How to Become an Independent Travel Agent


When first breaking into the travel selling business, the majority of new agents learn the ropes as a "hosted" agent of a host agency. (Host agencies are bonded, accredited agencies through which the home-based agent makes bookings, generally as an independent contractor or IC.) Once those agents have begun booking business, built a book of clients, and networked with their preferred suppliers, often they start to think about branching out on their own and opening their own independent agency. But, where to begin?

In the travel industry, at least, that answer is easy. The first thing any independent agency needs in order to book travel is an agency accreditation.

What is a Travel Agency Accreditation?

So, what exactly is a travel agency accreditation? Put simply, it is a unique number assigned to a travel professional or travel agency. That number allows that agent (or agency) to be recognized by suppliers as a seller of travel. With an accreditation, an agent can book travel and receive commissions from those bookings. 

Why do I need a Travel Agency Accreditation to be independent?

An agency accreditation is a requirement for any person that wants to sell travel as an independent agency. Basically, if you want to be recognized by suppliers, you need an accreditation.

When you work under a host agency, your host holds the Travel Agency Accreditation and allows you to use it. That means that any bookings you make will be in the host agency's name, so that they get the credit for sending the supplier business, not you. It also means that any commission payments are sent directly to your host, and your host can then take a cut of any of your earned commissions before sending the rest on to you. Working under a host is an amazing opportunity for new agents getting to know the industry and needing the support that a host can provide, but most agents find that eventually, it's time to move on.

If you are currently an agent booking travel under a host agency, becoming an independent agency may seem like a big, scary jump. But it may also be the best thing for your growing business! Having your own accreditation will allow your agency to be taken more seriously by both clients and suppliers. Suppliers, especially, will be able to track your bookings and when you book enough volume, will give you extra perks and higher commission rates. When you operate as an independent agency with your own accreditation, you own your client list and your book of business, you book in your agency's name and build relationships with suppliers, and most importantly, you keep 100% of your earned commissions!

What are the Agency Accreditation options?

There are four major accreditation options: ARC, CLIA, IATA, and TRUE. We often hear from agents that they're confused as to why there are so many options. Well, you can think of these options like credit cards. There's Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover. Each credit card does basically the same thing - they allow you to make purchases on credit rather than with cash on hand. But, some cards have different benefits or perks; some are only for bigger spenders. It's the same thing with the accreditations!

Without further ado, let's jump into the different types of accreditation and which will fit your agency's business the best:

  • ARC (Airlines Reporting Corporation)
    • Focused on airline sales and allows for direct airline ticketing
      • Accepted across industry
    • Designed for US agencies that book through the GDS
      • Particularly useful for travel agencies with an emphasis on corporate travel
    • Requires a large financial investment
    • Industry's most complex and stringent application requirements
    • Also offers Verified Travel Consultant (VTC) accreditation for US agencies that do not need the ability to issue air tickets
      • This option does not have the same financial and application requirements
  • CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association)
    • Cruise-focused membership organization offering education and benefits for those that sell cruise vacations
      • Organization represents the interests of cruise lines
    • Accepted across industry
    • Accepts international applicants
    • No experience requirement or financial requirement
  • IATAN (International Airlines Travel Agent Network)
    • Department of IATA, the major trade organization of the world's airlines
    • Multiple different accreditation options
      • IATAN accreditation is for US-based ticketing and non-ticketing agencies
        • Includes financial requirements
      • IATA accreditation is for non-US agencies that issue airline tickets
      • TIDS accreditation is for non-US agencies that don't issue airline tickets
  • TRUE (Travel Retailer Universal Enumeration)
    • Designed for all types of agencies - home-based, brick & mortar, small hosts, leisure, or specialty
    • Designed by travel agents for travel agents, not by special interest groups
    • In addition to accreditation, includes a full membership program 
      • Includes networking, education, and support
    • Available to US and international agencies
    • Not aligned with any particular segment of the travel industry
    • Accepted by both large and small suppliers, including international tour operators
    • Requires industry experience and proof of business documents, but no financial requirement


How do I choose which accreditation?

Before you can pick which accreditation is best for your agency, you'll need to define what kind of agency you'll be. Are you going to be booking via consolidators? Directly with suppliers? Through a GDS? Are you going to be booking leisure travel or corporate travel? Are you going to specialize in cruises or honeymoons or adventure or eco-travel? Once you make those high-level choices, it's easy to narrow down what you need.

Here are a few simple ways to view your options:

  • I am going to be booking on a GDS and/or ticketing flights: ARC or IATA
  • I am going to focus on booking cruises for my clientele: CLIA
  • I am not going to be booking on the GDS or specializing in a specific vertical and will be booking for clients with many different types of suppliers: TRUE

For a lot of agencies, though, the answer isn't quite so cut and dry. In those cases, agencies may choose to hold multiple accreditations in order to satisfy the needs of different clients. There are also agencies that choose to hold an agency accreditation and also maintain an arrangement with a host agency! For some bookings, they use their own accreditation, and for some, they book through their host's accreditation.

There is no one way to run an agency; you can really choose your own adventure. Just figure out what works best for you!

How do independent travel agents get paid?

This is a very common and very important question! There are two main ways that travel agents get paid. The first is by charging a service fee to their clients. Not all agents charge a service fee, but many do. The second way travel agents are paid is on commission for booked travel from the suppliers. If you've been working with a host agency, you're used to all your commissions coming all from one place - your host. When you become an independent agency, you'll register directly with the suppliers (such as cruise lines, hotels, tour operators) or register directly with consolidators. Once you make a booking, those suppliers or consolidators will make commission payments to you, directly. Often you can choose whether your payment comes to you in the form of a check or an electronic funds transfer (EFT). 

And, just in case you forgot, if you're booking independently, you'll keep 100% of the commissions you earn! 

How do I get started?

Once you've chosen your preferred Agency Accreditation, the next step is to make sure that you and your agency fulfill the requirements. At a minimum, you will need to have registered your business appropriately according to local regulations, you will need a business bank account in the name of your agency, and you will need to ensure that you comply with any Seller of Travel laws that your state may have.

And then, of course, you apply! Each accreditation has different procedures and wait times to receive your number. For TRUE, as an example, you can apply online and once you've submitted the required documents, you can expect to receive your TRUE code in approximately two weeks.

Ready to get a TRUE code?

If you've already started to grow your travel selling business and are looking to make the leap into becoming an independent agency, a TRUE code may be the best choice for your agency. Many newly independent agents choose TRUE because of our Agency Services team, there to help you connect with suppliers and answer your questions about building your business. Some choose TRUE because of the wide array of suppliers from all industry verticals (airlines, tour operators, cruise lines, hotels, etc.) that accept TRUE. Whatever reasons you may have for getting your own TRUE accreditation, welcome! From accreditation to events, webinars, newsletters, local meetings, and educational content, TRUE and CCRA membership provide everything you need to take your agency to the next level. Click here to get started.

Apply for TRUE Today


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