Another Reason Not to Pay for Companionship

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A company is claiming you can score free trips simply by becoming a travel agent. Good luck

The pitch

"If you are going to take just one trip by yourself you will more than pay for the cost of this program in savings and commissions." Or so promises the website for a Connecticut-based com-pany, Doug Your Travel Companion. The cost in question is $150 (plus $9 shipping). The operation seems legit, especially with the blurb from Vicki Freed, a vice president at Carnival Cruise Lines, explaining that she's worked with owner Doug Payette for over a decade. (Freed offered no comment, but confirmed the statements on the site were indeed hers.)

The goods

Ten days after signing up at dougyourtravelcompanion.com, I receive a white carton in the mail. It's a little thinner and heavier than a ream of copier paper. A sticker on the box says that all I have to do is sign the agreement inside; become familiar with Payette's second (heretofore unmentioned) site, thetravelcompanion.com; and start booking trips. The box is packed with catalogs from Globus, Club Med, Carnival (hmm... ), and others that I could have picked up for free at a travel agent's office or directly from the operators. Also inside: a 58-minute DVD featuring Payette in tropical shirts--here on a beach, there on a yacht--with a steel drum playing ad nauseam; a bonus DVD of tips that have zip to do with bookings ("Don't forget your bathing suit!"); and a 19-page manual revealing how Payette's company receives 30 percent of the commissions on my sales (typically 12 to 15 percent of the total purchase), and I get the remaining 70 percent. To be eligible for an International Airlines Travel Agent Network card--which brings with it freebies and special agent rates--I need to average more than $1,200 a week in sales for three consecutive months.

Trial run

For a random sail on the Carnival Legend, Payette's rate for a single cabin with a balcony was $1,220. By my calculation, my commission check would come to $121, so the net I'd be paying is $1,099. Meanwhile, I see that Cruise411.com is selling the exact same cruise to anyone for $1,106--only $7 more than my net price through Payette. With savings like that, I'd need to take 23 trips to cover the $159 I paid to be Doug's travel companion. And if I were booking other people at Payette's price, I'd be charging them $114 more than necessary. (When I ask him about sales techniques, Payette says, "Guilt is a great thing," suggesting that I work on friends and family first.)

The verdict

"I've got about 5,000 home-based agents," Payette told me, "and some book only their family vacations and that's all we hear from them." Still, it's extremely unlikely that paying Payette's fee is worthwhile if you're only booking trips for yourself. His site never mentions that travel agencies are a shrinking industry, and that new agents can expect to pull in as little as $17,180 a year. When I ask whether inexperienced folks like myself--armed only with his DVDs, some brochures, and hope--might undermine travel agents' credibility, Payette says that his counselors will coach members over the phone. "I've worked for American, TWA, and Continental, and know how to train agents," he says. What about charging for stuff I can mostly get elsewhere for free? He says the DVD was expensive to make. Why not point people directly to his second site, which doles out instructions for free? "I'm reluctant to give it out," he says, "because it totally cuts our sideline."

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