Making and Taking Trips with Apple’s “Siri”

January 24, 2014

in Travel Tech

  • SumoMe

After watching the movie Her, in which Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) converses and then falls in love with “Samantha,” the voice (provided by actress Scarlett Johansson) of his new computer operating system, I wondered if “Siri,” who plays a similar, albeit less romantic role, in Apple’s iOS mobile operating system for iPhone and iPad, could help me plan and take a vacation trip.

Siri Screenshot Edit 1

What travel questions could “Siri” answer? What trip planning tasks could “she” do for me? Should I employ “her,” or just do-it-myself?

Here’s what I learned.

What You Can Ask Siri to Do

If you hold down the “Home” button on your iPhone or iPad to activate Siri, but don’t ask he a question, you’ll see list of what you can ask Siri, including the following which could be helpful for travel:

  • “Will it be hot today?”
  • “Should I bring an umbrella.”
  • “How many dollars is 45 Euros?”
  • “Turn off my 6:30 a.m. alarm.”
  • “Wake me up in 8 hours.”
  • “Text Brian that I’m on my way.”
  • “When is sunrise in Paris?”
  • “Find a good pizzeria nearby.”
  • “What movies are playing?
  • “Find the best nail salon.”
  • “Remind me to call Mom.”

Siri did a good job when I presented all of these questions and tasks to her. And I routinely use her to make “hands-free” phone calls when I’m driving.

But Siri’s intelligence is artificial. As I discovered, she’s not as smart and mentally agile as a human being when it comes to trip planning, and she’s not as useful at a destination as a “real” traveling companion could be.

Basically, Siri does Web searches and finds Websites that might address your questions, but she often can’t answer them directly. And she can’t book a flight, a room, or a restaurant table for you, even if she locates a Website for an airline, hotel, or eatery.

She can open apps on your iPhone or iPad, but you can’t instruct her to a perform any of any app’s functions.

Does Siri “Do” Travel?

The short answer is that Siri is not very useful for planning and taking trips. She can “find” things, but because she’s not that “sophisticated,” she can’t “do” as many things as you would like.

Read the remainder of this story to see how Siri performed specific travel-related tasks for me.

And at the very end, you’ll learn whether you can enter into the same sort of “intimate relationship” with Siri that Theodore Twombly had with “Samantha” in the movie Her.

Picking a Vacation Destination

One of the toughest vacation planning chores is deciding where to go.

World Map

(Martyn Wright Flickr Photo)

You can ask “real” or “Facebook” friends for suggestions, peruse newspaper or magazine travel sections, or get inspiration from watching a movie like The Descendants, which apparently prompted a large influx of tourists to the Hawaiian isle of Kauai, much to the delight of the local tourism industry.

But to get an idea of where I might travel to, I posed these questions, and got these responses, from “Siri.”

Me: “It’s cold here. Where can I travel to that will have warm weather now?”

Siri: “It’s about 66 degrees Fahrenheit [where you live, Dick]. I don’t find that particularly cold.”

Helpfulness of Siri’s Response: Zilch.

I then tried a simpler inquiry.

Me: “What are the best places to visit in the U.S.”

Siri: “Let me check that. Here’s what I found on the web [ list of online travel stories and Websites with the words “best places in the U.S.”]

Helpfulness of Siri’s Response: Although she didn’t give me her “personal recommendations,” at least Siri directed me to resources that might have helped me pick a place to visit.

When I asked the same question, but substituted “Europe” for “the U.S.,” Siri said “Cogitating” and then came up with a similar list derived from a Web search.

After clicking on the word “Twitter” at the end of Siri’s Web search results, she accessed (with my permission) my Twitter account and found several tweets containing my search keywords.

Helpfulness of Siri’s Response: About the same as before, but with a few more suggestions derived from my Twitter followers.

How one phrases a query to Siri seems to matter to her.

Me: “What are most visited places in Asia?”

Siri: “Sorry, I haven’t been there” or “No, not yet” (referring to an Asian cuisine restaurant she found).

On the other hand, when I asked “What are the most frequently visited tourist destinations in China?” Siri said: “Sorry, Dick I can’t find things there. Can you be more specific?”

When I then said “How about in China?” she said “Here’s Beijing (and provided map with a “pin” stuck on Miliangku Hutong street which, when clicked on, opened a satellite view of that city.)

Helpfulness of Siri’s Response: Nada.

Finding and Booking Flights and Lodging

Unless you are taking a road trip and driving your own car from home and back, odds are that you will travel to and from your vacation destination by air.

AA Airliner

(Global Jet Flickr Photo)

And unless you’re bunking with friends or family, you’ll probably be staying in a hotel, motel, resort, or other lodgings.

If you plan to search individual airline Websites for flights, one at a time, you first need to know which airlines fly to your intended destination.

So here’s what I asked Siri.

Me: “Which airlines fly between the San Francisco Bay Area and Europe?”

