How to tell if you have a qualified travel agent

Yarisa Smith knows she has a good travel agent.

“He’s made cruises and European trips special,” says Smith, a manufacturer’s representative from Dallas. “His itineraries and attention to detail have made every trip flawless. He’s even managed to successfully intervene when acts of God have waylaid my plans.”

Yet you might not know by looking at Clark Mitchell, who works for Dallas-based Strong Travel, whether he’s the real deal. Yes, his agency is cited as a source for its travel expertise by mainstream news outlets. It also prominently lists its membership in Virtuoso, an exclusive travel agency consortium.

But until now, there’s been no instantly recognized certification that says an agent is legit. That may be about to change.

At its annual convention in San Diego this summer, the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), a trade organization, introduced a new certification called the Verified Travel Advisor (VTA) program. Agents must successfully complete courses in ethics, law, marketing, sales and negotiation, among others, to display the ASTA VTA check mark logo on their sites or business cards.

“The Verified Travel Advisor program is our standard for educational excellence,” says Zane Kerby, ASTA’s president. “Earning the VTA certification is another way to increase trust — to show the consumer that you’ve demonstrated your ability and willingness to put your customer first.”

In a world of confusing — and often meaningless — agent certifications, will VTA stand apart? It’s too soon to know, because the program is brand new. The key will be enforcement, industry observers say. Most of the current certifications are pay-for-play. In other words, an agency can purchase all the badges and memberships it needs. To become the travel equivalent of a “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval, ASTA will need to hold agents accountable to a high standard, which would mean removing the check mark from a bad agent, if necessary.

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In the meantime, there are plenty of other signs that your agent is on the up-and-up.

A Travel Institute certification: This is the rough equivalent of having a degree in travel. The institute’s most common designation, CTA, or Certified Travel Associate, requires at least 12 months of experience and builds sales and planning skills, such as creating travel itineraries, handling customer service requests, building destination knowledge and understanding business ethics. Another Travel Institute designation, Certified Travel Counselor (CTC) focuses on management skills such as conflict management, negotiation and behavior training. Keeping your certification means completing annual continuing education classes, but there’s no formal, consumer-facing process for identifying and expelling agents who fail to meet institute standards. In other words, a CTA or CTC designation means agents are trained, but not necessarily competent.

An IATA number: The International Air Transport Association, a trade group, accredits travel agents by issuing them a numerical code. The code gives agents access to the group’s billing settlement services and also acts as a kind of seal of approval for consumers. But all you have to do to get an IATA number is qualify and pay. The organization doesn’t attempt to verify any of your agency skills. Instead, an IATA number is just a sign that you’re a serious agent.

A consortium or franchise membership: Belonging to a major travel industry consortium, an organization of agencies that have joined to increase their buying power, can also be a sign that your agent means business. For example, Virtuoso bills itself as an “invitation only” consortium with “established criteria for sales minimums.” Also, being part of a franchise such as Travel Leaders can be an indication that your agent is for real. These large travel companies have a valuable brand to protect, so they have a vested interest in making sure their employees and members provide quality service.

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Is there a way to know for sure? No, at least not yet. Consider an agent’s membership in ASTA. The logo may mean the agent is serious enough to spend $330 a year on membership and that he or she has agreed to abide by the organization’s code of ethics. But there’s a vast gray area between extraordinary customer service and unethical practices. The ASTA logo doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve found a highly skilled agent, which is one reason the organization has developed the new program.

The real seal of approval is yours.

“The best credential you can have is a referral from a friend,” says Elaine Carey, a travel agent affiliated with Travel Experts, which is based in Whispering Pines, N.C. Indeed, a little due diligence can take you a long way. And once you’ve found someone you like, your word-of-mouth referral is worth more than any certification, seal or endorsement.

That’s what Ann Wolfer discovered when she decided to use a travel agent at a large international travel company for her vacation to Cozumel, Mexico.

The agent looked good on paper and had all the right credentials, but when it came time to book, the adviser simply ran a Web search for available hotels in Mexico.

Talking to the agent “changed nothing,” says Wolfer, who works for the military in Aberdeen, Md. Looking back, she wishes that she had found an expert on Mexico, perhaps someone recommended by one of her friends.

In the long run, no check mark is likely to replace word-of-mouth.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at

  • deemery

    “Car Talk” runs a place on their website for reviews of car repair places. A similar feature here for reviews of travel agents would be a great addition.

  • Marc

    So what is the next best option if you don’t have a friend referral?

  • Lindabator

    Interview an agent — I love a face to face give and take with a potential client — it gives us both a chance to feel the other out, to see if this relationship is a great fit or not. If you have been to a destination, quiz them and see if they are as familiar (or better) than you – and find out what/where their specialty is.

  • Carol Molloy

    I agree. And you can use Yelp to find travel agents in your area, as your starting point if you have no friend referrals. My travel agent was a referral from friends who travel extensively. She is wonderful, and it takes so much anxiety out of the travel experience.

    If you travel frequently, a relationship with a good travel agent is an invaluable partner. They know your preferences, can make suggestions for interesting options at your destination, and feel a personal responsibility to help make your entire trip smooth and enjoyable.

  • Lindabator

    I know – and I always tell folks not EVERY agent might be a good fit – I specialize in European and exotic vacations, so clients looking for those locales might not do as well with one who specializes in Mexico and Caribbean – but thy can usually find a different agent in the office who CAN assist, so do NOT be afraid to ask.

  • John McDonald

    online reviews are so easily manipulated. Look at trip advisor. For a very small fee, some guy in India will give your business 1,000 great reviews & your opposition 1,000 bad reviews. This thing can NEVER EVER be stopped.

  • John McDonald

    deal with a specialist in the region you want to travel to. One agent we use, tells us what he does & what he doesn’t. For the things he doesn’t, he’ll often suggest the best way to do it. He even tells us, when you can get a better airfare somewhere else. He makes his money out of doing what he does very well. Also, when we 1st started using him, we did online searches to try to do the same thing ourselves & we couldn’t. It was thousands of dollars more to do it ourselves & we told him.
    He said, his agency sends so many people to this one region, that they get deals, that no one else can & that includes booking hotels/apartments etc. direct with his suppliers.

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