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How to Start a Travel Agency

Written by:

Carolyn Young is a business writer who focuses on entrepreneurial concepts and the business formation. She has over 25 years of experience in business roles, and has authored several entrepreneurship textbooks.

Edited by:

David has been writing and learning about business, finance and globalization for a quarter-century, starting with a small New York consulting firm in the 1990s.

How to Start a Travel Agency

Fast Facts

Investment range

$2,150 - $10,600

Revenue potential

$78,000 - $300,000 p.a.

Time to build

0 – 3 months

Profit potential

$62,000 - $90,000 p.a.

Industry trend

Growing

Commitment

Flexible

Who doesn’t love to travel? But most of us do not love the endless research, planning, and booking required, which sometimes feels like it takes more time than the vacation itself. This is precisely why the $35 billion US travel agency industry has been booming of late, and why it offers a real opportunity for the travel-minded entrepreneur.

By starting your own online travel agency, you can shoulder travelers’ burden and ease their anxiety, allowing them to enjoy their holiday while you make a healthy profit. And thanks to the post-pandemic boost, now is a great time to get in on travel.

Of course, starting a travel agency will not be a vacation – it will take diligence, patience, and strong guidance. Thankfully, you’ve come to the right place, as this step-by-step provides all the information you need to develop and launch your new travel agency and give you a head-start on your entrepreneurial journey.

Step by Step Business values real-life experience above all. Through our Entrepreneur Spotlight Series, we interview business leaders from diverse industries, providing readers with firsthand insights.

Uncover the secrets to building a thriving travel agency with our interview with Casey Halloran of Costa Rican Vacations.

Aspiring travel entrepreneurs will find valuable insights in our interview with Augustin Ndikuriyo on building a thriving African wildlife tour business.

Step 1: Decide if the Business Is Right for You

Pros and cons

Every business has its pros and cons, and a travel agency is no exception. You should weigh these carefully to decide if the business is right for you.

Pros

  • Flexibility – Work from anywhere, even while traveling!
  • Minimal Training – Get accredited for free online
  • Travel Discounts – Travel agents get top deals and reduced prices

Cons

  • Demanding Work – With clients around the world you’re on call 24/7
  • Fierce competition – Top sites like Expedia, travel networks, advisors, and more

Travel agency industry trends

The US travel agency industry expanded an impressive 75% in the decade leading up to 2020, which saw a massive pandemic-driven downturn. 

In 2021, many travel agents saw a surge in business as travelers unsure of all the constantly changing Covid-19 rules and restrictions turn to them for help, rather than booking their own trips. Global travel advisor InteleTravel experienced a 35% increase in business, not from the disaster year of 2020, but from 2019, which had set records.((https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/14/travel/summer-vacation-travel-agents.html))

Consumers are also turning more and more to online travel agencies, with a study by Expedia showing a 25% increase in the use of online agencies in 2020 alone. Brick-and-mortar agencies seem to be a dying breed, with British travel icon Thomas Cook closing in 2019.((https://advertising.expedia.com))

Industry size and growth

travel agency industry size and growth

Trends and challenges

travel agency industry Trends and Challenges

Trends in travel agency industry include:

  • Home-stay rentals like Airbnb((https://stepbystepbusiness.com/business-ideas/start-an-airbnb-business/)) outperformed hotels in 27 top markets during the pandemic
  • Book-now-pay-later options, such as those offered by Expedia and Booking.com, are gaining popularity
  • Travel agencies undergoing digital transformation in response to the growing demand for online services

Challenges in travel agency industry include:

  • Rising gas prices are impacting travel behavior
  • Compliance with global Covid-19 protocols
  • Keeping up with digital marketing opportunities

What kind of people work in a travel agency?

travel agency industry demographics

How much does it cost to start a travel agency?

The startup costs for a travel agency range from about $2,000 to $10,000, with an average of around $6,000. The high-end includes the rental of office space and a larger marketing budget, but you could easily run your online travel agency from home to cut costs.