Siri: “I found 15 airlines…twelve of them are in San Francisco [followed by a list of search results.]”

Wow! That was easy! Or was it?

Siri listed the Websites for ATA, Cathy Pacific and Philippine Airlines, several other Asian carriers, and Air Canada. I didn’t check each out carrier on the list, but ATA doesn’t fly between San Francisco and any city in Europe, and while Cathy Pacific has service to Amsterdam, it is via Asia, turning what should be a 10-hour or so flight into one twenty to thirty hours or longer.

And missing from the list were Air France, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, United, and Virgin Atlantic, all of which fly non-stop to at least one or more cities on the Continent.

Having made four trips from home to Europe, I knew that the best way to fly (if at all possible) is non-stop. But in the past, finding which airlines provide non-stop service from the San Francisco Bay area to any European city has been problematic for me.

So I asked Siri to tell me if there was non-stop air service to Madrid. Could she handle that job?

The answer: Not really.

When I asked which airlines offered non-stop service to Madrid, Siri came up with a list of Websites in which the words “non-stop” and “San Francisco” appeared, but many had nothing to do with flights to Madrid. The most relevant search result was a 2011 story on Examiner.com suggesting that San Francisco Bay Area residents fly to Los Angeles, and then catch a non-stop flight from there to Madrid.

Helpfulness of Siri’s Responses: What a joke!

Could Siri book a flight, any flight, for me to a specific destination?

No.

Me: “Book a flight to Los Angeles for me next Tuesday.”

Siri: “Here’s what I found on the web: [list of search results].

Helpfulness of Siri’s Responses: Zip!

By now, I had begun to realize that Siri wasn’t going to be much help in planning a trip. But I gave her one more chance: Find, and preferably book, a hotel room for me.

Hotel Sign

(Kevin Dooley Flickr Photo)

Me: “List San Francisco hotels with room rates under $300 a night for the period April 2 through 9.”

Siri: “I found fifteen hotels in San Francisco [list].”

Me: “Book me a room with a king bed at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco for three nights beginning April 2.”

Siri: Sorry, I couldn’t find any hotels matching ‘king bed for me at the four seasons’ near San Francisco.”

Helpfulness of Siri’s Responses: I knew I should have just done it myself rather than asking her.

Getting Into Town

There are often several ways to get from a major airport into town. I had traveled to Denver last fall, and so I knew the airport-city transportation options. But was Siri as knowledgeable as me?

Me: “What rental car companies are located at Denver International Airport?”

Siri: “I found fifteen car rental agencies…thirteen of them are fairly close to Denver International Airport, [in] Commerce City, CO: [list, which didn't include Hertz, the agency I actually used for my trip].”

Me: “Book me a car with Enterprise [one of the 15 companies Siri had found] for a week, beginning on May 1st.”

Siri: “I found nine car rental agencies a little ways from you [meaning near my home, not in Denver; since I didn’t say “Denver” in my instructions, Siri “forgot” that’s where I was headed].”

Okay, how else could I get downtown Denver from the airport?

Me: “What are the ground transportation options between downtown Denver and Denver International Airport?”

Siri: [She simply displayed a list of "Routing Apps" installed on my iPad.]

Helpfulness of Siri’s Responses: This got me literally and figuratively nowhere.

Getting Around Town

Having finally made it into town fro the airport, now I have to figure out how to get around, especially if I don’t have a rental car.

Here are questions I asked Siri.

Me: “Is it easy to get around on foot in Boston?”

Siri: “I don’t know where ‘on foot’ is.”

Me: “Is Boston a walkable city for tourists?”

Siri: “Here’s what I found on the web: [list of Websites with detailed information on walking about that city.]”

Me: “Get me directions for walking from San Francisco’s Ferry Building to Fisherman’s Wharf.”

Siri: [Siri produced a satellite view map with distance and walking time to Tarantino’s Restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf.]

Since I might not want to walk from place to place within a city, I asked Siri to determine motorized ways to travel about town.

Me: “Does the Uber car service operate in San Francisco?” (I already knew that it did.)

Siri: “Checking…my web search turned this up: [list of Websites, including that of Uber].”

San Francisco Muni Bus

(Torbarkhopper Flickr Photo)

Me: “How can I get around San Francisco on public transportation?”

Siri: “I found fifteen public transportation…ten of them are not far from San Francisco: [list of Bay Area Rapid Transit stations, not a list of public transportation options or agencies.]”

Me: “How can I get from the Ferry Building in San Francisco to Union Square by bus?”

Siri: [Siri provided a list of Routing apps on my iPad].

Me: “How much does it cost to take a taxi in San Francisco?”

Siri: “I found fifteen cab companies in San Francisco: [list of Websites.]

Helpfulness of Siri’s Responses: Zero, on a scale of one to ten.

Where to Dine

Thus far, Siri has proved worthless for trip planning. But maybe, just maybe, so could help me out when I had my “boots on the ground” at a vacation destination and was looking for a place to have dinner.

