Marietta Cleckley of Freeport visited Dubai with her granddaughter, Chloe,...

Marietta Cleckley of Freeport visited Dubai with her granddaughter, Chloe, in July. Because she organized a group trip, Cleckley got a big discount. Credit: Marietta Cleckley

Those in the 50-plus age group are eager to travel, and they’ve got the time and money to do it. According to AARP’s 2022 Travel Trends Report, the most recent available, nearly 3 in 5 older adults expected to spend more on travel in 2022 because they planned on taking more trips, and nearly 3 in 10 planned on vacationing longer than they normally would. Older adults’ average travel budget in 2022 was nearly $8,400, higher than 2021’s budget of $6,379.

For some seniors, working as a travel agent has helped them see the world. Not only do commissions provide income to add to the travel kitty, but as an agent they are eligible for discounts and “fams” (familiarization trips). Such free or low-cost trips, only for travel agents and sometimes their plus-one, are provided by so-called suppliers or travel operators, like hotels, resorts and cruise lines, so that travel agents can experience for themselves what they have to offer and best sell the products to clients.

Becoming a travel agent doesn’t require any specific educational background, exam or a seller-of-travel license. However, agents need a license to do business in New York, and requirements vary depending on county. Getting started as a travel agent isn’t a heavy lift, though candidates may want to get training through an agency or adult education provider.

Retirees Sheila and Chris Korte started working their travel agent business as a second career more than a decade ago. It has exceeded their expectations. Marietta Cleckley says being a travel agent has helped fund travel during retirement, and that’s been the case for Carol Doukas, too. They share their stories.  

Sheila and Chris Korte

Sheila and Chris Korte of Babylon are former air traffic...

Sheila and Chris Korte of Babylon are former air traffic controllers who started working in the travel industry in 2010.  Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

The Kortes have been many places most people only dream about: all over Europe, a safari in Kruger National Park in South Africa, and South America. While each trip has special memories for the Babylon couple, some favorites include Australia, New Zealand, the Galápagos Islands and Machu Picchu, in Peru.

“One of the most memorable things that we did in Sydney was walk over the Sydney [Harbour] Bridge. What an experience! I was so scared of doing that, as I am not a big fan of heights, but we were so happy that we completed this spectacular tour, and we had the most amazing sunset and evening views of Sydney Harbour,” said Sheila Korte.

The cruise and tour of Peru and the Galápagos was one of their best trips, Korte said. “We shared a meal with Peruvian families who were joyful and happy to share with us. The scenery of Machu Picchu was beyond beautiful, and the wildlife of the Galápagos was so special,” she said.

They both served in the Army and worked as air traffic controllers. Chris Korte went on to become a treasury trader, and after an injury left Sheila Korte unable to do her job as an air traffic controller, she worked in the travel industry as a management trainee. Sheila Korte, 68, retired in 2009, and Chris Korte, 70, followed her two years later. In 2010 they bought a Cruise Planners franchise. “We have been able to make a really nice income, take advantage of the travel agent discounts and be able to take some really special bucket-list vacations,” Sheila Korte said. Their sales pre-COVID had reached $1 million, Korte said.

“We started the business with the goal of being independent, being our own bosses and allowing us to have control over our schedule so that we would be able to travel and spend more time with family,” she said, adding that the support and training from Cruise Planners enabled their business to grow.

There was a time when they took three or four fam trips a year and worked 60 to 70 hours a week on the business, Sheila Korte said, adding that now, after a COVID-19 slump in bookings, they are busy again.

“Business is booming. We’re getting a lot of calls,” she said.

They, too, are resuming big travel that stopped during the pandemic. In May, at long last, they are taking a trip they pushed back a couple of times because of COVID-19. The epic three-week adventure includes Milan, Lake Como in Italy, a Rhine River cruise, Iceland and Norway and its fjords. The fall will include trips to see family in Ohio and California. They are starting to dream about where to go for their 50th wedding anniversary in 2025; early thoughts are perhaps Antarctica or another safari, this time in East Africa.

The Kortes are in a sweet spot. “I keep trying to imagine what total retirement would be like,” Sheila Korte said. “My grandkids ask me when I will retire. But I don’t know when, as long as I’m healthy. I love what I do. I love to travel, to talk about travel and to sell travel.”

Marietta Cleckley

Marietta Cleckley didn’t wait for retirement to do some extreme traveling, as evidenced by a Newsday story about a 2001 trip. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Marietta Cleckley always found a way to travel. “If I could travel 365 days a year, I would,” she said.

