Be honest: You've always wanted to try a Space-A flight, but the uncertainty and lack of detail have always kept you from taking the leap.
You're not alone.
Navy military spouse Jill, her active duty husband, and their three kids just returned to their home in Hawaii after a trip across Japan. They caught a Space-A flight to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, then on to Yokota Air Base, Japan. They took the trains around the country, sightseeing, then hopped back to Okinawa on another flight.
Then their family couldn't get five seats aboard a plane to Hawaii. They had allowed a week's worth of extra time and prepared as much as possible, but after days of cancellations, they decided to bite the bullet and buy five airline tickets home, setting them back thousands of dollars. Fortunately, Jill was prepared for that possibility -- it comes with the risk of flying Space A. Her verdict? A successful family vacation.
Are you ready to try it for yourself? Here's what you need to know.
4 Tips for Flying Space-A
What is Space A? Space Available travel is when military planes or charters have empty seats and offer them to waiting eligible passengers. Eligible means they did their homework, have the right paperwork, and -- really -- just got lucky.
1. Know your category. I got an email from a service member's father asking how he could fly on a Space-A flight to visit his son. The answer is, unfortunately, he couldn't. Space-A is only available for service members, their dependents, military retirees and some disabled veterans.
Active duty service members on emergency leave (Category I), or EML (Category II) get highest priority. Service members and any family with them traveling on leave get next priority, along with dependents of service members stationed overseas (Category III). After that comes dependents whose service member is currently deployed 120 days or more (Category IV), students whose sponsor is stationed OCONUS (Category V), and retirees and reservists and their dependents (Category VI). In 2019 service connected 100 percent disabled veterans were also added to Category VI, although they are not permitted to fly with dependents.
2. Know where you are going. Flights are tentatively announced 72 hours ahead of time, even for regularly scheduled flights. Download the Take-a-Hop app on your smartphone ($6.99), which lists all AMC terminals and their contact information.
Then, start calling the information lines of any terminals you plan to fly out of. Interested in Asia? Look into the Patriot Express, a regular shuttle from the West Coast. Europe more your style? Check flight times on the Rotator from the East Coast. Or skip the jet lag and try to hop a flight to Key West!
3. Do you have all your paperwork? You must have your military ID card. You must have a copy of leave orders or EML orders. You must have a passport if you are traveling overseas. You must have a letter from your command verifying eligibility from the service member's command if you are in Category IV. You must have DD Form 1853 if you are a reservist.
If you're heading out of the country, consider getting an international driver's license ($25 from AAA) before leaving home, since an American license won't always allow you to rent a car overseas.
4. Be flexible. The more flexible you can be, the more fun you'll have. The simpler and more direct your itinerary, the more successful you may be. Expect planes to get delayed or rerouted. Bring food, books and games for the airport. Pack lighter than light, bring lots of money, and expect to end up somewhere unexpected. Be prepared to rent cars, purchase flights home, and rent hotel rooms.
The first time my husband was stationed on the East Coast, he decided he had to see Europe. From Jacksonville, Florida, we hopped to BWI. We rented a car and spent the night on a military base nearby, then toured Washington, D.C. in the morning before heading back to the airport. We each paid a small fee ($13 maybe) for the BWI hop to Ramstein AFB, Germany.
There, we rented a car and drove south to Austria, Neuschwanstein, and Munich's Oktoberfest. Then we drove back to Ramstein and found out our flight back to BWI was canceled. We spent the night on base. Our flight the next morning was cancelled, so we regrouped and got on a flight to Charlottesville, via Newfoundland. Then we rented yet another car and drove home to Jacksonville, arriving at 4 a.m.
If that sounds like an exhausting, stressful waste of time, maybe flying Space A is not for you. It did not end up being a cheap trip, but it was an adventure, and a much nicer trip than we could have bought for the same price.
If you're going to spend money on a vacation anyway, and enjoy a little mystery in life, Space A might be just the ticket!