What does a travel agent do
What does a travel agent do
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Does your travel agent, advisor or consultant (different names for the same job) wave at you from her Tik Tok, Instagram, or Reddit account as if she were holidaying on an island in the South Pacific or a romantic terrace in an even more romantic village in Italy? If you think that's the life of a travel agent, nothing could be further from the truth! Trust me, I have been an "industry expert" for over 40 years, I know what I am talking about. 

I recently came across an alarming article stating that MLM travel agents are destroying the market. As I work in Europe, this was a new term for me. So I wanted to find out what it is and what the differences are between a non-MLM travel agent in the USA and, say, an average travel agent in Europe. Because there are quite a few. 

Is an MLM agent a travel agent?

I quickly realized that an MLM structure is actually a Ponzi scheme to stay away from. An MLM travel,or in full, a Multi Leveling Marketing agent recruits new agents, who in turn have to recruit new agents, etc., who in turn have to persuade a traveler, i.e. you, to buy not so much a holiday in the South Pacific, but a subscription to a holiday village or something similar. The perk is you get to travel on a discount. 

A certain amount of knowledge about the travel industry in the broadest sense, including whether Brussels is the capital of Belgium or any other kind of geographical knowledge, is not really required. Neither is membership of ASTA, the American standard-bearer for the travel industry. So as far as an MLM travel agent is concerned, we won't mention them anymore if you promise me never to go near them.

Why is this important for the traveler?

Since we already know that a traveler should stay well clear of a so called MLM ‘travel agent’, lets look at what the difference is between a travel agent or travel consultant in the United States of America and one in Europe. Incidentally, Europe is a broad concept and each country has its own rules, but in most cases it amounts to much the same thing as the European Union set certain standard requirements. By the way: a travel agent is a person, a travel agency is a company

Let's be clear: I am not, in any way, shape or form, saying that one is better than the other. I am just trying to explain the difference. There are excellent and very experienced travel agents in the US, but there are also plenty of people selling travel that don't know what they are doing, and you might end up with a bad experience of what should have been the trip of a lifetime. 

At this point, it might also be interesting to read what one of my colleagues in the US has to say about the subject and I couldn't agree with her more: https://www.travelresearchonline.com/blog/index.php/2024/02/looking-for-a-free-host-with-no-requirements-signed-anonymous/

Expertise in Travel

travel agent

In the USA: Anyone can call themselves a travel agent and start selling travel. The trade is an on-the-job learning process. Knowledge is not required. Case in point: FORA Travel and others like them. You can become a travel agent overnight, subscribe, pay a fee, and hey presto, you get to book travel for yourself, your loved ones and complete strangers. In order to ‘educate’ their subscribers, e.a. travel agents, they offer a few video’s. A travel agency, on the other hand, is usually a company with the necessary certifications, member of ASTA, can issue airline tickets, sell travel insurance and employs travel agents.

One of these expiring agents listed his or her financial requirements for becoming a travel agent on a forum recently. As well as the usual costs of setting up a business, he/she listed 'a 7-day course at a cost of $190'. If this is the level of expertise required to become a person who can advise clients on their $15,000 trip to Europe, then it is worthwhile for every traveler to take this course and save on the fees that he or she will be charging you. 

In the EU: a travel agent has a 4 or even 6 year course of study and must pass exams for certification and will be working in a travel agency with the necessary certifications and financial guarantees.

Just some basic things you should expect from a travel agent:

  • What visas and/or vaccinations are required for any destination
  • What are the differences in airline classes
  • What insurance should a traveler take out
  • How much time do you need when changing planes or trains
  • How much time does it take to drive from A to B in a foreign country
  • What is the difference between a mile and a kilometer
  • What's the currency in Thailand, Switzerland, Holland or Egypt, and what is it worth
  • What is room tax and who pays it

And I am not even talking about what to see, where to eat or where to sleep.

