January 7, 2013
Tips for flying Space A
Hi All! My name is Eva Burns. I'm the president of the SCC. This photo is of my husband Sam (MS2, Army, no prior) and me in front of the Louvre in Paris on Christmas Eve.
Have you ever wanted to fly Space-A, but were too nervous to try it? Here are some tips and tricks I just learned.
Over the holiday break Sam and I flew Space-A from Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) to Ramstein AFB (RMS), and then trained into Paris for our vacation. For those of you who don't know, the term "Space-A" refers to the open seats on military flights that aren't being occupied by military personnel on duty. The "A" stands for available. Essentially you are able to fly for free using these open seats. However there are a few rules, and there are never any guarantees. Here's a break down of what I learned...
The first thing you want to do is figure out where you want to go, and if there is a base nearby that will fly to that particular location. Here's a map that details which bases fly where.
Once you know where you want to go, you've got to figure out when the flights are. Duh. Easier said than done though. Flights are not posted publicly until 72 hours prior to take off. However, you can go in person to the check in counter, show your military ID, and get a flight schedule. Schedules for the following month become available on the 15th of every month. (For example, February's flight schedule will be available January 15th.) The Air Mobility Command (AMC) you visit in person will only have the departures and arrivals for their base. (For example, BWI schedule only showed when and where flights were leaving, and when and where they were returning.) When I visited BWI I could not get a schedule for returning flights from Ramstein. There were arrival times for Ramstein, and with a little math I could guess as to when flights were leaving Ramstein. To get exact times though I called Ramstein a few days prior to the days I wanted to fly home to get exact times. The flight schedules indicate the time you have to be marked present at the airport (I'll get more into that under logistics), not when the plane actually takes off. Departure time is about two to three hours later. At the time you call to confirm flight times (remember that can only be done 72 hours in advance), the number of seats available for Space-A travel will also be indicated. I think each AMC has it's own Facebook page that updates flight times and Space-A, but for me it was just easier to call. Contact info can be found on the map link above by clicking on a specific AMC.
The hard thing about Space-A is that although it's free, you cannot reserve your seats on the flight. I can't stress enough how important it is to be flexible with your travel dates. For our trip, Sam signed up for two weeks of leave. Our plan was to only be in Europe for about a week, but we wanted to have a cushion on either side so incase we didn't get on our first choice of flights, we had back up flights we could still take. And just incase you get stuck at your destination, it's a good idea to make sure you have enough money in the bank to buy a plane ticket home. Another point on being flexible, is hotel reservations. I booked our hotel for the two weeks we could be in Paris, but I made sure I knew what their cancellation policy was. I was pretty sure we were going to get on our first choice flight, but just incase we didn't I had the hotel's info handy so I could email them right away to delay our check in date. Then once we got to the hotel, I amended our check out date to an earlier day. Other than reserving our hotel, we didn't make any other reservations or concrete plans. We tried to approach the whole vacation with an easy going attitude. We kept telling ourselves if we make it over there, great! If not, then that's ok too. The only time being flexible really cost us was with train tickets. When I had done my initial research about training into Paris (via Stuttgart, Germany) from Ramstein, I had looked up ticket prices a few months in advance. The total cost was about 240 euros for the both of us round trip. However I couldn't buy the tickets at the time because, of course, I had no idea if we were actually going to make it over there at all. All of our train tickets were bought the day of or the night before and totaled, for the both of us round trip, about 660 euros. This was an unexpected cost. I had assumed the ticket prices would go up, but I was not expecting them to be that high. With that said though, had I known the train tickets were going to be that high in advance, I still would have done the trip. That is still half the amount of one plane ticket to Europe. To me it was worth it. When I got home I looked into Eurail Passes, but we wouldn't have saved any moola with one. Just be aware that flexibility can sometimes cost more.
The way you get a seat on Space-A all depends on your priority level. Your priority is determined by two factors, Category Level and when your spouse submits their leave form. If you are traveling with your spouse on vacation, you guys will be Category III. For a list of all 6 categories, go here. The sooner the leave form is in, the higher priority you will be within your category. Once your spouse is on leave, they can submit their leave form via e-mail, fax, snail mail, or sign up on line. We submitted via email. That seemed like the most reliable way. (Contact info can be accessed via the map link above.) Three important things: 1. Submit the leave form as soon as leave starts, i.e.12:01 am that day. 2. Submit the leave form to both AMC's at that time, so in our case Sam emailed BWI and RMS at the same time. 3. In the email indicate all travelers and passport numbers (if flying internationally) and that you plan to fly round trip. If you only send your sponsor's leave form then only one seat will be indicated for them.
