Here are some issues to consider when choosing an agency.
What Makes a Travel Agency Real
In general, anyone can start a business and call themselves a travel agency
At least eleven states require registration, but this is usually no more complicated than filling out a form and paying an annual fee. It doesn't guarantee professionalism or good service, and usually it doesn't guarantee the safety of payments you make to the agency either.
The airlines require travel agencies to meet certain minimum standards before they will allow them the privilege of issuing airline tickets, but these standards are easily met and the ability to earn tickets is no longer essential to many agencies (due to no longer earning commissions from such transactions).
Although travel agencies are generally keen to avoid any complicated qualification procedures that would control the establishment of travel agencies, the lack of any formal quality controls has meant that there is an enormous variation in the quality of service provided by travel agencies.
A good travel agency will be an invaluable help to you in planning your travel. Don't let the dismaying abundance of not so good agencies dissuade you - use the information in this article to help you find the good agency that you need and deserve.
Agency Affiliations and Accreditations
If an agency is able to issue airline tickets itself - if it has blank airline tickets in its office that it can print for your travels - then that means it has been accredited by ARC - the Airlines Reporting Corporation - the clearinghouse for US airlines. The agency might also have been accredited by IATA - the International Air Transport Association - to allow it to issue tickets on behalf of most foreign airlines, too. However, because issuing airline tickets is no longer profitable, many agencies have withdrawn from ARC/IATA accreditation, cutting down on their overheads and reporting costs considerably.
Most other suppliers of travel products - hotels, cruise lines, rental car companies, tour operators - don't have any requirements at all for who they will recognize as a travel agency. For example, CLIA - the Cruise Line International Association - will basically allow anyone with a business license and who pays a joining fee then sell cruises for their member cruise lines. An agency's membership in CLIA is accordingly meaningless one way or the other.
At least eleven states require travel agencies to be licensed. If you are dealing with an unlicensed out of state agency, your protection might be diminished. Ask if your state requires licensing, and, if it does, ask if your agency has this registration.
There are two main agency trade associations. The larger one is ASTA - the American Society of Travel Agents. Although this is the better known group, it is not without its critics and there is no reason to believe that an agency's membership of this group in any way translates to better client service for you.
The other group is ARTA - the Association of Retail Travel Agents. In my opinion, an ARTA member has made more of a commitment to keep itself abreast of the industry and to be more professional in all its dealings, with suppliers and with customers.
In addition, agencies sometimes belong to franchise groups or consortia. If you see a Uniglobe agency, for example, then that is probably an independently owned and operated agency that participates in the Uniglobe franchise. Other agencies, while not belonging to a franchise group, may belong to one of several agency cooperatives or consortia. These groups negotiate better rates for their members with key suppliers (the standard 10% commission can occasionally increase to as much as 20%), and sometimes have a bit of extra leverage if they (ie you!) need a special favor or extra help with one of their preferred suppliers.
In some cases, an agency that is a branch of a mega-agency, or that belongs to a franchise group, or that is a member of a consortium will be able to get better deals for you than an agency with no affiliations at all. Ask agencies who they are affiliated with, and perhaps even research the group they belong to and confirm that it is a helpful group that will translate into better deals for you.
What Type of Travel Help Do You Need
Travel is usually split into two broad categories - 'corporate' or business type travel, and 'leisure' or personal, vacation type travel.
Although agencies will be pleased to help you with all types of travel, most agencies tend to be generally stronger either in corporate type travel services or in leisure type travel services. Ask a travel agency 'are you primarily corporate or are you primarily leisure'?
If your needs are mainly for business travel, obviously a corporate focused agency is your better choice. In such a case, sometimes it even makes sense to buy your personal travel from a different agency that specializes in leisure travel. The chances are that your corporate agency won't even mind because they just plain aren't set up to service leisure travel needs as efficiently as business travel needs.
In addition to generic 'corporate' or 'leisure' type travel agencies, it is increasingly common to see very specialized travel agencies.
For example, it is possible that an agency might specialize only in selling cruises. Another type of specialization might be an agency that sells only one destination (perhaps the South Pacific).
