“Did you know that as a travel agent you can get free vacations, have deeply discounted travel, and make money all at the same time?” This is just one of the many tag lines I discovered while investigating my new “hot button”, the travel agent “license”. It all started with a few telephone calls to my travel agency with inquiries as to how someone could purchase a travel agent license from me and receive travel benefits. At first, I was somewhat taken back by the question. “A travel agent license?” I asked. “Yes, you know, like a real estate license” the caller replied. “I pay you a fee and then I can travel at reduced rates or even for free.” I was shocked. There is no such thing as a license in our industry and that was where my investigation began. My first inquiry was with The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), who released a ten page report about the topic. While I don’t have room for all ten pages, I wanted to share a summary:
It’s easy to see why the allure of travel around the world at reduced rates, often accompanied by a promise of actually making money, could appeal to consumers. Ads promise the chance to make money with little effort. But the allure is a facade, and the promise an illusion perpetuated by sellers of deceptive travel agent credentials, commonly referred to as “card mills.” Card mills are businesses that sell deceptive identification cards, sometimes accompanied by a package of worthless training materials that falsely identify the purchaser as a “travel agent.” These offers often say “travel like a travel agent” and are designed to permit buyers of travel services to pass themselves off as sellers of travel services.
The features that distinguish legitimate travel agents from ordinary travelers equipped by these cards to pose as agents are easily recognized — travel agents are sellers of travel and card mill ID holders are generally buyers of travel. Card mills neither require nor monitor the work or productivity of their cardholders, few if any of whom make their livings selling travel. Mills make little pretense that a cardholder need sell any travel to obtain a card or retain it. Moreover, whereas professional travel agents understand that today’s rare personal travel privileges are an incidental benefit of their occupation, card mills and their customers treat such occasional privileges as the primary benefit of a one-time purchase transaction. Most importantly, legitimate travel agents do not pay to enter the profession or need an identification card to practice it; credential mills sell a product whose only function is to defraud travel suppliers, and often, the purchaser himself. – ASTA, 2007.
Unfortunately, many members of our community have fallen victim to such practices. Consumers are charged a start-up fee of less than $500 (to avoid franchise laws and possible FTC investigation) , often followed by a monthly fee of $50 or so via credit card or automatic payment from a checking account. Many of the recipients of these so-called licenses find themselves without travel benefits and scammed out of thousands of dollars.
As a travel agency owner and 20 year travel industry veteran, this practice is very alarming to me. My number one concern is for our clients and their vacation experience, not profiting from the purchase of travel industry cards. I would never assume liability or allow anyone to sell travel under my agency name without formal education and experience. The perception may be that working in this industry provides endless access to free and discounted travel. It is simply not true. In most cases, we must meet required sales goals in order to obtain educational trips and that is exactly what they are: educational. The days of free airfare are virtually non-existent and most days on the educational tours are spent touring hotels and attending seminars to better serve our clients. Although it may seem easy to make travel plans with the click of a mouse, rules and regulations of travel are very complicated. It only takes one simple mistake to ruin a vacation. Why anyone would want to assume that risk with inadequate training, or why a consumer would trust their vacation to someone with little knowledge and experience is simply mind boggling.
ASTA offers this tip for consumers: “Consumers simply interested in obtaining the best travel bargain should be highly skeptical of offers that require them to purchase an identification card or otherwise suggest that they are being taken into the business, bearing in mind the old adage that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”