Startup CostsBallpark RangeAverage
Setting up a business name and corporation$150 - $200$175
Licenses and permits$200 - $300$250
Insurance $100 - $300$200
Business cards and brochures$200 - $300$250
Website setup $1,000 - $3,000$2,000
Location security deposit$0 - $5,000$2,500
Initial marketing budget$500 - $1,500$1,000
Total$2,150 - $10,600$6,375

How much can you earn from a travel agency?

travel agency business earnings forecast

The commission paid to a travel agency by travel vendors such as airlines and hotels is generally about 10%. Some travel agents also charge a nominal consultation fee for each booking, typically between $30 and $50. Those will be your two revenue streams.

The average cost of a one-week domestic vacation is $1,500 per person. The profit margin for a home-based travel agency is usually about 80%. With an office and staff, your margin will likely drop to about 30%.

In your first year or two, you could work from home and sell five two-person vacations each week. At a 10% commission, this would mean $78,000 in annual revenue. You’d have about $62,000 in profit, assuming an 80% margin.

As your brand gains recognition, sales could climb to 1,000 two-person vacations a year. At this stage, you would rent an office and hire staff, reducing your profit margin to 30%. With expected annual revenue of $300,000, you would make about $90,000.

What barriers to entry are there?

There are a few barriers to entry for a travel agency. Your biggest challenges will be:

  • Competition – Big and small online firms; self-booking travelers
  • Client Acquisition – Time and marketing will be required to build a reputation

Related Business Ideas

If you’re still not sure whether this business idea is the right choice for you, here are some related business opportunities to help you on your path to entrepreneurial success.
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Step 2: Hone Your Idea

develop a business idea

Now that you know what’s involved in starting a travel agency, it’s a good idea to hone your concept in preparation to enter a competitive market.

Market research will give you the upper hand, even if you’re already positive that you have a perfect product or service. Conducting market research is important, because it can help you understand your customers better, who your competitors are, and your business landscape.

Why? Identify an opportunity

As a travel agency, you need to find a way to differentiate yourself from the competition. Research online travel agents and booking platforms to see their offerings and prices, while keeping an eye out for something that might be missing.

Perhaps you could specialize in travel to an under-appreciated region, such as Southeast Asia, and build a network of relevant contacts and vendors. Or you could focus on finding travelers the most incredible home-stay rentals at the best prices.

You could specialize in family vacations, corporate retreats, or honeymoons. The potential niche options in the travel industry are nearly endless.

What? Determine your services and travel offerings

Travel can involve many facets, and you can handle some or all of them, in addition to flights, lodgings, and car rentals. These might include:

  • Booking tours and excursions
  • Dining recommendations/reservation
  • Travel insurance
  • Visa and emergency services

How much should you charge for travel agency services?

Travel vendors, such as hotels, airlines, and car rental firms, pay a commission to travel agents that’s generally about 10% of the booking. For instance, if you book a $1,200 flight on Turkish Airlines for your client, Turkish Airlines will give you, the travel agent, a $120 commission.

As a result, booking flights with a travel agent sometimes costs the traveler slightly more than booking directly with the airlines or through a travel site like Expedia or Orbitz. Thus, to attract customers and boost sales travel agents rely on discounted travel packages.

For instance, a return flight from Chicago to Cancun and a 6-day stay at a four-star all-inclusive resort, plus ground transport, might cost a traveler $1,000 or more to book directly. But travel agents get significant discounts from vendors because they place volume orders, so you’d be able to offer this trip as a $599 package deal.

Even after paying your commission, the traveler still saves a chunk of money by using your services, rather than booking themselves. And keep in mind, the discounts offered by vendors are likely to increase as you become a more established agent. You may be able to negotiate commissions from tour operators and excursion companies as well.

Once you know your costs, you can use this Step By Step profit margin calculator to determine your mark-up and final price points. Remember, the prices you use at launch should be subject to change if warranted by the market.

Who? Identify your target market

Your target market will depend on the concept you’ve chosen for your agency. If you’ve decided to specialize in family vacations, you’ll be targeting parents. You might find them on sites like Facebook or LinkedIn, rather than Instagram or TikTok.

