The buzz around chatbots continues to grow. Want a digital personal shopping assistant who can deliver an anniversary gift to your spouse? There’s a bot for that. Want the weather forecast texted to you throughout the day? There’s a bot for that, too.
Yet, there’s controversy as to whether or not these bots are as smart as they appear. Sure, it sounds great to have an A.I. system pick out and deliver a gift for you, but does it know your spouse’s tastes? How many questions will the bot ask you before you give up and just go buy the gift yourself?
- It’s a Chatbot…It’s a Travel Bot!
- Customer Service Travel Bots
- Facebook & Slack Travel Chatbots
- 1. Expedia Facebook Messenger Bot: An experimental hotel search chatbot
- 2. Skyscanner Facebook Messenger Bot: A flight search assistant that categorizes flights in unique ways
- 3. CheapFlights Facebook Messenger Bot: The flight and hotel chatbot with the best personality
- 4. KLM on Messenger: A polyglot travel bot that delivers boarding passes
- 5. CheapOair: Flight Facebook Messenger Bot showing 10 cheapest flights
- 6. Instalocate: A simple but smart chatbot for tracking flights
- 7. Kayak Slack Bot: A quick search bot for flights, hotels, and ground transportation
- 8. Assist: A versatile chatbot for food delivery, ride hailing, and more
- Travel A.I.: More Than a Chatbot
- 1. Hello Hipmunk: A virtual travel agent that combs your email and calendar to create personalized travel recommendations
- 2. Taylor: A proof-of-concept bot pulling data from Nomad List
- 3. Claire: A B2B travel bot and travel management solution
- 4. Carla: A personal travel assistant that will help you pack and book policy-compliant trips
- 5. Cinch: A travel app for unmanaged business travel
- 6. HelloGbye: A B2C app with multi-person booking capabilities
- Human + A.I.: The Perfect Travel Booking Combination?
- The Future of Travel Bots
It’s a Chatbot…It’s a Travel Bot!
Chatbots, A.I. platforms that use instant messaging as the application interface, are programmed so that they mimic human conversation. They have pre-programmed interactions that allow users to interact in a (generally) natural way with the A.I. Many argue that we have a long way to go before these bots are useful and efficient and can actually handle the nuances of human questions and their expectations for acceptable answers. In a previous article, we discussed in more detail how these chatbots are developed.
Some argue that chatbots are not even A.I. Joshua March, founder and CEO of Conversocial, argues that “messenger bots today aren’t really A.I. They’re just a different [User Interface] accessed inside a messaging thread.” Yet, he suggests, that doesn’t mean bots aren’t useful.
One industry in which chatbots are booming is the travel industry. Hence, we have the “travel bot”—a chatbot that either provides automated customer service on a travel company’s website or operates through a messaging platform such as Facebook Messenger to converse with a traveler and assist with booking travel. Some companies are leveraging natural language processing and an instant-messaging interface to create virtual travel assistants that operate like travel bots but that also have other more robust features, such as the ability to provide finance departments detailed spending analytics about business travelers’ spending practices.
Bots have the potential to improve the travel industry, although it may take some time for these chatbots to become smart enough to make a difference. The possibilities? Quicker, smarter booking. A more entertaining travel searching process. A digital city tour guide. Better policy compliance from business travelers. Dany Agostinho, Innovation Senior Specialist for the Amadeus IT Group, also suggests that “A good customer service bot could save travel companies money by automating tasks and unclogging call centres.”
Here, we share our ultimate list of travel bots.
Customer Service Travel Bots
A common type of travel bot is the customer service bot that accompanies a travel chain’s website or a travel booking site. These bots feel, frankly, a bit outdated. They are far from intelligent and might invoke the same kind of rage that you get when you are on the phone with an automated customer service system for an hour and you JUST want to talk to a human being. These travel bots all operate in similar ways; they are generally limited in their ability to help a user book travel, but they can help users navigate a company’s website efficiently and answer some common questions.
1. Alison: A virtual chatbot for booking beach holidays
On the Beach, a U.K.-based site that allows users to book beach holidays by searching for the best hotel and flight deals, has Alison—a virtual chatbot who is (obviously) available to you around the clock and can answer hundreds of common user questions. Click on “Ask Alison a question,” and you will get a pop-up where you can query Alison. Alison often asks you to refer to the FAQs or gives you contact information for someone else to answer your question, making her uses somewhat limited. However, you can find basic information such as what kind of paperwork to bring with you on your trip or how to cancel a flight.
