Don’t trust an AI Chatbot with all your travel plans just yet

ChatGPT has taken the world by storm ever since its launch in November 2022. (REUTERS)
ChatGPT has taken the world by storm ever since its launch in November 2022. (REUTERS)

Summary

  • Makers of bots from ChatGPT and Bing are promising to change how we plan trips—here’s what they can and can’t do.

Should you trust a bot to plan your next vacation?

The fervor around OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot and Microsoft’s new, AI-infused version of its Bing search engine is prompting many industries to funnel energy into developing artificial-intelligence technology.

Airlines and online travel agencies have employed AI technology for years to help with customer-service needs. They are now investing more resources to explore how effective AI tech can be at planning and booking vacations.

As they ramp up, however, customers can use ChatGPT and Bing if they are interested in trying AI to help plan a trip. The Wall Street Journal in the past couple of weeks posed travel-related questions to both in hopes of determining how useful they are right now.

The results were mixed.

AI is ready to do some of the research in planning a vacation, but it still can make mistakes. And it isn’t ready to automate the entire process just yet.

Can AI help plan my dream vacation?

When the Journal posed travel-related questions to ChatGPT and the new version of Bing, both platforms provided recommendations as broad as finding cheap vacation destinations in Europe and as specific as finding private boat-tour operators in Lisbon. Bing’s chatbot can create a table comparing hotels.

But asked to provide information on theme-park amenities available to guests at hotels near Walt Disney World, both platforms initially responded inaccurately.

ChatGPT said that only guests staying at Disney-owned hotels could take advantage of extra time in the theme parks in the mornings, when some other hotels also offer this benefit. Bing mentioned access to the now-defunct FastPass+ service as a perk at one of the hotels.

The public version of ChatGPT that many people are trying doesn’t search the internet for its answers, an OpenAI spokeswoman says, meaning its knowledge of the world after 2021 is limited. The model underpinning the chatbot is also sensitive to how questions are phrased, and it often guesses which answer a user wanted rather than asking clarifying questions, she says. When users encounter incorrect information, they can provide feedback.

As for the new Bing, which is still in preview and like ChatGPT requires a sign-up before use, the accuracy and detail of the responses depend largely upon information accessible online.

“Ultimately, Bing is still a search engine, and it works fundamentally the way a search engine works," says Divya Kumar, head of search and AI marketing at Microsoft. If the information the Bing chatbot gleans from the web is incorrect, its response will be wrong.

“There is a responsibility to me as a user to verify the content that comes through," Ms. Kumar adds.

Bing doesn’t have a tool to save or share the results of a chat—a user must copy and paste results elsewhere. And Bing chats limit the number of times a user can respond.

Travel experts nevertheless recommend approaching AI platforms as a starting point.

Eddie Ibañez, the former chief scientist at Priceline and founder of travel-booking startup LIFE Rewards, says that AI could help answer broad questions, such as ideal locations for a beach getaway.

“Start your search there instead of Google next time and see if you like it," Mr. Ibañez suggests.

Can AI help with customer-service issues?

Cherie Luo, an M.B.A. student at Stanford University and content creator, decided to turn to ChatGPT for help when she and a group of her friends found themselves stuck at a Hawaiian airport during a six-hour flight delay in December.

“It was incredibly frustrating," Ms. Luo says, adding that she filmed some videos to use on social media.

The next day Ms. Luo says she decided to email Hawaiian Airlines—and she enlisted ChatGPT’s help. She asked the platform to write an email that she described as “polite but firm and slightly passive-aggressive."

ChatGPT quickly produced a template for her. While the AI-drafted email required some editing, she says it took much of the emotional labor out of the experience. Ms. Luo says that Hawaiian Airlines did respond to the email she crafted with ChatGPT, but didn’t offer compensation. She plans to use the platform for future customer-service issues.

Hawaiian Airlines said in an email that the company attributed the delay that Ms. Luo experienced to “unstable weather."

Are travel companies using ChatGPT?

Some travel companies have started experimenting with ChatGPT tech to see how it can apply to their businesses, including Expedia Group.

“We are studying it, learning from it, and looking at ways to work with it," says Peter Kern, the company’s chief executive officer.

Navan, the business-travel software company previously known as TripActions, has integrated ChatGPT into its online platform, Chief Executive Ariel Cohen says.

The company already had a chatbot and is now incorporating the OpenAI tech into it. Navan’s automated virtual assistant, Ava, can provide personalized assistance.

Mr. Cohen estimates that 60% of customer-support outreach will be handled entirely by the chatbot without the need for human intervention by year’s end.

How are travel companies using other forms of AI?

If you’ve reached out to an airline, hotel or online travel agency through a chat feature on their website or app, you could well have interacted with an AI chatbot.

If you message Air France via WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, a chatbot will initially answer your query, says Anne Rigail, the airline’s chief executive.

“The AI is really helping our people to answer the customer more quickly," Ms. Rigail says. In cases where customers’ problems are too complex for the chatbot to handle, the system passes them to a human representative.

Expedia’s Virtual Agent feature, which functions as its customer-service portal, is an AI platform, Mr. Kern says. The company is piloting selling the AI platform to other travel companies for them to use for their businesses.

Write to Jacob Passy at jacob.passy@wsj.com

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