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How to Choose the Best Travel Agency

In part one of this three part series, we discuss how to evaluate a travel agency and see if it is likely to meet your needs.

Part 1 of a 3 part series - click for Parts  One  Two  Three


A good travel agency can provide you with a broader and more complete range of services than can be found on the internet.  And the ability to conveniently talk with a real person can make all the difference when you have a problem, or need some special advice or assistance.

Here are some issues to consider when choosing an agency.

More issues are presented in parts two and three of this series.

What Makes a Travel Agency Real

In general, anyone can start a business and call themselves a travel agency in the United States.

At least eleven states require registration, but this is usually no more complicated than filling out a form and paying an annual fee.  It doesn't guarantee professionalism or good service, and usually it doesn't guarantee the safety of payments you make to the agency either.

The airlines require travel agencies to meet certain minimum standards before they will allow them the privilege of issuing airline tickets, but these standards are easily met and the ability to earn tickets is no longer essential to many agencies (due to no longer earning commissions from such transactions), so not all 'real' agencies bother getting this accreditation these days.

Although travel agencies are generally keen to avoid any complicated qualification procedures that would control the establishment of travel agencies, the lack of any formal quality controls has meant that there is an enormous variation in the quality of service provided by travel agencies.

A good travel agency will be an invaluable help to you in planning your travel.  Don't let the dismaying abundance of not so good agencies dissuade you - use the information in this article to help you find the good agency that you need and deserve.

Agency Affiliations and Accreditations

If an agency is able to issue airline tickets itself - if it has blank airline tickets in its office that it can print for your travels - then that means it has been accredited by ARC - the Airlines Reporting Corporation - the clearinghouse for US airlines.  The agency might also have been accredited by IATA - the International Air Transport Association - to allow it to issue tickets on behalf of most foreign airlines, too.  However, because issuing airline tickets is no longer profitable, many agencies have withdrawn from ARC/IATA accreditation, cutting down on their overheads and reporting costs considerably.

Most other suppliers of travel products - hotels, cruise lines, rental car companies, tour operators - don't have any requirements at all for who they will recognize as a travel agency.  For example, CLIA - the Cruise Line International Association - will basically allow anyone with a business license and who pays a joining fee then sell cruises for their member cruise lines.  An agency's membership in CLIA is accordingly meaningless one way or the other.

At least eleven states require travel agencies to be licensed.  If you are dealing with an unlicensed out of state agency, your protection might be diminished.  Ask if your state requires licensing, and, if it does, ask if your agency has this registration.

There are two main agency trade associations.  The larger one is ASTA - the American Society of Travel Agents.  Although this is the better known group, it is not without its critics (including me - see this page) and there is no reason to believe that an agency's membership of this group in any way translates to better client service for you.

The other group is ARTA - the Association of Retail Travel Agents.  In my opinion, an ARTA member has made more of a commitment to keep itself abreast of the industry and to be more professional in all its dealings, with suppliers and with customers.

In addition, agencies sometimes belong to franchise groups or consortia.  If you see a Uniglobe agency, for example, then that is probably an independently owned and operated agency that participates in the Uniglobe franchise.  Other agencies, while not belonging to a franchise group, may belong to one of several agency cooperatives or consortia.  These groups negotiate better rates for their members with key suppliers (the standard 10% commission can occasionally increase to as much as 20%), and sometimes have a bit of extra leverage if they (ie you!) need a special favor or extra help with one of their preferred suppliers.

In some cases, an agency that is a branch of a mega-agency, or that belongs to a franchise group, or that is a member of a consortium will be able to get better deals for you than an agency with no affiliations at all.  Ask agencies who they are affiliated with, and perhaps even research the group they belong to and confirm that it is a helpful group that will translate into better deals for you.

In addition to possibly better rates and negotiating leverage, agencies that belong to these groups tend to have some quality control and formal training programs in place, and perhaps there is also some type of dispute resolution process that can enable you to appeal to the corporate office if you can't get a problem resolved by a franchisee.

