S2, E17: How ChatGPT and AI Can (and Can’t) Help with Travel Planning

In this week’s episode of Unpacked by AFAR, we explore the travel impacts of the world’s fastest-growing consumer technology: ChatGPT.

Would you entrust—or have you entrusted—your travels to ChatGPT? In this week’s episode of Unpacked, we explore the technology, the ways it can be helpful now, the ways it can steer you wrong, and what it might be capable of doing for us in the future.


Aislyn Greene, host: Buckle up, fellow explorers, as we embark on an expedition like no other. It’s time to unleash the potential of ChatGPT and unleash the wanderer within us all. Throughout this captivating episode, we’ll navigate the intricate terrain of travel planning—

[Record scratch]

Ahem, let’s start again. I’ll give you two tries to guess who—or, I should say—what wrote that truly terrible intro. Yep, ChatGPT, aka the subject of this week’s episode.

I’m Aislyn Greene, and this is Unpacked, the podcast that tackles one tricky topic in travel each week. And in this episode, we’re unpacking the promise of ChatGPT and travel. Because cheesy writing aside, the technology does have enormous potential in the travel space.

Like pretty much everyone, I’ve messed around with ChatGPT. But we wanted to do a deep dive on what it might mean for our travel future. And, I think, we have the perfect guide.

Chris Dong is an expert travel planner and a writer who covers everything from airlines to hotels to loyalty programs. He’s been hesitant to outsource his travels to a bot, for reasons he’ll soon explain.

So he embarked on a journey of discovery, talking with AI experts and travel researchers to understand how ChatGPT can help us plan our travels—and how it can’t—and where we go from here.

It’s a fun, thought-provoking episode. And I’m sure it’ll unleash the wanderer within us all.

Chris Dong, host: ChatGPT is EVERYWHERE. Unless you’ve just emerged from a rock, you’ve likely heard about it. In fact, it’s the fastest-growing consumer application in history. But . . . are you ready to hand over your travel planning to it? To be honest, I’m not sure. As a travel writer, I was looking the other way since its intro late last year. I’m not going to lie; I definitely had some anxiety around what (or who) it can replace.

But then I was tasked with writing an explainer about ChatGPT’s impact on travel for AFAR. So I decided to use this as an opportunity to meet our future robot overlords. Kidding, kidding. But you can think of this episode as a ChatGPT primer for travel, with me as your (sorta) reluctant guide. And although this podcast is specific to travel, ChatGPT’s impact spans across industries. We’ll take a look at what it all means, as well as some of the broader ethical implications.

First, what is ChatGPT? It’s a large language model or “LLM,” a subset of artificial intelligence that is designed to process and generate human language. The term “generative AI” comes from this since ChatGPT—and other LLMs—can take what they have learned from examples and create something totally new based on that info. It’s pretty wild stuff.

Hannah Mieczkowski: Large language models, like ChatGPT, are essentially AI models that learn, quote unquote, learn from large amounts of text most often from the internet. So for ChatGPT in particular, it’s a chatbot that’s based on a large language model, meaning that the intention of it is to sort of reply conversationally and sort of like interact as you would with another person.

Chris: That’s Hannah Mieczkowski, an AI expert who holds a Ph.D. degree in human and AI interaction from Stanford University. Hannah explained that AI has been around for years. It’s the thing that powers chatbots, that guides your Netflix recommendations, and even unlocks your iPhone with facial recognition. But for most of us, AI was something you’d need a computer science degree or knowledge of programming languages to really engage with. And then ChatGPT came along and . . .

Hannah: . . . really just like blew that one outta the water for sure.

Chris: Hannah’s research is focused on the day-to-day ways we could use AI. But she said that even she was surprised by the uptake of ChatGPT. ChatGPT reached 100 million monthly active users in January just three months after its launch. For context, it took Instagram two and a half years to get to 100 million. TikTok got there in nine months. And really, it’s because it’s just so easy to use. Anyone can create a free account. And the interface is super seamless: For the millennials out there, like myself, think of it as a throwback to A-I-M (yes, AOL Instant Messenger) with a robot. You type in your question, wait for ChatGPT to do its thing, and it responds in real time. Even better: ChatGPT replies conversationally—it’s like interacting with another person.

Or in some cases, interacting with a travel agent. But before we delve too far into ChatGPT, let’s take a step back for a second. For most of us, when it comes to travel and the planning process, we start with one tool: Google.

Seth Borko: So much travel planning and the process starts with online searches or involves an online search in some way, shape, or form.

Chris: That’s Seth Borko, a senior research analyst at Skift and author of an April 2023 report titled “Generative AI’s Impact on Travel.” He was actually stuck in an airport when we talked, in case you hear any funny noises in the background. In his report, he ID-ed four ways generative AI will change travel.

The first is operational efficiency—essentially allowing travel companies, like an airline or hotel brand, to really maximize output and work smarter. The second is customer support—think of a chatbot that behaves more like a real customer service agent. The third is reputational management: i.e., combing through reviews to help businesses like hotels and restaurants understand how they can improve—which would make your experience better. And the fourth, well, it goes back to how we search for things.

