A travel agency is a private retailer or public service that provides travel and tourism-related services to the general public on behalf of accommodation or travel suppliers to offer different kinds of travelling packages for each destination. Travel agencies can provide outdoor recreation activities, airlines, car rentals, cruise lines, hotels, railways, travel insurance, package tours, insurance, guide books, VIP airport lounge access, arranging logistics for luggage and medical items delivery for travellers upon request, public transport timetables, car rentals, and bureau de change services. Travel agencies can also serve as general sales agents for airlines that do not have offices in a specific region. A travel agency's main function is to act as an agent, selling travel products and services on behalf of a supplier. They are also called Travel Advisors. They do not keep inventory in-hand unless they have pre-booked hotel rooms or cabins on a cruise ship for a group travel event such as a wedding, honeymoon, or other group event.
Travel agencies often receive commissions and other benefits and incentives from providers or may charge a fee to the end users. Hotel owners and tour operators typically pay a higher commission rate to travel agencies, whereas airlines typically pay a low commission. The customer is normally not made aware of how much the travel agent is earning in commissions and other benefits. A 2016 survey of 1,193 travel agents in the United States found that on average 78% of their revenue was from commissions and 22% was generated from fees.
Travel agencies use the services of the major computer reservations systems, also known as global distribution systems (GDS), including: Amadeus CRS, Galileo GDS, Sabre, and Worldspan, which is a subsidiary of Travelport, which allow for comparison and sorting of hotel and flight rates with multiple companies. Bookings made via travel agents, including online travel agents, may or may not be confirmed instantly. Unlike online travel agencies, metasearch engines and scraper sites, such as Skyscanner, Kayak.com, Rome2rio, and TripAdvisor, may or may not have their own booking engine, and instead provide results for search queries and then divert traffic to service providers or online travel agencies for booking. Travel agents may also work with airline consolidators.
Booking Holdings and Expedia Group, both online travel agencies, are the largest travel agencies on the list of top earning travel companies. Travel agencies can be multinational companies, referred to as "multiples" in the United Kingdom. They can also be medium-sized organizations, referred to as "miniples" in the United Kingdom, or can be independent, small companies. They can be structured as a limited liability company, a sole proprietorship, or can be set up as a host, franchising, or consortium structure, such as in the case of CWT. A traditional travel agent may work for a travel agency or work freelance. Helloworld Travel is an example of a franchised travel agency, giving agents access to internal systems for product and bookings. While most point-to-point travel is now booked online, traditional agents specialize in niche markets such as corporate travel, luxury travel, cruises, complicated and important trips, and specialty trips. Other niche markets include travelers with disabilities, travelers over the age of 60, women traveling alone, LGBT tourism, the needs of residents in an upmarket commuter town or suburb, or a particular group interested in a similar activity, such as a sport. Examples include StudentUniverse and STA Travel, which specialize in youth travel, or CWT, which caters to corporate travel. Many use remote work to reduce overhead or provide concierge services. Agents can act as "travel consultants" with extensive knowledge of destination regions and specialize in topics like nautical tourism or cultural tourism. Many traditional agents prefer the term "travel advisor" as opposed to "travel agent" to emphasize their advice, expertise, and connections that are of great value. There are also direct-to-local booking agencies that connect users with travel experts in the country they plan to visit instead of their travel agents in their country of residence. Outbound travel agencies offer multi-destinations; inbound travel agencies are based in the destination and deliver an expertise on that location.
In many countries, all travel agencies are required to be licensed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Many are also bonded and represented by IATA, and, for those that issue air tickets, the Air Travel Organisers' Licensing (ATOL) in the United Kingdom, and the Airlines Reporting Corporation in the United States also serve those purposes. ABTA – The Travel Association the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) The American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), represent travel agencies in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States respectively.
In 1840, the Abreu Agency was established in Porto by Bernardo Abreu, becoming the world's first agency to open its services to the public.
In 1841, Thomas Cook, a Baptist preacher who believed that alcohol was to blame for social problems, reached an agreement with the Midland Railway to organize the transportation of 500 members of his temperance movement from the Leicester Campbell Street railway station to a rally in Loughborough in exchange for a commission. He formed Thomas Cook & Son, which later became The Thomas Cook Group. It filed bankruptcy and underwent liquidation in 2019.
In 1870, the Polytechnic Touring Association was founded in the United Kingdom.
In 1887, Walter T. Brownell established Brownell Travel, the first travel agency in the United States, and led 10 travelers on a European tour setting sail from New York on the SS Devonia.
In 1895, Baldwins Travel was founded by Alfred K Baldwin, originally a printer, bookbinder and publisher in Tunbridge Wells. Baldwins begins selling railway tickets and helping friends to travel to Europe and beyond. News spreads and the former printers slowly build a strong side-line in travel at the back of the Baldwins Stationery shop at 27 Grosvenor Road.
Originally, travel agencies largely catered to middle and upper-class customers but they became more commonplace with the development of commercial aviation.
The industry suffered during World War II. However, the Post–World War II economic expansion in mass-market package tours resulted in the proliferation of travel agencies catering to the working class.
In 1994, Travelweb.com launched as the first online directory of hotels.
In 1995, Internet Travel Network sold the first airline ticket via the World Wide Web.
In 1999, European airlines began eliminating or reducing commissions, while Singapore Airlines did so in parts of Asia. In 2002, several airlines in the United States did the same, which led to an unsuccessful lawsuit alleging collusion among the airlines, that was decided on appeal in 2009.
In 2021, travel agency Baldwins Travel Group, which was founded in 1895 was bought by business group Inc & Co.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019, there were 82,000 people who worked as travel agents for their full-time jobs. That number is projected to decrease by 26% over the next 10 years. However, job prospects should be best for travel agents who specialize in specific destinations or particular types of travelers. In 2019, the median salary was $40,660 per year, compared to the median annual wage for all workers which was $39,810.