Welcome to the Twilight Zone of travel

Things are about to get weird — very weird

There's no fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man, but it sure feels like we've entered the Twilight Zone — at least when it comes to travel.

It's not just that you don't know what to expect out there. Masks on or off? Vaccines required or not? 

It's more the weirdness of it all. Things look almost normal on the outside. But spend a little time on the road and you'll soon feel like you're in … the Twilight Zone.

Maybe it's just me. I had an opportunity to visit the Iowa State Fair on Friday. Some people wore masks outdoors ("virtue signaling," my unvaccinated brother would say) while others crowded into the beer tents, oblivious to the possible consequences. I maintained a polite distance and used a lot of hand sanitizer. But it was all so confusing.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Have you seen any strangeness during your summer travels? Do you expect Rod Serling or Jordan Peele to step out from behind the curtain to explain everything? You know what to do. Push the big red button. If you dare.

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No one knows

The door we're stepping through is framed by the University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index released late Friday. This closely watched number plunged almost 14 percent to 70.2, the lowest reading since 2011.

Why? Experts blame the dramatic decline on the rapid spread of the COVID-19 delta variant across the United States, which has forced some states and cities to reinstate mask mandates and other health restrictions.

This falling consumer sentiment will likely send shockwaves through the economy, affecting how people book their fall and winter vacations. But we just don't know. For all we know, maybe the delta variant has already peaked and lambda will be a non-event.

But what if that's not the case? What if we head into a fall of lockdowns and more travel restrictions? This uncertainty is turning the last half of 2021 into an enormous mystery for the traveling public. 

What will happen? No one knows.

Cue the theme music.

Shifting travel rules

There are also the constantly changing travel requirements. Consider Canada, which until this month banned U.S. travelers. Then it allowed Americans to cross the border. But on Friday, it made a stunning announcement. As "soon as possible" this fall and no later than the end of October, the government will require commercial air travelers, passengers on interprovincial trains, and passengers on large marine vessels with overnight accommodations, such as cruise ships, to prove they've been vaccinated.

Yep, vaccination passports are here.

I know what you're thinking. "As soon as possible" this fall could be any time. Do you need to get your shots now if you're planning to visit Canada? What are the chances that the requirements will change again before October? 

Now take Canada and imagine that happening for almost every country. Will they require vaccines? Won't they? What other rules might they come up with? 

We just don't know. There's no way to know.

I try to answer questions like, "When will it be safe to go to [insert name of destination]?" and "When will they allow us to get into [insert name of destination]?" in our weekly Washington Post travel chat every Monday. These questions are, of course, unanswerable — but that doesn't stop me from trying. 

Increasingly, I feel like I could get better answers by summoning the ghost of Rod Serling in a seance — or throwing darts at a board.

What's next, space aliens?

It's unlikely we'll see anything as strange as space aliens when we're out on the road. Take it from me; I've been traveling full-time since early April. But things can get Twilight-Zoney in other ways. 

A sudden lockdown. Those happened in March and April of 2020 as COVID cases spiked in the United States. Although it didn't affect interstate travel, it did dramatically affect people who were overseas, including yours truly. Let me tell you, the last thing you want is to find your vacation destination on lockdown. 

An unexpected quarantine requirement. If you get back home, you're not out of the woods. You may have to quarantine in your basement or a hotel for up to two weeks. That happened in Canada earlier this year, and the U.K. still has some strange and confusing quarantine requirements.

More COVID travel weirdness. Yeah, you think all those misbehaving air travelers have nothing to do with the pandemic? I don't think so. So the real question is, what other bizarre behaviors will we encounter during delta and lambda? Let your imagination run wild.

I can't imagine what's next

The world is filled with uncertainty and no one knows what's coming next. I've had a front-row seat to the spectacle of an ebbing and flowing pandemic. I've seen people wearing masks outdoors when they don't have to and not wearing masks indoors when they're supposed to. I've answered questions about my vaccination status (vaccinated) and I've argued with relatives who are traveling with me about why they should be vaccinated.

All I can say is: What a weird world we live and travel in now. I can't imagine what is going to happen next. 

Welcome to the Twilight Zone of travel. 

Ladies and gentlemen, it's time to share your stories from the Twilight Zone of travel. Seen anything weird out there? Do you expect to see anything unusual in the coming days or weeks? And has that stopped you from traveling — or encouraged you to spend more time on the road? The comments are open. Please join me.

(P.S. I heard from my unvaccinated brother last night. He's getting his shots this week.)

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About the art

This week's Twilight Zone illustration is one of my all-time favorites. Artist Dustin Elliott says he was trying to distort and animate a monochromatic Rod Serling, injecting him with "the pain and neuroticism of anticipating something terrible." To do that, he focused on the anxiety within his bushy brow and eyes and intensified his usually stoic features.

"I fattened his features unconsciously perhaps to meet today's standards of fat positivity. He's a little beefier and more athletic, I'd say," he adds. "I worked within the theme of black and white sensational movie posters of the 50s and 60s."