How the IRS Classifies an Independent Contractor Travel Agent vs Employee

When it comes to hiring, it’s important to understand the difference between an independent contractor travel agent (plus other contracted workers) and an employee. While both types of workers can perform similar tasks for your travel agency, the way they are classified has significant implications for both travel agencies and travel agents.

In this article, we’ll explore the key differences between independent agents and employees and provide guidance on what to do if you’re audited by the IRS.

First, Let’s Define Employee and Independent Contractor

An employee is hired by an employer to perform specific tasks and is subject to the employer’s control and direction. An employee typically receives a salary or hourly wage and is eligible for benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans. Employee travel agents earn money for your company and follow the regulations and rules that you create. Their pay is regular and formal employment contracts are in place outlining the details of the arrangement.

In contrast, a contractor is an independent worker who performs a specific task or project for a client and is not subject to the client’s control or direction. Instead, they own their own independent business and are commonly paid commissions for their services. An independent travel agent is typically paid on a project-by-project basis and is not eligible for the same benefits as employees, such as reimbursement for business expenses, hotel stays, and other resources.

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So, How Can You Tell The Difference Between Independent Contractors and Employees?

The IRS uses a three-part test to determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. The three main categories for testing look at the degree of control the employer has over the worker, the worker’s financial independence, and the nature of the relationship between the worker and the employer.

Test #1: Degree of Control

The degree of control test analyzes how much the employer controls the worker’s schedule, the tools and equipment used to perform the work, and the compensation methods. If the employer has a significant degree of control over these factors, the worker is more likely to be classified as an employee.

However, if the individual has control over which clients they take on, provides their own resources, and receives commission compensation, they are most likely an independent contractor.

Test #2: Financial Independence

The financial independence test looks at how much the worker is financially dependent on the employer. If the worker is dependent on the employer for a significant portion of their income, they are more likely to be classified as an employee.

On the contrary, if the individual has control over which parties they work with, contract details, and expected sales their agency takes on, they are most likely an independent travel agent.

Test #3: Nature of the Relationship

The nature of the relationship test looks at the length of time the worker has been working for the employer, whether the worker is performing a specific task or project, and whether the worker is performing work that is integral to the employer’s business.

If the worker is performing a specific task, contract, or project, and the work is not integral to the employer’s business, they will be classified as an independent travel agent in most cases.

It’s important to note that these are just guidelines, and the IRS will consider all relevant facts and circumstances in determining a worker’s classification. The IRS does provide an online tool that can help you differentiate between independent contracts and employees.

Retaining The Right Documentation for Your Travel Agents

Independent Travel Agent vs Employee Tax Withholding

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Although independent contractors can use their social security number when working in the travel industry, many successful independent travel agents have a separate Employer Identification number, known as an EIN.

Travel agencies and host agencies should request a Form W-9 from all prospective independent contractors to determine if they are actually their own bosses.

This form will require travel professionals to outline a range of information, like their primary location or address, travel agency legal name, and decide if they want any federal or state taxes withheld. This document also requires independent contractors to sign and ensure that the information is complete.

Travel agents that are considered employees will fill out a Form W-4 that describes the payroll taxes that they want withheld. In addition, your business should request a withholding form for the state they reside or work in. It’s not uncommon to have employees working all over the world, making it important to know how your company should assess taxes.

Formal Contract Information and Classification

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Many travel agents like a formal contract in place before they begin to sell travel deals and vacation packages for your host agency. This contract should outline the expected commission, any resources your company provides, penalties for party breaches, and the services the independent contractor will provide to your host agency.

You should also have a formal agreement in place for your employees. This document will outline any conflicts of interest with clients, or the services provided, the benefits offered, any career advancements available, what access to resources are available, training guidelines, insurance options, sales goals, and any other information relevant to your agency.

What Happens When the IRS Disagrees With Your Classification?

Now, let’s say you’ve been classified as an independent travel agent contractor, but the IRS disagrees and determines that you should have been classified as an employee.

What happens next?

If the IRS determines that you should have been classified as an employee, you may be liable for unpaid payroll taxes, including Social Security and Medicare taxes paid to the government. Additionally, you may be required to pay penalties and interest on the unpaid taxes.

The agency that you worked with will also owe payroll taxes on any income you received from contracts. Many travel agencies prefer to work with self-employed travel agents because they can avoid the expenses of paying payroll taxes on income paid to you.

If you’re audited by the IRS and are concerned about your worker classification, it’s important to seek the help of a qualified tax professional. A tax professional can help you understand the classification process and provide guidance on how to properly classify your workers.


In summary, it’s important to understand the difference between independent contractors and employees, and to properly classify your workers to avoid potential problems with the IRS. If your business is audited and has concerns about your worker classification, seek the help of a qualified tax professional.

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