Where? Choose your business premises

In the early stages, you may want to run your business from home to keep costs low. But as your travel agency grows, you’ll likely need to hire workers and may need to rent out an office. You can find commercial space to rent in your area on Craigslist, Crexi, and Commercial Cafe.

When choosing a commercial space, you may want to follow these rules of thumb:

  • Central location accessible via public transport
  • Ventilated and spacious, with good natural light
  • Flexible lease that can be extended as your business grows
  • Ready-to-use space with no major renovations or repairs needed
travel agency business idea rating

Step 3: Brainstorm a Travel Agency Name

Here are some ideas for brainstorming your business name:

  • Short, unique, and catchy names tend to stand out
  • Names that are easy to say and spell tend to do better
  • The name should be relevant to your product or service offerings
  • Ask around — family, friends, colleagues, social media — for suggestions
  • Including keywords, such as “travel” or “bookings”, boosts SEO
  • Choose a name that allows for expansion: “Wanderlust Adventures” over “Beach Bum Vacations” or “Honeymoon Haven Agency”
  • A location-based name can help establish a strong connection with your local community and help with the SEO but might hinder future expansion

Once you’ve got a list of potential names, visit the website of the US Patent and Trademark Office to make sure they are available for registration and check the availability of related domain names using our Domain Name Search tool. Using “.com” or “.org” sharply increases credibility, so it’s best to focus on these. 

Finally, make your choice among the names that pass this screening and go ahead with domain registration and social media account creation. Your business name is one of the key differentiators that set your business apart. Once you pick your company name, and start with the branding, it is hard to change the business name. Therefore, it’s important to carefully consider your choice before you start a business entity.

Step 4: Create a Travel Agency Business Plan

Here are the key components of a business plan:

what to include in a business plan
  • Executive Summary: Present an overview of your travel agency, highlighting its focus on providing personalized travel planning and booking services for various types of travelers.
  • Business Overview: Describe the services of your travel agency, including custom travel itinerary planning, booking accommodations, flights, and special experiences.
  • Product and Services: Detail the range of travel packages offered, such as luxury vacations, adventure tours, and corporate travel services.
  • Market Analysis: Assess the current travel market, identifying target customer segments like families, honeymooners, or business travelers.
  • Competitive Analysis: Compare your agency to others, focusing on your unique offerings like specialized destinations, personalized service, or exclusive deals.
  • Sales and Marketing: Outline your strategy for attracting clients, using methods like online marketing, partnerships with travel providers, or attending travel expos.
  • Management Team: Highlight the experience and expertise of your team in travel planning, customer service, and business management.
  • Operations Plan: Describe the process of service delivery, from client consultation to trip execution and post-travel follow-up.
  • Financial Plan: Provide an overview of financial aspects, including startup costs, pricing strategy, and anticipated income.
  • Appendix: Include supplementary documents such as travel industry certifications, partnership agreements, or detailed client testimonials to support your business plan.

If you’ve never created a business plan, it can be an intimidating task. You might consider hiring a business plan specialist to create a top-notch business plan for you.

Step 5: Register Your Business

Registering your business is an absolutely crucial step — it’s the prerequisite to paying taxes, raising capital, opening a bank account, and other guideposts on the road to getting a business up and running.

Plus, registration is exciting because it makes the entire process official. Once it’s complete, you’ll have your own business!

Choose where to register your company

Your business location is important because it can affect taxes, legal requirements, and revenue. Most people will register their business in the state where they live, but if you are planning to expand, you might consider looking elsewhere, as some states could offer real advantages when it comes to travel agencies.

If you’re willing to move, you could really maximize your business! Keep in mind, it’s relatively easy to transfer your business to another state.

Choose your business structure

Business entities come in several varieties, each with its pros and cons. The legal structure you choose for your travel agency will shape your taxes, personal liability, and business registration requirements, so choose wisely.

