Is the life of a travel agent as glamorous as you think?

Is the life of a travel agent as glamorous as you think?

I spent a total of 2 years working as a travel agent.

When I applied for the role, I envisioned my dream job. Booking trips for customers while researching my own at the same time, with the added perk of familiarisation trips and discounted travel? What could be better!

I got the job and excitedly jumped into my new role, but it didn’t take long for me to realise that working as a travel agent isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Apparently most new recruits quit in their first 6 months, and if you make it past there you’re doing better than the majority. The job brings out both the best and the worst in people and it takes a tough cookie to handle all the ups and downs.

Here’s my experience of working a travel agent, and why the job isn’t as glamorous as it sounds.

The best bits

Xian Pagoda, China

Visiting Xian, China in 2010

Perks of the job

I got two international trips as part of my job, one familiarisation trip to Bali for 4 days, and another to China through a tour company for 10 days (though this one cost $1000 AUD in participation fees and visas).

I also was able to discount my own travel bookings by taking off the commission we’d normally get and by taking advantage of industry discounts, so I’d end up saving 10-20% on my own bookings. Extremely cheap travel? Yes, please!

Super amazing customers

People often got really excited about their trip. I had someone come in who’d been saving up for ages to go to Africa, and I eventually managed to fit the trip in her limited budget. When I called to tell her the tickets were ready, she got super excited and actually leaned over the desk to hug me. You can’t tell me that wouldn’t make you feel good.

Learning some great skills

One thing I’m glad I got out of my time as a travel agent is some very marketable skills. I learnt a lot about sales, customer service, and marketing. These have come in handy for basically everything I’ve done since then, including going for job interviews, starting my own Etsy business, and even blogging.

The worst of it

Etihad Airlines

Not as many perks as you think

Aside from flying to Melbourne twice a year for conferences, I got a grand total of 2 international trips in my 2 year career, which is not all that many, really. Also, these trips sometimes consist of a lot of hotel inspections so you don’t get a lot of free time to explore, it’s not all fun and games.

I actually won a third trip which would have taken me to Dubai for 4 days, but I was denied it because my store was understaffed. Why I had to suffer for that, I’m not sure. This was my breaking point and within a month I’d walked out the door.

Pressure to make commission

The pressure to make commission in this job was phenomenal. Every agency does it differently but here’s the way it worked in my store.

Both myself and the store made money from the commission I made, so I was given a target to hit each month. If it looked like I wasn’t going to make it, I was pulled aside to discuss ways of making more money. If I didn’t make it, my target might have gone up even more for the following month.

Sales is definitely one of the most stressful industries. On top of all this pressure, I was dealing with financial difficulties through a break up with my ex partner. I’ll admit, this was not one of the high points of my life. I suffered from anxiety and ended up seeing multiple professionals to help me deal with it.

Super shitty customers

Ever had someone try to blame their own mistake on you? I once had a middle-aged couple sign a document with their flight details before they booked their international flight, then come back in the next day to tell me I hadn’t booked them on the flight that their daughter was on and should therefore pay for the change fee. Umm, how was I supposed to know what flight your daughter was on? You didn’t even mention that you wanted to be on the same flight, fools!

Sadly, this kind of thing sadly happens fairly often, and in the travel agent industry this can mean losing your hard earned commission even if it’s not your fault.

Stuff goes wrong, all the time

Volcano eruptions, political unrest (such as this time when I visited Kiev), and even bad weather will cause havoc for travel agents as well as travellers. Stranded passengers will rely on their agents to change all their bookings when things go wrong and that can take a lot of time (which you’re therefore not earning commission from making new bookings).

Long working hours

My working week would have been 44-45 hours, which is about 7-8 hours longer than the average working week in Australia. We started early and finished late (sometimes really late, depending on how much work we had to get done).

As a travel agent you can’t just leave things to do for the next day. If you don’t make bookings now, the price might go up and then where will the price difference come from? Yep, your commission.

You spend all your money on travel

I know this sounds like a good thing, but if you want to save for a house, or a car, or basically anything other than travel, forget it. You see hundreds of good deals on travel every single day, and when a special comes out for somewhere you’ve been thinking about going, you’re bound to book it. Working as a travel agent gets you so immersed in travel deals that there’s no space left in your head for anything else.

Aland, Finland

I’m glad I don’t work as a travel agent anymore.

In the end, the stress of the job made my quality of life far worse than the perks made it better. I imagine flight attendants probably have similar issues – you get to travel to exotic places for cheap, but you have to deal with a lot of crap on the way.

Nowadays when I need to book flights I’ll head online and do it myself, though my flights occasionally involve flying into one airport and out of another so I still use a travel agent for difficult itineraries.

I’m a much happier, healthier, and smarter person now. I can look back at my time as a travel agent and appreciate that I learnt some great skills and a lot about myself as well. It wasn’t a bad job, but if you’re thinking about heading down that path you should know what to expect and be able to handle it. If you can do that, kudos to you.

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17 Responses to “Is the life of a travel agent as glamorous as you think?”

  1. Mona

    Hi Ashlea!

    I am a Business Travel Agent and absolutely LOVE my job! Luckily I don’t have to hit a minthly target…
    Didnt you get Agent PEP fares too?
    And for the shitty customers – those you will get wherever you work 😀

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks for sharing Mona! I’m sure there are many travel agents who love their jobs. As far as I’m aware, travel agents who don’t work on commission have a MUCH better time of it than those who do. Also the business customers I would get were usually more happy and flexible with pricing than people who were spending their own money on travel and doing everything possible to get the best deal, so you’ve chosen wisely there. I’m glad you enjoy it!

