MINNEAPOLIS -- Planning paralysis still had me in its clutches days before my family and I left for an October break trip to Seattle. By that time, we had already booked our flights, an Airbnb and a rental car. But the guts of the vacation -- what to do, see and eat -- were still undecided. My itinerary was a hauntingly blank abyss on a computer screen.
Then I remembered a trick my friend shared with me a few months back: artificial intelligence.
"Plan a family vacation for Seattle starting late Monday afternoon and flying out of Sea-Tac on Thursday morning," I typed into the AI software ChatGPT.
Within seconds, the bot cheerily wrote back, assuring me that the mere act of preparing for this trip would be "a fun and exciting adventure." It ticked off more than a dozen attractions and restaurants, all fashioned into a tidy outline broken down by day, presented on a platter with subheads and bullet points.
Scanning the itinerary, I concurred there was no better way to start the morning than to explore Pike Place Market, home of the famous fish toss. Of course we would ascend the Space Needle to explore breathtaking views of the city. And you bet my seafood-loving son and I would be down for some clam chowder at a waterfront restaurant.
Was this cheating? Perhaps. But for a dawdler, this bot-devised plan helped me visualize my trip and even energized me. And it came at just the right time.
"For a lot of people, that initial inertia is at its highest," said Ravi Bapna, a professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. "Just getting started is the hardest thing, right?"
Jumping into an ocean of research can overwhelm even the most adventurous among us. The average American consumes 277 pages of travel content in the month and a half leading up to their vacation. That amounts to 8 hours and 44 minutes, according to a survey commissioned by Expedia Group.
Bapna is a data scientist who's writing a book about how AI can guide people in their day-to-day lives, from online dating to health and fitness. He uses it to plow through writer's block, even if it's just to summarize his own work for upcoming presentations. He likens AI's abilities to a first draft that he must refine and reshape into his own words.
The platform is far from flawless. Generative AI is a language model trained on essentially everything that's been written, from books to web pages, Bapna explained. "It's trying to predict the next word, based on everything it's seen," he said. "I think of this technology as a good co-pilot. It's not perfect, and you still have to know what you're doing."
That means double-checking the information and providing further prompts to get the results you're seeking, he added.
Even travel experts who are wary of AI's limitations can appreciate its ability to cure traveler's indecision.
"It can be incredibly valuable and helpful, especially for people who don't know where to start," said Kyle Potter, executive editor of the Minnesota-based site Thrifty Traveler. "Getting a list of 10 to 20 recommendations for hikes, places to eat and sights to see can be valuable to anyone, whether it's someone who hates planning trips all the way to someone who enjoys doing it but needs a little help."
When Potter used the AI travel site Roam Around months ago, the results were mixed. Having recently spent a couple days in Tokyo, he was curious how its itinerary would stack up against his knowledge of the area. It wisely suggested checking out the views from Tokyo Tower and meandering toward Zozoji Temple, just a five-minute walk away. The software had enough spatial awareness about the city's geography to recommend must-see attractions in logical sequence.
But when Potter commanded the software to prepare a similar itinerary for Minneapolis, it recommended taking a stroll along the Mississippi riverfront -- in the depths of a Minnesota winter. For dinner, it pointed him toward the Bachelor Farmer, which closed in 2020.
On top of that, Potter said he doubts AI would know enough about our preferences to steer us away from, say, restaurants that serve great food but are overpoweringly loud. A good travel agent who's worked with you for years will likely assemble a better trip than the software can, he said.
"Travel is incredibly personal," he said. "It doesn't matter how good ChatGPT gets. At least I hope they'll never know those things -- about what makes us individuals. That's what separates a good trip from a mediocre or a bad one."
So how did my trip go, thanks to my new upbeat travel assistant?
I should disclose that this wasn't my first excursion to Seattle. It was my fourth. But it was my first time with kids in tow, and we headed straight to my college friend Erin's house to have dinner with her family. We told them what was on our list -- all the touristy things, plus my husband's one wish to see the Japanese garden in town.
When Erin heard he was interested in landscape design, she suggested that we take a ferry to Bainbridge Island to explore the Bloedel Reserve, a giant swath of woods, gardens and coastline where visitors can unwind in nature. She said that while on the island we could also track down a massive whimsical troll, one of several sculptures built by a Copenhagen-based artist out of recycled wood.
Erin and her husband also gave tips on where to see the sunset -- Seattle's Discovery Park. Since our time was limited, they suggested we skip the museums but agreed that a trip to the Space Needle would be iconic.
The next morning, my family and I followed ChatGPT's advice and started our morning at Pike Place. We arrived a little after 9 a.m., only to find that most of the stalls and shops had not yet opened. Whoops! I could only blame the bot's co-pilot -- me -- for not researching that ahead of time.
We didn't hew completely to the schedule, but we did hit the high points of our urban itinerary: fish toss, waterfront, seafood lunch, aquarium, Space Needle. We squeezed in other decisions on the fly, like pickup soccer on Pier 62 and a sushi dinner downtown, and were utterly spent by bedtime.
The next morning, we scrapped the bot's plans in favor of Erin's and caught the ferry to Bainbridge. The boat ride across Puget Sound alone was worth the trip. And the Bloedel Reserve was even better than we imagined.
As soon as we entered the park, our kids scurried 50 paces ahead of us along a meandering bark path. They traversed a meadow and tore into woods guarded by towering pines. There was space to run, air to breathe, away from the clamor and chaos of the city. Until Erin mentioned it, I had never heard of this place, which fit our family like a hand in glove.
My husband must have been thinking the same thing as me.
"It's not what you know, but who you know," he said, reaching for my hand.
AI can get us started on our trip, but a real-life friend can point us to places that speak to our hearts. And the moments we remember? Those we must make for ourselves.
Laura Yuen is a features columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.