In some of my posts on Prince of Travel, I’ve made the odd reference to the work that I do at a travel agency as a points specialist. I have been in this role for around three years now, and it has given me good insight into the world of airlines and travel agents.
In this post, I’ll do a deep dive into my role and share some of the perks that come along with working for a travel agency.
How I Got the Role
In September 2018, I attended the PointsU Conference in Toronto. During one of his speeches, Avery from Don’t Call the Airline mentioned that his travel agency was looking for a person to do points bookings.
Having just returned from a 2 1/2 month honeymoon around the world, the balance in my bank account was starting to look pretty grim. I was in my final year of grad school at McGill and my wife Ashley was in her first year of grad school, so to sustain our desire to travel we both sought out some part-time employment.
Avery was kind enough to offer me the position and I decided to give it a shot. After a weekend in Ottawa getting set up with a laptop and training in some of the programs I’d be using, I headed back to Montreal to begin working remotely.
What Do I Do?
My official title is Aeroplan Specialist, but my role has grown and changed as the needs of the agency have shifted.
The majority of my time is usually spent doing bookings for our clients using Aeroplan. I occasionally do redemptions from other programs (British Airways Avios, American Airlines AAdvantage, Delta SkyMiles), but I’d say 97% of my bookings are with Aeroplan.
Every now and then, I’ll do a hotel booking or a cash airfare booking, but this happens very infrequently.
I also take care of selecting Air Canada elite benefits for clients either as per their request or under the guidance of the agency’s director. Much of my knowledge about Aeroplan Elite Status has come through the agency, and I have been glad to share that with our wonderful Prince of Travel readers.
For the past year, aside from doing Aeroplan bookings, I have been doing a lot of research for navigating COVID restrictions as our clients have returned to travelling.
In some cases, the restrictions and guidance are straightforward: get a test, fill out a form, and you’re fine.
In other cases, especially when people visit a number of countries and have mixed vaccinations, it can be very difficult to give specific guidance on which tests they need, if they are allowed to travel to the country in the first place, and whether or not the country accepts mixed vaccines.
I imagine that most travel agencies don’t provide this type of service to their clients, as it’s time consuming and doesn’t generate any revenue. I’m happy to report that we haven’t had a single client be refused boarding due to not having the necessary documentation and tests, but this has come as a result of many hours behind a screen on my end.
In fact, many other travel agents have told me that their agencies don’t do any points bookings at all, as they can be messy, they require an additional service fee, and not everyone knows how to give their clients the best value with Aeroplan.
On a recent flight, I spoke with someone who didn’t think that travel agents existed anymore, due to the rise of online travel agencies.
We had an interesting discussion about the tailored service we provide our clients that is a far cry from what you get from online travel agencies. Our clients are happy to pay for the service, as any disruptions to their travel are handled proactively on our end, taking the additional worry away.
A Day in the Life
While my work day varies depending on the time of year and the needs of the agency, my day-to-day job consists mostly of the following.
I work closely in tandem with the Ottawa-based agency’s director. He’s been described by others as a travel miracle worker and is regarded very highly by our many clients in the public and private sectors. He has asked for me to not use his name for this article.
After sifting through emails, he and I will go over the priorities for the day in one of many phone calls over the course of the shift.
Most of the Aeroplan bookings I do don’t require an extensive knowledge of the program. There are many simple bookings across Canada or to hubs in the US. For international flights, I book a lot of flights to London and other European destinations, mostly in business class.
There are some occasions when I get to apply my knowledge of routing rules to book something akin to what Ricky does. While it is quite rare, it also allows me to test the system to see what is possible and what is not.
The director usually does a quick comparison and crunches the values of the Aeroplan flights as compared to a cash fare. If he opts for a points booking, I’ll proceed with the booking, enter it into our system, process the bill, and send it out to the client.
With the new Aeroplan program, I do a lot of work with Priority Rewards and using eUpgrades on Aeroplan bookings. My colleagues at the agency agree that this is probably the most valuable way to use Aeroplan points, aside from pushing the limits with complex routings.
I also have a number of clients who come directly to me for Aeroplan bookings, credit card enquiries or referrals, and explanations for the quirks of the new Aeroplan.
When I’m not doing bookings, I’ll also be on the phone with Aeroplan making changes to bookings and making easy requests over Twitter with Air Canada. I’ve learned to block out the hold music with Aeroplan, but luckily many of our clients are Super Elites, so the wait time usually isn’t that bad.
