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How AI Could Transform Travel—and How to Take Advantage of It

6 minute read

When Celia Quillian began planning her first trip since the pandemic in mid-March, she had a few criteria as she searched for the right destination— temperate weather in spring, not crowded with tourists, and within the U.S.

With all that in mind, Quillian, who lives in Atlanta, G.A., decided to try something new and plugged her wish list into ChatGPT. “I asked it to give me ten recommendations, just to see what it could do,” Quillian said.

The AI chatbot recommended several locations that fit the bill– including Puerto Rico, Charleston, S.C. and Palm Springs, Calif. Quillian, 31, had been to a few of the destinations before and knew they fit the description of what she had asked for. “I was like okay, this thing is definitely working.”

She chose Puerto Rico and then used the chatbot to create a seven-day itinerary for her trip for the following month, prompting it to create a table describing potential activities and breaking them down by distance and cost. “It took me an evening to plan the trip versus weeks of research,” says Quillian, who shared her planning experience in a video that she says received over 2 million views on Instagram. Quillian is a product marketing manager who created the social media account, @smartworkAI, aimed at teaching people creative ways to use AI programs.

ChatGPT allows people to tailor their vacations based on who they’re traveling with or what activities they’re interested in—sourcing everything from activities for kids, to a list of top-rated coffee shops, says Frederic Gonzalo, a marketing consultant who specializes in the use of new technologies in travel. “Before ChatGPT and other [generative AI] tools, you’d have 50 people do the same 50 searches for a weekend in New York, and everyone would get the same results,” says Gonzalo. “Now it’s really going into this hyper-personalization and getting content adapted to everyone’s reality.”

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In recent months, artificial intelligence, and how it stands to change daily life, has been at the center of public conversation. The travel industry is no exception—a third of travelers say they would use ChatGPT to plan their vacation, according to a tracking study by Longwoods International. Major companies are also beginning to use AI technology to provide destination suggestions to customers and streamline the booking process.

Travel Companies Utilizing AI

Major travel companies are getting in on the action. In April, Expedia launched a travel planner in their app powered by ChatGPT that recommends places to go and stay based on the conversations people have in the chat, and saves hotels mentioned during the chat for easy booking. Expedia also launched its own plugin for ChatGPT so travelers can start a conversation on the ChatGPT site and then select the Expedia plugin, which directs travelers to the company’s website to book the discussed trip.

Other companies are interested in following suit. Priceline, AirBnB, and Bookings.com have all signaled their interest in using AI to improve customer service or help plan trips as well.

And while AI is already in use in the travel industry, as machine learning is often used to predict customer behavior or provide more personalized recommendations, Gonzolo says that conversational AI tools might soon make customer service operations more sophisticated. “Chatbots on websites are really dry, and if you don’t answer the three or four preempted questions that are there, you’re sort of on your own,” he says. “So I think we’ll see much more sophisticated customer service tools that will be integrated on websites.”

Could AI Replace Travel Agents?

For now, Gonzalo says the AI’s tool’s main strength lies in helping travelers plan their trip or find activities at their destination, but it is not yet sophisticated enough to help with things like booking a flight, which is where a travel agent may still come in for some. And for others, the value of human connection or the fun in the process of planning traveling is important, says Erika Richter, VP of Communications & Marketing at the American Society of Travel Advisors.

“If you want a top 10 list of things to do or places to stay, it can spit out those answers for you. But can it tell you which of those experiences are actually authentic?” Richter says.

Though some have been quick to turn to ChatGPT for travel recommendations, Richter notes that travel agents are still in high demand. “Almost 30% of our travel advisors are saying that over half of their clients are working with a travel advisor for the first time,” she says. “Travel is becoming more complicated. People are wanting that personal touch.”

Richter thinks that AI will help automate simple bookings, like a trip home or business travel. “To that end, I think that it might make it faster and easier for those one-off bookings,” Richter says.

For travelers simply looking to get recommendations, Gonzalo also cautions against over-reliance on AI, which might be programmed using old information. (ChatGPT, for example, still has limited knowledge of data after 2021.) Users run the risk of being directed to a restaurant that’s out of business or an attraction that’s closed.

Quillian says that the tool remains useful because a city’s offerings don’t change much. “Sometimes [a city] will have something going on in the moment, but most of the time, the destinations and the attractions stay the same.”

Quillian adds that specificity was key to getting the tool to provide unique ideas. “If you’re looking for ‘tourist destinations in Puerto Rico’, it’s probably going to give you a similar assortment of things that you would get searching on Google,” she says. “But if you say ‘I’m trying to find some off the beaten path or hidden gems within the city that most people most tourists don’t visit’, it’ll probably be able to give you that too.”

Quillian found herself relying on the program throughout the trip, whether it was to help identify wildlife or better understand the local dishes on a restaurant’s menu.

“I speak to it like a friend or like an assistant,” she says. “It’s my own pocket travel guide.”

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Write to Simmone Shah at simmone.shah@time.com