Lake Norman & Mooresville

Fulfilling a life-time goal of owning her own travel agency

Watching an episode of the "Oprah Winfrey Show" a few months back, Patti Merkel saw a program listing the four happiest careers to have: Clergy, special education teacher, travel agent and firefighter.

As a travel agent, Merkel couldn't agree more.

"It's a great business to be in; it's so much fun," the 54-year-old said. "I get excited every time I book someone because I feel I am going on that adventure with them."

Merkel owns Patti's Discount Travel and operates the business out of her home on Chapel Creek Road in the Sail View community of Denver. She started the business three years ago.

Being a travel agent has always been the plan for Merkel since she was young; however, it took her some 30 years before she fulfilled her goal of owning her own agency.

When not working or traveling, Merkel enjoys being on the lake, water skiing or wake surfing. She also enjoys cooking, dancing and snow skiing.

Merkel is a certified travel agent, studying at Sawyer Business School in Rochester, N.Y. She worked as a travel agent in Long Island briefly in the 1980s, but a minimum wage salary made it almost impossible to live in New York. So, Merkel went into the restaurant business, moving up from waitress to bartender to manager. She did own a restaurant for about six years before selling it.

But as much as she enjoyed working in kitchens, her passion always was travel. After she and husband, Steve, became empty-nesters about three years, she started Patti's Discount Travel. "I am busier than I ever thought," Merkel said, who has lived in North Carolina for 13 years. "Everyone loves to travel. Even in down times, people still travel."

One of the perks of the business is being able to travel monthly. Merkel attends seminars to explore resorts and cruise boats.

Her favorite destination is Turks and Caicos.

She recommends taking in the beauty of the United States. Merkel went on a "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" tour of the Midwest. "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" is a Food Network TV show where the host teats at local restaurants. Merkel traveled from Tennessee to California eating at some of the spots featured on the show.

There are still a lot of places Merkel wants to visit. One is Australia, where she hopes to visit in the next two years.

Merkel uses her travel experiences on the job. She helps clients book cruises and ski trips, but she also helps plan destinations across the country and Europe. Merkel typically likes to recommend places she's been. If someone asks her about a location she hasn't been to, Merkel networks with agents for recommendations.

Clients do not pay Merkel for her service as their travel agent. She makes her money through commission from the cruise lines and hotel resorts.

Merkel recommends cruise vacations.

"Cruises are active and fun," Merkel said. "(Ships have) zip lines, bowling allies, ice skating, roller blading and rock climbing - there's something for everyone on cruise ships."

Merkel does share one tip for cruise goers: Always take the stairs. That's her trick to indulge on the food and not gain weight.