James Dyde is a British immigrant to Costa Rica, where he worked as an online travel agent for the Namu Travel Group between 2004 and 2016. Now he edits Namu’s own lifestyle and travel site centralamerica.com. He lives in Escazu, a suburb of San Jose, Costa Rica.
I fell into the travel business more by accident than design. It was 2004, and I was working as an English teacher in San Jose, Costa Rica. A friend told me his job, Costa Rican Vacations, wanted new people.
I earned a pittance in those days, trekking around businesses all over the city teaching English to bored employees. I wasn’t a good English teacher. Costa Rican Vacations seemed fantastic and my friend earned much more money than me. When a vacancy at Costa Rican Vacations came up, we’re talking obviously an easy decision to switch things up.
Back then Costa Rican Vacations had an office in an affluent suburb of San Jose.
I remember showing up for the interview awestruck. I hoped they’d like me enough to hire me. They didn’t any specific qualifications in those early days. They wanted native English-speakers who lived in Costa Rica and could use a computer.
I spoke English live a native and I lived in Costa Rica. I had adequate computer skills and they hired me as a travel consultant. It was the start of a long relationship that exists to this day.
It was a straightforward job. The idea was – and still is – that people would contact our website, inquiring about a vacation in Costa Rica. We – the travel consultants – would work with them to provide a customized vacation itinerary.
If they liked their itinerary, they would book it and we’d get paid a commission off the itinerary.
We started off working in the office. Back in the early/mid 2000s the whole digital nomad lifestyle was still a novelty. But by around 2007 or 2008 we’d embraced the remote work thing and all Costa Rican Vacation travel consultants began working from home.
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Q: How should one start as a work-at-home travel agent? Do hosting agencies play a role in success?
A: I already mentioned I started by accident. I applied for about the best job I could hope for in Costa Rica at the time and got it. It wasn’t something I aspired to be. I was only a British expat in his 20s who fell into the right job in a country with limited options.
But after years in this game, I can speak a little about hosting agencies similar to CRV. Your travel agency plays every role in a travel agent’s success.
Unless you’re a superstar marketer, you need a hosting agency to bring you business. You need a company with recognition and authority that potential clients trust.
You might know everything about travel planning, but if no one knows who you are or cares what you know, it’s meaningless.
A hosting agency, an established travel company through whose name you work, gives you the authority that being out there on your own will never provide for years.
A hosting agency gives you a foot in the door.
Hosting agencies should be doing your marketing for you. As a recognized travel authority, customers will seek them out, rather than you busting a gut to seek them out on your own.
If they are attracting potential customers and sending them to you, you can spend your time providing them the service they need.
That way you get paid quicker!
I’m not an expert at vetting for a good hosting agency because I fell into it but if I was looking for one I’d look at their social media reach. How popular are they? How active? With the internet, it’s pretty easy to see how legit a place is. A travel agency should have a lot of social media buzz around their brand, otherwise, how would a travel agent make money if there are no customers?
Another thing to note is if they are a specialist agency like Costa Rican Vacations. CRV is a specialist because it provides a specific service – it sells vacations in Costa Rica.
Other specialist agencies can be geographic, like CRV, or niche in other ways. Cruises, birding vacations, city breaks, corporate travel, and so on. Having a niche to specialize in and finding an agency with the same niche and a wide reach is the best path to success.
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Q: What are the qualifications required to be a travel agent?
My personal qualifications have no bearing on my life as a travel agent. I studied photojournalism, which has more relevance to what I do now (as a photographer) for a living than what I did as a travel consultant.
I’ve always loved travel, which is a bonus, although not a deal breaker. I remember one colleague of mine telling me he had no interested in travel on a personal level. He became our sales manager!
What you need are sales skills. The skills and the confidence to sell yourself.
You need to convince people you’re the right person to provide a memorable experience for them. If you can sell yourself as a personable expert who has your clients wellbeing at the top of your priorities, you’re there. The client will trust you and book with you. Easy right?
It’s all about personality.
Sure, you need to know what you’re selling; the client needs to trust you as an authority, but if you have a great hosting agency, that should be a given. They’ve done that work for you.
Other practicalities include computer literacy.
Each travel agency will have their own system to learn, whether that’s an itinerary maker or flight booking software or whatever.
Another thing is organizational and time management skills. These are vital if you’re working from home.
But if they like you and trust you, they are yours.