Other agencies concentrate on a particular type of travel - maybe singles travel or gay travel or perhaps golf or ski trips.
Still more agencies specialize in areas such as disabled travel or family travel, or school group travel, or probably just about any other distinction you could think of.
If you have special rather than generic needs, see if you can find a specialist travel agency that is experienced in helping people like you.
Agency Size - Big or Small?
Travel agencies range from very small two or three employee, 'mom and pop' type stores to enormously large offices that belong to national chains of hundreds of outlets and thousands of employees.
Bigger is not always better. Although, in theory, large agency groups should be able to negotiate better rates with suppliers, and should have more infrastructure and support and added-value services, this is not invariably the case.
Furthermore, it is quite common that the best agents will leave their employment at a mega-agency and choose instead to manage or own their own, smaller agency, and perhaps to create a more friendly environment both for their clients and also to get and keep good staff.
Small agencies may belong to buying consortiums that can give them effectively similar purchasing power and negotiating clout to that enjoyed by the mega-agencies.
If you're a small sized client, then the similarity in size between you and a small agency might make for a compatible match. If you're managing the travel needs for 1,000 people, then you might find a larger size agency is more suitable for your more complicated needs.
The acid test of any service oriented business is what other people think of the company and its service.
Ask the agency for a list of clients that you can contact and then do exactly that - call some of these current clients. Ask them 'hard' not easy questions - for example, ask them 'what was the biggest problem you ever had with the agency, and how did the agency respond'. Try and get beyond the polite praise and find out not only how good the agency can be on a good day, but also how bad the agency can be on a bad day, and what the agency does to correct service shortcomings.
Now for a small trick. After you've encouraged the agency to tell you about their special preferred relationships with key suppliers (see part two for more on this) ask the agency for the contact names of Sales Managers at some of these suppliers, so you can get supplier references as well as client references.
I've been both a travel agent client and a travel agent supplier; there is a hugely different perspective that travel wholesalers get. Often the real uglinesses in an agency are completely exposed to suppliers, while somewhat hidden from clients. Of course a supplier will be very careful about saying bad things about an important travel agency customer, but they can at least confirm the agency's claims to being an important customer and can confirm that the supplier company does sometimes do extra special favors for this agency and its clients.
When I owned my travel wholesale company, we would occasionally have agency clients call us to ask for a reference. I always thought it was very clever of both the agency and their client to do this, and suggest you consider this strategy too.
You should ask friends and colleagues for agency recommendations, but this is only one small part of your research. Your friends and colleagues might have very different travel needs to you.
Some people choose to call the Better Business Bureau. I sometimes do this too, but I place very little importance on a BBB report, and suggest you view it as merely one small part of the overall picture. I've known very bad companies with good BBB reports, and also good companies with less than perfect BBB reports.
Some people say you should ask how long the agency has been in business, and suggest that an agency that has been in business a long time is somehow safer or better than a recently started agency. If this is comforting to you, by all means ask the question, but I'm unaware of any formal research that supports the idea that older companies are in any way better than newer companies. Old travel agencies seem to go out of business just as often as new travel agencies, and sometimes newer established agencies have newer policies and procedures that are more in line with today's changing times.
Basic Agency Service Issues
What hours is the agency open? Five, six or seven days a week?
Does the agency have an (800) number so you can call them from other cities while traveling? Some agencies even have toll free numbers in other countries, making it easy for you to contact them internationally as well.
Does every agent have their own extension and voicemail box, so you can conveniently contact them and leave messages at any hour of the day or night.
Do all staff members have their own email addresses, and do they have a dedicated broadband internet connection feeding in to the agency so that emails you send are likely to be received within a minute or two of you sending them?
Do agents use 'free' email addresses (eg from Yahoo or Hotmail) or 'amateur' email addresses (eg AOL or Earthlink) or do they have 'real' email addresses pointing to their own unique domain name? If they only have free or amateur email addresses, you may find occasional problems sending them email due to their email box being full.
After Hours and Emergency Service
What happens if you have a problem or emergency outside of normal business hours - perhaps if you are in the middle of your travels? There are at least three possible answers to this question. The least satisfactory is 'you'll have to wait until we're next open'.