Seth: And then the fourth, the piece that will take the longest, but also is potentially the most relevant and biggest impact is about search. Cuz right now when people wanna book a flight, they go into Google and they say, “Oh, where are the best beaches in the world?” Right? And Google gives a result to a website with some lists. Or they say, “Hey, what flights are available between New York City and Miami?” Right? And then Google comes back with a list. Well, in the future, there’s a world where you go to ChatGPT and you say, “Hey, ChatGPT, what are the best beaches in the world? And can you help me book a flight for under $500?”

Chris: That’s the future, which we’ll get into more later. What can it do now? Hannah, our AI expert, says that, at this moment, it’s best at that beginning stage—you know, when you’re first dreaming up that next trip you want to take.

Hannah: I find these types of large language models quite good when people are using them for more ideation-type tasks. So for example, we might think like, “Hey, I’m looking to go to—this summer, like, I wanna learn more about different regions in France and different things I can do in France, right? Like ChatGPT, go off, let me know, like, let me know what’s out there.”

Chris: In other words, in its current form, ChatGPT isn’t exactly an end-all-be-all travel planner. Instead, it’s a tool that can really supplement our research. You’ll still need to make the decisions.

Hannah: I think it’s good for providing an overview of, like, the scope of what people might be interested in, but I think humans are much better at the narrowing down and the details of the information.

Chris: About a month ago, I created a ChatGPT account for the first time. And I started throwing questions at it. I found that the more specific you are with prompts, the better the results become. For instance, when I asked ChatGPT for suggestions on where to go for a peaceful, phone-free retreat, it offered Bali in Indonesia and Tulum in Mexico, among other popular spots. However, I followed up by asking for a destination that was more off the beaten path, and it suggested Dharamsala in India, a town located in the foothills of the Himalayas and home to the Dalai Lama. Pretty cool.

So at this moment, ChatGPT is best for questions that are more basic, like “What are some of the best places to travel to without a passport?” or “How can I get from Tokyo Narita Airport to Shinjuku?” Compare that to questions like “What is a three-day itinerary in London that’s good for kids?” and ChatGPT might overestimate what a human (and little human) can possibly do in one day.

Questions that are hyper-specific like “What are the best choices for a family-friendly hotel in Hong Kong for under $300 a night with walkability to local attractions?” are on the cusp of being reliable, but still struggle thanks to a lack of data points and info only going through 2021 with the free version.

So basically, long story short, answers range from somewhat decent to pretty terrible.

But the answers are only bound to get better as travel companies jump on the bandwagon—and most importantly, feed data to ChatGPT.

Seth: We’re seeing large online travel agencies play with this. So Expedia.com and Kayak, which is a subsidiary of Booking Holdings, have already launched plug-ins for ChatGPT where they will basically help feed ChatGPT live travel data from their database of hotels and flights and things to do so that people can interact with this general generative AI but get travel-specific information that’s up to date.

Chris: In April, online travel behemoth Expedia began testing a new in-app travel planning experience powered by ChatGPT. Again, you can ask ChatGPT some questions, like where to go for a Caribbean vacation with family, but instead of clicking out, you can actually do the booking right in the Expedia app.

Then, there’s GuideGeek, a new ChatGPT-powered travel assistant from the Matador Network that offers travel tips as well as live flight and vacation rental data. Even more sleek, it’s all accessible via WhatsApp. And there are many more tools from companies coming.

Travel brands, naturally, are bullish on all of this, as it supplements (and in some cases, replaces) human interaction, which drives costs down. As mentioned, Expedia is looking to bridge a gap between ideation and booking. Rahti Murthy is the company’s CTO and she told me that 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 app. Think of it as a complete one-stop shop.

Well . . . almost. There are some serious downsides to all of this right now, too.

OpenAI says that ChatGPT-4, the latest version of the chatbot, can think creatively to solve complex problems. But there are gigantic limitations, like the fact that the data may not be fully up to date. Then there are many ways it can steer users in the complete wrong direction. 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 wrong. Like totally wrong.

Hannah: They’re not an excellent source of truth. So my recommendation on that front would be to definitely seek out other sources of information, even if it’s just to sort of confirm what the model has output. I mean, I think that’s a good idea to do generally when you hear any sort of information from a person or an AI system.

Chris: Hannah shared an example from her own experience using ChatGPT to figure out how to use travel points from her Chase credit card.

Hannah: I was, you know, playing around with it a little bit earlier today, asking some travel-related questions. And so I was just like, “Oh, I have, like, 80,000 Chase points and I wanna go to Europe, like, what should I do with them?” And the first thing it said was like, “Oh, well you should use, like, the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal.” And because I follow a lot of points people on various different forums, I was like, “Oh, well, it seems like that’s usually not the best way.” I mean, I can go look, right? Like, I can confirm for myself whether or not that’s the best use of those 80,000 points, but if you were just taking ChatGPT’s output as fact—that that was, like, the most reasonable option—you might end up wasting something that you don’t wanna waste.

Chris: There’s also a disclaimer plastered on ChatGPT’s homepage that 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.”

At the end of the day, that’s why Seth thinks AI will never be used alone.

