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Can ChatGPT plan your vacation?

Powerful new artificial-intelligence software is already shaking up the travel industry, but it has a long way to go until it can plan a seamless trip. For now. (Will Cordell/The New York Times)
Powerful new artificial-intelligence software is already shaking up the travel industry, but it has a long way to go until it can plan a seamless trip. For now. (Will Cordell/The New York Times)

One day soon, in the artificial-intelligence-powered future, a vacation might start by telling your smartphone something like this: “I want to take a four-day trip to Los Angeles in June, whenever airfares and hotel rates are best, using loyalty rewards points. I want to hit a history museum and an amusement park, and then I’d like a 7 pm dinner reservation near the hotel at a restaurant with vegan options and a great wine list.” And your phone spits out the perfect itinerary.

But for now, travelers using ChatGPT — the powerful new AI software that is already offering creative cocktail recipes and writing college papers — may have to temper their expectations.

Oded Battat, general manager at Traveland, a travel agency in Bridgeport, Connecticut, asked ChatGPT for outings he might offer his clients going to Tuscany, Italy, to see if it could help him with his work. He got a list of 14 activities, including winery tours and museum visits, with a stop for gelato in the town square of the medieval hill town San Gimignano.

“I knew of all these things,” Battat said, but he added that ChatGPT saved him the hassle of collecting all the information and delivered it in a format he was able to email to one of the clients.

ChatGPT, the service Battat has begun using, burst onto the scene in November, and it has already begun to shake up tech-driven industries, including travel. Unlike the AI that’s already familiar to most consumers — think website chatbots — ChatGPT is “generative,” meaning it can analyze or summarize content from a huge set of information, including webpages, books, and other writing available on the internet, and use that data to create original new content. Its advanced natural language capabilities also mean it understands and responds in a more conversational way.

Many Uses, and Limitations

The travel industry may never be the same. Already, travelers can “converse” with the system, sharing information like a destination, time of year and interests, and getting back a personalized itinerary festooned with vivid descriptions.

A reporter’s recent request for a two-day itinerary to Whistler, British Columbia, yielded ideas like snowshoeing with a guide who will point out the local flora and fauna, and taking a dog-sled ride “with a team of beautiful huskies” for a winter trip. Given additional parameters, ChatGPT will update its suggestions, so adding a preference for Thai food to the Whistler conversation prompted the system to give new restaurant suggestions.

But ChatGPT does have limitations. First, its information base currently does not go beyond 2021, and it does not have access to important travel-related data that can change from moment to moment, like airline schedules and weather forecasts.

New versions are being developed, including a major upgrade released this week, and are expected to keep improving. Also, the software doesn’t always know the difference between reliable and unreliable information on the internet, so it can offer answers that are untrue. ChatGPT’s maker, OpenAI, also warns that the software may occasionally produce “biased content.”

Anyone can use the software, which is free and accessible via the OpenAI website. Tourist bureaus can ask ChatGPT to write marketing copy describing must-see sites, and travel advisers can use it to compose emails to their clients and create social media posts. Airline, hotel and rental car companies could use it to help their virtual agents answer a wider variety of questions.

One travel adviser said she used ChatGPT to write a “firm but friendly breakup letter” to a client with whom she no longer wanted to work. The adviser had to rewrite the prompt — the term for a ChatGPT question or command — a few times to get what she wanted, but in the end it worked.

“My client said she understood and wasn’t mad at me,” said the adviser, who asked to remain anonymous because she did not want her former client to know that ChatGPT had written the letter.

A ‘Significant New Step’

Some in the industry worry that as systems like ChatGPT improve, they might put travel advisers out of business, said Chad Burt, a co-president of OutsideAgents, a Jacksonville, Florida, company with 8,000 advisers in its network. But, he said, “the imminent demise of travel agents has always been predicted, and each new technology is a tool to be used.”

