In Norway, with three AI travel assistants

The task was clear: test how well the AI ​​could plan a trip to Norway, a place I had never been. So I didn't do any of my usual obsessive online research and instead asked three AI planners to create a four-day itinerary. None of them, alas, mentioned saunas or salmon.

Two assistants, however, were eager to learn more about me to adapt their initially generic recommendations, which they had given out in a matter of seconds. Vacay, a personalized travel planning tool, presented me with a list of questions, while Mindtrip, a new AI-powered travel assistant, invited me to take a quiz. (ChatGPT, the third assistant, didn't ask anything.)

The questions from Vacay and Mindtrip were similar: Are you traveling alone? What is your budget? Do you prefer hotels or Airbnb? Would you rather explore the great outdoors or pursue a cultural experience?

Ultimately, my chat sessions produced what seemed like well-rounded itineraries, starting with a day in Oslo and moving on to the fjord region. Ultimately, I decided to plan a trip that combined the assistants' information and went beyond a predictable list of sites.

This time, my virtual planners were much more sophisticated than the simple ChatGPT interface I used last year on a trip to Milan. Although it offered more detailed suggestions for Norway, I ended up abandoning ChatGPT at the trip planning stage after it crashed repeatedly.

Vacay's premium service, which starts at $9.99 a month, included in-depth tips and booking links, while Mindtrip, which is currently free, provided photos, Google reviews and maps. During the trip itself, each provided instant information via text and always asked if more specific details were needed. Unfortunately, only ChatGPT offered a phone app, the information for which I thought was outdated (the $20/month premium version is more current).

I'm not alone in turning to AI: According to a recent survey conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of the personal finance app Moneylion, approximately 70% of Americans use or plan to use AI to plan travel. , while 71% believe that using AI would most likely be easier than planning trips yourself.

I decided to find out for myself in Norway.

After landing at Oslo Airport, all three attendants directed me to the Flytoget Airport Express Train, which got me into the city in 20 minutes. I was happy to find my hotel adjacent to the central train station.

Choosing accommodation was not easy. I was looking for a mid-range boutique hotel and the AI ​​assistants generated lots of options with little overlap. I chose Hotel Amerikalinjen, on Vacay's recommendation, which he described as “a vibrant and unique boutique hotel in the heart of Oslo”. Its location was the main attraction, but overall the hotel exceeded my expectations, blending comfort and style with the 20th-century charm of its building, which once housed the headquarters of the shipping company Norwegian America Line.

For the one-day Oslo itinerary, the assistants agreed to bring along the city's main attractions, including the Vigeland Sculpture Park, the Royal Palace, the Nobel Peace Center, the Akershus Fortress and the Munch Museum. I shared my location and asked each assistant to restructure the itineraries to start from my hotel. But when I gave in to my search instinct and opened Google Maps, I saw that the suggested order didn't make sense, so I plotted my route.

When I arrived at Frogner Park at noon, I had already walked through half the attractions, and after passing more than 200 sculptures by Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland, I was happy to sit and admire his granite monolith of intertwined humans.

For lunch, the attendants recommended upscale restaurants in the lively waterfront neighborhood of Aker Brygge. But I wanted a quick snack in a more relaxed atmosphere, so I ditched the AI ​​and walked to the end of the promenade, where I stumbled upon Salmon, a cozy place where I started with a salmon sashimi that melted in my mouth. in my mouth and I ended up with a perfectly grilled fillet. How had my assistants not mentioned this place?

Next on my list were the Nobel Peace Center, the Opera House and the Munch Museum. The attendants hadn't advised me to book tickets in advance, but fortunately I had done so, learning, in the process, that the Peace Center was closed, a crucial piece of information that the AI ​​failed to pass on.

It was cold for mid-June and as I walked along the harbor promenade towards the Munch Museum, I noticed small floating saunas, which my assistants had not included. I went back to the ChatGPT phone app for advice. Although I was looking forward to trying a floating sauna, where people warmed up and then dived straight into the freezing waters of the Oslofjord, I followed ChatGPT's suggestion and booked the salt sauna, where I headed after spent a few hours at the Munch Museum, with its vast works by the Norwegian artist and its sweeping views of Oslo harbor.

