“For a long time, the travel-planning industry has been dominated by humans. Now it is time for AI and ChatGPT apps to have a go at it. Below, we will check out what AI and ChatGPT applications you can use to create curated travel plans without breaking a sweat.” At least that’s what a TechYorker writer claimed in the article, “Best Free Travel Planning AI and ChatGPT Apps.” I thought I’d give them a try myself to see if all the hype was really true.
In this Article
I’ve made hundreds, if not over a thousand custom Paris itineraries in the two decades working in the travel industry. And even a simple one is harder to make than it looks, assuming you’re actually trying to help the person requesting it.
I don’t create Paris itineraries anymore, so I was hoping to be able to recommend one of these tools to the Secrets of Paris readers looking for help in planning their next or even their first trip. But of course, I had to try them first.
A good itinerary usually assists a visitor in seeing what they want to see while making sure it’s actually feasible, accounting for the ‘how’ and ‘how long’ to get between sights using the best mode of transport (that could be fastest or cheapest, depending on the client), accounting for required and recommended reservations, confirming the current opening hours (and days), dining times and whether reservations are possible, catering to weather issues (no picnics in January), knowing when there are special events and holidays that may disrupt the regular flow of the city, making sure the order of the places visited is the most efficient use of available time, and generally making the entire experience flow smoothly and effortlessly for the visitor.
The AI Travel Tools I Tested
I tested several different AI (artificial intelligence) travel planning tools including ChatGPT-4 (I’m a paid subscriber to OpenAi.com), Bard, and specific travel-related AI apps recommended by the TechYorker article mentioned above: Vacay, Trip Planner AI, Roam Around, and the iPlan.ai app on my Android phone.
I tried using various prompts (when possible), both intricately detailed and relatively simple, progressively dumbing down my requests in an effort to get a response that – at a minimum – was correct, and – ideally – provided a reliable and logical plan for experiencing the city as a first-time visitor.
Considering how much outdated, unhelpful, or outright incorrect information about Paris is published by humans on the internet every day, my expectations were pretty low that anything good could come from any AI app or tool whose algorithms are trained on what’s already available online.
The results were actually worse than I expected, to say the least. AI may be a useful tool for many tasks, but making travel itineraries isn’t one of them.
For those who want to see the actual tests I conducted in screenshots and videos, there are links at the end of this article. But to keep it brief, here’s the summary of what I found after multiple tests.
A Summary of What AI Travel Tools are Getting Wrong
Aside from making lists of popular sites to see in Paris, which you could easily find with a Google search, all of the tools I tried failed in several ways, including:
- Basic factual errors; saying the Louvre Museum is on the Left Bank.
- Egregious factual errors (“hallucinations”?); Bard simply made up fake addresses for restaurants so that they would appear to be in the requested neighborhood.
- Navigation errors; unable to give correct instructions on getting from A to B via public transport.
- Inefficient use of time; wasting time by doubling back instead of grouping sights and restaurants that are in the same neighborhood.
- Unable to make logical adjustments; suggesting less-than-ideal restaurants that serve lunch at 3pm instead of moving the museum visit to 3pm and scheduling lunch sometime between noon and 2pm (the usual time for Parisian restaurants).
- Unable to follow simple prompts; suggesting places that were outside of Paris (ie Versailles and Fontainebleau) when the request was specifically “within Paris city limits”.
- “Forgets” what we already discussed; when asked to remove Notre Dame Cathedral because it’s closed, ChatGPT-4 put it back in the itinerary later on in the same session.
- Absurd recommendations; one app included the same restaurant for two lunches and one dinner in a three-day itinerary; another had visits to three museums in a row (Pompidou, Orsay, and Louvre) followed by a walk through the Tuileries Gardens, across the Place de la Concord, up the Avenue des Champs-Elysées, then up the stairs to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, all in one day.
Enter the Excuses and the Accountability-Dodging
When critics call out these issues, we’re given excuses and baseless rationalizations to continue using these AI tools anyway:
“I apologize if any of my responses have misled you. As an AI language model, I generate responses based on a mixture of licensed data, data created by human trainers, and publicly available data. I haven’t been trained directly on specific databases or have access to the internet to pull in current data. Instead, I generate responses based on patterns and information in the data I was trained on. I’m not infallible and there may be times when I make mistakes or lack the latest information. I always recommend double-checking any critical information I provide, especially when it comes to travel plans or other significant decisions. I can still provide general advice, suggest places of interest, provide historical or cultural context about different locations, and answer questions about travel and destinations. I’m here to help in any way I can!” – ChatGPT-4
The problem is, it answers questions it doesn’t know the answer to, instead of saying it doesn’t know the answer. So it’s hard to know if I can trust anything it says at all. And worse, it takes zero responsibility by tagging everything with “ChatGPT may produce inaccurate information about people, places, or facts.”
