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How to deal with an airline or hotel chatbot — and how to get a human

Travel companies turned to AI during the pandemic. It’s here to stay.

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)

If it feels as if you’re talking to a robot when you contact your airline, car rental company or hotel, it’s because you probably are.

During the pandemic, the travel industry rushed to build contactless customer service systems to handle inquiries. It may have gone too far.

Chatbots and form responses generated by artificial intelligence are more common than ever, experts and travelers told me by email. They allow companies to save money by hiring fewer call-center employees and speeding up the resolution process. And although there are advantages for companies, customers aren’t always making a connection with the new technology.

Hotels have gone to the robots

A client survey conducted by Zendesk, which provides customer service communications, found that conversations increased across several channels that relied on automation last year. The highest growth is on social media (up 32 percent) and on WhatsApp (up 370 percent).

“Self-service,” says Mike Gozzo, Zendesk’s senior vice president of product, “is the future of customer service.”

That bothers travelers like Kent Sharrar, an airline worker based in Phoenix. He recently had interactions with chatbots at a car rental company and a hotel that left him with an empty feeling. Both quickly addressed his query with an automated apology and an offer of compensation.

“But my goal is not to get compensation,” he says, after a rental car in poor condition and a charge from a canceled hotel room. “It’s to smooth out the bumps in the road for future experiences.”

‘Bots … don’t resign’

So what caused the rise of automation in travel? First, the pandemic forced many travel companies to do a top-to-bottom review of their customer service systems. They wanted to cut costs as travel slowed significantly and ensure minimum contact between customers and employees. Then there was the Great Resignation, which led to large-scale customer service problems. For many companies, implementing AI was the solution.

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“Bots don’t call in sick, and they don’t resign,” says Matt Edic, chief experience officer at IntelePeer, a provider of automation systems.

How do you know whether you’re dealing with an automated system? “Usually, the service itself may make it clear that it is a bot,” explains Rajeev Shrivastava, CEO of VisitorsCoverage, a travel insurance marketplace. But if it doesn’t, you can usually figure it out quickly because of the speed of the response (it’s faster than a human’s) and the type of response (it’s scripted, and the bot doesn’t make typos).

Chatbots can test your patience. Matthew Carter, an attorney based in Las Vegas, recently contacted his online travel agency to inquire about a reservation and said it quickly became evident that he was talking to a computer program.

“At one point, I mentioned the airline I was using — Peach airlines in Japan,” he says. “And she responded, ‘Is Peach your travel agent?’ I was genuinely flabbergasted. Supposedly she had the flights pulled up in front of her. So either she wasn’t paying attention, or she was clueless.”

But there are also benefits to automation. A carefully programmed chatbot can efficiently deliver information and answer basic questions, says Steve Schwab, CEO of Casago, a vacation rental company. And, best of all, it’s always on.

“It guarantees a response,” he says. “No matter the time.”

A faster fix

Automated systems can also fix some problems much faster than a person, says Gadi Shamia, CEO of Replicant, a contact center automation company. “For example, automation can handle rescheduling for a passenger who missed their flight,” he says. “That gives an agent more time to help a family book hotel accommodations when their red-eye is canceled.”

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Still, I worry about over-automation and losing the personal touch. I’ve seen too many gibberish responses generated by AI.

“People like talking to people, not robots,” says Francois Gouelo, CEO of Enso Connect, a provider of AI services for the hospitality industry. “That’s why it’s important to not only implement automation solutions in hospitality businesses but build an entire guest experience strategy, planning how technology complements the human capital.”

In other words, don’t forget the people.

How to get a human

If you’re stuck in a conversation with a bot that doesn’t know the difference between “Peach” the airline and “Peach” your travel agent — and believe me, you’ll know when you are — there are ways to get a person.

Words such as “representative,” “agent” or even “help” can send your case to a real human. If you’re dealing with a scripted reply by email and need to get a response, you may need to start a new conversation with a manager by email to override the system.

Automation seems to be an unstoppable trend. Tausif Khiani, a vice president in charge of hospitality at consulting firm Capgemini, says his research confirms that hospitality brands increased customer engagement levels with AI and chatbots. But enough is enough.

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“The next generation of travelers [wants] the ability and choice to interact with both people and technology,” he says. “The key is to switch between the two … seamlessly.”

What’s the solution? Sharrar, the airline employee from Phoenix, thinks more human staff — not fewer — is the answer.

Maybe, he says, you can overdo the automation. Maybe we’ll find out during the upcoming holiday travel season.