I’ve come to know many Aeroplan agents over the last three years. If I have an unusual request or an advanced move, I can usually ascertain quite quickly whether or not the agent is familiar with what I’m asking.
There are a few agents with whom I am always happy to speak as they are knowledgeable and efficient. We have built a good rapport over the years, too, so we usually have a quick catch up about life while they are working on the files.
In addition to the main responsibilities, there are many other side tasks that come along with my position.
My least favourite is seeing a flurry of flight schedule changes in my inbox at the beginning of a shift. This has become a more frequent phenomenon since airlines often amend schedules to comply with demand during the pandemic.
One of the most rewarding experiences I had in this position was when COVID struck and we had clients all over the globe. From my condo in Downtown Montreal, I worked long hours assisting with bookings to get people back home before borders closed and flights were suspended.
It was a very stressful time both for me and for the clients, but I was relieved to receive emails from clients once they were back at home safely.
This position is my first that I was able to work entirely remotely. I’ve worked on planes, trains, and beaches, as well as in hotels, restaurants, airport lounges, and everywhere in between. As someone who loves to travel, having an internet connection and a laptop is all I need to sign in from anywhere in the world.
Travel Agent Industry Perks
I am often asked about the perks that come along with the job. Indeed, there are many, and I take advantage of them as often as possible.
For flights, there are industry-standard discounts with most airlines. This usually equates to around 75% off full-fare economy and full-fare business class flights. It doesn’t always amount to a deal, as, for example, a Standard or Flex fare with Air Canada is often cheaper than full-fare Latitude even after the discount. I tend to book flight on points anyway, so I haven’t made a lot of cash bookings.
Some airlines offer travel agents standby rates or heavily discounted flights. The standby rate is usually the cheapest, but you run the risk of not getting a seat if the flight is full. I regularly take advantage of these deals with Pacific Coastal Airlines to get from Vancouver Island to Vancouver to avoid taking a ferry.
Similarly, there are discounts with other forms of transportation. My favourite is the AD75 program with Via Rail, in which you get 75% off of Via Rail tickets.
I used this as often as I could when I lived in Montreal and needed to get to Toronto for a weekend. I have long planned to use on a trans-Canadian route with a sleeper car, which I hope to accomplish this winter. Trains are my preferred form of ground transportation, and getting tickets at a heavily discounted rate is very satisfying.
Another industry perk that I often use is with hotels.
Most hotel chains and some independent hotels offer excellent rates for their industry partners. I suppose that offering these to travel agents may land them some extra business if the agents have a good experience and refer clients to them.
The Marriott “Fam-tastic” rate has been my go-to rate for when I’m not doing mattress runs to maintain Platinum status. The availability isn’t consistent, but it tends to pop up if you keep an eye on the availability for your dates.
For example, when Ricky and I went to Mardi Gras in New Orleans in February 2020, I booked a room using the Fam-tastic rate at the JW Marriott New Orleans for US$118/night. Regular rates for our dates were above US$400 per night, so I feel that we got an excellent deal.
If I plan on staying in an area where there aren’t a lot of chain hotels, such as the west coast of Vancouver Island, I’ll contact a number of hotels to see if they offer industry rates. In some cases, such as the Black Rock Oceanfront Resort in Ucluelet, the industry rate is excellent. In other cases, they either don’t offer a rate or it’s not that good.
There are a number of other perks that come from working in the travel industry.
Airlines often have familiarization trips to new destinations or contests where agents get a free trip. This past August, I got wined and dined for a week of luxury in Switzerland as I took part in the Air Canada Race.
It was an outstanding experience and probably the most affordable trip I have ever been on. Sure enough, I have plans to return to Switzerland with my wife next year and many industry partners who have offered to enhance our experience with some preferred rates at nice hotels and heavily discounted experiences.
Aside from the above, there are a host of other industry perks: car rentals, earning free stays at hotels through bookings, winning free flights, heavily discounted experiences, and many others.
Working at a travel agency for the last three years has been a rewarding and interesting experience. It has been valuable for me to learn the intricacies of the industry, and I have gained extensive knowledge in a number of areas.
I have become the go-to person for my friends and family for travel related assistance, too. I truly enjoy assisting people with their bookings and helping them save some cash along the way.
The industry benefits have brought me to places where I may not have considered going and there are a number of other benefits that I have yet to use as COVID has derailed many of my travel plans.
Feel free to get in touch or comment below if you are a travel agent and have some experiences (or perks) that you’d like to share!