  2. Tessa / Bramble & Thorn

    This was such an interesting read – I always imagined travel agents got free international holidays every year, but it doesn’t seem quite that glamorous! That’s totally unfair about your holiday to Dubai, and under the same circumstances I probably would have quit too.

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      I think the travel industry likes to make people think that their staff will get all these benefits to draw people in, but the reality is much different! I was devastated when I was told I couldn’t go on the Dubai trip, I’d worked really hard for it and then didn’t get to go for a stupid reason that was totally out of my control. There was no point staying in the job after that I think, how would I know that it wouldn’t happen again?

  3. Ashley

    I totally feel you..I’ve worked in a hotel reception and many of the things you described about the downsides are also true for working at a hotel. The ruthless customers, the endless calls/emails from people who need you to figure out complicated bookings, things going wrong. I was so relieved when I quit that job…

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      A hotel reception would be the worst! I felt the same sense of relief when I quit working as a travel agent, I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggled in that industry!

  4. Damola

    Hmm. I thought I’d try working as a travel agent because of my love for traveling but your post is making me have a rethink. I guess I need to research further and be sure it’s right for me. All that glitters really isn’t gold. Haha! Thanks for this!!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Not every travel agency works the same way so it’s worth researching the companies you’re applying for to see what their systems are – if you can find some that don’t work on commission, they’ll be the best options!

  5. Franca

    It’s good of you to write this post which shows that being a travel agent is not easy and that like any other job can be stressful, demanding and to get few “freebies” you actually have to work your ass off. It’s good though you got to work in a travel related environment to improve your knowledge and use it now for your own good 🙂

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks Franca – it was a stressful job and barely worth the ‘freebies’ I got from it, but I definitely don’t regret working in the industry as I picked up some very useful skills that I still use to this day!

  6. Sara

    I have in some form or another in the travel industry for almost 20 years. Figuring out anyway I could travel cheaply around the world. I worked for a student travel company 2 summers in Mexico, which was awesome. Then a resort in Guam that paid all of my expenses and I live on site, but after a year was burned out. Then I got into dreadful customer service and sales for the biggest tour company in Hawaii, and did it for 3 years before quitting, selling everything and started my own little business. But the lust for travel lured me back and I started working for an airline in reservations. I was able to travel so much, over 100,000 miles a year and could take off up to a month at a time, but had to work my butt off sometimes 16 hour shifts and trades, and sometimes would sleep in my car in the parking lot, to be back for a 4 am shift after getting off at midnight. It was crazy. I burned out after 3 years, and cashed out all of my stock options and moved to Tanzania, to volunteer and teach arts and crafts. After having a child, I returned back to working for an airline part time and a travel agent. The long hours, after hour travel show requirements, working ever other Saturday, corporate office environment, 2 weeks off a year and other expectations of the job, were too much. I thought, there has to be another way to get to see the world on my OWN terms. Now with the knowledge I have gained, I am finally to work independently, incorporating it into my blog, booking trips and activities, and being a travel advisor. So for anyone thinking of getting into the industry for the travel benefits, the down fall it the actual amount of time off you get to be able to travel, and the notoriously low pay (for airlines) and most travel agencies.

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      You’ve had quite a hefty amount of experience in the travel industry! It’s amazing how burnt out employees of the travel industry get. I think because of all the perks, you’re expected to work such ridiculous hours and under an incredible amount of pressure to perform. The story of you sleeping in your car between shifts just bewilders me. How can anyone be expected to work in such conditions?

      The funny thing is, travelling on your own terms (even if it is more expensive than your prior industry discounts) is SO much more enjoyable. And with all your experience, I’m sure you’d be the best person to advise other people on travel! Thanks so much for your comment Sara.

  7. Ariana Kajic

    Oh wow! I applied for a job at flight center, got an email to do a phone interview and that was at around 4pm. She asked if i could go into their head office in north sydney at 9am for a group interview. I researched what was in the interview and spent 6 hours preparing. From destinations to airports and math questions i hadnt done since leaving school! I didnt get through to the next round and to my suprise a ex flight attendant who we all thought would get through. Only later i realised this job would have been more stressful than the one i had left, which was only a 20 hour week in retail. Yes there are perks, but it doesnt out weigh the other bits too.

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      You might have dodged a bullet there Ariana! You’re absolutely right – part time in retail would be so much less stressful than full time as a travel agent. The pressure you get put through in that job is unbelievable!

  8. Rochelle Baboolal

    I just graduated and planned to become a travel agent.Now I don’t know. Where I am interning now, the employees hate their jobs and I’m just starting my career…It’s freaking me out! What’s for me if not this?

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      I think it depends a lot on the company that you work for – if you can find a place that doesn’t work on commission, then it would probably be a lot less stressful than the job I had! If the employees at your workplace hate their jobs, then it’s probably not a good sign for things to come. My advice would be to keep searching for a workplace that feels like it would be the right fit for you 🙂

  9. Jolene Myburgh

    Intresting to read all the posts, I am also in 2minds to make that change to become a travel agent? Is the commission so hard to make?
    The company I want to apply for is one of the best companies to work for in my country, from the posts I have read it seems like the employees are so happy at this company, and its so much rewarding,i suppouse all travel agents work on commission.. will this be ideal for a mom-be-to make this change ?


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