What Type of Travel Help Do You Need

Travel is usually split into two broad categories - 'corporate' or business type travel, and 'leisure' or personal, vacation type travel.

Although agencies will be pleased to help you with all types of travel, most agencies tend to be generally stronger either in corporate type travel services or in leisure type travel services.  Ask a travel agency 'are you primarily corporate or are you primarily leisure'?

If your needs are mainly for business travel, obviously a corporate focused agency is your better choice.  In such a case, sometimes it even makes sense to buy your personal travel from a different agency that specializes in leisure travel.  The chances are that your corporate agency won't even mind because they just plain aren't set up to service leisure travel needs as efficiently as business travel needs.

Specialty Agencies

In addition to generic 'corporate' or 'leisure' type travel agencies, it is increasingly common to see very specialized travel agencies.

For example, it is possible that an agency might specialize only in selling cruises.  Another type of specialization might be an agency that sells only one destination (perhaps the South Pacific).

Other agencies concentrate on a particular type of travel - maybe singles travel or gay travel or perhaps golf or ski trips.

Still more agencies specialize in areas such as disabled travel or family travel, or school group travel, or probably just about any other distinction you could think of.

If you have special rather than generic needs, see if you can find a specialist travel agency that is experienced in helping people like you.

Agency Size - Big or Small?

Travel agencies range from very small two or three employee, 'mom and pop' type stores to enormously large offices that belong to national chains of hundreds of outlets and thousands of employees.

Bigger is not always better.  Although, in theory, large agency groups should be able to negotiate better rates with suppliers, and should have more infrastructure and support and added-value services, this is not invariably the case.

Furthermore, it is quite common that the best agents will leave their employment at a mega-agency and choose instead to manage or own their own, smaller agency, and perhaps to create a more friendly environment both for their clients and also to get and keep good staff.

Small agencies may belong to buying consortiums that can give them effectively similar purchasing power and negotiating clout to that enjoyed by the mega-agencies.

If you're a small sized client, then the similarity in size between you and a small agency might make for a compatible match.  If you're managing the travel needs for 1,000 people, then you might find a larger size agency is more suitable for your more complicated needs.


The acid test of any service oriented business is what other people think of the company and its service.

Ask the agency for a list of clients that you can contact and then do exactly that - call some of these current clients.  Ask them 'hard' not easy questions - for example, ask them 'what was the biggest problem you ever had with the agency, and how did the agency respond'.  Try and get beyond the polite praise and find out not only how good the agency can be on a good day, but also how bad the agency can be on a bad day, and what the agency does to correct service shortcomings.

Now for a small trick.  After you've encouraged the agency to tell you about their special preferred relationships with key suppliers (see part two for more on this) ask the agency for the contact names of Sales Managers at some of these suppliers, so you can get supplier references as well as client references.

I've been both a travel agent client and a travel agent supplier; there is a hugely different perspective that travel wholesalers get.  Often the real uglinesses in an agency are completely exposed to suppliers, while somewhat hidden from clients.  Of course a supplier will be very careful about saying bad things about an important travel agency customer, but they can at least confirm the agency's claims to being an important customer and can confirm that the supplier company does sometimes do extra special favors for this agency and its clients.

When I owned my travel wholesale company, we would occasionally have agency clients call us to ask for a reference.  I always thought it was very clever of both the agency and their client to do this, and suggest you consider this strategy too.

You should ask friends and colleagues for agency recommendations, but this is only one small part of your research.  Your friends and colleagues might have very different travel needs to you.

Some people choose to call the Better Business Bureau.  I sometimes do this too, but I place very little importance on a BBB report, and suggest you view it as merely one small part of the overall picture.  I've known very bad companies with good BBB reports, and also good companies with less than perfect BBB reports.  And the real secret to getting a good BBB rating seems to be to simply pay them money to become a member of their service.

Some people say you should ask how long the agency has been in business, and suggest that an agency that has been in business a long time is somehow safer or better than a recently started agency.  If this is comforting to you, by all means ask the question, but I'm unaware of any formal research that supports the idea that older companies are in any way better than newer companies.  Old travel agencies seem to go out of business just as often as new travel agencies, and sometimes newer established agencies have newer policies and procedures that are more in line with today's changing times.

