Now that the pandemic is theoretically over, a lot of people plan to travel this summer. While I don’t know of any apps that can remove traffic from the roads or reduce crowds at airports, there are apps and websites that can help you plan and, hopefully, avoid some of the inconveniences of busy travel seasons.
In addition to a myriad of useful travel and dining apps, what’s new this year is easy to use artificial intelligence services that can help you plan your trip.
AI is absolutely useful
I can’t overstate how helpful these services can be with travel planning. You can’t use them to make reservations, but you can ask questions like “who flies nonstop between SFO and Paris” or “what’s the best way to get from JFK airport to mid-town Manhattan” or “fun things for 10-year -olds to do at Yosemite”
I recently drove from my home in Silicon Valley to my wife’s brother’s house near Sedona, Arizona, and used ChatGPT to plan our route and find interesting stops along the way. It was incredibly useful at pointing out interesting places to stop. I did the same with Google Bard, and it, too, came up with interesting things to do, some of which were different from ChatGPT’s recommendations. Even though it is based on ChatGPT, Microsoft Bing also has different recommendations. So, if you want to get lots of recommendations, use all three free AI chat systems to plan your route.
I also used these services to “find sushi bars on the road between San Jose and Sedona” and was surprised to find several suggestions. But as much as I love sushi, it’s not something I would order while driving through a desert. My wife and I are planning a trip to Minneapolis this summer, and I’ve used all three services to “find a rustic lake within an hour of Minneapolis.” One thing I like about Google Bard is that it gives more detailed information about lakes along with photos of the area.
While all three AI systems give you good information, ChatGPT seems to be the most thorough; however, its database was last updated in September, 2021. Both Bing and Bard claim to have up-to-date information. I didn’t do extensive testing on this, but I asked all three services “who is Pat Robertson.” Bing and Bard referred to him in the past tense and reported his date of death. ChatGPT’s report implied that he was still living, because he was alive when its models were last trained in September 2021.
Travel and dining apps
There are lots of travel apps, including ones like Expedia, Kayak and others that can help you find flights, hotels and rental cars. One thing I’ve learned is to try more than one app or website, including those operated by the airline, hotel or rental car company. There have been times when I’ve found different prices on different apps or special discounts only available on apps from the hotel’s website. One advantage of booking directly from the hotel or airline is that you might get better service if you need to make a change, or get an upgrade. I’ve had hotels and airlines tell me that they can’t help me because I booked through “a travel agent,” which is essentially what these third-party services are. Having said that, I’ve often found better hotel prices from services like Expedia than I have at the hotel company’s website or app.
These apps can also be used to find attractions and local tours as well as make reservations.
There are numerous ways to find places to eat while traveling, including OpenTable and Yelp. Both of these services let you select options, including outdoor dining, which might be a good idea if you’re concerned about COVID. I wouldn’t rely on information from these services, so you should probably call the restaurant to confirm. Yelp also has a “good for kids” option.
Google Maps is an essential tool when traveling by car. If you’re looking for a scenic route, you can click on the three vertical dots in the upper right corner and select Route Options and then Avoid Highways. But a couple of warnings. If you do this, be sure to undo it when you want to find the fastest or most efficient route. It might also route you on city streets and backroads that could be a bit too far off the beaten path.
While you’re exploring your destination, be it a city or a hike in the woods, you can use Google Lens to help identify buildings, plants and other things you might find. It’s far from perfect, but it does a reasonably good job of doing what amounts to an online image search to identify and describe what you’re looking at. For plants, including trees and flowers, download PlantNet Plant Identification. You use it to take a picture of the plant and then select whether you’re focusing on the flower, bark, fruit, leaf or other plant organs, which helps improve accuracy.
Finally, if you have kids, have them help plan the trip before you leave home. It gets them engaged, increasing the odds that they’ll approve of your family’s plans and helps build their skills and confidence. Besides, they might be better at it than you are.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.