Which is better — ChatGPT or a travel agent? Here's our pick

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Travel agents can help you plan a trip. Enter a question and see the results. It’s instantaneous and, for the most part, free. 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 TravelWhere to eatThe ask: Provide dining options for breakfast, lunch, dinner and post-dinner drinks for two days.

Again, ChatGPT struggled. Intrepid Travel won the contest. 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 Societe, 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. Both lists included Queen Victoria Market and Hosier Lane, as well as the National Gallery of Victoria. This shows how popular these spots are. 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. The Yalinguth App, an audio tour of Gertrude Street, in Melbourne’s Fitzroy District, was my favorite. It uses geolocated stories and sounds from Australia’s aboriginal community to help listeners understand a slice of Australia’s past as they make their way around one Melbourne cultural hub. 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 Societe, 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. 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 until 2021. Restaurants and hotels are always opening and closing. I also enjoyed browsing Intrepid’s itineraries because each recommendation was accompanied by a brief write-up. The company suggested activities and foods to try in each location. It was impersonal, but it did the job. 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 an easy and quick way to find out what the top places are to visit during your vacation. If you prefer a customized itinerary that emphasizes local attractions, then sticking to travel agencies is the best option.