Seth: You know, even today, online searches are used in combination with other tools like social media influencers, like recommendations from parents and family, like travel agents. So I don’t think it will be a stand-alone recommendation tool. I think it will exist among others, and I think that getting that accuracy right is so, so key because this is a big purchase for most people and for most people it’s a once in a year, once in a lifetime kind of purchase. So the stakes are very, very high.

Chris: All that aside, the continued evolution of ChatGPT and AI could radically change the travel landscape.

As a traveler, advanced travel planning and booking capabilities would be amazing. However, there are fundamental questions about the technology and the effects it might have on travel 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, essentially, game the system.

Seth: You know, there’s all this whole kind of market for search engine optimization and mak[ing] sure that your results show up on Google properly. One can only assume that a similar dynamic will play up in generative AI where people will be working really hard to make sure that their hotels, their destinations, show up in ChatGPT or in other [generative AI]. It’s a really great question as to what exactly will help you get ranked on the search results for ChatGPT. Well, there are a hundred percent people already dedicated to trying to crack that code, and you can bet that they’ll be selling their services to hotels, destinations, companies in travel and outside of travel.

Chris: He compared it to the Wild West early days of search engine marketing.

Seth: Remember you used to have those, like, networks, the circular networks, and you’d all back link to each other because you kind of knew that back links were important to the Google algorithm and then they got more sophisticated and SEO got more sophisticated. It’s gonna be like that all over again.

Chris: Right now, there’s no governing body for this kind of technology, but Seth thinks rules will emerge.

Seth: This is a question that goes beyond travel. It goes even beyond these tech companies. It’s almost a regulatory question and almost a political question in terms of: How do we think about these algorithms? How do they work? And which ones do we trust?

Chris: So there’s the question of manipulation. And there are deeper questions. As a nonhuman entity, ChatGPT doesn’t necessarily take sustainability or larger ethical travel issues into consideration. What does that signify in terms of new destinations that are trying to break in and be discovered? Or what if you don’t want to go to a mass tourism destination? The ones who master the inputs will win—similar to how you look at a Google Search now.

Seth: Basically these AI tools can only recommend stuff that’s already on the web and what’s already on the web are the most popular destinations. And so if you ask it, you know, kind of that initial question I was joking about and I said, “Oh, what are the top beaches to go to?” It’ll tell you Maui, it’ll tell you Cancun, it’ll tell you Phuket. Those are already the most popular beaches and destinations in the world. And so this is not so much a question of accuracy, but more getting that recommendation right, of will these AI tools have a bias towards pre-existing mass tourism destinations, and what does that mean in terms of overcrowding of tourists and destination management? And what does it mean in terms of new destinations that are trying to break in and be discovered? Or what if you don’t want to go to a mass tourism destination? What if you want to go somewhere more unique?

Chris: We don’t have easy answers for this yet. But one thing we don’t have to worry about, says Hannah? Sentient AI.

Hannah: There is a lot of hype around the use of ChatGPT and other large language models in a number of different spaces. People might be overestimating the full extent of models like these, [their] capabilities. That’s not to say that of course there can’t be improvements in the future, but I, I would caution people to not fear the singularity or AI taking over anything.

Chris: In the end, humans will still be needed.

Hannah: I firmly believe that AI in general is best used as a sort of augmentation of humans. To get a little bit more specific, I don’t believe there’s ever going to be a time in which, like, the, these AI models are fully self, self-sufficient—again, in quotes. Um, it really is like people all the way down. Like someone needs to be working to train the models. Like, there’s people involved in basically every stage of the process currently. And I don’t see that changing unless there’s some sort of major paradigm shift, which I’m not anticipating anytime in the near future.

Chris: My journey, learning about ChatGPT and its implication on an industry that is so near and dear to me, is just beginning. As a somewhat obsessive travel planner that relies on first person recs, I can’t see myself using ChatGPT to dream up trips or find things to do in a given destination. But I can see myself using it to solve pain points, like the relatable annoyance of contacting customer service.

Hannah: There haven’t been excellent strides in this direction, but sort of, like, AI models that can sort of do the task for you, like, checking in for your flight or, yeah, like making a reservation somewhere, or figuring out a customer service issue that you don’t really wanna deal with, but you know, it has access to all your information and can deal with it for you.

Chris: I guess the bigger question is: Will it bring a semi-utopian travel future or a dangerous new reality, where truth is indecipherable from fiction? To be honest, it’s probably somewhere right down the middle. Or so I hope.

Aislyn: I’m with you there, Chris. If you want to read more about travel and ChatGPT, we’ll link to the story Chris wrote about it for AFAR in our show notes, as well as the Skift report Seth mentioned early on. You can explore more of Chris’s work on his website, thechrisflyer.com, and follow him on social media, @thechrisflyer. Points and loyalty fans, take note: Chris also offers consultations to travelers who want to use their loyalty points to plan a trip. Details are on his website.

Thanks to today’s guests, Hannah and Seth. If you want to get deep into the weeds with Hannah’s work, check out her website hnmiecz.com or follow her @hnmiecz. And Seth can be tracked down at skift.com or on the socials @SethBorko.