I was with my travel agent for only a couple of minutes before getting a detailed itinerary for an upcoming trip to New York City. The schedule not only included suggested activities during a mid-September weekend, such as a stroll through Central Park and a visit to the Empire State Building but also factored in time for flights from Nashville, Tennessee, where I live.
“Can you help me book those flights?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, but as an AI language model, I don’t have the capability to book flights for you,” ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence computer program from OpenAI, responded.
I was using the term “travel agent” loosely.
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That was the first of several roadblocks I hit during an experiment to see whether I could use ChatGPT as a travel agent for a theoretical vacation, compared with a human counterpart. Here’s what I learned:
ChatGPT’s travel planning abilities are limited, for now
I started by asking ChatGPT about the best time to visit New York. I used to live there, so I could make that call for myself, but I wanted to test its recommendations against my own memories of sweaty summer subway rides and snowy winter strolls.
The program dutifully rattled off a handful of seasonal factors to consider, including weather, crowds and activities. Based on those, I lean toward spring or fall, when ChatGPT said there would be “mild temperatures, colorful foliage and plenty of outdoor activities.”
I chose a free weekend from Sept. 15 through 17 – just before the official start of fall – and asked if the program: “Can you help me plan a trip from Nashville to New York City from Sept. 15-17?”
The itinerary it generated was thorough and varied – complete with a recommendation to “catch a Broadway show” and a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge – but its inability to help me book the flights to get there was frustrating.
However, the program empowered me to book them myself by providing suggestions for third-party booking websites.
OpenAI said last month it would roll out access to various plug-ins to “study their real-world use, impact, and safety and alignment challenges,” including from third-party booking sites Expedia and Kayak.
Expedia Group tweeted a video that shows a user searching for flights via ChatGPT and the plug-in, which provides options before sharing a link to book on Expedia, among other features, for instance.
“While we will initially prioritize a small number of developers and ChatGPT Plus users, we plan to roll out larger-scale access over time,” OpenAI said in a blog post (I was using the free version of the program).
When I was asked which airline I should choose, ChatGPT listed airlines that fly non-stop between Nashville and New York.
In what felt like a kind of consolation, ChatGPT also volunteered tips. “When choosing an airline, you may want to consider factors such as ticket prices, departure and arrival times, airline rewards programs, and any additional fees or charges,” the program said. “You may also want to read reviews from other travelers to get an idea of their experiences with each airline.”
I had the same issue when I tried booking a hotel through the program, though ChatGPT similarly recommended several hotels, which it said were “conveniently located and offer good value for your money,” and sites to book them.
A travel agent has more resources than ChatGPT
Much like I did after thumbing my way through an automated customer service phone menu, after consulting ChatGPT, I found myself wondering what a real person would have to say.
I sent my travel dates to Geoffrey Millstone, owner of Clarksburg Travel Service, along with some parameters: I asked for a nice but reasonable hotel in a convenient location and solicited suggestions for activities during my weekend in the Big Apple.
He sent me an itinerary with specific flights, a room at the Hyatt Grand Central New York hotel – he picked it because it offered a good deal that met my criteria – and pricing info, for a total of just over $1,240.
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He selected an early flight in and a late flight out to “maximize” my time there, and nonstop service to avoid disruptions.
“If the price is close, and I have a nonstop flight, against changing planes with today’s situation in flights, I always go for the nonstop,” said Millstone.
Many of Millstone’s recommendations were also rooted in personal experiences, such as grabbing a corned beef or pastrami sandwich from a local deli in Manhattan – he gets half and half when he goes.
His other suggestions included a hop-on, hop-off bus tour, which he and his wife used, and a carriage ride through Central Park. The conversation flowed more naturally than with the AI program (believe it or not), and he offered a streamlined way to make bookings as well as passed on a breadth of firsthand New York knowledge that ChatGPT could not have had.
Can I use ChatGPT as a travel agent?
If I had been simply looking for advice on what to do and suggested ways to do it, ChatGPT served me well as a kind of consultant while I considered my options. But based on my experience with the current iteration of the free program, a flesh-and-blood adviser can offer a more full-service experience with a travel agent who will not only make recommendations but also book my travels.
Nathan Diller is a consumer travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Nashville. You can reach him at [email protected].