency must be in operation, be financially sound, and employ at least one experienced travel agent.

Since conference approval can take time to obtain, most self-employed agents make very little profit in their first year. Their income generally is limited to commissions from hotel, cruises, and tour operator and to nominal fees for making complicated arrangements. For those starting their own agency, working capital of more than $35,000 will be needed to carry the agency through a profitless first year.

There are no Federal licensing requirements for travel agents. However, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Hawaii now have licensing requirements. In California, travel agents not approved by a conference are required to have a license.

Job Outlook

Employment of travel agents is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2000. Many job openings will arise as new agencies open and existing agencies expand, but most will occur as experienced agents transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force. However, since the industry generally is sensitive to the fluctuations of the economy, opportunities at any given time depend heavily upon whether or not people or careeres can afford travel. Long-distance travel plans are likely to be deferred during economic downturns.

Despite economic fluctuations, spending on travel is expected to increase significantly through the mid-1990's. As career activity expands, so will career-related travel. Also, with rising incomes and increasing emphasis on leisure-time activities, more people are expected to travel--and to do so more frequently--than in the past.

The use of charter flights and larger, more efficient planes, especially for trips to other countries, has brought air transportation within the budget of many Americans. The recent easing of Government regulation of air fares and routes should also help increase traveling by fostering greater competition among airlines to offer better and more affordable service. More travel agents will be needed to handle this extra career. In addition, American travel agents often organize tours for the growing number of foreign visitors. Although most travel agencies now have automated reservation systems, this has not weakened demand for travel agents. Deregulation has resulted in more work for travel agents. New airline entrants and volatility of airfares and schedules have made the computer an essential tool.


Experience, sales ability,and the size and location of the agency determine the salary of a travel agent. Based on limited information, salaries of travel agents generally ranged from $12,720 for beginners to $22,300 a year for experienced agents in 1990. Managers earned about $31,800 a year. Salaried agents usually have standard benefits-- pension plans, insurance coverage, paid vacations--that self-employed agents must provide for themselves.

Earnings of travel agents who own their agencies depend mainly on commissions from airlines and other carriers, cruise lines, tour operators, and lodging places. Commissions for domestic travel arrangements, cruises, hotels, sightseeing tours, and car rentals are about 10 percent; and for international travel, about 11 percent. When travel agents arrange individual plans that require several connections on different kinds of transportation, they generally charge the customer a service fee for the time and expense involved.

During the first year of career or while awaiting conference approval, self- employed travel agents generally have low earnings. Even established agents experience less profitable years during periods of economic downturn. Related Occupations

Travel Agents organize and schedule career, education, or recreational travel or activities. Other workers with similar responsibilities include secretaries, tour guides, airline reservation agents, rental car agents, and travel counselors.

Sources of Additional Information

For further information on training opportunities, contact:

American Society of Travel Agents, 4400 MacArthur Blvd. NW., Washington, D.C. 20007.


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