An acceptable answer is 'we subscribe to an after hours emergency service that can help you on our behalf if you have a problem outside of our normal work hours'. The potential problem with this solution is that perhaps not all your travel arrangements are loaded into the common shared computer database that your agency and this after hours service uses. Typically the after hours service can share airline booking records, but if other arrangements were made, not through the airline booking computer, then they may not know anything about your arrangements and may not be able to help.
The best answer is 'our staff take turns at carrying a pager (or cell phone) and if you call outside of our normal hours, our duty emergency support person will be able to answer your call and do anything/everything for you'.
Does the agency use one of the airline's computer reservations systems? It is essential that any travel agent have access to one of these systems.
Some agencies might even have more than one computer system. This is no longer as valuable as it once was, and probably would not make any difference to the service you would experience.
A related and more important issue is whether the agency has any additional automation aids such as a ‘wait list breaker’ or a ‘farefinder’ or a ‘quality control’ or ‘seat finder’ program. These are programs that interact with the CRS to exploit some known weaknesses and opportunities within how the airlines allocate their fares and seats – for example, some airlines cancel unticketed reservations at midnight, meaning that, all of a sudden, a bunch more cheap fares might be returned back into the ‘available for sale’ category at midnight – a time when few agencies are open, of course. But if the agency has one of these programs running, it will automatically search for better fares just after midnight for you.
What type of information does the agency keep on file about you? The more information it asks for, the better the job it can do in the future. It might be pesky answering all the questions on a form to start with, but you'll be pleased you did in the future. A travel agency that has extensive information about you cares more about matching travel products to exactly your needs.
Does every agent have their own phone and their own computer at their own desk, or are some agents having to share these essential resources?
Corporate Travel Management
If you're choosing an agency to provide travel for a medium or larger company, then there will be other questions you need to consider as well.
Is the agency able to provide you with corporate travel reports and analysis. Can it show you who has been traveling where and on what types of fares? Is it able to manage and enforce corporate travel policies? Can it help you if you're directly negotiating contract fares with airlines and contract rates with hotels? Can any such rates then be conveniently booked through their booking systems?
Very large companies will also be looking for 'inplant' locations where an agency places some of its staff inside the company's office, and maybe also has a 'satellite ticket printer' so tickets can be printed directly in the company too (less important now that most tickets are electronic).
And very large companies will also negotiate how the travel agency earns its fees, perhaps on a very different basis to how agencies normally charge.
f you're just needing to buy a single roundtrip ticket to
But if you're responsible for a sizable corporate travel budget, or if you're preparing to plan and purchase a major 'trip of a lifetime' experience, then you're going to want to be as certain as possible that you're placing your trust - and your money - in the best possible hands. Read on, accordingly.
Who Has the Lowest Airfares?
In theory all travel agencies can access exactly the same published air fares, and so they should all be quoting you exactly the same price for any given itinerary.
There are exceptions to this theory, however!
Some agencies have negotiated special deals with some airlines. Typically these special deals involving higher priced airfares rather than the lowest advance purchase fares, but if you're a business traveler who buys more expensive airfares, then sometimes an agency might have special deals that could be of great value to you.
Another exception relates to consolidator type fares. These most commonly apply to international travel, but some - otherwise very costly - domestic fares are also available through consolidator outlets. Consolidator fares can be very much cheaper than published fares, but may have more restrictions and penalties associated with them if you need to change/cancel your plans.
Some agencies refuse to buy consolidator type fares. Others do, but don't pass any of the saving on to their client. Ask if the agency can purchase lower priced consolidator tickets and what sort of saving this will give to you.
And then there are the many fares available online - not all of which are lower than regularly published fares! Now that travel agencies no longer earn airline commissions, they should be willing to use the internet as part of their airfare researching, and to book/buy tickets for you on the internet. Ask if they have any special tools to include internet fare searching as part of their fare research.
Find out how the travel agency can help you get better than published air fares - whether it be through discounts, unpublished fares, consolidator fares, rule breaking, or some other form.
Who Has the Lowest Hotel Rates?