Here are the main options:

types of business structures
  • Sole Proprietorship – The most common structure for small businesses makes no legal distinction between company and owner. All income goes to the owner, who’s also liable for any debts, losses, or liabilities incurred by the business. The owner pays taxes on business income on his or her personal tax return.
  • General Partnership – Similar to a sole proprietorship, but for two or more people. Again, owners keep the profits and are liable for losses. The partners pay taxes on their share of business income on their personal tax returns.
  • Limited Liability Company (LLC) – Combines the characteristics of corporations with those of sole proprietorships or partnerships. Again, the owners are not personally liable for debts.
  • C Corp – Under this structure, the business is a distinct legal entity and the owner or owners are not personally liable for its debts. Owners take profits through shareholder dividends, rather than directly. The corporation pays taxes, and owners pay taxes on their dividends, which is sometimes referred to as double taxation.
  • S Corp – An S-Corporation refers to the tax classification of the business but is not a business entity. An S-Corp can be either a corporation or an LLC, which just needs to elect to be an S-Corp for tax status. In an S-Corp, income is passed through directly to shareholders, who pay taxes on their share of business income on their personal tax returns.

We recommend that new business owners choose LLC as it offers liability protection and pass-through taxation while being simpler to form than a corporation. You can form an LLC in as little as five minutes using an online LLC formation service. They will check that your business name is available before filing, submit your articles of organization, and answer any questions you might have.

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Step 6: Register for Taxes

The final step before you’re able to pay taxes is getting an Employer Identification Number, or EIN. You can file for your EIN online or by mail or fax: visit the IRS website to learn more. Keep in mind, if you’ve chosen to be a sole proprietorship you can simply use your social security number as your EIN.

Once you have your EIN, you’ll need to choose your tax year. Financially speaking, your business will operate in a calendar year (January–December) or a fiscal year, a 12-month period that can start in any month. This will determine your tax cycle, while your business structure will determine which taxes you’ll pay.

The IRS website also offers a tax-payers checklist, and taxes can be filed online.

It is important to consult an accountant or other professional to help you with your taxes to ensure you are completing them correctly.

Step 7: Fund your Business

Securing financing is your next step and there are plenty of ways to raise capital:

types of business funding
  • Bank loans: This is the most common method, but getting approved requires a rock-solid business plan and strong credit history.
  • SBA-guaranteed loans: The Small Business Administration can act as guarantor, helping gain that elusive bank approval via an SBA-guaranteed loan.
  • Government grants: A handful of financial assistance programs help fund entrepreneurs. Visit Grants.gov to learn which might work for you.
  • Venture capital: Offer potential investors an ownership stake in exchange for funds, keeping in mind that you would be sacrificing some control over your business.
  • Friends and Family: Reach out to friends and family to provide a business loan or investment in your concept. It’s a good idea to have legal advice when doing so because SEC regulations apply.
  • Crowdfunding: Websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo offer an increasingly popular low-risk option, in which donors fund your vision. Entrepreneurial crowdfunding sites like Fundable and WeFunder enable multiple investors to fund your business.
  • Personal: Self-fund your business via your savings or the sale of property or other assets.

Bank and SBA loans are probably the best options, other than friends and family, for funding a travel agency. You might also try crowdfunding if you have an innovative concept.

Step 8: Apply for Travel Agency Licenses and Permits

Business Licenses and Permits

Starting a travel agency requires obtaining a number of licenses and permits from local, state, and federal governments.

Federal regulations, licenses, and permits associated with starting your business include doing business as (DBA), health licenses and permits from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), trademarks, copyrights, patents, and other intellectual properties, as well as industry-specific licenses and permits. 

You may also need state-level and local county or city-based licenses and permits. The license requirements and how to obtain them vary, so check the websites of your state, city, and county governments or contact the appropriate person to learn more. 

You could also check this SBA guide for your state’s requirements, but we recommend using MyCorporation’s Business License Compliance Package. They will research the exact forms you need for your business and state and provide them to ensure you’re fully compliant.

This is not a step to be taken lightly, as failing to comply with legal requirements can result in hefty penalties.

If you feel overwhelmed by this step or don’t know how to begin, it might be a good idea to hire a professional to help you check all the legal boxes.

Step 9: Open a Business Bank Account

Before you start making money you’ll need a place to keep it, and that requires opening a bank account.

