ROME — “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” the proverb says.
But what if you’re only in the Italian capital for just one day and you’re keen to fit in as much of its history and culture as possible?
Sure, you could take a few hours out to plan your trip or you could try to book a tour guide to take you round “The Eternal City.”
But now there’s a third option: Tourism apps, websites and chatbots that use artificial intelligence to tailor itineraries for the user based on their preferences and time.
They’re rapidly popping up, so NBC News decided to put three of them to the test.
We decided to try ChatGPT, a quirky chatbot developed by artificial intelligence company OpenAI that was not specifically designed for travel planning. Along with similar programs, its fluency comes for the most part from having been trained on giant troves of text mined from the internet, but it does not have the ability to filter what is accurate or not and has hit the headlines in recent months because of some of its controversial and upsetting responses.
We also used iplan.ai, an app you can download to your phone, and usevacay.com, a chatbot and itinerary planner that uses OpenAI’s GPT technology to help you tailor your trip.
Our choices were based on recommendations from technology websites.
Let’s just say the results were mixed at best.
Our day started at La Bottega del Caffé, a bar and restaurant in Piazza Madonna dei Monti, a pedestrian square in a bohemian neighborhood near the Colosseum and Forum.
Basking in the glorious sunshine of the brisk spring morning, we opened our phones and downloaded iplan.ai, a “smart travel planner” app that claims to produce “a tailor-made travel plan for any kind of trip,” in just a few seconds.
With a simple and user-friendly interface, the app allowed us to pick the city, the number of days we were spending there, our interests, our budget and the time of day we wanted to use it. Without using long sentences, it also linked out to Google Maps so you could read reviews.
In the time it takes to drink an espresso, a detailed itinerary appeared for the day and into the night, including a list of some of Rome’s most popular landmarks like the Colosseum and Trevi Fountain. Restaurants for lunch and dinner as well as a bar for an evening aperitivo were also among the suggestions.
So far, so good.
But closer inspection of the timings revealed a flaw.
The Pantheon in the historic center of Rome is one of Italy’s top tourist sites.Ciancaphoto Studio / Getty ImagesSure, you could visit St. Peter’s Square at 3 a.m., but make sure you wear running shoes. You could be chased by Swiss Guards, as at that time the square is well and truly closed.
As for the Capitoline Museums, they are definitely not open at 5:30 a.m. Four hours later, you’ll be fine.
You could also spend 120 minutes throwing coins into the Trevi Fountain, but your budget would have to be big and one or two over the course of a few minutes would probably suffice.
Three hours in the Piazza Navona would probably give enough time to eat at most of the many restaurants there and run a few laps around the square to digest the food.
Needless to say, we ignored the timings, but we decided to stick with the itinerary. We headed to the Colosseum nearby, and unsurprisingly, we weren’t the only ones with that idea. The lines were enormous and tickets were sold out when we looked online.
At this we opened up ChatGPT and asked it to find us somewhere to go nearby. It suggested the Forum — the ruins of government buildings where elections, trials and processions were held in ancient Rome.
Again the lines were enormous, but to be fair to ChatGPT, it is not intended as a real-time reaction tool because its learning data cuts off in 2021 and it cannot provide information about times or the weather.
However, it would be helpful if apps and chatbots could tell us about this and provide information about timings and tickets at two of Rome’s biggest attractions.
In the end, a little local knowledge saved the day. A walk up a road next to the Forum takes you to a spot where you can see the ancient ruins from a distance. Not ideal, but better than nothing.
After the walk, it was definitely time for a little lunch, so we opened usevacay.com and looked for an alternative itinerary for the rest of the day. It also has a chatbot, which helps you narrow down questions so it can provide a more tailored response.
The new itinerary recommended “Da Enzo al 29,” a restaurant with a good reputation for genuine Roman dishes and a favorite with the locals in Trastevere, one of the city’s most picturesque neighborhoods.
But again we hit a similar problem: long lines. The family-run restaurant doesn’t take bookings, so people were stretched out for at least a block in hopes of getting a table.
But luckily a little local knowledge came to our aid once again as Roberto, one of the managers, recognized me as a former customer and without any prompting guided us to a table.
Usevacay.com recommended a cacio and pepe, and it was delicious. We followed up with some tiramisu.
Tourists also flock to the Colosseum. Xinhua News Agency via Getty ImagesFeeling like we could use a walk, we went back to usevacay.com. It recommended that we head for the narrow streets of Trastevere, which it said is “lined with colorful buildings and quaint shops.”
The streets were narrow, the buildings colorful, but the shops were not so quaint, apart from one selling gelato, overlooking the beautiful Piazza Santa Maria.
Carbs and cobblestones are, however, a deadly mix. Time to stop for some culture, so we turned to ChatGPT.
“Where can I see some art nearby?” I typed, and we were directed to the Galleria Corsini, an art gallery with paintings from several Italian Renaissance masters, including Caravaggio and Raphael.
For once, no line. And after a day thwarted, that’s something to celebrate. Back to usevacay.com to ask about a wine bar, and where better than at Il Goccetto. There we toast the future of travel planning, despite one or two reservations.
In fairness, developers are still honing the technology, and they do make it clear that you should treat them as a guide rather than take them as gospel.
Asked about some of the pitfalls we encountered, Drew Shepard, CEO of usevacay.com, said in an email that the company recognized “there is always room for improvement.” He added that the company was “actively working on enhancing our user interface to provide a more engaging and accurate experience, incorporating features like embedded links, maps, and better-tailored suggestions.”
Salman Taghiakbari, CEO of iplan.ai, said something similar. “While ‘shopping-tourism’ is a challenging area for us, we have plans to make improvements in this area, as well as in ‘gastronomy-tourism’ in version 2 of the app. This next phase will also allow users to book attractions directly through the app,” he said in an email.
On Friday, after NBC News’ visit, OpenAI took ChatGPT offline temporarily in Italy after the independent national data agency raised concerns over possible privacy violations and for failing to verify that users were aged 13 or above, as it had requested.
A spokesperson for ChatGPT initially pointed us in the direction of its plugins blog. In response to the regulator’s move, the spokesperson said the company is “committed to protecting people’s privacy and we believe we comply with” privacy laws.
“Our users in Italy have told us they find ChatGPT helpful for everyday tasks and we look forward to making it available again soon,” they said.
Usevacay.com is still working, however. A spokesperson said “we don’t currently collect any of the user input fields nor the resulting outputs.”
Of course, it’s all subjective. For me, AI did provide a good starting point, but the technology is not quite there yet.
When in Rome …