Which is better — ChatGPT or a travel agent? Here’s our pick – Lifotravel

Planning a holiday can be stressful — that’s where travel agents come in.

But now, travelers have another option: chatbots like ChatGPT, Bard AI and Microsoft Bing. Simply input a prompt and watch the travel recommendations pour in. The best parts? It’s instantaneous and, for the most part, free.

But which is better when it comes to planning vacations?

Intrepid Travel, a small group travel agency, accepted CNBC Travel’s request to find out.

CNBC asked both sides to plan a two-day trip for four friends, all in their mid-20s, to Melbourne, Australia.

Here’s how they fared.

Where to stay in Melbourne

The ask: Recommend three places to stay in Melbourne that have a pool and gym, are near Swanston Street, and that are priced less than $500 a night.

Right off the bat, there was a rather glaring error with ChatGPT: All three recommendations were no longer in service. If that wasn’t enough, some of the places lacked both a pool and a gym, and one was over the budget.

Intrepid Travel, on the other hand, provided options that came with either a pool or a gym, or both. The company also recognized that those amenities were not necessities but additional benefits.

The winner: Intrepid Travel

Where to eat

The ask: Provide dining options for breakfast, lunch, dinner and post-dinner drinks for two days.

Again, ChatGPT struggled. The suggested restaurant on the first day, a place called Fatto Bar & Cantina, had been closed for years.

Apart from that, a quick Google search of the other places showed that they were (thankfully) still in operation. Those were, to me, on the safer end, with suggested spots appearing on several “must-visit” restaurant lists for Melbourne.

Conversely, I felt that Intrepid Travel suggested places that were more niche and representative of Melbourne’s unique culture. 

It is worth noting that both Intrepid Travel and ChatGPT proposed breakfast at Hardware Société, a popular brunch spot with locations in Paris and Barcelona too.

The winner: Intrepid Travel

What to do

The ask: Provide a two-day itinerary around Melbourne with a focus on art and cultural activities.

Both Intrepid Travel and ChatGPT came back with reasonable options around the city. Multiples places were on both lists — Queen Victoria Market, Hosier Lane and National Gallery of Victoria — which point to the popularity of those spots.

My favorite recommendation? Incube8r, a store with handmade gifts and art, as recommended by Intrepid Travel.

The winner: Intrepid Travel (again)

Finding a ‘hidden gem’

The ask: Recommend one place that is not well known by travelers

Intrepid Travel’s hidden gem recommendation: Le Bar Europeen. It’s been touted as Australia’s smallest bar and barely fits four people.

Reds | Room | Getty Images

Intrepid Travel recommended hidden speakeasy Le Bar Europeen for a nightcap, and the Yalinguth App walking tour as a daytime activity. I found both recommendations exciting and felt that they were lesser-known ways to explore the city.

Between the two, I particularly enjoyed the Yalinguth App walking tour, which is an audio tour along Gertrude Street in Melbourne’s Fitzroy district. The app uses geolocated stories and sounds from Australia’s aboriginal community so listeners can understand a slice of Australia’s past as they make their way around one of Melbourne’s cultural hubs.

On the other hand, ChatGPT interpreted the request as asking for a full day’s itinerary, recommending visits to Hardware Société, Rippon Lea House and Gardens, Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne Museum, Chin Chin and Eau De Vie.

I don’t consider any of those “hidden gems” in Melbourne, as all are all rather popular locations for tourists to visit.

The winner: Intrepid Travel

Conclusion

Ultimately, some of the teething problems I had with ChatGPT boiled down to the chatbot not being up-to-date — it currently only “knows” data up to 2021. 

In ordinary circumstances, a two-year time lag doesn’t seem like much. After all, restaurants and hotels open and close all the time! That said, the initial two years of the Covid-19 pandemic caused many closures in the hospitality sector, making recommendations given prior to it unreliable at times.

I also found browsing Intrepid’s itinerary more enjoyable as each recommendation came with a short write-up. The company also suggested specific activities and dishes to try at each location.

On the other hand, ChatGPT was much more succinct in its recommendations. Though impersonal and utilitarian, it got the job done. However, I found myself less excited about my trip than when I read Intrepid Travel’s suggestions.

Overall, I won’t discount the recommendations put forth by ChatGPT. It’s a quick and easy way to suss out the classic top spots to visit on your holiday. But if you want a more personalized itinerary that focuses more on local spots, sticking with travel companies is the way to go.

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