Keeping your business finances separate from your personal account makes it easy to file taxes and track your company’s income, so it’s worth doing even if you’re running your travel agency business as a sole proprietorship. Opening a business bank account is quite simple, and similar to opening a personal one. Most major banks offer accounts tailored for businesses — just inquire at your preferred bank to learn about their rates and features.

Banks vary in terms of offerings, so it’s a good idea to examine your options and select the best plan for you. Once you choose your bank, bring in your EIN (or Social Security Number if you decide on a sole proprietorship), articles of incorporation, and other legal documents and open your new account.

Step 10: Get Business Insurance

types of business insurance

Business insurance is an area that often gets overlooked yet it can be vital to your success as an entrepreneur. Insurance protects you from unexpected events that can have a devastating impact on your business.

Here are some types of insurance to consider:

  • General liability: The most comprehensive type of insurance, acting as a catch-all for many business elements that require coverage. If you get just one kind of insurance, this is it. It even protects against bodily injury and property damage.
  • Business Property: Provides coverage for your equipment and supplies.
  • Equipment Breakdown Insurance: Covers the cost of replacing or repairing equipment that has broken due to mechanical issues.
  • Worker’s compensation: Provides compensation to employees injured on the job.
  • Property: Covers your physical space, whether it is a cart, storefront, or office.
  • Commercial auto: Protection for your company-owned vehicle.
  • Professional liability: Protects against claims from a client who says they suffered a loss due to an error or omission in your work.
  • Business owner’s policy (BOP): This is an insurance plan that acts as an all-in-one insurance policy, a combination of any of the above insurance types.

Step 11: Prepare to Launch

Launching a Business

As opening day nears, prepare for launch by reviewing and improving some key elements of your business.

Essential software and tools

Being an entrepreneur often means wearing many hats, from marketing to sales to accounting, which can be overwhelming. Fortunately, many websites and digital tools are available to help simplify many business tasks.

You may want to use industry-specific software to manage bookings and scheduling, such as TravelPerk, TravelCEO, and TravelOperations.

Accounting

  • Popular web-based accounting programs for smaller businesses include Quickbooks, Freshbooks, and Xero.
  • If you’re unfamiliar with basic accounting, you may want to hire a professional, especially as you begin. The consequences for filing incorrect tax documents can be harsh, so accuracy is crucial.

Develop your website

Website development is crucial because your site is your online presence and needs to convince prospective clients of your expertise and professionalism.

You can create your own website using services like WordPress, Wix, or Squarespace. This route is very affordable, but figuring out how to build a website can be time-consuming. If you lack tech-savvy, you can hire a web designer or developer to create a custom website for your business.

Your website should showcase your offerings, customer testimonials, and detailed information about destinations.

Your clients are unlikely to find your website, however, unless you follow Search Engine Optimization (SEO) practices. These are steps that help pages rank higher in the results of top search engines like Google.

Marketing

Here are some powerful marketing strategies for your future business:

  • Leverage Social Media: Use platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest to share stunning travel imagery, customer stories, and travel tips. Engage with your audience through regular posts, stories, and responses to comments.
  • Content Marketing: Start a blog or a YouTube channel providing valuable content like travel guides, tips, destination reviews, and travel trends. This not only helps in SEO but also establishes you as an expert in the field.
  • Build Partnerships: Collaborate with local businesses in your chosen travel destinations, such as hotels, tour operators, and local attractions. This can lead to exclusive deals or packages that you can offer to your clients.
  • Email Marketing: Collect emails through your website and social media channels and send out regular newsletters with travel tips, special offers, and new package announcements.
  • Customer Reviews and Referrals: Encourage your clients to leave reviews on platforms like TripAdvisor or Google. Word-of-mouth referrals are powerful, so consider offering incentives for referrals.
  • Attend Travel Expos and Events: Participate in travel expos, seminars, and networking events to build contacts and stay updated on the latest industry trends.
  • Offer Personalized Services: Tailor your services to meet individual client needs. Personal touches can make a big difference in the travel industry.
  • Utilize Paid Advertising: Invest in targeted ads on social media and Google to reach potential clients. This can be particularly effective when you have special offers or new packages to promote.
  • Stay Informed and Flexible: The travel industry is dynamic, so it’s important to stay informed about global travel trends, destination updates, and customer preferences.
  • Sustainable and Responsible Travel: With growing awareness about environmental and cultural impacts, promoting sustainable and responsible travel practices can set your agency apart.