Most people realize that the more sophisticated and larger hotels now play the same sort of pricing games that airlines play. Any given room might have five or more prices, any one of which you might qualify for, depending on how the room is being booked.
Some agencies have access to 'corporate rate' programs that give them preferred rates at a selection of hotel chains. These corporate rate programs are not necessarily the very best rates available, and you might be able to find better rates on the internet or somewhere/somehow else, but they are very much better than full undiscounted rates, and if you find yourself needing to stay somewhere that does not have hotels participating in discount programs you already belong to, an agency with a range of generic discounts can help you save money.
Other Preferred Supplier Relationships
Ask what travel companies the agency might have preferred arrangements with. Quite possibly the agency might answer 'none', but equally possibly, they might disclose a long list of suppliers, perhaps as a result of consortium membership, or due to the volume of business they directly give to the supplier.
This list might indicate opportunities, but it might also indicate problems. If you are a loyal Hertz renter, you'll get no benefit if the agency has a preferred relationship with Avis.
Ask also how these preferred relationships will benefit you. That is, after all, the key issue from your perspective! Does it mean you'll get lower rates? Or perhaps special waivers and favors - see the next point.
Waivers and Favors
In the 'good old days' when travel agents and airlines were much closer together than they now are, airlines would almost automatically break their own rules to help travel agents. If a travel agent had a preferred status with an airline, it could expect to get its clients put to the top of waitlists, preferred seats to be advance assigned, it could expect cancellation and change fees to be waived, and it could also expect other rules such as advance purchase or even, sometimes, staying over the weekend to also be modified.
This situation is much less common now, but a few airlines still have special relationships with a very few agencies, and will still give some grudging help when there is a mistake or special need.
It isn't only airlines, however, that can help out. Any type of supplier can probably choose to waive some of its policies that might otherwise cost you money or cause you inconvenience. But they'll only do that as a 'one-off' special favor for an agency that they work very closely with.
Ask your travel agency what sort of special help they can get from the travel companies you expect to be dealing with.
Can they get 'waivers and favors' from airlines and other suppliers
Upgrades and Amenities
Closely related to waivers and favors is the ability of some agencies to obtain complimentary upgrades and other small perks or bonuses. In the good old days, airline representatives would hand out fistfuls of airline upgrade certificates to their favorite agencies. This happens much less commonly these days, but rental car companies still regularly send out various upgrade coupons, and so too do other suppliers from time to time.
Some of these amenities are not of major value - for example, discount vouchers for airport parking - but they are another small extra service that the agency can provide for you.
Ask your agency what they might be able to get and give to you in the way of such coupons and certificates and perks. Of course, you should only expect a level of special favors appropriate to the level of business you give the agency, but if you are a regular customer, giving them good business every month or two, you'd probably qualify for some special attention in return.
Added Value Services and Assistance
Even in this internet age, we all find an old fashioned brochure one of the best ways to evaluate a potential tour or hotel or other travel activity. A good agency that provides comprehensive leisure travel services will have a comprehensive range of uptodate brochures on most major travel products and destinations, and will be able to get in other brochures to meet your interests if asked.
In addition, some agencies will also have a library of travel books and/or travel videos, which they may loan out to you.
A good agency will also have a wide range of their own reference material, such as probably various hotel directories, tour operator directories, and other information to help them find suitable products for your travels.
Some agencies even sell various travel accessories - power adapter plugs, headrest cushions, and other minor items that you often need but might find difficult/inconvenient to purchase elsewhere.
Ask the simple question - 'what else can you do for me that other agencies can't or won't do'? The answer might surprise you.
Fees and Rebates
Some travelers still don't appreciate that a travel agency is a for profit business, same as the business they might work for themselves!
Travel agencies need to earn income, either from suppliers or, if not from their suppliers, then from their clients. Back in the good old days, agencies received about 10% in commission from everything they sold, and they were content to build their business plan around these supplier commissions. Now that airlines have zeroed out most of the commissions they pay, and with uncertain commission levels from other suppliers, agencies have to look to their clients for revenue when selling airline tickets.