You can learn sales skills, systems, and travel niches. But likeability is natural and if people like you they’ll be happier to buy a vacation from you.
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Q: How flexible is it? Can you work from home as a travel agent?
Work-from-home jobs are more flexible than sitting-in-office jobs. That’s why people want them. Back in the early days, before we went remote at Costa Rican Vacations, we had set hours. And then after that when we could work remotely, we had set hours, too. Mostly because we needed to know there were travel consultants on duty during office hours to answer the phones. I mean, would you use a service you couldn’t reach during business hours?
Travel agencies are businesses and need tending to during business hours. If you work as and when you feel like it, you won’t succeed because it’s something non-negotiable. But the location could depend on the agency and type of travel agent job.
But flexibility comes in different forms.
You can work in your PJs with your favorite TV show on in the background and your dog sitting on your lap. But you better be working and you better be available when you say you’ll be in this gig. You may be offering vacations to people but it’s still work for you!
The best agencies understand their remote agents want flexibility. That means they’ll be accommodating enough on locate and hours. Discuss the hours you can and can’t work with them, be honest about it.
In general, the more you work, the more clients you’ll get, which means the more money you make. Being a remote travel agent is not a passive job where you earn a passive income.
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Q: What are the different types of travel agents?
When I was a kid, a travel agency was like a storefront business you’d find in the local shopping mall or on Main Street.
You’d go in, pick up a bunch of brochures, give them a read, and then chat to the agent who’d book your trip for you. It was all done face-to-face.
That’s all gone now. Do storefront travel agencies still exist? I haven’t seen one for years! And those that exist all have an online presence, I’m sure.
A school of thought also says online travel agencies are obsolete in this age of Airbnb and direct online booking. Google Flights and Google Trips can make one question the point of the traditional travel agent.
But here I go back to the factors I mentioned earlier – niche, expertise, and likeability.
People always want an expert to handle things for them. That goes for whether you’re getting your car fixed or booking your vacation.
It’s why finding a niche is a key to success.
Becoming an expert in your niche and being likable will help bring about that success.
These factors are important no what type of travel agent you become. Make sure you have a niche you can master and then sell yourself as the person to help.
Q: So what type of travel agent can you become?
I worked for – still work for, in fact – an online travel agency. Namu Travel now employs around 40 travel consultants, all working remotely.
Each consultant is their own business, working within the company structure.
They receive leads through the company’s marketing machine and convert those leads into sales.
This is the model I’m familiar with.
Other agents work for themselves, which is fine, if you know how to market yourself. It’ll take a while to build up your client base and your reputation enough to make a real income, but with hard work and patience, it’s possible.
But I have to say it’s far easier to work for a company.
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Q: What is the salary wage of agents?
It varies, a lot! It depends on the hours and location but then there are about a zillion smaller factors out of your control like local economy, safety, global economy, company reputation, and management.
Real income wise, it’s a crapshoot. All I can talk about is what I earned and what agents earn at our place.
Remember, we’re in Costa Rica, a developing country in Central America where the average salary is less than $1,000 a month.
So now you have that in mind, our remote, work from home agents earn somewhere between $2,000 and $5,000 a month. This is great living in Costa Rica!
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Q: How does it work then?
Well, it’s all commission, there’s no set salary. The more vacations you sell, the more you earn. Like all sales positions, our travel consultants get goals they need to hit each month.
If they don’t hit their goals regularly, we let them go. It’s a brutal truth. But the reward for hitting their goals is a lifestyle befitting the top echelons of earners in Costa Rica.
Note I’m only talking about our company here.
I can’t speak for other places, although I know most other agencies in Costa Rica operate the same way as us.
I’m sure some agencies elsewhere pay their agents a set salary, but the bottom line is being a travel agent is a sales position. The commission is king. The more you sell the more you earn!
While we’re talking about earnings, it’s worth a quick look here at how the agencies themselves earn money.
Understanding how they earn helps you understand how the whole thing works, and thus how you earn.
A travel agent is a middle-man between the client (the person booking with you) and the provider (the hotel, airline, tour operator etc.). The provider works with a travel agency to get more business. The agency will promote the providers services to their clients on their behalf. This saves a lot of direct marketing from the provider’s perspective. It also gives the provider more exposure.
In return for all that, the provider will offer the agency a commission on everything they sell. So the agency sells, say, a room night to their client at full price. But they buy that room night at a discount and so keep the difference.