He recently gave a tech tips seminar to his advisers and is compiling a list of prompts his advisers can use to make the most of the software.

Burt, who has been experimenting with ChatGPT, has used it to create more than 100 itineraries. The result is a great starting point and “can save some basic legwork,” he said, “but a good agent still needs to fact-check and enhance it.” For example, he explained, only a human can tease out what travelers say they want versus what they really want. The software gets “70 or 80% — but we’re not aiming for a C grade,” he said.

Expedia, one of the world’s largest online travel companies, has been using AI for years to personalize recommendations and program its online virtual adviser, but ChatGPT is a “significant new step,” Expedia CEO Peter Kern said.

His company is looking at the new technology as a possible way to give customers a more conversational way to interact with Expedia, Kern said, for example, by speaking or typing questions instead of pointing and clicking. Expedia could also work with ChatGPT to personalize recommendations better by combining its data with the two types of data its company tracks: customers’ purchase history and the most current pricing and availability of airline tickets, hotel rooms and rental cars.

Aylin Caliskan, a University of Washington professor of computer science who studies machine learning and how society affects artificial intelligence, predicts that other travel companies will go the same route, adding their own data and programming to generative AI systems like those being created by Google, Amazon and OpenAI, to accomplish specific tasks.

The systems take an enormous amount of investment, data, and human work to create, she said, so it will be more efficient to build on top of them. A travel insurance company, for example, could build a system using the natural-language capabilities of software like ChatGPT that would help travelers choose the most appropriate policies or guide them through the process of submitting claims.

Generative AI could also improve the foreign-language translation, potentially helping travelers conduct conversations with local people, Caliskan said. And combined with virtual reality technology, it could also allow travel companies to give customers a preview “visit” of a destination using a virtual reality headset.

Fearing an ‘AI Junk Land’

Jeff Low, CEO of Stash Hotels Rewards, a company that awards loyalty points for staying at a set of independent hotels, worries about the effect new AI like ChatGPT may have on the lodging industry. If one promise of artificial intelligence is automating routine tasks so that workers can personally connect with guests, “the reality is different,” Low said. Hotels have been more likely to cut jobs when AI was introduced, he said, for example reducing front desk staff when automated check-in became popular.

“Interacting with people is an important part of travel,” he said. “And hotels can differentiate themselves through those connections.”

Low also worries that unethical companies could use software like ChatGPT to undermine the value of guest reviews on travel sites, information many rely on to make hotel choices.

This kind of software could make it easier for so-called review farms — which create fake positive or negative postings — to become more sophisticated, perhaps even creating traveler profiles that will pump out seemingly legitimate reviews over months and years, he said. Travel companies have systems to weed out fake reviews, he said, “but if a college professor can’t tell if a bot wrote a student’s paper, how will Tripadvisor know if a review is legitimate?”

here are other potential downsides as the capabilities of generative AI are used by more travel providers. A natural-language answer sounds authoritative, “so people will believe it more than they should,” Burt said. And because Google loves fresh content when it comes to ranking search results, companies that want to raise their internet profiles may start using ChatGPT-like software to write an ever-larger raft of blog and social media posts.

The internet “might become an AI junk land,” Burt said.

But for all the potential problems, an AI-powered future could still be a boon to travelers: If ChatGPT or other generative systems gain access to up-to-the-minute information, a sudden change in one plan could automatically ripple through the rest, said Chekitan Dev, a professor at the Nolan School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University. If your flight is delayed, for example, the system could postpone your car rental and send the restaurant where you plan to dine that evening a message to rebook your reservation for a later time.

So will the future bring an autonomous vehicle that “knows” to pick you up at the airport when your delayed plane arrives, then takes you sightseeing and ends up at a place with the best pad thai in town? Or maybe AI and virtual reality engineers will someday team up to bring us a “Star Trek” holodeck experience that feels almost as real as a vacation, and we’ll never leave home.

“This is uncharted waters for all of us,” Dev said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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