2. Ana: Copa Airlines’ virtual travel agent
Ana is a web-based chatbot for Copa Airlines that uses natural language. You can ask Ana simple questions, such as what destinations Copa Airlines flies to or what Copa’s baggage allowances are, and she will respond within your web browser. Most of the information she offers is available elsewhere on the website, and whereas some travel bots take you to the actual webpages that reference answers to your questions, Ana’s interface is more limited, in that it only provides textual responses.
Amtrak’s virtual assistant, Julie, operates in a separate pop-up box so that you can navigate the Amtrak site, asking Julie questions as they come to you. You can ask her questions using natural language, and she will take you to the most relevant page and give you a short answer to your question or keyword inquiry. If your sound is on, she will vocalize her answers, too. Julie can help you with booking reservations, navigating the Amtrak website, and learning about the train stations. While she doesn’t fill out your travel information for you, she can advise you on how to do it correctly.
4. Sofia: A smart chatbot answering questions about TAP Portugal flights
If you visit the TAP Portugal website (a site that focuses on flight deals to popular destinations such as Portugal and Brazil), you’ll find the chatbot Sofia waiting to answer your questions at the top of the page in a search bar. Ask a question, and a pop-up appears with an answer. For example, you can ask Sofia about a flight status, and she will take you to the Departures and Arrivals section of the TAP Portugal website. The interface is attractive, with comment bubbles and a friendly female avatar who looks happy to help (a bit flirty even).
Facebook & Slack Travel Chatbots
While the female avatars that greet you on the Copa and Amtrak websites can help with basic customer service questions, the rash of chatbots being developed for use through Facebook Messenger and Slack (a messenging app for workplace communication) offer a different experience. The Facebook and Slack travel bots are generally for travel search companies such as Expedia and Skyscanner, and these chatbots are a bit smarter, in the sense that they actually help you book travel through conversation—rather than just showing you where to go on a website to book. In some ways, though, these bots just offer users a different interface for doing the same thing (check out the comparison below of a hotel search on Expedia’s website versus the same hotel search through Expedia’s Facebook Messenger bot).
With either interface, users have to input the same information, and it’s often more time-consuming to hold the conversation with the chatbot. Yet, as the bots develop and get smarter, the possibilities are exciting.
1. Expedia Facebook Messenger Bot: An experimental hotel search chatbot
Although Expedia allows users to search hotels, flights, cruises, and cars, its Facebook Messenger bot currently only searches for hotels. Unveiled on June 18, 2016, the bot is very new. “We are still in the early experimental stages with the Expedia bot for Messenger, but we’re excited about the opportunity to engage with travelers over this new medium,” Senior Expedia PR manager, Tarran Street, says in Viewfinder. Users simply need to open Facebook Messenger (on the web or on a smartphone) and type in Expedia or @Expedia into the “To:” field. You then tell the bot a bit about your travel plans, and the bot will follow up with questions. Once the bot has enough information, it will show you the five most popular hotel options for your location. Clicking on any hotel brings you to the Expedia website where you can book directly. Once you’ve finished your booking, you’ll get a message in Messenger with a link to your itinerary.
2. Skyscanner Facebook Messenger Bot: A flight search assistant that categorizes flights in unique ways
Send a Facebook Messenger message to Skyscanner, chat with the bot, and it will help you search for flights. In addition to giving you the ability to type a destination, departure airport, and dates to search for flights, it also give you ideas on the cheapest destinations from your nearest airport. The bot is conversational and very quick to respond. When you enter a destination, the bot breaks down flights into categories: cheapest, shortest, and best. You can also type “anywhere” to get some interesting suggestions. This travel bot is available globally, but only in English for now.
3. CheapFlights Facebook Messenger Bot: The flight and hotel chatbot with the best personality
The CheapFlights travel bot will help you book both flights and hotels. This bot has a great personality. Booking a flight to London? “London? I’m so jealous,” the chatbot writes back. For flights, the bot will return the average cheapest flight, and you are directed to the CheapFlights website to book. Once you indicate your date and location for a hotel search, you can search by price range. This travel bot is currently a tiny bit slower than the others to respond, but its personality makes up for it.
