(c) 2013, The Washington Post.

(c) 2013, The Washington Post.

In August, in the course of writing about why real estate agents still exist, I mentioned that travel agents another provider of information that can be more easily gathered online had been "rendered obsolete."

Well. There are at least a few agents out there who wish to disabuse the public of that notion. And the fact that there are still more than 50,000 full-time travel agents in the United States, even after the rise of online booking of travel arrangements, is a useful case study in the role that middlemen can play even in industries that have been revolutionized by technology.

The American Society of Travel Agents has a whole fact sheet on why the Internet isn't destroying the profession. It often has to "set the record straight" on why travel agent isn't a "useless job." A couple of travel agencies notified us that their clients are more useful in the age of infinite information, since they help sort through it all.

For example, a client might ask, "Can you really see the water from there, or did people just put pictures?" says Kathy Gerhardt, a spokeswoman for Travel Leaders Group, which says it represents 40,000 agents and does $18 billion in sales annually. "We find that our clients do a lot of research on the Internet, and they come to us to help filter it."

Still, they don't dispute that the absolute number of travel agents has declined precipitously, from more than 112,000 in 2000 to about 50,000 last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Gerhardt, however, says a lot of this is because "hobbyists" have left the industry. Also, she says, all the prognostications of doom have kept people from becoming travel agents those who remain are getting up there in age, and the industry faces a wave of retirements without many coming behind them.

"Because people have talked about travel agents starting to go away, and people believed it, young people haven't chosen it as a profession," Gerhardt says. "So we haven't brought a lot of new blood into the business."

Those who are left are more often part of a consolidated agency many have merged in recent years in a position to bargain for special deals and perks for its clients. They tend to specialize in a particular region, rather than generally serve the entire world. And a good agent can save days of delay when something goes wrong on ever-more-crowded flights by scrambling to rebook a seat.

In other words, travel agents are still useful for people who take unusually complex trips or who may have to visit obscure places or make frequent changes to their travel plans. Those who are still around make their money not by helping the Griswold family get to Walley World but by creating multi-city or multi-country voyages for which Internet bookings can get awfully complicated. In the same sense that real estate agents have persisted despite the Internet, the more complex the transaction, the more people like to have an experienced travel agent walk them through it.

Perhaps that's why the Bureau of Labor Statistics is bullish on the future of the industry, and average annual earnings have also risen over the past decade, from roughly $27,000 in 2002 to more than $35,000 last year.

It's also not as difficult to become a travel agent as it is to become a real estate agent. Although some states make travel agents register in a database for tracking purposes, none has licensing requirements or tests, like they do for cosmetologists. Licensing can be a barrier to entry, but it's also built-in credibility: How do you know a travel agent's not a fraud?

It's because of how the travel supply chain works: Most agents depend on accreditation by vendors themselves, such as cruise lines, hotel companies and airlines (for example, you have to pass muster with Airlines Reporting Corp. to sell tickets on behalf of a client). Also, travel agents do have "fiduciary liability," which means you can sue for damages if things don't turn out right in a way they could have prevented.

"An agency that didn't have the ability to deliver what it said," says Paul Ruden, ASTA's senior vice president for legal and industry affairs, "would be weeded out. There is kind of a self-monitoring, self-correcting mechanism that arises out of the fact that you have these relationships with these suppliers."

So go ahead, become a travel agent. Just don't complain about Expedia stealing your business.


Excerpt from washingtonpost.com/wonkblog