How Do Travel Agents Get Paid?

If you read my recent blog post on the benefits of using a travel agent, you know that you can get a much higher level of service - typically at no additional cost - by booking your vacations through a travel advisor. But what if you just want some travel advice but still prefer to book direct on your own?

Here's the thing: I LOVE giving travel advice. When it comes to planning vacations, I live it, breath it, and dream about it most nights. (Just ask my husband how much I love to travel!) So I'm always up for talking travel if you have a question. But I'm also trying to grow a business that supports my family, and that means I have to focus my time on revenue-generating tasks. Doling out free travel advice is fun, but my hope is that it will open the door to potentially booking your next vacation. Because travel agents only get paid if we actually book your vacation.

That's right. We don't get kickbacks for name dropping, and money doesn't magically appear in our bank account with every link we send you to click on. (Wouldn't that be nice?!) The truth of the matter is I work for free until you decide to book a vacation through me and you complete your travel. That's because travel advisors are paid exclusively on commissions from companies like cruise lines, resorts, hotels, tour operators, car rental companies and excursion providers. Those commissions are already built into the price of travel, which means you aren't saving any money by booking direct rather than through a travel agent. (Although many people believe that booking direct will always get them a better price, in fact, the operator just keeps the commission.)

It's important to know that a travel agent will only be paid commission if their IATA or CLIA number is attached to the booking (which is why we have to book it for you), and commissions are only paid out after your travel has been completed. Also, keep in mind that not all suppliers pay the same. I might get paid a decent percentage from a tour company but just a few dollars for a one-night budget hotel reservation. And flights? Airlines pay us nothing – NADA – ZIP – which is why I don't book air unless it's part of a travel package.

Are you asking yourself yet why anyone would want to be a travel advisor under those conditions? It's because we love helping others experience a fuller life through travelling and seeing the world. We want to help those we care about get that much-needed vacation at a price they can afford, or that dream trip that will produce wonderful memories for a lifetime. It's our passion, and while there are easier ways to make money, there are few jobs that are more fun than what I do.

So now that you know how travel advisors are paid for their time, here are some tips on being a considerate client (if I may be so bold):

  1. Don't pit agents against each other. All travel agents have access to the same suppliers and rates - you don't need to shop your trip among multiple agents to see which one gives you the best deal. If you want to talk with a few travel agents to see which one you feel most comfortable with and like the best, that's encouraged. But please don't waste valuable time by talking with multiple agents at the same time to get quotes on the same trip. (This unfortunate scenario happens more than you'd think and has caused some travel agents to start charging an upfront planning fee.) Decide in advance which agent you want to work with, and then give them a chance to wow you with their service and knowledge.
  2. Don't be a tire kicker. If you're just looking for free information but you still plan to book direct on your own (or with another agent), you're not respecting that agent's time. If you're not convinced on the benefits of booking through an agent, there is a plethora of guidebooks and free information available online – plan to do your own research. Wasting a travel agent's time by having them research things for you, only to take that information and book those same or similar things direct on your own, genuinely feels like a slap in the face – ouch! Please don't be that person.
  3. Offer your agent the opportunity to book your whole trip, not just the part you need advice on. Remember that commission amounts vary greatly and that it doesn't cost you any more to book through a travel agent. Involving an agent in the booking of a substantial part of your trip – and not just a small part – helps us earn a livable wage in an industry that can otherwise be pretty low paying.
  4. If you need to cancel, please offer your agent the chance to rebook something else. Remember that agents only get paid commission after their client completes travel, so if you cancel and don't rebook, your travel agent gets nothing. It's fine to change your mind and decide you'd like to take a different trip instead of the one you had planned. But please offer your agent the opportunity to book the alternate trip for you (even if it's not something you would normally use an agent for) so that they can earn something for their time spent helping you.

I mention these four scenarios because these issues arise frequently for travel advisors, largely due to clients not understanding how agents are paid. Once in the know, clients and travel advisors alike can approach each other with greater understanding and mutual respect.