4. KLM on Messenger: A polyglot travel bot that delivers boarding passes
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines has also integrated with Facebook Messenger, but this one operates a bit differently than the others. KLM has built code on their website that allows Facebook to show the KLM Messenger plugin to customers on the KLM site. When you are booking or checking in to a flight, you will automatically be opted in to the plugin (although you can uncheck the box to opt out). Through Messenger, you can have your boarding pass delivered, you can request a seat change, and receive travel updates (such as flight status). Many chatbots are only operating in English, but KLM answers questions in 13 languages.
5. CheapOair: Flight Facebook Messenger Bot showing 10 cheapest flights
Users can also use Facebook Messenger to send a message to CheapOair, which will help you book a flight. Unlike some of the other bots that allow you to combine multiple pieces of information into one message request (check out our Skyscanner search screenshot above), this bot asks you one question at a time, so it takes a while to get results. It’s useful that the travel bot shows you the 10 cheapest flights when you enter your destination information, and it gives you the option to look at the next 10 fares.
6. Instalocate: A simple but smart chatbot for tracking flights
Instalocate is for Facebook Messenger, and it allows users to track flight statuses in real time. Just type in the flight number for the flight you want to track, and it will provide you with relatively detailed information, including the city the airplane is currently flying over, the flight duration, and when it will arrive at the airport. You’ll also find a link to airport directions, and you can click “book a cab” to get an Uber or Lyft.
7. Kayak Slack Bot: A quick search bot for flights, hotels, and ground transportation
Users can now install Kayak for Slack and direct message with the Kayak chatbot. You can direct message slackbot with “/kayak” and then a phrase such as “flights from NYC to Rome 9/21 to 9/26.” You can search for flights, hotels, and rental cars, and Kayak aggregates its available data within a few seconds. You’ll be showed a few results in Slack as well as given a link to compare all prices on Kayak. Ultimately, you have to do most of your searching on the site if you’re at all picky about layover lengths or flight timing. Users can also check flight statuses and terminal gates through the Slack bot, and the bot works for Slack through mobile or the web.
8. Assist: A versatile chatbot for food delivery, ride hailing, and more
This chatbot is available on Facebook Messenger, Telegram, SMS, and Slack. It’s not just for travel, but it has some features that will prove useful for travelers. The chatbot aggregates with programs like GrubHub, Uber, Lyft, and Open Table, and users can text, Facebook message, or otherwise communicate through Assist to book hotels, order delivery, or get a ride. TechCrunch describes Assist’s strategy: “This startup believes it can become a convenience layer between you and every on-demand service and product with an API. Instead of having to sort through different apps, it finds the best answer to your problem and makes it happen.” The convenience of Assist appears to be that you can handle multiple tasks through one chatbot.
Travel A.I.: More Than a Chatbot
While the Facebook and Slack bots have garnered a lot of media attention as of late, there are other travel bots that have a ton of potential. Some of these programs are really more than just bots, but they do rely on the instant messaging interface characteristic of bots.
1. Hello Hipmunk: A virtual travel agent that combs your email and calendar to create personalized travel recommendations
Hipmunk, an up-and-coming travel search website, has launched Hello Hipmunk, a free virtual travel agent powered by A.I. Hello Hipmunk is available on Facebook Messenger and Slack; so, it’s a travel chatbot…and it’s a whole lot more. Hello Hipmunk has two major features: Hello Email and Hello Calendar. With Hello Email, you loop [email protected] into your email conversations about travel and ask, in the email, something like “Hello @hipmunk, can you send us some flight options for a flight from Boston to Miami from August 8 to 15?” Hipmunk replies, in a conversational, friendly email, with flight options. It does hotel searches, too.
Hello Calendar searches your Google calendar and sends you flight, hotel, and rental car options by determining your out-of-town events and offering recommendations for your scheduled travel. For Calendar, sign up here, using your Google sign-in information.