Basic Agency Service Issues

What hours is the agency open?  Five, six or seven days a week?

Does the agency have an (800) number so you can call them from other cities while traveling?  Some agencies even have toll free numbers in other countries, making it easy for you to contact them internationally as well.

Does every agent have their own extension and voicemail box, so you can conveniently contact them and leave messages at any hour of the day or night.

Do all staff members have their own email addresses, and do they have a dedicated broadband internet connection feeding in to the agency so that emails you send are likely to be received within a minute or two of you sending them?

Do agents use 'free' email addresses (eg from Yahoo or Hotmail) or 'amateur' email addresses (eg AOL or Earthlink) or do they have 'real' email addresses pointing to their own unique domain name?  If they only have free or amateur email addresses, you may find occasional problems sending them email due to their email box being full.

After Hours and Emergency Service

What happens if you have a problem or emergency outside of normal business hours - perhaps if you are in the middle of your travels?  There are at least three possible answers to this question.  The least satisfactory is 'you'll have to wait until we're next open'.

An acceptable answer is 'we subscribe to an after hours emergency service that can help you on our behalf if you have a problem outside of our normal work hours'.  The potential problem with this solution is that perhaps not all your travel arrangements are loaded into the common shared computer database that your agency and this after hours service uses.  Typically the after hours service can share airline booking records, but if other arrangements were made, not through the airline booking computer, then they may not know anything about your arrangements and may not be able to help.

The best answer is 'our staff take turns at carrying a pager (or cell phone) and if you call outside of our normal hours, our duty emergency support person will be able to answer your call and do anything/everything for you'.

Automation Issues

Does the agency use one of the airline's computer reservations systems?  It is very beneficial that any travel agent have access to one of these systems.

Some agencies might even have more than one computer system.  This is no longer as valuable as it once was, and probably would not make any difference to the service you would experience.

A related and more important issue is whether the agency has any additional automation aids such as a ‘wait list breaker’ or a ‘farefinder’ or a ‘quality control’ or ‘seat finder’ program.  These are programs that interact with the CRS to exploit some known weaknesses and opportunities within how the airlines allocate their fares and seats – for example, some airlines cancel unticketed reservations at midnight, meaning that, all of a sudden, a bunch more cheap fares might be returned back into the ‘available for sale’ category at midnight – a time when few agencies are open, of course.  But if the agency has one of these programs running, it will automatically search for better fares just after midnight for you.

What type of information does the agency keep on file about you?  The more information it asks for, the better the job it can do in the future.  It might be pesky answering all the questions on a form to start with, but you'll be pleased you did in the future.  A travel agency that has extensive information about you cares more about matching travel products to exactly your needs.

Does every agent have their own phone and their own computer at their own desk, or are some agents having to share these essential resources?

Corporate Travel Management

If you're choosing an agency to provide travel for a medium or larger company, then there will be other questions you need to consider as well.

Is the agency able to provide you with corporate travel reports and analysis.  Can it show you who has been traveling where and on what types of fares?  Is it able to manage and enforce corporate travel policies?  Can it help you if you're directly negotiating contract fares with airlines and contract rates with hotels?  Can any such rates then be conveniently booked through their booking systems?

Very large companies will also be looking for 'inplant' locations where an agency places some of its staff inside the company's office, and maybe also has a 'satellite ticket printer' so tickets can be printed directly in the company too (less important now that most tickets are electronic).

And very large companies will also negotiate how the travel agency earns its fees, perhaps on a very different basis to how agencies normally charge.

Read more in Parts 2 & 3

Part two has another nine factors to consider when choosing a travel agency, including essential advice on agency fees - and also, agency discounts.

Part three provides information on how - once you've chosen a travel agency - to choose your travel agent.

Related Articles, etc

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Originally published 3 October 2003, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

Related Articles
How to Find the Best Travel Agency part 1
How to Find the Best Travel Agency part 2
How to Find the Best Travel Agent part 3


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