And that’s how a travel agency gets paid. If you, the agent, are working for an agency, they will pay you a commission out of that.
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Q: How do you find clients? What is a normal day to day for an agent?
Finding clients (or not) is the biggest reason to work for an agency rather than for yourself.
If you work for an agency, they find the clients for you. In fact, the more established an agency is, the more the clients will find the agency!
How it worked with us is like this. A potential client interested in a vacation to Costa Rica would find our website and call us or send in a request through the online contact form. Someone in Sales Support would pass the lead to the TC and away you go.
But it takes good marketing for a client to find us.
We do a lot of work and spend a lot of money to ensure we’re the first (or one of the first) Costa Rica travel agencies you’ll find.
So yeah, as an online agency, we find our clients online. I’m not sure how other way anyone would do anything else nowadays if I’m honest.
Now if you’re a small, solo travel agent, that will be harder.
I’ve never been one of them but if I was, I guess I’d do it by establishing myself as an expert in my field in my local area.
For example, I’d be the person in Minneapolis who knows all about, say, Mexican resorts. I’d get my name out there by good old-fashioned word of mouth and social media. It’s difficult, but it’s doable for sure.
But you know, if you start small your overheads are small and one or two vacation sales a month could earn well for you.
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Q: What is a normal day to day for an agent?
An agent’s life is straightforward if you’re organized.
I used to log in each morning and receive my leads – the clients who’d contacted the site overnight wanting to arrange a vacation.
Hitting these up ASAP is the most vital thing, so that was the first thing I’d do. If there was a number, I’d call and if not I’d email.
This initial contact is a reply to them, letting them know who you are and how you can help. You want to arrange a time to chat in more detail to prepare an itinerary for them.
Once you’ve dealt with the new leads, it’s time to go through your inbox and reply to the clients you already have.
Some might be replies to the leads you received yesterday, some might be further down the scale. You go through each email one-by-one and handle it.
And rinse and repeat. The basic travel agent’s day. The idea is you’ll close a couple of sales a day, when a client loves their itinerary and is ready to book.
That’s always a great feeling!
I used to work from about 7 am until 6 or 7 pm, but it’s flexible. As I said earlier, the more you work, the more leads you get, which means the more money you’ll make.
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Q: What did you like about the job? Is working from home job fun or lonely?
I enjoyed a lot! The money, for a start. On great months I earned far more than I do right now on my set salary.
I also loved working from home – I actually still work from home so nothing’s changed. But my digital nomad lifestyle started as a travel agent and I never looked back because it’s sweet!
It’s also satisfying being a travel agent. It’s a great feeling to close a sale, but for me, it was always better when your client returned home and wrote or called you to say they had the best time ever. You can’t beat that. You might be in sales but you’re also providing dreams for people.
Oh, and travel too. Can’t forget the travel. As a travel agent, you get to check out the merchandise.
Q: What are some cons and pitfalls of being a travel agent?
And now a dose of reality. It ain’t all tropical beaches and counting the cash. Being a travel agent is hard. Like in hard work. Long, long hours. Lots of rejection. Lots of unanswered emails and hanging on empty phones.
As good as the good months can be, the bad months can be bad. They can be brutal. It’s horrible when you get a dry spell and no-one’s booking. They don’t tell you about that during training!
And it’s stressful too. I mean you’re on commission so if you’re not booking you’re not earning. And if your numbers don’t improve, you might lose your job. I miss none of that.
I don’t miss the uncertainty or the lack of job security.
If you want a set salary, this might not be the job for you. The uncertainty each month can burn you out. The highs are high and the lows are low, but that’s sales for you. It’s important to know this is a sales job.
It’s also like Groundhog Day, too. Each month you start over with zero and have to get your goal. Every month without fail, round and round and round. Some thrive on it but others burn out.
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Q: How has being a travel agent impacted your life and career?
For me, being a travel agent did everything for my career. Before becoming one I had no career! I was a twenty-something roaming around Central America.
But meeting these guys and working for them, first as a travel agent, then as the manager of our Nicaragua division, and now as the editor-in-chief of our content site gave me a career. I don’t know if I would have stayed in Costa Rica if it wasn’t for these guys.
Being a travel agent would be a great hustle for someone who isn’t afraid of hard work, knows how to ride through hard times and appreciate good times, and loves to get out there and explore the world!