Well, I am not a travel agent but I have a friend who is and I know that often when we travel together she pays the same as I do. I don't think Travel Agents get the freebies everybody thinks they get. Sometimes she has been able to get a discount on a hotel or car rental for us, but it wasn't much better than the special internet rates anyone can get. I'll have to ask her about cruises since we have never taken a cruise together.
Cruise travel agents get anywhere from 8-18% commission based on the cruise fare alone, this does not include the port charges and gov. fees. If they work for a host agency they receive a percentage of that (from 50-75%). Example: If the cruise fare is $400.00 + Port charges and gov. fees, and the agency was receiving 15% commission then the agent would get 15% of $400.00 then split with their host agency for making the booking and making sure that you were taken care of, which at 50% split they would receive $30.00. The commission is paid from the cruise lines, so even if you book directly with the cruise line, you would pay the same as you would with an agent. Difference is an agent gets to know you personally and knows how to recommend the best cruise based on your preferences, they also book all cruise lines, where if you book with the cruise line, they will only sell you their line of cruises.
Most airlines pay approx. 5% of the airfare..again split with host agency. Agents do get agent rates occassionaly, but the problem is that most are last minute bookings...used to fill a ship..so you have to be ready to travel on short notice. Also, on some sailings there are no agent rates.
Of course if the agent is self-employed and runs their own agency then they would keep the entire commission, but then again they have all the back office work to take care of such as invoicing, hiring personnel, checking tickets etc.. more out of pocket expenses.
I recommend that everyone use an agent as you will get the personal service and possibly become friends with your agent. They will take care of you.
To clarify what Carol said, agents get 5%commission on air flights only if booked through the cruise line (and then, not always). If flights are booked separately, through the airline, the agent gets paid nothing. Agents also get paid nothing if a customer has them do research for them on a vacation, then decides to go book it somewhere else. That's why you will see travel agents charging service fees for air tickets, or sometimes as nonrefundable "plan to travel" deposits, to cover their expenses and their time & effort when they don't get paid a commission.
Suzi is also right that agents get very few reduced rates on vacations (as Carol pointed out, usually those are on short notice, and without much choice of cabins or rooms). And agents get almost no freebies - only the occasional door prize won by one or two out of hundreds of agents who attend a trade show or seminar.
So why be a travel agent? Because we like helping others find their travel dreams come true!
I am TA in UK and as an overall rule, over here we get 10% off of the fare including flights, which we invariably need located where we are! Flights are already built into our brochure fares making life a bit simpler. Some independant agents take their full commission off, but i am Manager in a large retail chain and we dont have this flexibility.
And no, we dont get freebies either, just the occassional educational visit where we suss out hotels, resorts etc, these are guided by the tour ops and we are expected to work of course!