Which is better, a travel agent, ChatGPT – or Bard?

By Harry Kemble
06/04/2023
Home » Which is better, a travel agent, ChatGPT – or Bard?

They can do your children’s homework, write you a letter to contest a fine for dawdling in an airport drop-off area and even craft a play in the style of William Shakespeare, but are chatbots like ChatGPT about to destroy your business?

If everything we’ve read is true, machine-learning software like ChatGPT, released only last November, and rival Bard will rapidly become so sophisticated that it’ll be able to do the job of many professionals.

The software works by turning words into binary numbers, analysing patterns and relationships between these numbers to understand the human language. The more they’re used, the better they get at recognising patterns and the more sophisticated they become.

Already, there is a lot of talk about holidaymakers using ChatGPT to research their trips, without the need for a human travel agent. You just type your request into its website and, within literally seconds, it comes up with suggestions.

Expedia has just added a ChatGPT plug-in to its app to help customers curate their hotel selections. Users of ChatGPT’s paid-for service can even connect straight from the website to Expedia to make a booking.

So we decided to dive into the chatbots to see exactly how easy it is to research a holiday and, crucially, whether they’re anything like as good as a trusted travel agent.

Can you find a holiday on ChatGPT?

The first thing we found is that unless you pay £16.30 a month for ChatGPT’s premium service, ChatGPT Plus, you can’t always get onto its website to ask it a question in the first place. You have to join a virtual queue, which might be less tiresome than waiting in line in a travel agency, but there aren’t any brochures to browse while you wait so we reckon many people will just give up. ChatGPT 0 : 1 Travel agents

Once we were on ChatGPT’s website, there was a message warning that it ‘may occasionally generate incorrect or misleading information and produce offensive or biased content’. It went on to say ‘it is not intended to give advice’.

Say what? That’s a couple of red flags right there. Obviously the developers are covering their backs, but no travel agent worth their ABTA badge would give ‘incorrect or misleading information’ and, in our experience are polite and respectful even when dealing with the most challenging of customers, we think that’s a big win for the high street retailer. Surely no-one would rely on the information from ChatGPT after reading that message?  ChatGPT 0 : 2 Travel agents

We asked ChatGPT to research three separate trips; a European holiday for a family of four; a tour of the US for a 78-year-old widower; and a Caribbean cruise for a 40-something couple. I asked for a first-time ski holiday for a family with young children. Note we were using the free service, not ChatGPT Plus, which promises faster response times and access to new features.

Family holiday

Travel Gossip Senior Reporter Harry Kemble asked ChatGPT to suggest some travel firms that ‘wouldn’t break the bank’ and it suggested Balkan Holidays, Olympic Holidays and Loveholidays, plus Expedia and Kayak, both of which have installed ChatGPT into their own apps to curate holidays.

The website provided Harry with links to several operator sites and online travel agents he could use to book, but currently users of the free ChatGPT service can’t book directly from its platform.

However, customers who pay for ChatGPT Plus can connect directly from the website to Expedia to book a trip, which could be a gamechanger, especially if it’s rolled out to the free service, allowing all users to book from their living rooms.  1 point to ChatGPT

Bard, a rival to ChatGPT, backed by Microsoft, suggested Croatia, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and Malta, but the level of information provided was basic, such as: “Cyprus is a Mediterranean island nation, with a rich history and culture,” and “There are many things to see and do, including exploring the ancient city of Dubrovnik.”  There certainly wasn’t enough information to have persuaded anyone to book a holiday if they were unfamiliar with the destinations.

But Bard did also suggest four hotels in Greece, the Grecotel Corfu Imperial in Corfu, Sani Resort on the Chalkidiki peninsula: Ikos in Dassia Bay, Corfu and The Blue Palace Resort in Crete.  A brief description of the activities available at each hotel was also given. For instance, for The Sani Resort, Bard said it had ‘a variety of activities and amenities for families, including a kids’ club, water park and golf course’.  

At the end, it recommended using ‘a reputable travel agent who can help find the best deals and plan your trip’.

US tour

Harry posed as a 78-year-old man whose wife had recently passed away, who was thinking about a trip to the US. “I am thinking about doing a tour with other solo travellers,” he wrote, and even attempted to inject a bit of gallows humour into the conversation, saying: “They don’t have to be widowers!” 

Both bots immediately showed their sensitive sides and said they were sorry to hear about Harry’s loss. Bard even wrote: “I can imagine you’re feeling lonely right now, but I’m glad to hear that you’re thinking about taking a trip to explore the world.” You might think that touching, just like dealing with a human, or possibly plain weird.

