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Constantly changing air fares and schedules, a proliferation of vacation packages, and business/pleasure trip combinations can make travel planning frustrating and time consuming. Many people who travel, therefore, turn to travel agents, who assess their needs and make the best possible travel arrangements for them.
Depending on the needs of the client, travel agents give advice on destinations, make arrangements for transportation, hotel accommodations, car rentals, tours, and recreation, or plan the right vacation package or business/pleasure trip combination. They may also advise on weather conditions, restaurants, and tourist attractions and recreation. 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 judge, firsthand, their comfort, cleanliness, and quality of food and service so they can base recommendations on their own travel experiences or those of colleagues or clients.
Travel agents also promote their services. They make presentations to social and special interest groups, arrange advertising displays, and suggest company-sponsored trips to business managers.
Depending on the size of the travel agency, an agent may specialize by type of travel, such as leisure or business, or destination, such as Europe or Africa.
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 at times, such as during vacation seasons. Many agents, especially those who are self-employed, frequently work long hours.
Travel agents held about 122,000 jobs in 1994 and are found in every part of the country. More than 9 out of 10 salaried agents worked for travel agencies; some worked for membership organizations. About 1 out of 10 agents are self-employed.
The minimum requirement for those interested in becoming a travel agent is a high school diploma or equivalent. With technology and computerization having a profound effect on the work of travel agents, however, formal or specialized training is becoming increasingly important. Many vocational schools offer 6- to 12-week full-time travel agent programs, as well as evening and Saturday programs. Travel courses are also 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 the travel industry, a college education is sometimes desired by employers to establish a background in areas 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. Other desirable qualifications include good typing and letter writing skills, and an ability to work with computers.
The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) 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. Computer skills are required by employers to operate airline and centralized reservation systems.
Experienced travel agents can take advanced self or group study courses from the Institute of Certified Travel Agents (ICTA) that lead to the designation of Certified Travel Counselor (CTC). The ICTA also offers sales skills development programs and destination specialist programs, which provide a detailed knowledge of the geographic areas of North America, Western Europe, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Rim.
Travel experience is an asset since personal knowledge about a city or foreign country often helps to influence clients' travel plans, as is experience as an airline reservation agent. Selling skills, patience, and the ability to gain the confidence of clients also are useful qualities.
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 experience in an established agency. They must generally gain formal supplier or corporation approval before they can receive commissions. Suppliers or corporations are organizations of 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 in operation, be financially sound, and employ at least one experienced manager/travel agent.
There are no Federal licensing requirements for travel agents. However, nine States require some form of registration or certification of retail sellers of travel services: California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington. More information may be obtained by contacting the Office of the Attorney General or Department of Commerce for each State.
Employment of travel agents is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2005. Many job openings will arise as new agencies open and existing agencies expand, but most openings will occur as experienced agents transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.
Spending on travel is expected to increase significantly through the year 2005. As business activity expands, so will business-related travel. Employment of managerial, professional specialty, and sales representative occupations-those who do most business travel-is projected to grow at least as fast as the average. Also, 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 vacation-and to do so more frequently-than in the past. In fact, many people take more than one vacation a year.
Charter flights and larger, more efficient planes have brought air transportation within the budgets of more people. Also, the easing of Government regulation of air fares and routes has fostered greater competition among airlines, resulting in more affordable service. In addition, American travel agents 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.
Some developments, however, may reduce opportunities for travel agents in the future. The development of on-line computer systems has allowed people with access to such systems to make their own travel arrangements. Suppliers of travel services are increasingly able to make their services available through less conventional means, such as electronic ticketing machines and remote ticket printers. Also, airline companies have put a cap on the amount of commissions they will pay to travel agencies. The full impact of these practices on travel agents, though, has yet to be determined.
The travel industry generally is sensitive to economic downturns and political crises, when travel plans are likely to be deferred. Therefore, the number of job opportunities fluctuates.
Median annual earnings of travel agents were $21,300 in 1994. The middle 50 percent earned between $16,000 and $28,900 annually. Ten percent earned less than $13,000 and 10 percent earned more than $38,400 annually. Experience, sales ability, and the size and location of the agency determine the salary of a travel agent. According to a Louis Harris survey, conducted for Travel Weekly Magazine, the 1994 median annual earnings of travel agents on straight salary with less than 1 year experience were $12,990; from 1 to 3 years, $16,481; from 3 to 5 years, $19,491; from 5 to 10 years, $22,122; and more than 10 years, $24,645. Salaried agents usually have standard benefits, such as medical insurance coverage and paid vacations, that self-employed agents must provide for themselves. Among agencies, those focusing on corporate sales pay higher salaries and provide more extensive benefits, on average, than those who focus on leisure sales.
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 7-10 percent of the total sale; and for international travel, about 11 percent. They may also charge clients a service fee for the time and expense involved in planning a trip.
During the first year of business or while awaiting corporation approval, self-employed travel agents generally have low earnings. Their income usually is limited to commissions from hotels, cruises, and tour operators and to nominal fees for making complicated arrangements. Even established agents have lower profits during economic downturns. When they travel, agents usually get reduced rates for transportation and accommodations.
Travel agents organize and schedule business, educational, or recreational travel or activities. Other workers with similar responsibilities include tour guides, meeting planners, airline reservation agents, rental car agents, and travel counselors.
For further information on training opportunities, contact:
American Society of Travel Agents, Education Department, 1101 King St., Alexandria, VA 22314.
For information on certification qualifications, contact:
The Institute of Certified Travel Agents, 148 Linden St., P.O. Box 812059, Wellesley, MA 02181-0012, or phone toll free 1-800-542-4282.
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