2. Taylor: A proof-of-concept bot pulling data from Nomad List
OK, so Taylor may not be that smart yet, but it’s a cool idea! Advertised as a travel assistant powered by A.I., Taylor is a chatbot on Telegram, which is a messaging app that focuses on speed and security. Taylor is very new, reported to be more of a “proof of concept” rather than a fully fleshed out product, according to a press release on The Next Web. Essentially, this bot pulls its data from Nomad List, a site that ranks the best cities for working remotely. You can ask Taylor a few important items about a city you’re traveling in, such as where to find nearby places to work and sleep. Taylor pulls from a relatively limited data set, as its data is only from Nomad List. Yet, Nomad List collects data from over 500+ cities and offers information such as if they city has Uber, clean air, or great nightlife. The chatbot has appeal for regular users of Telegram who are interested in the digital nomad life and want to learn about the best place to travel next for work.
3. Claire: A B2B travel bot and travel management solution
Claire is a virtual travel assistant powered by A.I., created by the startup 30SecondsToFly. Claire is all about business travel. The “bot” side of Claire is a virtual travel assistant who will communicate with travelers, helping them book policy-compliant travel within just minutes. Claire has access to privately negotiated rates and tailors travel to users’ preferences. If problems arise during a trip, users can text Claire to solve the problem. Claire can communicate on all major platforms—Facebook Messenger, Slack, Skype, and through SMS. On the travel management end, Claire provides detailed analytics and will input expenses directly into a company’s existing expense management systems. Concerned about duty of care? Claire knows where travelers are at all times.
4. Carla: A personal travel assistant that will help you pack and book policy-compliant trips
Currently in Beta, Carla is Carlson Wagonlit Travel’s personal travel assistant, which offers advice for planning your business trip. You can ask Carla (or Jin, Mei, Aurore, or Franck—female and male travel assistant avatars with different ethnicities) a travel policy question, such as if you’re allowed to fly business class, and she’ll let you know right away because she’s “memorized” your company’s travel policy. She can give you advice on packing, advising if you’ll need a business visa or what types of adapters you may need to pack for international travel. In terms of booking, Carla can make excellent price-saving recommendations because she can combine flights with trains, for example. She helps you choose the nearest hotel to the airport or office and tells you the local weather of where you are traveling to. Users can sign up here, although it’s currently a limited beta.
5. Cinch: A travel app for unmanaged business travel
Cinch is an iPhone app designed for business travelers who do not work in big companies allied with Travel Management Companies that handle all the booking. With Cinch, you don’t have to search for flights and hotels; instead, you simply tell Cinch where you want to go and when, and it will give you the best deals based on your preferences, history, and the location. Cinch allows users to enter very detailed preferences. Users can rank their preferred hotel chains in order and even get specific about room location preferences within a hotel. Cinch also has a “repeat trips” function so business travelers who travel often to the same place can rebook easily. Looking at their website, it appears Cinch hasn’t launched yet, but that users can sign up here for early access.
6. HelloGbye: A B2C app with multi-person booking capabilities
HelloGbye can be used for personal or business travel. Download the app, tell HellGbye your travel requests (you can voice your requests, like you do with Siri), and the resulting options will be tailored for you. Its search function combines natural language parsing (to help it understand your conversational language) with your preferences to make the best choices. The preferences you can enter include if you prefer window or aisle seats, a particular airline carrier, a non-smoking hotel room, an ocean view room, and so forth. If your flight is canceled, you’ll receive an SMS notification with new options in real time. HelloGbye appears to be a standout when it comes to booking for multiple people at once. You can ask it to search for your flight to Hong Kong and for your business partner to join you two days later, and it can pull up both searches, showing you the total trip cost for the entire party in the search function. Each traveler can select their own hotel, whereas some apps restrict travelers to the same hotel. Travelers can also split payment at the end. Pre-register here for the private beta; they launch in the fall.
Human + A.I.: The Perfect Travel Booking Combination?
Despite advances in A.I., some travelers are still concerned (rightly, in many cases) about trusting a machine to make decisions for them. A few companies have, therefore, combined A.I. with human travel agents to create an effective travel booking process.
1. Tradeshift Go: A program for medium-sized businesses that tracks employee spending and reduces expense fraud
This virtual assistant is being marketed for mid-sized businesses. The A.I. chat interface enables travelers to connect with travel agents. Employees can therefore book travel by using the chat interface, Go Assistant, on their phones, texting the assistant where they need to go on their next trip, and they will receive help with booking hotels, flights, ground transportation, and dining. Just download the app in the app store and provide some basic information such as your birthday to get started. Note that you have to use a work email address to sign up. Unlike most of the Facebook and Slack bots, Go allows users to book travel right within the app. Users can store travel preferences (window vs. aisle; preferred airline; avoid an airline), which the assistant will apply to future bookings.