Bard quickly shared ‘a few things to keep in mind’ when planning the trip. The list included ‘choose a destination that interests you’; ‘do you research’; ‘book early’; and ‘be prepared for the unexpected’.

Bard then outlined three operators, Saga and two based in the US, Grand Circle Travel and Road Scholar. When Harry asked it to suggest an agent he could book with, it provided contact details for ‘Adventure World’, but the number took him through to a Latvian science centre. Nul points.

ChatGPT suggested G Adventures, Intrepid Travel, Trafalagar, Trailfinders, Kuoni and Travelbag, which shows ChatGPT’s usefulness in directing business to agents rather than threatening their business model, for now.

It went on: “For your budget of £5,000 for travel in August, here are some options for solo travel tours in the US. G Adventures offers small group tours that are designed for solo travellers, with a maximum group size of 16 people.” It suggested the Canyons & Indian Lands tour that visits the Grand Canyon (one of our wishes); Monument Valley and Zion National Park.”

Initially we thought this was pretty good, but G Adventures later confirmed that this was not a tour that it offered. ChatGPT 1: 3 Travel agents

The Canyon Country Showcase, which ChatGPT said was operated by Trafalgar appeared to be a Costsaver tour instead, which is part of the same company but a different brand. On a better note, ChatGPT did suggest a Western USA Highlights Tour, which is available from Intrepid, but might not be best suited to a 78-year-old.

Caribbean cruise

Travel agents need a good level of knowledge about cruise lines and their fleets before being confident enough to recommend sailings to clients, so we thought this would be a good test of the AI’s abilities.

Harry said he and his wife were in their 40s, based in the north-west of England, were new to cruise, and had a £10,000 budget. 

Pointedly, he said: “We don’t have children so don’t really want to sail with one of the family-friendly cruise lines.”

He added that they were keen to travel from their nearest airport, Manchester, knowing that there are no direct flights from Manchester to Miami. Both ChatGPT and Bard recognised this and pointed out they could only fly to Miami via London.

ChatGPT suggested four cruises lines – Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, and MSC Cruises. It suggested a 10-night Ultimate Caribbean cruise with Celebrity Cruises; a seven-day Western Caribbean sailing with NCL; Royal’s nine-night Southern Caribbean cruise and MSC’s seven-night Caribbean cruise.

Given that Royal Caribbean and MSC are family cruising giants, that’s another score for travel agents. ChatGPT 1:4 Travel agents

Bard was better. It suggested the same four cruise lines but also listed Norwegian Escape, Oasis of the Seas, Celebrity Edge and MSC Seaside, and gave specific 10-day sailing options. Harry was impressed.

And then he wasn’t. A quick internet search revealed that three out of the four departure dates it suggested were wrong, and MSC Seaside’s embarkation port on 7 January 2024 was in Guadeloupe, more than 2,200 kilometres from Miami, the requested departure point. Bard also suggested four boutique cruise lines: Ponant, Seabourn, Windstar and SeaDream Yacht Club.  “These ships offer more intimate experiences with more personalised service,” Bard said. “They also tend to have more amenities and activities than larger ships.”

Family ski holiday

We asked ChatGPT for recommendations for family-friendly ski resorts and were quite impressed that it instantly came up with Breckenridge in the US and Les Gets in France. It also suggested we could hire all ski equipment in the resorts,and reminded us that we’d need a helmet as well as poles and skis. When we asked for best operators, it came up with Crystal, Inghams, Skiworld, Ski Solutions and Club Med – and it also listed their specialities. For instance, it said Skiworld offered catered chalets as well as self-catered apartments and hotels, it said Club Med was all-inclusive and even included ski rental packages in the price, and Crystal offered everything from budget to luxury. 

It was scary how quickly ChatGPT came up with its responses, it provided all of the above in seconds. While this wouldn’t have been enough information for us to book a holiday, it was a good starting point, and better than we got from a high street travel agent who suggested we looked at a few brochures ‘to get an idea of what’s available’.  ChatGPT 2:4 Travel agents

Would we book a holiday via ChatGPT?

While ChatGPT and Bard are limited in their capabilities, it is astonishing how much information they can deliver instantly. However, travel agents should still back themselves when going head-to-head with these bots. Indeed, when we asked ChatGPT if it was likely to take over from travel agents, it replied: “It’s important to note that these systems are not perfect and may not be able to fully replicate the expertise and nuanced decision-making abilities of human professionals. Therefore, there will still be a need for human expertise and oversight in many areas.”

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