Working conditions

USA: Travel agents learn the trade in a travel agency where they learn all the tools of the trade, such as IATA rules and standards and what the difference is between a holiday in Greece and one in Mombasa. But in some cases a travel agent or consultant works alone, from home, sometimes this includes a contract or franchise with a travel agency where he or she may be able to use the equipment or certifications, usually on a split-commission basis. Some will specialize in one area of travel, for instance cruising, or a particular destination, because they have experienced it for themselves. 

In the EU: Travel agents mainly work in a travel agency and are paid a fixed salary. Agents have at least 3 years of training, in most cases more. In addition, they completed a number of work placements, often abroad, partly to improve their foreign language skills. In a travel agency, they will work with all available tools and equipment. 

What do travel agents earn

In the USA: Travel agents earn a commission on the tours they sell, which varies from 10% to 15%. A hotel usually pays 8%, just on the price of the room. No commission is paid on extras such as meals. If a travel agent works with a travel agency, this commission is shared and can range from 2% to 5%. If a hotel room costs a $100, the travel agent will get anywhere from $10 to $2. Reason why it is not unusual for a travel agent to mark up the price of the hotel room or excursions. It is, however, reasonable that a travel agent charges you for extra work or for booking an airline ticket which is non-commissionable.
A perk is what is known as a fam trip, we will come back to that in a moment.
An average full time travel agent in the US earns between 35K and 40K a year. 

In the EU: a travel agent's wages are among the lowest in the world, but he or she is insured for illness, sick days, paid holidays and mistakes or accidents. All liability lies with the agency that employs them. A travel agency often has staff with varying levels of skill and experience. The travel agency receives commission from tour operators, hotels, cruise lines, etc., this varies but usually runs to about 10-15%. Flights are non commissionable.
The benefits or perks are very limited and are typically given to the employees with the most seniority in the company.

What does a travel agent do?

In the USA: the self employed travel agent sources hotels, cruises, package tours and is only restricted by the requirements of the selling party in the way of expertise and/or financial security. 

In the EU: the travel agent rarely buys direct, unless he/she is also a tour operator and has contracts with hotels or airlines. A travel agency is required to be insured against calamities in order to conduct business and to protect the consumer from bankruptcy, natural disasters, 'acts of god', e.g.

Fam trips or ‘familiarisation trips’

And now back to the cute photo of your travel agent on that sun drenched beach. True or false?
In the good old days, travel agents and tour operators used to get lots of free flights and hotels. But like I said, that was then. These days, to get a free or discounted ticket from an airline is like the chance you have of winning the lotto. Hotels don't give away free rooms either to travel agents, unless they can prove they’re bringing a group of 20 minimum. At best they get a 50% discount. Cruises still offer better commissions and/or discounts than other travel products, but for how long? 

So the obvious conclusion must be that your travel agent had to pay for her own airline ticket and that she got at most a 50% discount on the hotel room, not including meals. I'm not saying it never happens that something is comped, but the exceptions prove the rule.
Although, I must admit, it does look good on an Instagram post.

Hotel room buyer - a dream job?

On the other hand, travel companies or tour operators employ buyers on a fixed salary and these jobs usually require a Master’s degree in Tourism. They put together the range of products that you find in the brochures. They travel around the world to get the best deals with hotels and providers of excursions, transfers, etc. in the best and most beautiful places. We are talking about buying in bulk: 10-20 rooms per hotel, guaranteed for the whole season. These are not pleasure trips and most buyers, especially buying for more remote destinations, only last a few years. Do they take time to lie on the beach or by the pool? At best maybe just a cocktail at the bar before they roll into bed, dead tired after writing their reports on the 10 or more hotels they viewed that day and making contracts ready for signing.

Conclusion

But let me be clear: the job of a professional travel agent is one of the best jobs you can get. It’s fun, you make people happy, and your clients will come back thanking you for the great time they had. But to become a good travel agent, there is a lot of knowledge to acquire, and that doesn't just miraculously come overnight. 

If you need help with your travel arrangements, or if you have questions, email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and we will get back to you within 24 hours. Our travel consultants have approx. 100 years experience between them, and although we do not claim to be experts on every part of the world, we do know Italy pretty well.

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