Focus on USPs

unique selling proposition

Unique selling propositions, or USPs, are the characteristics of a product or service that set it apart from the competition. Customers today are inundated with buying options, so you’ll have a real advantage if they are able to quickly grasp how your travel agency meets their needs or wishes. It’s wise to do all you can to ensure your USPs stand out on your website and in your marketing and promotional materials, stimulating buyer desire.

Global pizza chain Domino’s is renowned for its USP: “Hot pizza in 30 minutes or less, guaranteed.” Signature USPs for your travel agency could be:

  • Travel to Asia’s best secret destinations
  • The best local insights and insider adventures
  • Vacations for the whole family, from grandma to the baby!

Networking

You may not like to network or use personal connections for business gain. But your personal and professional networks likely offer considerable untapped business potential. Maybe that Facebook friend you met in college is now running a travel agency, or a LinkedIn contact of yours is connected to dozens of potential clients. Maybe your cousin or neighbor has been working in travel agencies for years and can offer invaluable insight and industry connections. 

The possibilities are endless, so it’s a good idea to review your personal and professional networks and reach out to those with possible links to or interest in travel. You’ll probably generate new customers or find companies with which you could establish a partnership. Online businesses might also consider affiliate marketing as a way to build relationships with potential partners and boost business.

Step 12: Build Your Team

Building a Team for a New Business

If you’re starting out small from a home office, you may not need any employees. But as your business grows, you will likely need workers to fill various roles. Potential positions for a travel agency would include:

  • Travel Agents – sales and bookings
  • General Manager – scheduling, accounting, staff management
  • Marketing Lead – SEO strategies, social media, other marketing

At some point, you may need to hire all of these positions or simply a few, depending on the size and needs of your business. You might also hire multiple workers for a single role or a single worker for multiple roles, again depending on need.

Free-of-charge methods to recruit employees include posting ads on popular platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook, or Jobs.com. You might also consider a premium recruitment option, such as advertising on Indeed, Glassdoor, or ZipRecruiter. Further, if you have the resources, you could consider hiring a recruitment agency to help you find talent.

Step 13: Run a Travel Agency – Start Making Money!

Running a Business

Owning a travel agency means sharing the joy of travel for a living. What could be more fun? It’s also a huge, high-growth industry that you could tap into and grow a profitable business. Startup costs are low, and all you need is a simple accreditation — there’s no real training required. You just need a good concept for your agency and a great marketing plan. Having a strong online presence in this digital age is also an absolute must.

You’ve started off on the right foot by reading this guide, and now you’re ready to begin your trip to entrepreneurial success!

Travel Agency Business FAQs

Is a travel agency profitable?

If you run your online travel agency from home, you could have profit margins of up to 80%. Costs to run your travel agency are very low, and you’re paid around a 10% commission on everything that you book. As a home-based, one-person show, you could make $60,000 per year to start, and much more once you’re established.

Should I rent an office space for my travel agency?

Consumers are turning to online travel agencies more and more, which you could easily run from home. If your business grows fast and you need to add staff, you may want to have an office.

How can my travel agency compete with Expedia?

Some consumers prefer the personal service of a smaller online agency that can offer more local, personal insights about travel destinations. The key is to differentiate yourself in some way. You could specialize in certain locations, a specific type of lodgings, such as cabins, or in a type of vacation such as corporate retreats.

What are the main activities of a travel agency?

Travel agencies engage in activities such as providing travel advice, booking travel arrangements, managing logistics, and offering specialized services tailored to clients’ needs.

Is it hard to run a travel agency?

Running a travel agency can have challenges due to intense competition, evolving industry dynamics, regulatory considerations, seasonal fluctuations, and the need for customer satisfaction and crisis management. 

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How to Start a Travel Agency