But if the agency is selling you a $5000 tour package on which it earns a 'standard' 10% commission, it shouldn't need to also ask you for an 'itinerary planning fee' as well. And if the agency gets an override commission from a supplier (ie more than 10%), then some agencies feel that at least some of this over-ride could be shared with the client. My own feeling is that it is probably fair for the agency to split overrides more or less 50/50 with a client.
As a quick rule of thumb, it is reasonable to expect a travel agency to be able to earn between $50-100 for every hour that they are doing work on your behalf. Surely a travel agent should be able to earn as much as an auto mechanic in a garage.
If they are not getting this much from the suppliers of the products they are selling to you - either because the suppliers pay low commissions, or because your travel requirements take up a lot of their time, then it is fair that they bridge the gap by charging you a fee. But if they are earning substantially more than this general type of rate, perhaps it is also fair that they consider rebating some of the extra money received back to you.
This can also mean that if you go to an agent with a high priced tour already chosen, so that all the agency needs to do is quickly book the tour and handle the payment and document distribution, some agents will offer to give back some of their commission.
If you are looking at an ongoing relationship with an agency, your focus should be on an overall picture, with the various swings and roundabouts all taken into account - both by you and by the agency. This might mean that the agency will waive some of its standard fees in recognition that sometimes you are an 'easy' profitable customer, while at the same time, the agency will not do line item by line item rebating. If you're planning on giving a substantial amount of business to an agency, then a good agency will be willing to negotiate any basis of fees and rebates that works for you both.
Agency policies about fees - and rebates - vary substantially.
As further example of how things have enormously changed, these days even the airlines themselves will sometimes charge you a fee if you try and telephone them and book a ticket directly with them!
When Things Go Wrong
Murphy's Law seems to apply with double strength in the travel industry. Mistakes do occur, and often in the most inconvenient way possible for all concerned.
How an agency responds to problems is probably more important to you than just about anything else.
First of all, try and find out how likely it is that there might be problems. Ask how stable and experienced their staff is. Are their agents full time or part time? Do any/many of the agents have any type of travel qualifications?
Ask if the agency has Errors and Omissions Insurance that will indemnify them if something goes seriously wrong. If you end up in an unfortunate situation where lawsuits are the only solution, you want to be certain they will be able to settle any damages that are awarded to you.
Many times, when you are buying and paying for travel, you will be paying for your travel long before you actually travel. Your money perhaps goes first to the travel agent, and then at some later time, the travel agent sends your money to the travel wholesaler, who in turn, at some later stage sends your money either to another middle man or to the actual suppliers of the travel products. This means that all the people receiving your money typically get your money before they have to pay it to the next person in line, making for a 'float' or positive cash flow that can sometimes dangerously disguise businesses that are otherwise loss-making and, for all intents and purposes, bankrupt.
Ask if the travel agency has any type of trust account to handle your funds, or if they are commingled in with their ordinary operating funds. If the agency has a trust account, then your funds are somewhat safer than if all money passes through a single general account. Paying by credit card gives you extra protection, but may incur extra fees as well.
Other Agency Policies
It is important to distinguish between the policies that relate to the agency, and the policies that relate to travel products which the agency is arranging for you. Agencies generally have to pass on the payment policies of their suppliers. For example, if a supplier requires a $200 nonrefundable deposit, and the balance to be paid 90 days before your travels start, then the agency can usually not vary this policy.
It is harder to negotiate supplier policies, so when dealing with an agency, find out which policies are theirs and which are their suppliers.
Some agencies will ask for a 'good faith' deposit prior to doing a lot of research for you. This is only fair. Just like an accountant or a doctor, the ultimate product they have to sell is their time, not the travel arrangements they make for you. If you make them spend time on your behalf, they are incurring very real costs that must be compensated.
Most people like to pay for most things by credit card these days. This can sometimes be a problem with travel items. A 2% credit card fee is easily absorbed by a clothing shop that has a 50% gross margin on their clothes. But this same 2% is a huge part of a 10% margin, and so for this reason, few travel suppliers or agencies are able to accept credit cards at no extra cost. Indeed, it is fair to say that travel suppliers who claim 'we accept credit cards at no extra cost' have probably already built this cost into all their rates!
