Please. That's so 1990.
But more than 100,000 people in the U.S. still work as travel agents, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A growing number have left the office and gone home — often to cyberspace.
Working in their houses, hotel rooms or even coffee shops, they've shed overhead and now serve customers from personal computers or laptops or by phone.
Some book airline tickets and general travel; some handle only cruises or packaged tours. Some work alone; some hook up with big agencies or networks. Some make themselves available around the clock; others put in time at night after their day jobs.
Whatever their angle, so-called home-based travel agents are worth knowing about. Many — more than 40%, by one estimate — worked in traditional agency offices, sometimes for decades, before "going home." Many have specialized knowledge or offer personal services, such as delivering travel documents to clients' homes. Some charge less for their services than the going rate.
The challenge for consumers is finding these agents, who mostly get work by referral, and evaluating their credentials. There's no central database listing and in most states, anyone can hang out a shingle and claim to sell travel products. (California, which regulates travel agencies, is an exception.)
In fact, no one really knows how many home-based travel agents are at work, although everyone I talked with agreed their ranks are growing.
Joanie Ogg, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Assn. of Commissioned Travel Agents, a 19-year-old organization for home-based agents, said her group recently counted 3,500 members, up from less than 1,000 in 2001.
Ogg estimates there are 40,000 full-time or part-time home-based travel agents in North America. A report released in January by Credit Suisse First Boston gave a lower estimate for the U.S. — 15,000 to 20,000 — but predicted annual growth of 10% to 15% through the end of the decade.
Carnival Cruise Lines figures it may already get 5% to 15% of its business from home-based agents, said Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales and marketing.
The two major reasons agents are rushing back home: technology and money.
Agents can now access booking programs, called global distribution systems, from any computer, instead of depending on special equipment provided by a distributor.
Another reason to work from home is low overhead. That need for savings became urgent when major airlines decided, starting in 1995, to reduce and finally end the 10% commissions on plane tickets they paid travel agents.
Janet Turner, president of Turner Travels in Atlanta, moved her agency home in the 1990s, before the final commission elimination.
"I said the day would come when the airlines would stop paying commissions," she said. "I was going to make my money off tours, cruises and packages. Everyone thought I was crazy."
Today she sells $1 million worth of cruises, honeymoons and other packaged travel per year. She doesn't sell plane tickets, except as part of a package.
Turner gets customers from referrals and from her website, http://www.turnertravels.us , and does most bookings by phone. She sometimes schmoozes with new clients at Starbucks outlets.