How to Become a Travel Agent: A Guide for the Perplexed

by Cheryl Rosen / 


Selling travel agent is not all about free trips — but the hard work can pay off in a career that is rich in adventure and personal relationships, if you start off right.

We asked travel agents and industry experts for their best tips to help new travel agents break into the business. Here’s our Guide for the Perplexed.

Start with a business plan
It takes capital to run a business — even a home-based business. “Being in business is not something you can do on the basis of feel and instinct,” said Paul Ruden, who served as legal counsel to the American Society of Travel Agents for many years. So, start by putting it all down in writing.

How much do you expect to sell in the first year? How much capital do you have? What expenses will you incur? A business plan forces you to sit down and figure out how you are going to get clients and how much it’s going to cost, Ruden said. “You have to be prepared for the inevitable reality that your capital is going to go down before it goes up. The standard is that it takes two years to make money in a small business; if you are setting up a home business, you might need less capital, but you still will need equipment, and you need to make deposits.” 

Don’t forget the legal planning that goes along with that. Will you be a corporation or a sole proprietor? Will you partner with a friend or relative who invests in your business? Become a franchise? In any of these cases, “it’s very important to separate the business from your personal assets, so your personal assets are not available to someone who might sue you,” Ruden said.

Create a personal learning plan
The travel industry offers “great career options for entrepreneurs just starting out, as well as those looking for an encore career,” says Nexion President Jackie Friedman. But the key to success is to “specialize and focus on learning more about less rather than less about more.” In other words, determine your ideal customer based on a specific demographic or psychographic, or a hobby or passion or network of people with similar interests. Then decide what products, travel styles or destinations these target customers would be interested in, and create a personal learning plan that targets what you need to know to effectively sell to your target.

Many agents agree that specializing is the key to success for a new agent. “The broader your focus, the less effective your marketing will be,” noted destination weddings expert Will Medina. “In this digital age, niche marketing will help you monetize your passion way faster than all the product knowledge in the world.”

Several professional travel agents also recommended courses offered by The Travel Institute, or online courses that use their curriculum, such as the one at Los Medanos Community College. “Classes were taught by the most dedicated and thorough instructors, who instilled an obligation to professionalism in each of us,” said Lu Maggiora of Travel by Lu. "Industry professionals and agency owners served on the board of the program, speakers came in regularly, and the curriculum covered every aspect of the travel industry. To this day, many of my great friends in the industry have come out of the Los Medanos program.”

It takes a village
Consider joining a host agency, consortium or franchise association, but choose carefully. “It is so important to realize that you don’t have to go at it alone,” said Friedman. “Many host agencies, consortia and associations offer training and networking opportunities for travel industry newcomers.”

Research, research, research — and then research some more, said David Holman of Bridges & Holman Worldwide Travel. Spend a couple of months reading everything you can “about being an employee vs. an independent contractor, and the ins and outs of going it alone vs. franchise vs. host agency. Include personal communications with the owners or managers to find the one that you're comfortable with and that understands you. Whatever you do, don't go sending a check to someone based on a website or internet ad.”

In agreement, Gifted Travel Network’s Lisa Chambers Fletcher said: “Invest in a great training/mentorship/hosting program that will not only teach you how to sell cruises/tours, but to also run a business and become a super sales person. With all the ‘travel candy’ out there, it is easy to get distracted and want to learn only about product and destinations, but that is a sure path to struggle.”

And beware the “MSM ‘card mills’ that promise free travel if you recruit your friends, family, colleagues, etc.,” cautioned Lee Ann Rigsby. “Being a travel agent is NOT recruiting others to book their own travel, travel ‘free,’ and possibly earn a little off those sales. At times, it is a frustrating, thankless job (as all service industries are). But we persevere because we truly love what we do, and the good outweighs the negatives.”

Mind the paperwork
Travel is a very regulated business — and that means dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s. Many states require travel agents to register; Florida and California in particular are sticklers, so be sure to register there if you have a customer who lives in the state.

Understand your disclosure obligations, Ruden suggested. To protect yourself from liability, be sure to make it clear that you are an agent of suppliers and not responsible for the actual transportation services. And always recommend that clients buy travel insurance; have them sign a statement saying it was offered and they declined if that is the case.

Also, be sure to get E&O insurance. And mind the copyright rules when you post photos on your website.

Brush up on your sales skills
Understand that you are actually starting a career in sales, and take some courses if you need better skills. “If you don't understand sales, you're not going to be successful in travel,” said Laura Frazier of Bliss Honeymoons in Columbus, Ohio. “You could have planned hundreds of trips before getting into the business and still not be able to make it; you have to have a business plan and a marketing plan in order to be successful.”

Find a mentor 
There is nothing like a guide when you are starting out. Debby Race Estill, for example, apprenticed by working afternoons at a local agency, which helped “get her set in her knowledge,” and put her on personal terms with tour operators.

Tracy Thomas Federico also suggested, “putting in the time in an office learning the day-to-day. There’s no online course or host agency that can offer the hands-on knowledge of an experienced agent,” she said. “Sacrifice the commission for the experience in the beginning.”

Be realistic
There is so much more to selling travel than free tips. It’s hard work dealing with the public, travel suppliers and customers — so be prepared to pay your dues.

“It’s great to want to be your own boss; the American economy depends on that. But, there's a theory about the undue optimism of entrepreneurs; people tend to have this faith in themselves that is in far excess of reality, and that causes them to underestimate risk,” said Ruden.

“Make sure you understand this business is all about sales and building a client base,” said Betsy Bouche of Largay Travel. “It can be 24/7 client service and a commitment to always learning. It's not about getting to travel all the time. Don't go into the business with the expectation that you're going to be traveling around the world for free. If you don't want to do sales or you're not a people person, think twice.”

And don’t be “dazzled by the appearance of glamour,” said Care Caruso of True Places Travels. “Reality is far from that. But, as someone who transitioned from another professional career, I also emphasize that this can be the most rewarding work you will ever do — if you have the right mindset!”