Despite what you see on Instagram, being a travel agent isn’t always glamorous. As amazing as it is to jet around the world, you also have to keep in contact with clients 24/7/365—no matter what time zone you’re in. And while technically anyone can work in this field, only those who are detail-oriented and meticulously organized will excel. So we talked to former travel agent Katelyn O’Shaughnessy and current agent Erina Pindar to find out what their jobs are actually like.

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You’ll make a decent living, and you’ll get to travel the world like a rock star.

“Think about this as a lifestyle rather than a career,” says O’Shaughnessy. The pay isn’t necessarily exorbitant—the median income is $38,700 a year, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, but according to Pindar, it can actually be much higher. “Agents make anywhere from $50K to $100K on the low end and up to $250K to $500K annually,” says Pindar. But there’s no other industry where you get to travel like this. You’ll regularly go on discounted trips to luxury resorts sponsored by hotel companies, so based on your Instagram alone, your friends will definitely think you’re living the high life.

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You get paid on commission, meaning you earn money based on the trips you book for your clients.

The bulk of your salary will come from commission, so first and foremost, you’re a salesperson. When you’re an in-house agent with a travel agency (on-staff positions at agencies are increasingly rare, btw, but they’re still in demand), you typically have a base salary and a commission split. This can vary from agency to agency and also depends on your level of experience. For example, let’s say you have an 80-20 commission split. That means if you get paid 10 percent commission on booking a hotel, 80 percent of that commission goes to your agency, while you keep 20 percent. If you’ve rounded up enough clients, you can become an independent agent, which means you work for yourself but remain affiliated with a host agency. As an independent agent, you lose the base salary but get to keep your commission.

If you work as an independent agent, you need your own insurance.

Let’s say you make a mistake on a client’s itinerary, causing them to miss their first-class flight that costs $6,000 a seat. If you did something wrong, you’re liable. “There are hundreds of things that can go wrong, and they will,” warns O’Shaughnessy. You definitely need errors and omissions insurance, which can be expensive, but if you accidentally screw something up, you don’t have to pay out of pocket for the cost of the mistake.

“Travel agents” and “travel advisers” are relatively synonymous, although advisers tend to use a more holistic planning strategy.

While in the past, travel agents mainly assisted in booking accommodations, a travel adviser helps provide a client with a broader picture of their trip. “If someone says, ‘I want to go to Cabo and I want to do all these adventurous things,’ we may say, ‘Okay, great, you can go to Cabo, but you may not want to stay on the strip. You may want to consider the new Four Seasons that just opened on the cape because there’s a lot more adventure on that side of the destination,’” explains Pindar.

You don’t need any special training to get started.

Unlike being a real estate agent, where you have to pass a series of tests to prove you know your stuff. “When I started working as a travel agent right out of college, I didn’t know anything,” insists O’Shaughnessy. “I’d barely even traveled out of Portland, where I grew up. I got the job after a series of persistent emails and a good first interview. It’s definitely useful to know things like basic history and geography but there are no real required skills.”

Travel agents tend to come from a variety of backgrounds—you can switch careers at any point in your life and become a travel agent with a pretty low barrier to entry. But according to Pindar, it does takes a specific personality to be a quality agent. “One thing that all our agents have in common is they’re great salespeople, because at the end of the day, this is a sales job,” she says.

Being type A is also a plus: You need to be a meticulous planner, be an excellent researcher, and possess extreme attention to detail. “It’s easy to put someone in a beautiful room,” says Pindar, “but if you remember that they’re going there for their anniversary and you’re somehow able to get a picture from their wedding to be put in the room and their favorite champagne that they popped on their wedding day, those little things make a difference.”

Developing a niche is essential.

No one can have an encyclopedic knowledge of the whole world, so the most successful travel agents choose a specialty. You might focus on cruises or African safaris or trips to Italy. “[Before I started my company,] I specialized in honeymoons and travel for destination weddings, which I narrowed down to Tahiti, Fiji, Mexico, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. I knew every hotel, every restaurant, and every excursion in those areas that related to a romantic vacation,” says O’Shaughnessy.

Traveling is a regular part of the job, but it’s not a vacation.

Every few months, travel agents go on “fam trips,” short for “familiarization,” and they sound both ah-ma-zing and tiring, according to O’Shaughnessy:

“You try everything you’d want to sell to your clients: You sleep in the hotels, eat the food, get the massages. Sometimes you can even bring a guest. The first few times, it feels ridiculously luxurious, and it is. But you’re there to work. You have to be up at 7 a.m. the next day and remain professional while visiting as many as 10 hotel sites in a day, inspecting each of the rooms, and taking notes on everything. You can’t sleep in and relax on the beach like you would on a real vacation.”