The TechYorker journalist makes similar excuses, plus a dubious prediction: “ChatGPT has the potential to make the entire process even more seamless and even interactive, akin to what a human does. It still lacks polish and might not always show the most accurate or updated information, but it will not be long before these wrinkles are ironed out for good.”
Based on what evidence?
Just because ChatGPT is getting better at doing some things, doesn’t mean it’s getting any better at helping with creating a travel itinerary. Probably because even most humans can’t do it very well.
While it’s easy to accept that travel articles or guidebooks written five years ago may have outdated prices or opening hours, I still cringe hard every time I see blatant factual errors made by professional travel writers (sometimes due to a lack of first-hand experience and knowledge with the location they’re writing about, sometimes due to sheer laziness).
Ironically, instead of investing in experts with a name and a face we can actually trust and hold accountable, we still use sources of travel content that explicitly deny any guarantee of accuracy or responsibility, like TripAdvisor and – for 2023 – anything created by the current crop of AI tools.
It’s Not Just AI, It’s All Travel Content
The issue of unreliable travel advice existed long before artificial intelligence came along. The internet gave us access to more information than we could’ve ever hoped for over the past 25 years, but that just created more unreliable sources. Today, AI will only add more misinformation to the mass we have to sift through and analyze before our next trip.
Question: When’s the last time you paid for a travel guide, a travel magazine, or even one-time access to read a well-researched article behind a paywall? There are some amazing travel articles and guidebooks out there, but they’re the exception to the rule (at least when it comes to Paris).
If we want accurate and trustworthy travel content written by experts who can be held accountable for what they produce, then we need to support them or the publishers they work for so that they have the time and the resources to do their job without selling out to advertisers or sponsors.
Expecting it for free just isn’t working, judging by what has been produced over the past two decades. Unfortunately, it’s probably all of that shoddy travel content — produced for clicks and freebies — that’s being ‘scraped’ by AI as source material for the useless fluff now being churned out by the second and passing itself off as travel advice.
So What? No One Cares About Tourists
It’s no secret that most people don’t hold travel journalism to the same standards as other journalism. They dismiss the rampant misinformation and questionable quality because it’s “just” tourism, not an important or serious topic like medical advice or the current state of the economy. Yet tourism is one of the most important industries in the world, accounting for 2 million direct and indirect jobs in France alone. More importantly, tourists invest a significant amount of time and money to come on what may be a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. Inexplicably, they’re still seen as “just tourists”, so no one seems to care that they don’t have access to reliable travel information, as long as they’re spending their money.
And none of that money seems to go back into providing trustworthy and useful information for tourists (for example, paying qualified travel journalists). Because most people travel for fun, they seem to think that writing about travel is also fun, so why pay for it? They think you’re having fun writing that article, and that should be reward enough. And it certainly can be fun, or you wouldn’t have so many people doing it for free. But “fun” doesn’t pay the rent. And the point isn’t for the author to have fun, but for the reader to learn something they can use on their own vacation. A lot of work goes into writing a good travel article if you do it right. No amount of flowery vocabulary or Instagram filters can make up for the thorough research and first-hand experience needed to provide accurate and useful advice that helps others make the most of their trip.
Sadly, my two decades of experience have shown me that most people are working in the tourism industry in Paris are just there to get their piece of the monetary pie. Any “service” for the tourists will be the minimum necessary to get their money. No one cares if a few are unhappy because there’s always a steady stream of new tourists taking their place. There are a few rare examples of service-oriented travel businesses willing to put their clients before easy profits (I make an effort to write about them on Secrets of Paris). There are even fewer travel journalists who can make a living speaking up on tourists’ behalf (especially if it means giving up glamourous travel perks).
Until these new AI travel tools come with the transparency and accountability sorely lacking in the travel content industry, I don’t see how any of that is going to change anytime soon. Your thoughts are welcome in the comments below.