Even before retiring in 2012 as the science chairperson for the Malverne School District, her wanderlust took her around the world to places like Antarctica and Japan. After Cleckley retired and joined a 55-plus group, she somehow became the travel coordinator for the group’s trips and got her feet wet with travel planning. In 2021, while COVID-19 was still impeding travel, Cruise Brothers offered free online training to get certified as a travel agent for the company, and she went for it. She’s glad she did. “I was looking for a way to help fund my travels in retirement,” Cleckley said.

The 71-year-old Freeport resident quickly cashed in on the perks of being a travel agent. She had her first fam trip in 2021 sailing from Miami, with stops in Bimini, in the Bahamas, and Costa Maya, in Mexico.

In July of last year, she got 23 passengers booked on a land tour in Dubai. Since Cleckley had at least 20, she was eligible for a hefty discount. Because they were from the United States, she recalled fondly of being in Dubai, “We got called the Obama ladies .  .  . People there love the Obamas.” She plans to run that Dubai tour again this summer.

Cleckley heads to South Africa for a land tour in August. She has booked at least 30 people, making her eligible for a discount.

“For me it’s about the discounts and fam trips to experience the product, not the income. You’re treated like a VIP when you’re on a fam,” Cleckley said. “It’s very rewarding.”

In June she’ll return to Uganda, where she traveled in early retirement. “I walked in a chimpanzee sanctuary and a 2-year-old climbed on my back and played with my hair. We had to climb a mountain to get to them. I was out of breath, but I made it. Thankfully I had a porter carrying everything,” said Cleckley.

On that bucket-list trip, she connected with children at St. Mathews Primary School, an elementary school that she began supporting financially. In June she hopes to return to Uganda to visit the school, Queen Elizabeth National Park and go gorilla trekking.

Her travel agent business is growing such that she’s hired her computer-savvy grandson, Marcus, to help her with technology. One task he is doing is creating an Excel spreadsheet of her email addresses.

She’s living her best life. “There’s nothing like travel.”

Carol Doukas

Carol Doukas shares photos from a trip to St. Maarten....

Carol Doukas shares photos from a trip to St. Maarten. She likes helping people plan their trips, and she likes the perks, too. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Since 2000 Carol Doukas has worked part time in retirement as a travel agent. She took a six-month travel agent class at Western Suffolk BOCES, then learned the business working with Bestway Travel, with which she is affiliated. The 70-year-old former administrative assistant, who lives in Ronkonkoma, books cruises almost exclusively for family, friends and friends of friends. She doesn’t advertise — she isn’t looking to make a killing but rather to enjoy the perks. “This is about pocket money and discounts,” Doukas said.

In April, she and more than 40 friends and family took an 11-day cruise out of Manhattan that included stops in Puerta Plata, in the Dominican Republic, and St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Tortola, in the Caribbean. The occasion celebrated Carol and her husband George’s 50th wedding anniversary and her grandniece’s 18th birthday. “Because of COVID, none of us had been on a vacation for about two years, so it was an amazing experience for us all to be together again,” said Doukas.

Travel agent perks have included big discounts on trips to Maui and Honolulu. She also benefits from “nice discounts from hotels, especially the big chains,” she said. “Wherever we go on vacation we know we’ll have a great place to stay. Car rental companies usually offer deals, too.”

Doukas isn’t sure where she and her husband will travel this year. They may just lay low and focus on checking a cruise to the Greek Isles off their bucket list in 2024.

Meanwhile, she enjoys keeping busy helping family and friends with their travel plans. “Some of them don’t know where to begin,” she said. “I love helping them and hearing their stories when they come back home.”


Sheila and Chris Korte's world travel map.  Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Helen Prochilo-Maley of Promal Vacations, 67, who lives in Long Beach, bills herself as the travel agent whisperer. She mentors people on how to become travel agents. She offers three tips for those interested in becoming a travel agent.

1. Determine whether you want to work for a brick-and-mortar travel agency or you want to work from home with a host agency; such agencies hire independent contractors, meaning you make your own hours and work as much or as little as you want.

2. Don't rush. Make time to take classes from the agency you want to work with to learn the ins and outs of the business. There are legal disclosures that must be given to clients; there are different suppliers to work with, etc. Learn before you start, because once you build your business and get busy, you may not have time to take classes.

3. Long Island has several travel agent groups you can join that meet monthly. You will meet other agents and suppliers who will help you learn.

— Sheryl Nance-Nash


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