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What is a tour operator and what is a travel agent? The difference easily explained

Depending on the type of holiday you are dreaming of, the answer should impact on the route you take to book it. Here’s what you need to know…

October 30, 2021


What is a tour operator?

A tour operator is a company that creates and operates a holiday. Large tour operators such as Virgin Holidays have their own aircraft and transportation services, their own hotels, and/or their own ground staff. They can have their own retail travel agents, and they might act as a preferred supplier for other retail travel agents.

Big tour operators don’t work with local agents or direct with hotels depending on the country you’re wanting to visit, but instead will buy holiday components from wholesalers, hotels from huge bed banks and in some destinations (popular for fly-drives and touring), will sell an ‘off-the-shelf’ itinerary that is not exclusive to them. Some big tour operators have their own hotel products in some destinations.

There are a plethora of smaller specialist tour operators across the UK that specialise in specific countries and offer a tailor-made service. They will usually also work closely with a local agent in the country you’re visiting, who has the best knowledge of the different types of accommodation, the latest tours and the kind of trip that suits their clients

Depending on the type of holiday you are dreaming of, the answer should impact on the route you take to book it. Here’s what you need to know…

What is a travel agent?

Travel agents’ main function is to act as an agent on behalf of a supplier. They are an intermediary and they advise on and sell you the products of other companies. There are different four main types of travel agents:

Retail travel agents – these are the guys who are employed by the travel agencies on your local high street. The people you can pop in and chat to about your holiday face-to-face. These shops are usually linked to a big UK Tour Operator. An example is Trailfinders.

Call centre travel agents – the people who work in call centres such as Flight Centre. You’ll probably never meet them, but you can book with them over the phone.

OTAs (online travel agents) – a company that sells holidays over the internet. It’s likely you’ll have no human interaction with an OTA unless something goes wrong. An example of an OTA is Expedia.

Personal travel agents – home-based travel agents who are self-employed and pay commission to an organisation called a Consortia for access to booking software, travel regulation compliance and to suppliers and wholesale rates. Personal travel agents have the most flexibility and least restrictions and therefore the least bias.

They can pretty much book anything and everything and will often advise you on their own personal experiences. A really good personal travel agent has been at it for years, will have a little black book of amazing hotel contacts and local ground-handlers and a small circle of devoted customers.


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October 30, 2021

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