This is why you hated your last trip

A new ad campaign blames the machines, but does it go far enough?

If you hated your last vacation (if you can remember that far back), then you'll probably love a new ad from Internova Travel Group.

"Isn't this place perfect," a robot travel advisor declares in the hilarious but creepy TV spot. "This will be very special for you. We know everything about you and thousands exactly like you."

The point is clear: An AI can't know you the way a person does. Ever. 

Internova's Go Human. Book Human. campaign showcases how relying on artificial intelligence to plan vacations can sometimes lead to disappointingly cookie-cutter outcomes, according to the company.

"In an era dominated by technology," it adds, "humans will always win on experience."

Good timing. Just last week, Southwest Airlines had to cancel about 500 flights because of an IT problem. And you probably also heard about the Carnival data breach

Not so smart, those machines.

🎧 EXCLUSIVE: How do you fix the travel industry’s IT problems? I have a few irreverent thoughts in my all-new podcast.

But the ad may not go far enough. Because chances are, you didn't hate planning your last trip because some form of artificial intelligence interfered — although it probably did. It's what happened afterward. Technology (specifically, bad technology) can turn your trip into a nightmare from start to finish.

I have thousands of cases to prove it. I'll get to those in a sec.

How has tech ruined your trip?

Before we continue down this road, I want your stories of technology destroying your vacation. How has a site, or some other form of AI, thrown a wrench in the gear of your otherwise perfect trip? Push the red button if you're reading this in your email program, or just scroll to the bottom if you're online.

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Planning a bad vacation: start here

Most bad vacations start with a trip to an online travel site that cares more about monetization than about you. It might be a place like TripAdvisor, which has a well-earned reputation for fake reviews. It might be a traditional online agency where vendors pay for a "recommended" slot at the top of the page. It might also be a blog with an affiliate link to sign up for a points-earning credit card. 

We know that these back-room deals sway about $21 billion in travel spending a year. What we don't know is how those compromised recommendations affect people's trips. All we have is circumstantial evidence — thousands of complaints that pour in from readers whose trips didn't go as planned. Would they have had a better vacation if these sites didn't exist?

At least one company sees a problem: Google. Its latest algorithm update appears to have punished TripAdvisor the most, lowering its search-engine visibility by 75 points. Those loyalty program blogs littered with affiliate links can't be far behind. 

Ironically, Google is also one of the biggest offenders when it comes to the trustworthiness of its product. It has faced lawsuits and fines for giving prominent placement to its comparison shopping service and demoting competitors in its search results. 

Bottom line: You can't trust a machine's recommendations — whether it's Google or TripAdvisor. They're probably all compromised.

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On the road: AI gets it wrong all the time

Online booking sites screw things up all the time. I remember Robert Petit's case back in 2019. He changed his flight from San Francisco to London by a day. His online agency and airline got their wires crossed and lost his reservation. When he showed up at the airport, he didn't have a ticket.

Most AIs work behind the scenes. For example, AIs may help connect an online agency to an airline's systems. Or not.

Needless to say, the systems used by online agencies like Expedia are not perfect. "Maybe if he’d had a human travel agent, his advisor would have clued him in," I noted in the story.

I've written about the failures of AI in the past. In this 2017 USA Today column, I describe my experience using one of the top chatbots on the market from Hipmunk. I asked it repeatedly to recommend a cold-weather getaway. "Instead, it suggested I book a getaway to Nassau, Bahamas," I wrote. "When asked for an island with lower temperatures, Hipmunk cheerfully changed my itinerary — to a weekend in balmy Port Au Prince, Haiti."

Hipmunk, I should add, has gone to AI heaven. Rest in peace, furry friend.

AI and other automated systems have never been that reliable. Here's my 2008 NBC News story about a guy who booked two tickets on the same plane using the same name. Did Expedia stop him? No, it did not.

When it comes to travel, AI is all "artificial" and no "intelligence." So that should make a human travel advisor an easy sell.

Why you hated your last trip? AI is everywhere

AI is in everything these days, from the booking systems used by airlines and hotels to the "intelligent" phone systems that triage our customer service calls. There is no escape. If we try to turn off the machines, the entire system might collapse.

But the Internova ad is an important reminder that we may be relying on AI too much. A 2018 study by the Pew Research Center found that more than a third of experts fear we may over-rely on AI in the future. By 2030, they predict, people will not be better off. Their experts must be frequent travelers.

Maybe it's time to take a stand and declare some parts of the travel experience off-limits to technology. Or, at the very least, we should be more careful to include humans in the decision-making process, even when we rely on AI to do research.

(People aren't perfect, either. A human may know you better than an AI, but a travel agent can also steer you toward a vacation that pays a higher commission. But that's another topic.)

AI has so much to learn. If you don't believe me, try using Google News or Amazon's "recommended for you" or Netflix. (Oh no, not another penguin documentary!) Their algorithms are simple to the point of absurdity. They base their recommendations almost entirely on your search history and purchases. 

So it is with travel. AI is still in its infancy. It doesn't know the difference between Haiti and Iceland. It allows you to double-book airline tickets. It thinks you are the sum of your past bookings — and that you'll fall for anything it recommends.

But do they really know you? Of course not.

Alright, it's time to share your stories of AI gone wild. Channel your inner Terminator, dear readers. The comments are officially open. I’ll be back to check on them later today. 

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