It is crucial that you are present and accounted for by check in time (the time indicated on all the flight schedules). I was universally told to allow about an hour to check in. You don't need to get to the airport super early to check in thinking that will give you a higher priority. Remember, your priority within your category was already determined when your sponsor submitted their leave form. Checking in just lets them know that you are there and that you want to be on the next flight if there is room. At both airports it only took 5 minutes to check in, but I would much rather have a cushion of time than miss the check in time. At check in you need to present military IDs, leave form, and passport (for international travel). If you are not accounted for before check in time, you move to the bottom of the list for that flight. About a half hour after check in time roll call is taken. This is when you find out if you've made the flight or not. If you are not present when they call your name at roll call, you move to the bottom of the list. At BWI we were told that we made the flight as soon as we were marked present, and didn't have to wait around for roll call. At RMS Sam was number 34 out of 98 sponsors. (There were over 200 passengers though because almost all sponsors had dependents with them.) Once you are cleared to get on the flight things proceed much like normal air travel. You check your bags (here's a link on baggage requirements) and get paper tickets at the check in counter, then you go through TSA security (just like normal airport stuff - pull out your laptops, body scanners, shoes off, 3oz liquids, etc.), then you wait at the gate.
We are really lucky to have BWI as our closest AMC because they only use commercial planes there. (I think the only other AMC that exclusively uses commercial planes in the US is Travis AFB in California.) Our flight over was on a plush plane chartered by Delta. Everyone had their own TV with a billion TV shows and movies to choose from. The flight back was chartered by World airlines. The plane was so old it still had ashtrays. There were movies playing on monitors mounted throughout the cabin. Each flight provided two hot meals and lots of snacks and beverages. If you choose to fly out of another base you could be on any sort of military plane. Cargo planes included. If that's the case, I've heard a space blanket is must to have in your carryon luggage because it gets cold! Here's a link to AMC Space-A. If you look on the lower righthand side you'll see a list of common planes flown for Space-A.
Long term parking is only $8 at BWI. On actual AFB though I think it's free.
International flights aren't exactly free. You do have to pay a tax. $16 each for both us going over, and $32 each for each of us on the way back.
I heard that you had to wear closed toe and closed healed shoes on all flights. This wasn't a problem because we travelled during winter.
One of the reasons our trip was a success was because we were flying into Europe when most people stationed in Germany were trying to fly into the States. And vice-versa on our return trip. (We traveled December 22 and 29.) If you travel at all during the summer, I've been told to expect delays. On both flights everyone who checked in made the flight. Each flight had about 230 spots available, and were full. We also chose to fly on the weekend because there are always more spots available Saturday and Sunday.
For the most part, you can't fly without your sponsor. So if you're thinking of jetting off to Tokyo while they are on rotations, sorry to break it to you, but you can't. (Can you tell I thought about this?) The only time a dependent can fly without their sponsor is when the their sponsor is stationed overseas, and the dependent is flying back to the States.
I just wanted to let all of you with children know that their were lots and lots of kids on each flight. So this can definitely be done with little ones in tow.
Our hotel in St. Augustine neighborhood in Paris was owned by the French military and can only be used be officers of Allied Forces. It was a pretty good deal. We had a view of the Eiffel Tower and a balcony, and it was in a great location, but the room itself was dingy. It was probably really nice about 20 years ago. I mention it though because they have locations all over the world, and might be good options when traveling. However, if I could do it over, I would have rented an apartment off craiglist. Lots of great deals there, just something to consider.
Last, but certainly not least, make copies! Bring copies of your sponsor's leave form and of your military ID's and passports. But most importantly, bring copies of the email sent to the AMC you plan on traveling to and from. Just in case your email doesn't go through, or gets lost in the shuffle, or deleted, or whatever, you want to have a copy of the time stamp of when your email was sent as that is how you get your priority level.
Well, that's about all I can think of for Space-A travel. I hope this inspires you to take advantage of this amazing (free!) opportunity and see the world! I'm by no means an expert on this, as I've only done it once, so I encourage you to call the AMC you plan on flying out of if you have specific questions. (I would sometimes call several times and ask the same question to different people until I actually got a clear answer.) I'm happy to answer questions too. Just email me at email@example.com.