It is also helpful to know if the agency has any types of service standards. Do they promise that they will call you back within a certain time frame? Do they in any other way provide any guarantees?
A Good Travel Agent is Worth Her Weight in Gold
I should quickly disclaim any sexism in the above headline. The simple reality is that - for whatever reason - probably two thirds or more of all travel agents are women.
If you use a good travel agent, you are not limiting your travel purchase options in any respect. You and your agent can still book and buy anything from the internet as well as directly from suppliers or tour operators or travel wholesalers or any other source of travel. Your agent can help you to select the best travel choices for you and to make fully informed choices.
Indeed, this is probably the key element of what makes a good travel agent. Too many agencies and agents promote themselves as offering the cheapest travel options. But, for most of us, and most of the time, we don't want simply the cheapest. We don't buy the cheapest car, the cheapest clothes, or the cheapest food. We want the most suitable and the best value - options that are seldom also the cheapest! An agent that has a blinkered approach to always offering only the cheapest is rarely the agent you want to work with. Find the agent that will be most sensitive to your needs and best match them to the travel products available.
There are three main factors that go to make up the ideal travel agent for you :
1. Ability to Understand You and Your Needs
A good travel agent will ask a lot of questions. For example, if you ask an agent something as seemingly simple as 'I want to travel from
· Do you want nonstop flights or are you prepared to accept one (or two or more) stopovers if it will save you money
· Would you be prepared to fly to an airport close to
· At what time of day do you want to leave and arrive
· Is there a special event that you must be present in Hartford to attend, and if so, when is that event (maybe she will then recommend you change your travel plans and travel earlier, or choose a flight that is more reliable for ontime arrivals)
· Are you able to travel a day earlier or later if it will save you money
· Are you able to accept a restricted fare or might you need to buy a more expensive fare so as to be able to more easily make changes later
· What is your preferred airline, what other airlines will you also consider, and are there any airlines you refuse to travel on
· Are you going to attend any type of convention or other meeting that might have special fares available
· What are your frequent flier numbers, and, if there is a choice, which airline programs do you prefer to use to get credit first
· Do you have any seating preferences
· Do you have any dietary needs
· How will you pay for the fare and when
· Are there any other factors that she needs to know in order to best arrange your travels
· Do you also need a rental car (lots more questions will follow if you say yes) and accommodation (again, lots more questions) or a limo transfer or are there any other associated travel needs you might have
That is 15 different topics of discussion they will talk through with you, just to book a simple roundtrip domestic air ticket. Of course, as you become a regular customer, they won't need to ask you all these questions every time, because they will already know many of the answers.
If you're thinking about choosing a new agent to help with your domestic air travel, see how they respond if you ask for help with an airfare. Maybe they won't ask all 15 questions, but plainly, the more they try to understand your needs, the better they are.
If you're thinking about trusting your 'trip of a lifetime' vacation to a travel agent, then a good agent will want to know even more about you and the other people you are traveling with, so as to ensure that the style of travel and experiences and everything in your vacation are in line with what you'll appreciate and enjoy.
A good travel agent will always be focused on you, not just on the travel they are selling to you. They will describe everything in terms of your expectations. They will be interviewing you and perhaps asking more questions of you than you ask to them about their travel products. A bad agent will simply be 'selling at you' without pausing to think about who you are and what your needs and interests are.
If the travel agent doesn't know more than you about the travel products you're wanting to buy, then their ability to add value is sharply reduced.
Some travel agents insist they can be an expert on everything, everywhere in the world. This is, alas, a completely unrealistic claim. Maybe, many years ago, when other sources of public knowledge were less accessible, it was sufficient for a travel agent to simply rely on the information sources in her office when 'helping' clients with all their travels, but the wealth of general information that we as travelers can now access means that the level of knowledge and expertise that a travel agent must offer in order to add value to travel planning has greatly increased. Travel agents are increasingly becoming more narrowly specialized.