At the Salt cultural complex, a large pyramid-like structure on the water, I was relieved that bathing suits were a requirement. In Scandinavia, saunas are usually done naked, and I had previously asked ChatGPT about Salt's label, but he didn't give me a definitive answer. After sweating with about 30 strangers in Salt's main sauna, I dove into a tub of cold water and then tried the smaller sauna options, which were hotter and quieter. It was the perfect end to a long day.

Each of my assistants had different ideas about how to get to the fjord region. ChatGPT suggested taking a seven-hour train ride and then immediately boarding a two-hour fjord cruise, which sounded exhausting. Mindtrip suggested taking a short flight to Bergen, known as the “gateway to the fjords”, and going on a cruise the next day, which was perhaps more efficient, but would also mean missing out on one of the most scenic train journeys in the world . Vacay also recommended a train trip.

After conversing with the attendants, I decided on a shorter (six-hour) train ride that would take me to Naeroyjord, a UNESCO World Heritage site with lush valleys and thundering waterfalls. But to figure out the logistics of transportation and accommodation, I needed real-time train schedules, which I found on my own, and information on hotel availability that none of the assistants had.

At this point, I was in desperate need of a human guide to navigate the region’s expensive and limited accommodations. This is where the photos and reviews on Mindtrip came in handy, helping me understand that I would be paying premium prices for the spectacular surroundings of a mediocre hotel.

The train ride from Oslo to Myrdal was breathtaking: rolling hills, mountain villages, fjords, waterfalls. But nothing prepared me for the majestic hour-long train ride to Flam that followed. Vacay described it as an “engineering marvel” with an incredibly steep descent through picturesque villages, dramatic mountains, rushing rivers and thundering waterfalls, complete with a dance performance featuring a mythical spirit known as a huldra.

The next morning I boarded a Naeroyjord cruise, recommended by Vacay, on a 400-person electric vessel. I was surprised by the serenity of the fjord. I later learned from a tour guide that I had been lucky enough to visit when there were no large cruise ships. It was hard to imagine an ocean liner maneuvering through the narrow, windy fjord, but when I asked ChatGPT, he told me that between 150 and 220 cruise ships passed through the fjord each year, a detail I believed travel assistants should warn travellers.

The cruise ended in the village of Gudvangen, where rain made me cancel a hike to a waterfall and instead try my hand at ax throwing in the Viking village of Njardarheim. The attendants had told me there were buses leaving the city every four hours, a time frame that had worked with my original hiking plan, but now I was stuck. Luckily, I took note of the AI's disclaimers to check all the information and found an alternative shuttle bus.

On the way to Bergen I decided to stop in the town of Voss, famous for extreme sports such as skydiving and spectacular nature. All the hotels suggested by the AI ​​were booked, but a Google search took me to the lakeside Elva hotel, which offered delicious farm-to-table fare. I suspect he didn't make the AI ​​shortlist because he was new.

I ended my trip in Bergen, which, despite being Norway’s second-largest city, retains a small-town charm with its colorful wooden houses and cobblestone streets. With just half a day to explore, I followed Mindtrip’s short itinerary, starting with a hearty fish-and-chips lunch at the bustling waterfront fish market and finishing with a funicular ride up Mount Floyen for panoramic views of the city and fjords. The AI’s dinner suggestion at Colonialen was perfect: cozy atmosphere, live jazz, and locally sourced dishes.

None of the AI ​​programs were perfect, but they complemented each other, allowing me to streamline my travel decisions.

Overall, Mindtrip, with its refined and dynamic interface that allowed me to check details with maps, links and reviews, was my favorite. While it provided some good advice, Mindtrip needed more suggestions than Vacay, which offered a wider variety of suggestions in more detail. Unfortunately, Vacay doesn't save chat history, which I discovered halfway through my planning after closing the website tab on my browser.

The biggest drawback was the lack of phone apps for Mindtrip and Vacay, which led me to rely on ChatGPT's basic AI assistant when I needed on-site assistance. Mindtrip, I have since learned, is planning to debut an app in September.

However, there were times when I desperately craved human touch. Before going on a trip, I always contact friends and colleagues for advice. This time, as part of the AI ​​experiment, I avoided contacting a Norwegian friend until the end of my trip, only to discover that we had both been in Oslo at the same time.

This is one element of travel that I doubt AI will ever master: serendipity.

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