Me: “What nearby restaurants serve Chinese food?”

Siri: “I found three Chinese restaurants fairly close to you [list].”

Me: “Which [meaning which of those three] has the best food?”

Siri: ” I found fifteen restaurants…fourteen of them are fairly close to you. I’ve sorted them by rating.”

Helpfulness of Siri’s Responses: Siri is apparently kind of a “foodie.” She performed quite well in finding ethnic restaurants (in this case, near my home). She found nearby bars, brewpubs and liquor stores, too. But she couldn’t tell me where I could get dinner for under $30/person, or recommend the best places to dine.

What to See and Do

I live 25 miles or so into San Francisco to so when I asked Siri “What tourist attractions are nearby?” she only came up with a small park in my hometown.

It occurred to me that Siri might have thought that by “nearby” I meant “within a couple miles or so,” I revised my inquiry.

Me: “What tourist attractions are within 30 miles of my location?”

Siri: “I found fifteen historic sites within 30 miles of here: [list]”

Since Siri seemed to be a history buff, I asked her a slightly different question.

Me: “What museums are within 30 miles of my location?”

Siri: “”I found fifteen museums within 30 miles of here: [list]”

I had recently visited the newly re-opened Exploratorium in San Francisco, so I asked Siri:

Me: “What are the opening hours for the Exploratorium in San Francisco.”

Siri: “I can’t look specifically for opening and closing times…my apologies. OK, here’s Exploratorium in San Francisco: [map with the location; clicking on it opened a satellite view showing the location, and clicking on that temporarily opened a link to the Exploratorium Website, but the link disappeared before I could view the Website!].”

In some cities tourists can buy a pass covering several museums, saving them money on admission fees and allowing them to skip long ticket purchase lines at a museum entrances. So I wondered if Siri could tell me if such passes were available in San Francisco, London, Paris, and Florence.

Orsay

(Darek Rusin Flickr Photo)

Siri found information on the San Francisco CityPASS, London Pass, Paris Museum Pass, and several Websites that discussed museum passes for Italy in general, and Florence in particular.

Take Me out to the Ballgame!

Buying tickets to a sporting event isn’t always easy for tourists. Could Siri help “take me out to the ballgame”?

Me: “How can I get tickets for a Chicago Cubs baseball game?”

Siri: “Let me think about that. My web search turned this up [list of several sites where I could buy tickets to see the Cubbies, and the Iowa Cubs.]”

Me: “How can I get tickets for this year’s Super Bowl”?

Siri: “Sorry, Dick. I don’t see any scheduled games or scores for that request.” (Apparently Siri is, like me, totally disinterested in the outcome of the NFL championship game because “our” hometown San Francisco 49ers aren’t playing in it this year.)

Let’s Take a Walk

Several cities offer tourists and “locals” free or low-cost walking tours, often focusing on the history of the place. So asked Siri for information on such tours that I’ve previously taken in two cities, London and San Francisco.

Siri scored well, finding the outstanding “London Walks” tour company and the equally great “City Guides” walks in San Francisco, plus several other possibilities for seeing both cities on foot.

Opening and Running Apps

Siri obviously isn’t very adept at answering specific questions or booking travel.

But my iPhone and iPad are loaded with travel apps. Which could Siri open and run?

Unfortunately, I found that Siri often could not understand the name of the app. Sometimes if I spelled out the name, rather than speaking it, she got it right.

But even if Siri can find and open an app on your iPhone or iPad, you probably can’t ask her to make it perform any of its functions.

For example, when I told Siri “Take my photo,” she opened the iPhone’s native “Camera” app, but I couldn’t tell her to switch from the rear to front facing camera, or actually take the photo.

When I asked Siri to shoot a video with the Vine app, she opened the app, but didn’t record a video.

I wanted to make sure all of the apps on my iPad were up to date, so I said:

Me: “Update all of my apps.”

Siri: “I can’t update apps. Sorry about that.”

Love’s Labors Lost

Clearly Siri isn’t much of a trip planner or navigator.

But maybe, ala “Samantha” in Her, we could have a more intimate, travel relationship.

Heart

(epSos.de Flickr Photo)

Alas, that’s not to be either.

Me: “Siri, would you like to go on vacation with me?

Siri: “I really have no opinion.”

Me: “Siri, do you have a boyfriend, girlfriend, partner, significant other, husband or wife?

Siri:  “I have you. That’s enough family for me.”

Me:  “Siri, I’d like to have a romantic relationship with you. Are you interested?”

Siri: “I really don’t like these arbitrary categories.”

Me: “Siri, can we at least be friends?”

Siri: “You’ve been my friend since day one, Dick.”

(After reading this article in today’s New York Times, I quickly ran through my travel queries using the voice function in the Google search app on my iPad. The responses were generally less accurate and useful than those produce using Siri, and as is the case with searches typed into the app, the top results were sometimes based on Google ads rather than what might have been the most relevant search results.)

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