Two types of travel agent knowledge
In some cases, you don't need a travel agent with destination knowledge, just product knowledge. For example, if you're traveling to
But if you're traveling for the first time to
An increasing number of destinations now offer travel agent training programs. These vary from ridiculously simplistic, where an agent 'self-trains' and then answers a multi-choice quiz, in return for which they get a fancy certificate to hang on the wall and the right to claim dubious expertise about a destination, to serious ongoing training programs. An agent with one of these qualifications is not necessarily a true expert, but they're more likely to know more than an agent without the qualification, and are also more likely to have a good network of contacts with travel suppliers to help them (often at better than normal rates) with planning your itinerary.
If you are going to a particular country, you should call that country's
If you're going cruising, the agent should have been on at least a similar ship operated by the same cruise line, and also have some familiarity with the region of the world you'll be cruising (eg Alaska, Mediterranean, Caribbean).
3. General Competencies
Some agents work only part-time. Others work fulltime. In general, a fulltime agent is going to be more experienced and more up to date with developments, for the simple reason they are working 40+ hours a week at their job. They will also be more conveniently available to you (and to suppliers that they are working with on your behalf).
Some agents work as an 'inside agent' - ie, they are an employee of the travel agency, and work (full time) inside that agency, and have full access to all the agency's support services. Other agents work as an 'outside agent'. These people are more like independent contractors and often have to supply all their own resources, in return for which they share the commissions and fees they earn with a partner travel agency.
Outside agents can be good, especially if they narrowly specialize in only one type of travel. But you have to seriously question the professional commitment of an agent who is both part-time and also an outside not inside agent.
Sometimes you may find that such people are not 'real' travel agents at all. Instead they may have just paid a fee to a dubious travel agency group that offers ordinary people instant travel agent credentials in return for a fee. These fees can be as much as just below $500, due to legal obligations kicking in when charging more than $500, but for a while there was a Google ad being displayed on this page that was offering such credentials for only $125! Some people are duped into buying such things with the lure of amazing travel agent discounts (which are sadly more illusory than real these days). Don't spend your money with such agents, and don't be tempted to buy such credentials yourself.
If you are dealing with an outside agent, find out who their partner travel agency is - it should be a reputable local agency, and find out what their personal background and training as a travel agent is.
Indeed, in all cases, it is fair to ask the travel agent how many years they have been in the business, and what types of travel related qualifications they have. Maybe also ask what they did before becoming a travel agent - perhaps you might find some commonality with them.
Some agents are very proud of a CTC qualification. I don't agree with the description that some people claim for this - that is is equivalent to an MBA - but I do agree that agents with a CTC have a demonstrated commitment to personal advancement and learning within the travel field.
Other travel qualifications that some agents might claim are a certificate from a travel school, or perhaps a CTA (a lesser version of the CTC) or a DS (destination specialist) status. There are also MCC agents (Master Cruise Counselors - agents that have visited many cruise ships).
4. Other Issues
Of course, many of the comments about how to choose a travel agency also apply to how to choose a travel agent. In particular, recommendations from friends can be very helpful.
Here's an interesting suggestion : If you are meeting with an agent in person, see if you can watch how they use their computer screen. If they are looking for flights for you, do they just look at one screen full of information, or do they flip through two or three screens of flight information? Assuming you have indicated some flexibility in your travel arrangements, and that there is more than one screen of flight options (!), a good travel agent will look through multiple screens of flight options. A bad agent will only look through the first screen of flights (perhaps as few as four or so different flight choices).
Subjectively, do you like the agent? If the agent is someone that you feel comfortable with, that will help you to relax and interact with them a great deal more.
Is the agent easy to contact, and does she always spend as much time as you need when you call her? Does she return calls promptly, and always have sensible answers to your questions?
Creating a Win-Win Relationship
If you want a travel agent to work hard and well for you, you need to incentivize them accordingly. You need to explain to them that you are indeed seriously committed to dealing with them and their agency, and that their time and effort spent researching travel products for you will indeed be rewarded by your subsequent purchase of travel through them.
These days travel agents can spot a 'shopper' a mile away - a person that picks their brains for free advice, but who then does not reward the free advice with their business.
Expect to pay a good travel agent for their time, advice, and assistance. You didn't think the best agent in town would work for nothing, did you?!