I was recently in a hot tub with a friend—a glaciologist who studies how quickly southern ice is sliding into the sea—when she mentioned that she recently planned her honeymoon using ChatGPT. Our fellow swimmers burst out laughing. “Did you do it too?” This is apparently the current state of gatherings among friends in their early 30s: six people and three AI-assisted honeymoons together.
My friend is a pro at arranging helicopters and snowcat brigades to remote patches of ice. But she was overwhelmed with decisions about chargers and flower arrangements, and had entrusted the task of arranging a 12-day trip to Tasmania to her husband-to-be. As a statistician, he used ChatGPT to answer questions at work, following the advice of a mentor who told him to make it a habit. So he requested an itinerary that would highlight the couple’s love of nature, adventure and (it was a honeymoon) luxury. One specific request: time for at least one long trail run.
“I was almost ashamed,” he told me later. “It felt inauthentic to ask a chatbot to plan my honeymoon.” What exactly did it mean to leave an important life experience to the unfathomable statistical average of the amount of information on the Internet? He clung to an ideal of himself, he said, as a seasoned traveler who “innately knows what to do and how to find things.” But the things the AI found also looked pretty good. The route divided the island’s sights – mountains, coastline, wineries, an interesting town – into a logical route. Time was dutifully made available for multi-day runs (rewarded in one case with a couples massage at a luxury lodge). He asked for fewer hops between hotels, and the plan was gradually refined. Three hours later he had booked three hotels.
The travel industry is often a gateway for new technology to move from early adoption to mass use. Edie Cohen, a travel agent with more than 50 years of experience (starting at age 14, with a temp job during the 1966 New York City school strike), remembers phone calls and reservations written on index cards giving way to teletyping and then faxes. Fixed price family flight bundles became dynamic pricing algorithms. The work grew faster and more automated. “Boy, who knew what was going to happen?” Cohen tells me.
The Internet turned Cohen’s profession into the premier case study for labor automation. Who needs a travel agent nearby when you can compare prices and book yourself with an online travel agency such as Priceline or Travelocity? If your company bought plane tickets for people, you didn’t make it. The airlines no longer felt the need to hand out commissions for bookings, so travel agents had to increase their rates. Most people refused.
What the internet didn’t have a straight answer for was travel planning. Maybe you called Cohen, who specializes in deciphering what you actually want when you leave your house. Or you just borrowed a Lonely Planet guide from the library for inspiration. Those sources continue to exist in one form or another, but the Internet is tempting. A world of information demands that something be done with it.
“I was almost ashamed. It felt inauthentic to ask a chatbot to plan my honeymoon.”
So now you consult Reddit or Wikitravel or TikTok or Instagram or TripAdvisor looking for ideas. You rely on Google reviews or browse a mix of online magazine articles and travel blogs, most of which are probably trying to sell you something. A friend told me about a colleague who regularly paid five locals on TaskRabbit to dish out unique hits of local flavor wherever he went. When I recently booked a hotel in Tokyo, I spent a few weeks exploring the neighborhoods via Google Street View, peering through the pixelated windows of stand-up bars and ramen shops. What was I looking for? If I knew that, answering would definitely ruin the experience.
Jeremy, a remote financial worker from California who travels eight to nine months a year, reminds me that, according to Dutch psychologists, people are happiest during the planning phase of a trip. This may have something to do with daydreaming in the midst of routine, he suggests, speaking over the clatter of a cafe in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Then you have to actually do the thing. This is one of the most depressing scientific findings I have come across.
And yet planning has also become a chore, Jeremy admits. It may have to do with the clutter on the Internet, or because the stakes of planning seem to increase as more information becomes available. (He’s had to be careful lately when consulting blogs about the best hikes in Patagonia, to avoid looking at photos, he says, that would ruin the experience.) Using AI shortcuts here and there has been a has become a salve, says Jeremy. As a test, he asked ChatGPT about dive sites in Indonesia, a country he knows well. He was surprised when it gave him indie spots that bloggers always miss. “I thought, ‘Oh shit, this is actually quite useful,’” he says. “Those travel influencers are going bankrupt.”
Madison Rolley, a TikTok travel influencer based in Nashville, tends to agree — at least for a certain kind of poster. Like Jeremy, she loves no longer having to scroll through the life stories of travel bloggers. And like my friend’s fiancée, she is familiar with the small crisis of authenticity that such a shortcut creates. She likens it to the liberation of using ChatGPT to automate her emails. Perhaps we have become overly enamored with that kind of work, convincing ourselves that the work of DIY planning is what an authentic journey requires. “We love the struggle,” she tells me. Maybe it’s just logistics really.
Rolley envisions a healthy business that helps people make the most of tools like ChatGPT to make their travels more efficient. People do indeed need help. The internet is full of testimonials from journalists and bloggers who have had some pretty bad days designed by AI. The software comes up with hotels, suggests long-closed restaurants or gives unlikely routes. Some of that can be managed by rephrasing your questions and asking the AI to correct the mistakes, explains Jaideep Patil, a developer of Forge My Trip, a tool that helps make those refinements. Time should also improve AI systems as they rely less on outdated training data and access more up-to-date information from the internet.
On the other hand, the internet might be the problem. “I don’t think AI really understands it,” says Cohen, the travel agent. Ultimately, ChatGPT spits out the same ads that, she thinks, make any resort look great. The same reviews that decide what is ‘luxury’ or ‘boring’ based on anonymous reviews and SEO phrases, the same blogs that send tourists straight into tourist traps. (And all this before the internet is flooded with AI-generated content itself.) Cohen’s colleagues have gotten this far by asking travelers the right questions about who they are and what traveling actually means. That seems to be the only thing people are really looking for, whether they ask her, Google, or an AI chatbot.
Maybe. Another hot tub friend, also overwhelmed with wedding planning, told me he had indeed tried a human travel agent. It seemed like a promising idea, but their tastes didn’t match. Instead, he and his partner had no plan at all, and woke up in Seoul or Kyoto and consulted their phones. He scoured Google Maps and TripAdvisor, and she consulted ChatGPT, or “Chatty” as she calls it. They chose a plan as their explorations converged.
So had AI planned their honeymoon? I wondered. They looked at me with different answers in their eyes. Maybe I was too concerned with logistics. Once they stepped out of the hotel lobby into the sticky summer air, a day as newlywed travelers in a strange city that stretched out before them, the answer hardly seemed to matter anymore.