The World is Her Oyster

Owner of Travel Café savors the journey

Billie Ruff has stories to tell. But, really, a frog in the sink?

“Yes, a client called me (from a resort) to tell me there was a frog living in his sink,” she says, chuckling. “I got on the phone to my vendor and was able to get my client moved to a different room.”

Then she smiles.

“But not without an argument.” 

For the past 40 years, Billie has worked in the travel industry –— an industry that has seen major changes over time and is now enjoying a rebirth. As CEO and owner of Travel Café, she’s withstood the ups and downs on the strength of her personal service: besides arranging tickets and tours, she sells peace of mind.

“The biggest thing we do for consumers is advocate before, during and after a trip,” she says. “It’s just that extra layer of peace of mind working with a professional.”

Seated at her desk in her third-floor office of Billings Stockman Bank, Billie exudes professionalism. There’s no doubt that she’s an authority at what she does, but she wouldn’t be where she is without having tons of fun along the way. 

From dabbling in falconry at Ashford Castle in Ireland to touring the incomparable Taj Mahal on her own, Billie relishes the vast and varied experiences she has strung together over the years. And she loves to hear similar gems from her clients and staff.

“We have always, during good times and bad, celebrated the amazing travel stories that our customers bring back,” she says.

She recalls one client who relied on Travel Café to plan a family celebration for three generations. The trip included a stop in New York City to catch a Broadway play and on to Scotland for a round of golf at the famed St. Andrews golf course. And each adventure came as a surprise.

“They said it was so very fun for them to see what the day had for them,” Billie says.

This July, as Travel Café celebrates its 25th anniversary, Billie has her own story to tell. The travel bug bit her early, during high school, when she traveled to Mexico City to visit an exchange student she’d met in Billings.

“That’s probably the thing that planted the seed,” she says.

Later, as a language major in college — she speaks French, Spanish and some Italian — she envisioned working as a translator, probably in the Washington beltway. But a trip to Europe altered that course. The Joliet native was enrolled at Eastern Montana College (now MSU Billings) on a scholarship as a jazz drummer when her passion for travel eclipsed her zest for drumming.

“I sold my drum set in order to travel with the jazz band to Romania,” she says. “My intention was always to replace it. I just never did.”

Perhaps it was natural, then, that after graduation she joined her aunt at a Billings travel agency. When Billie started working in the industry, the internet was yet a dream of computer nerds, travel was highly regulated — an individual could not purchase an airline ticket — and agents were required to earn accreditation from an inspection by the FBI. At the time, Billings boasted 18 brick-and-mortar travel agencies — a number that has shrunk to a handful of independent agents and Billie’s lone agency: Travel Cafe.

When Billie opened Travel Café, she gave it a unique twist by incorporating a coffee shop. She recalls the morning she first opened on North Broadway, across the street from the Alberta Bair Theater. She had neglected to provide her café manager with a key and the manager was waiting outside when Billie arrived in a flurry.

“I had overslept that first day,” she says, smiling. “I came screaming up to the building.”

Before long, both the café and travel continued to grow, forcing Billie to focus on one or the other. The sacrifice paid off, but back then just launching a woman-owned agency came with its own challenges.

“I had to flex my muscles to be taken seriously,” she says.

That “muscle” and her steady determination have taken her far. Billie combines those traits with her penchant for collaboration.

“I like to listen to my team,” she says. “I think that has served me well.”

She smiles as she recalls a mentor describing her as open-minded. “He told me I don’t always take his advice, but I always listen to what he has to tell me,” she says.

Like most businesses, the travel industry fell off a cliff during Covid. Too many people lost huge amounts of money when airlines, cruises and travel shut down, Billie says. 

“As a consumer, you don’t know the best way to get your money back.”

Her long-standing relationships with vendors, however, helped her navigate refunds for her clients.

“No matter where you are in the world,” her website says, “we are only a phone call away, with a real person on the other end of the line, willing and able to answer any question.”

For reasons like this, travel — and particularly travel with the help of an agent — has come back in spades, she says.

Despite her vast institutional knowledge, Billie thrives on new perspectives and an infusion of young staff. She values their ideas and skills, and, in turn, they are rewarded with a wealth of travel opportunities.

“We vet the properties before we send our clients there,” she says. “For a young person, that’s an awesome opportunity and a way to see the world.”

She’s also energized by the younger clientele who have discovered the benefits of booking through a travel agency. “I love to hear what they thought we were and what we really are,” she says.

Many young people are familiar with the role of a flight attendant, she explains, but haven’t a clue when it comes to travel agents. What young people do know, she adds, is that their lives are busy and they value their time.

Many are surprised to learn that agents’ fees are typically very reasonable.

“In some cases, we can save you money,” Billie says. “I’m always looking for the best schedules and the best value for my clients.”

And she’s always up on the latest hot travel destinations. Last year it was Italy and Greece. This year Japan and Botswana are up and coming. Just tapping into her website,, offers a taste of the “extras” — fun tips and travel secrets —travelers might never discover on their own.

How else would you know where to find the best party spots in Reykjavik, Iceland? Or discover that Ireland’s travel heritage card entitles you to free admission to all state heritage sites for an entire year?

Billie is excited about the future of the travel industry and is currently in the hiring mode. She has branched out to incorporate satellite offices and individual agents in Missoula, Bozeman, Great Falls, Oregon, Utah and Wisconsin.

Recently returned from a business-related trip to Norway, Billie raves about the experience and mentions that she’s eager to see Africa.

“That’s on my bucket list,” she says.

As for retirement, that’s not yet in her vocabulary.

“At some point I’ll look at cutting back,” she says, smiling. “But it’s not going to happen for a while.”

In the meantime, she’s making plans for celebrating that 25th anniversary.


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