How Do I Pick the Best Travel Agent?

Travel agents have varying levels of experience and are not licensed by state authorities. It is up to you to ask questions and determined whether an individual agent is suited to meeting your travel planning needs. In many cases, you'll find that agents specialize in the type of travel that you are interested in. Some agents to require clients to pay a fee to cover the initial cost of travel research, planning and booking.

Adam Goldkamp is the editor / author responsible for this content.
Aug 24, 2021

The travel agent industry has changed significantly over the past 40 years. While it was once necessary to book most long-distance travel through an agent, many travel vendors began to switch to direct phone, later online, booking. This allowed consumers to book their own travel without having to work with a third party. These changes, it may be that you have never worked with a travel agent before.

Contrary to what you might think, however, many travel agents and travel agencies continue to do brisk business. Surveys show that many travelers continue to use an agent for all or part of travel booking and that many millennials are open to using travel agents, particularly when booking complex trips. Industry experts have noted that working with an agent can save travelers significant time and money over trying to book travel directly.

What Travel Agents Do

Travel agents are in the business of selling travel. They typically work for travel agencies that have developed relationships with vendors across the industry. These include airlines, hotels, resorts, cruise ships, insurance companies, and tour companies. Travel agents usually work on commission: When you book travel through a travel agent, he or she receives a commission on what you've paid.

As salespeople, travel agents can bring significant knowledge to the process of planning travel. These individuals typically are familiar with destinations, modes of transportation, places to stay and things to do. If you already know where you want to travel, they can help you find the best way to get there, a hotel within your budget, and can assist with finding things to do.

On the other hand, if you are not sure you're where you want to travel, a good travel agent can listen to your needs and desires and make recommendations based on your preferences and your budget. If you are looking forward to discovering new places to explore, a travel agent can be indispensable.

Travel agents can also be very useful in booking complex itineraries, such as cruises or multi-destination trips. In addition, many agents now specialize in niche travel categories and demographics (honeymoons, LGBTQ+, seniors, solo travelers, group travel, travel for those with disabilties, and travel to specific destinations) due to the fact that standard hotel stays, cruises, and resort bookings can be made by customers online. Travel agents have responded consumer-direct bookings by becoming specialists in one or two types of travel so that they can remain competitive.

Understanding Travel Agent Pricing

Travel agents used to operate entirely on commission. However, since Internet booking became widespread, some agents have made the decision to charge a small fee for travel consulting. This is because the real risk that a potential customer will approach an agent to request information about travel and the preparation of an itinerary only to turn around and book the same trip online, which means that the agent has worked for no compensation. A survey by showed that 52% of respondents now charge their clients fees for booking travel.

Still, many agents have resisted this trend and do not charge up-front fees. Be aware, however, that some of these agents will be very picky about the types of travel that they will book. For example, some agents will not book travel packages below a certain monetary value. In addition, agents may also charge a fee for specific services, such as airline ticket booking, because they receive little or no commission from the vendor for doing so.

As a travel consumer, it's important to understand a travel agent's policies regarding costs. When you first connect with the travel agent, ask about whether they charge for their services. These fees often range from $100 to $150 but can be higher or lower depending on the type of travel the agent books and the complexity of your itinerary.

Understanding How Travel Agents Operate

It's a good idea to have an understanding of how travel agents operate in the United States. Agents themselves are not licensed by the state, but travel agencies typically have a business license and some may have a specific "license to sell travel," which is mandated by the state or states in which they operate.

Travel agents are either employed by travel agencies or, quite commonly, are independent contractors who affiliate with what are called host agencies. The host agency provides the agent with access to its systems and vendors and handles the payment of commissions. The independent agent may work from home or at the offices of the host agency.

It's important to understand the differences between independent travel agents and those who are employed by a travel agency: A travel agent who operates independently may be practicing with only minimal training and supervision, unlike an agent who is an employee. Because of this, it is critical that you research any travel agent who you are considering working with.

Consider Your Travel Needs

Travel agents have a range of specializations, fees, and business practices. Before beginning your search for an agent, take some time to define your own travel needs. Here are some things to think about:

  1. Are you looking for a travel agent for business/corporate travel needs or leisure travel? Some serve both markets, while others specialize in one market segment.
  2. Are you booking travel for just yourself and your family, or are you trying to book travel for a group?
  3. What kind of travel are you interested in? Domestic? International? Expeditions to remote places? Cruises? All-inclusive-resorts? Religious pilgrimages?
  4. Do you have special needs? Many travel agents specialize in niche markets such as travel for seniors or those with disabilities.
  5. Are you looking for fairly standard itineraries or travel options that are off the beaten path?

Knowing what kind of travel suits you will help you target your search toward agents who are best able to work with and help you.

How You Prefer to do Business

Travel agents work in both dedicated offices and retail spaces as well as from home. One thing to consider when looking for a travel agent is how you prefer to do business with someone. If you prefer to sit down, in person, with a travel agent, you'll need to look for a travel agency that operates in a storefront or other professional setting. On the other hand, you may be just fine working with a home-based independent agent, particularly if you are comfortable doing business over the phone and online.

Questions to ask a travel agent

Many people find their travel agents online, either through an online search, a social media posting, or even a recommendation from a friend. If you are connecting with a travel agent this way, asking questions before you begin to work with him or her can protect you against scams or agents who are simply incompetent. (You may, of course, also be able to find this information on the agent's website or LinkedIn profile.)

How long have you been a travel agent?

There are, of course, good travel novice agents and mediocre experienced agents out there. However, if you are a novice traveler yourself or are planning a complicated itinerary, you may benefit from seeking out an agent who has been working full-time in the industry over many years.

Do you have any travel certifications or credentials?

Two of the most respected credentialing agencies for the travel industry are The Travel Instititue and the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). They have professional certification programs for travel agents: Ask if your agent has earned credentials from either or both organizations.

Who is your host agency or employer?

Once you know the host agency or employer, you can do some research on the business to see if other people have had positive experiences. You can also check to see if the company has had a history of disciplinary action, financial trouble, or consumer complaints.

Are you a home-based agent or do you work in an office? If you work in an office, is it one that you own or do you work in your host/employer agency's office?

As noted earlier, it's a matter of your own comfort level when it comes to working with someone who operates out of an office vs. someone who works from home.

What kind of experience do you have in booking [Your travel plans here: Cruises, group travel, expeditions, etc.]?

If you are hoping to book a group tour of the Holy Land with your church, you will likely want to work with a travel agent who has managed group tours and has connections to tour groups in the region. A travel agent who specializes in destination honeymoons in the Caribbean may well be a fantastic agent, but may not have the knowledge nor the connections to properly orchestrate a group travel experience in the Middle East.

Do you charge any fees?

A good travel agent who charges fees should provide you with an itemized list of fees that he or she may charge for travel consulting and booking services.

A legitimate travel agent will welcome your questions. Be wary of someone who becomes defensive or evasive when asked questions about their expertise and business practices.

Final Word

Travel can involve high costs, high expectations and, in some cases, a high level of risk. Choosing the right travel agent is often the best way to help ensure a safe, enjoyable trip at a reasonable cost. Take your time when choosing a travel agent and don't be afraid to ask questions, do your research, and terminate a business relationships if you feel that your concerns aren't being addressed.

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Adam has been tirelessly trying to help customers find the best tips and tricks to get through phone trees and writing many guides for prickly customer service problems. He's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inside Edition and Bloomberg.

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