Tradeshift Go also has a lot of great features from an accounting/travel management perspective. “Tradeshift is bringing consumer-grade experiences by leveraging the latest advances in AI and machine learning to transform age-old problems at work,” said Sarika Garg, Senior Vice President & General Manager. Using Go, companies can track employees’ spending through “single-use virtual credit cards and in-the-moment approvals.” The single-use virtual credit cards reduce fraud because employees never get a company credit card number. Tradeshift’s expense management capabilities can help finance departments get increased visibility into spend and have the potential to alleviate a lot of common expense reporting hassles.
2. Pana: A virtual travel agent and concierge driven by a team of human travel agents
To help you book personal and business travel, Pana blends “real humans with sophisticated technology.” Pana is a virtual travel agent, where you get access to a human travel team and a messaging A.I. It’s not advertised as a bot, per se, but it functions like other A.I.s in that it gets smarter as it gets to know you better and has a messaging interface much like other chatbots. You begin with a welcome call with a real person who gets to know your travel preferences. When you start interacting with Pana, you can enter any type of request for a current or upcoming trip through the mobile app, text message, or email, and according to their website, your team will send you responses within minutes. If your team recommends a trip, you can book it with one tap. Some interesting features include Pana’s ability to tell you when you should arrive at the airport and what the weather will be when you arrive at your destination. Once you do get to you destination, Pana becomes your “concierge,” making “vetted recommendations for your dining and activities.” Personal access to Pana costs $100 per year, and it’s $95 per month for 5 travelers in a company.
3. Lola: an iPhone app connecting users to travel agents
Paul English, who was the co-founder of travel search website Kayak, launched Lola, a travel app, which requires an iPhone 5 (or newer) with iOS 9. Lola, marketed as a personal travel service, is an instant messaging app that connects you to a travel agent. Like Pana, it blends human travel agents with A.I. processes. The app looks up hotels and flights, and you can also ask about public transportation schedules, restaurants, and activities. English suggests that as the A.I. gets stronger, some queries will be answered immediately by the A.I., but for now, English wants a human on the other end. Some early reports suggest that receiving advice for restaurants and activities is a bit slow, but that hotel and flight information is “impressively quick.” Right now, membership is invite-only (free for invited members), but the company plans to have an annual membership fee in the future. You can download the app to get on the wait list.
4. Mezi: A messaging app that loves shopping
While Mezi is currently being marketed as a personal shopping assistant, the company seems to be gearing up to specialize more in travel. Venture Beat reports that Mezi unveiled a new version of its travel bot on July 12th, which allows users to check-in, reschedule, and cancel flights; plan meals on planes; and book other travel options such as cruises. Users communicate primarily via text, and while A.I. fully handles hotels, Mezi uses a combination of human travel agents and A.I. for flights. In Venture Beat, the cofounders suggest that this bot cannot fail because it’s driven by humans. If the A.I. fails, there are human agents to resolve the issue and train the A.I. for the future. Mezi is free to use, and payments are made through Stripe. The interface is user-friendly, and it provides a lot of options so that you avoid typing requests that the A.I. doesn’t understand.
The Future of Travel Bots
Using travel bots, right now, can be a frustrating process. Some understand you better than others. While you’re encouraged to use natural, conversational language, some of these bots ask you to clarify yourself a few times before fully understanding your request. By the end, you might find yourself wishing you’d just done the search yourself on a company’s or travel search engine’s website. It’s a bit like delegating tasks at work. Sometimes, it’s easier to just do something yourself. However, if you take the time to teach someone to do the task the right way, you eventually learn to trust this person with this duty—giving you time for more complicated tasks. As chatbots get smarter, you may find them very useful for helping you book travel.
The amount of travel bots and A.I.-powered virtual assistants grows every day, and it’s hard to keep up with the many changes. But we’re going to do our best. This list is meant to be updated regularly!
What travel bots do you use? What travel bots are you excited about using? How well do they work? Share with us in the comments section, and we’ll add them here!
Also, be on the lookout for future articles, where we’ll share more in-depth reviews of these tools and interviews with the brands.