Pindar echoes the same sentiment: “Ninety percent of the time when we do travel, it’s generally for educational purposes.” Travel advisers need to know a destination inside and out, as they often make recommendations based on experience. While traveling, the days can get long. You’re expected to attend breakfast meetings, go out all day, and by the time dinner’s over, you need to catch up on emails. “Even though people think you’re traveling and it’s glamorous, it’s a lot of work,” says Pindar.

On that note, you *will* stop taking normal vacations.

Some travel agents do still travel for fun, but most will do at least one hotel site inspection or other work-related task while they’re there. The industry is very small, so when hotel reps see on your Instagram that you’re in London, they’ll insist you come say hello, see the latest remodel, and try the new menu at the hotel restaurant— sometimes even for a discount! “It’s a double-edged sword: You’ll have friends and free swag everywhere you go, but you can never really travel without thinking of work,” says O’Shaughnessy. Regardless of connections, you’re not traveling for free. With discounts come expectations, aka receiving business from your clients in return. Additionally, you’ll have to front your own travel fees just like everyone else, according to Pindar.

And by the way, holidays kinda suck.

The “365” part of 24/7/365 is not a joke. Holidays are the most stressful time of the year for travel agents, since so many of your clients will be traveling.

Hotel reps will become your best friends.

When you’re working in an agency, hotel reps will come in every single day to give presentations about why you should recommend their hotel to your clients. Once you have a niche, you’ll see the same travel reps at your regular fam trips and you’ll develop a relationship with them from regularly sending them business. “Those relationships are super important,” says O’Shaughnessy, “because when you need to call in a favor, like upgrading someone’s room, you have someone to hook it up.”

Learning to book travel is like learning a new language.

Every travel agency has access to a program called Global Distribution System, which lists options for airfare, hotels, car rentals, and so on. “You’d think it would have a clean interface like Expedia, but no, it’s more like Microsoft circa 1990. You have to know very specific codes to do anything: For example, to look for flight options, you have to type this symbol ‡ called the Cross of Lorraine, followed by your request. It’s almost like learning how to code,” says O’Shaughnessy. So, yeah, it can take a while to get familiar with it.

Your clients will act like you’re their personal butler.

You *will* get the occasional 2 a.m. call from a client in Europe asking for details that you definitely included on their itinerary. “I once had a client call me from a cruise ship—which is really hard to do!—to tell me that she couldn’t get the television to work in her room and could I call someone to fix it?” remembers O’Shaughnessy. It can definitely veer into the realm of ridiculous, but you have to remember that people can get very anxious about travel—your job is to be available and make sure they’re taken care of. That’s part of the added value of booking your trip with a travel agent.

But the thing is…you are responsible for their time.

“If you buy something, you can return it and get your money back,” says Pindar, “but if you go on vacation and spend $30,000 on a weeklong trip and it’s terrible, you will never get that time back.” There’s a lot of pressure involved in making sure clients are having the vacation they envisioned, which means being there for them every step of the way, even if they’re in a different time zone. “You have to act like [your client’s] handler in a way,” says Pindar.

Clients will hire you again and again for your thoughtfulness.

Travel is a very personal thing, and the best travel agents have empathy for what the individual traveler wants to get out of the trip, whether it’s beautiful memories with their family or an adventure or a deeper understanding of the local culture. “Since I worked primarily with honeymoons and weddings, I’d regularly use my hotel connections to make sure my clients had a bottle of wine waiting for them in their room or a couples photo next to the bed,” says O’Shaughnessy. “Those personal touches are the reason people continue to use travel agents rather than booking for themselves online.”

And lastly, travel agents are not a dying breed.

“Every time I tell someone I’m a travel agent, they’re like, ‘Wait, travel agents still exist?’ The answer: Yes, and we still account for one-third of all travel booked in the United States,” insists O’Shaughnessy. It’s still a profitable industry in the United States and there’s no reason to believe the industry is dying off.

Katelyn O’Shaughnessy was a luxury travel agent before founding travel agent platform TripScope and, later, medical tourism company Doctours. Erina Pindar has worked as a travel agent for 13 years, and she’s currently the managing director of SmartFlyer, a travel agency based in the U.S. and Australia.

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Hannah Malach
Assistant Producer

Hannah Malach is an assistant producer at Hearst Magazines, where she covers entertainment news, the royals, and more for brands including Cosmopolitan, Elle, and Harper’s Bazaar. She’s previously written for Billboard, WWD, and The Hollywood Reporter. If she’s not catching up on the latest season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, you can probably find her curled up with a good book or exploring one of New York City’s many museums.