After the runaway success of ChatGPT, which reached 100 million monthly active users in January just two months after its launch (making it the fastest-growing consumer application in history), numerous companies are now getting in on the AI frenzy. Microsoft and Google quickly followed suit, launching their own versions of AI chatbots, Bing and Bard, respectively. And this month, online travel behemoth Expedia began testing a new in-app travel planning experience powered by ChatGPT. There’s also GuideGeek, a new ChatGPT-powered travel assistant from the Matador Network that offers travel tips and live flight and vacation rental data and is accessible via WhatsApp (and soon, Instagram). And there’s bound to be more.
The popularity of these generative artificial intelligence (AI) tools stems from the fact that they have the ability to provide human-like responses to a wide range of queries. Among the questions consumers can ask the chatbots are travel-related ones, such as, “What are some of the best places to travel to without a passport?”, “What is a three-day itinerary in London that’s good for kids?”, or “How can I get from Tokyo Narita Airport to Shinjuku?”
Given the possibilities to assist with travel planning efforts, travel companies see massive potential to augment and enhance consumer interactions and travel experiences through AI.
While it’s still relatively nascent, generative AI has “huge implications for travel planning,” says Seth Borko, senior research analyst at Skift and author of an April 2023 report titled “Generative AI’s Impact on Travel.” From searching and planning to the experience itself, Borko says artificial intelligence represents a multi-billion-dollar opportunity for travel companies.
In its current form, ChatGPT isn’t exactly the end-all-be-all travel planner, but it is a tool that can provide assistance in the research phase. Let’s look at what it actually can (and can’t) help with—and how AI is poised to alter the travel landscape as we know it.
What is ChatGPT?
ChatGPT (owned by the San Francisco-based company OpenAI) launched in November 2022 and is a large language model (LLM), a subset of the generative pre-trained transformer (GPT) group of language models, that is designed to process and generate human language. While AI has been around for decades, there’s something unique about these LLMs, especially with the more refined ChatGPT.
Unlike other forms of AI that were implemented in the past, ChatGPT has a more consumer-friendly and easy to operate user interface with the ability to “reply conversationally and interact as you would with another person,” says Hannah Mieczkowski, an AI expert who holds a Ph.D. degree in human and AI interaction from Stanford University. LLMs like ChatGPT operate on naturalistic text interactions, so there isn’t a need for a computer science degree or knowledge of programming languages.
The end result is an easy-to-use online tool that anyone can use for free. (While a $20 per month paid version of ChatGPT exists for faster results, it isn’t required.) “The uptake of ChatGPT, especially from folks that aren’t AI researchers or experts is fascinating. There are so many applications across industries, including travel,” Mieczkowski tells AFAR.
How can you use ChatGPT and AI for travel?
Currently, one of the biggest implications ChatGPT has for travel is with regard to trip planning. Any user can create a ChatGPT account (at chat.openai.com) and begin conversing with the platform about places to go, where to stay, how to get around, and what to see and do. In other words, you can use ChatGPT as a form of travel inspiration and for trip planning insights.
The more specific you are with the prompts, the better the results become. For instance, when I recently asked ChatGPT where to go for a peaceful, phone-free retreat, it offered relatively generic suggestions, including Bali, Indonesia; Tulum, Mexico; and Ubud (also in Bali). However, when I followed up by asking for a destination that had significantly fewer visitors per year, it suggested Dharamsala, India, a spiritual town located in the foothills of the Himalayas and home to the Dalai Lama.
When I requested ChatGPT to tell me about some of the best new luxury hotels in Hong Kong, a destination that I’m intimately familiar with, it provided an accurate, true-to-life response. The list included Rosewood Hong Kong, the St. Regis Hong Kong, and the Hari Hong Kong, all top-tier, new properties. (However, “new” is relative since ChatGPT hasn’t ingested any data after 2021.) In terms of restaurants, I asked ChatGPT for some of the best Chinese eateries in New York City. Here, it offered six establishments from a popular fast-casual spot, Xi’ian Famous Foods, to the more obscure, Flushing, Queens–located Da Xi Sichuan.
Travel companies, naturally, are bullish on AI, as it supplements (and in some cases, replaces) human interaction.
“Travelers can start to plan a trip through a conversation with ChatGPT . . . to get ideas and inspiration on where to go,” Rathi Murthy, CTO and president of Expedia product and technology, tells AFAR.
Expedia is looking to bridge a gap between ideation and booking. “A consumer can have a conversation with ChatGPT to dream up their next trip, and then when they’re ready to start shopping for flights, hotels, etcetera, they’re already in the Expedia app,” says Murthy.
Jason Birnbaum, CIO and SVP at United Airlines, tells AFAR that the airline is “testing many applications of generative AI, from software development to customer service and travel inspiration.”
What are the limitations of ChatGPT and AI for planning and booking travel?
OpenAI says that ChatGPT-4, the latest version of the chatbot, can iterate creatively with users to solve complex problems. However, there are distinct limitations, like the fact that the data that it is working from only goes through 2021.
There are also many ways ChatGPT can steer users in the wrong direction. “These LLMs have a tendency to do what researchers call ‘hallucinate,’ meaning that they can create information that’s presented as factual even though it’s incorrect,” Mieczkowsk says. “Because of this, ChatGPT is unlikely to ever be the only source of truth when it comes to travel planning.”
A disclaimer plastered on ChatGPT’s homepage reads, “While we have safeguards in place, the system may occasionally generate incorrect or misleading information and produce offensive or biased content. It is not intended to give advice.”
Skift’s Borko advises that ChatGPT should be viewed as just one of several trip planning tools. “Searches should really be used in combination with other tools like social media, recommendations from parents and family, and travel agents,” he says.
How will ChatGPT and AI continue to change and transform travel?
The continued evolution of ChatGPT and AI stands to radically change the travel landscape. For instance, while it isn’t possible to book travel directly through ChatGPT currently, Borko says that kind of functionality is coming. “In the future, there’s a world where you go to ChatGPT and say, ‘Hey, what are the best flights for whatever need that I have? And can you help me book a flight for under $500?’ This type of smart search is going to take a while, but as far as the travel industry is concerned, it has the largest impact.”
Besides more advanced travel planning and booking capabilities, there are some fundamental questions about the technology and the effects it might have on travel patterns that remain unanswered.
ChatGPT’s inputs aren’t clearly defined, which means the information it offers has the potential to be manipulated. If the proper guardrails aren’t put in place, answers can be heavily influenced by actors who feel like they can game the system, similar to the earlier days of search engine marketing. “Because of this, AI, in general, is best used as a sort of augmentation of humans,” says Mieczkowski, adding, “I don’t believe there’s ever going to be a time in which these AI models are fully self-sufficient.”
As a nonhuman entity, ChatGPT doesn’t necessarily take sustainability or larger ethical travel issues into consideration. So, for example, says Borko, “It could make overtourism worse by concentrating tourists rather than dispersing them.”