Travel Tips

I flew space-a and survived!

This summer I found myself with three weeks of use or lose leave and no plans. My boys had a few weeks of school left and we had just done back to back to back vacations on four-day weekends so our bank account was looking a little skimpy. My 6-month old daughter had not met my dad yet and it had been almost 2 years since I’d visited my home. I thought it would be nice for me and my daughter to go on a trip to Ohio together. With a tiny budget but quite a bit of time I decided to give a space-a flight from Germany to the USA a shot.

If you aren’t familiar with space-a, the premise is that the Air Force has missions flying all around the world every day and if they have extra space available in their planes they would rather give it away to eligible passengers than just let it go to waste. If you are in the military you can compete for these seats.If you aren’t familiar with space-a, the premise is that the Air Force has missions flying all around the world every day and if they have extra space available in their planes they would rather give it away to eligible passengers than just let it go to waste. If you are in the military you can compete for these seats.

While these seats are virtually free ($34/person for taxes), it can be incredibly frustrating to actually get one. There is no way to know more than 3 days out what flights will be going where, how many seats will be available, and how many other people you are competing against for potential seats. Even within the 3 day window you can see the flights available, but they are subject to change at any time and you still don’t know how many other people are trying to compete for the same flight as you are.

I knew all of this, but I determined the stress of unpredictability was worth more than the $1,000 or more per person it would cost for me and my daughter to go visit my home town. So off we went on our space-a adventure!

We did make it on a flight, but I found it really difficult to get all the information I wanted before I flew. Fortunately for all of you, I’m a little bit of a bossy know-it-all, so I would love to save you from having to scour the internet for relevant space-a information as I did and tell you exactly what you should do if you want to get on a space-a flight!

Step 1: Determine where you want to go and make a list of passenger terminals

When I flew I knew we wanted to go from Germany to the USA. However, maybe you’re flexible and want to go on an adventure wherever a plane will take you. To find out where space-a passenger terminals are, check out the AMC web page. They have a list of all passenger terminals and when you click on a specific terminal it will take you to the link for their Facebook page or contact information.

If you have a specific area of the USA you are trying to get to but don’t see a passenger terminal listed, look up what the closest Air Force Base or Air National Guard base is to your home town and then go to spacea.net to see if they have contact information for the passenger terminal there.

For example, my parents live like 2 minutes from Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio, but they didn’t have a passenger terminal listed on the AMC website. After some research, it turns out that the passenger terminal there is run by civilians, not AMC, but you can still take space-a flights from there. It is not as user-friendly since they don’t have a Facebook page to check the flight schedules, but spacea.net will provide you with the number you can call and get a prerecorded message on their upcoming flights.

Odds of you getting to a specific passenger terminal on the specific day you want are very slim, so a good strategy is to make a list of terminals you wouldn’t mind flying out of (if you’re leaving Germany, it’s pretty easy. You’re only options are Ramstein and Spangdahlem) and a list of terminals you wouldn’t mind flying into. I went with anything on the east coast or Midwest, which gave me a solid list of over a dozen possible places to which I was willing to take a flight or leave from on my way back. On your list make sure to include their Facebook page (if they have one), email address, and phone numbers to the passenger terminal so you can monitor flight information.

Step 2: Get an idea for flight trends and determine when you’re going to fly

Once you have a good list put together, start checking to see the flight trends. I knew I wanted to leave out of Ramstein, so I went to their Facebook page and looked not only at the 72 hour upcoming flight schedule, but their weekly report of what flights actually flew and how many seats they gave away. This gave me a good idea of how likely it would be for me to get to any area of the country. For example, flights to rinky-dink Air National Guard bases on the west coast on cargo planes never seemed to fill up, but those to Baltimore-Washington International on passenger planes filled up instantly. If I wanted to get on one of the later types of flights, I now knew that it might take several days of waiting.

Look for what days of the week seem to leave the most open seats and what flights happen the most often to get a better idea of the flight you might want to shoot for. This is not an exact science and any of these trends can change at any moment, but it does give you a better idea of how early you need to sign up to try to get to a certain location.

Step 3: Sign up for flights

Signing up for flights is actually pretty easy. All you do is send the terminal an email with the following information:

  • Email address
  • Start/end dates of your leave
  • Rank
  • Full Name
  • The country to which you are flying
  • Service branch (Army, Navy, Airforce, etc.)
  • Status (Active, Guard, Reserve, Retired)
  • Passenger names
  • Travel category (Category I: Civilian or Military on Emergency Leave Category II: Environmental Morale Leave (EML) Category III: Active Duty on Ordinary Leave/PCS House Hunting Category IV:  Unaccompanied Dependents (EML) Category V: Permissive TDY/TAD or Command Sponsored Dependents Category VI: Retired Military)
  • Total seats required

I also attached my leave form to the email.

I composed two emails; one to the airports I was trying to fly out of to leave Germany and one to the airports I was trying to fly out of to leave the US and get back home. Send all you emails at the same time! Don’t wait to send the emails for your flights home!

Since space-a seats are given away first by category and then by time you sign up, you want to send your emails as soon as possible. Even if you have to wait a while to get a flight out, you at least should have pretty good luck catching a flight back if you make sure to send all your emails as soon as your leave starts.

Step 4: Go to the terminal on the day you want to fly

I had been watching the 72 hour flight schedules of both Ramstein and Spangdahlem religiously and finally a flight to Wright-Patterson AFB popped up. I decided this was my time to go try and catch a flight.

The flight schedule will say what time roll call for each flight is. Get to the terminal at least an hour before roll call for the flight you want to take.

When you get to the terminal look for long term parking. At Ramstein, this was pretty obvious as there were signs everywhere, but it is a good idea to look up where the parking is ahead of time so you can put it in your GPS. Also, the parking was free (yay!).

Take all your bags and passengers and head into the terminal and look for the “space-a” counter. This is where you check in and say you want to compete for flights. They will get all your information and put a time stamp on your leave form. Now you are checked in for 24 hours

I had wondered if I needed to call ahead of time to let them know I was going to compete for a flight or to make sure they got my email, but you don’t. If you’re worried that they did not get your email, make sure to print it out and take it with you. When you get to the terminal and check in, even if they did not have you in their system they will honor the time that your email was sent.

Step 5: Roll Call

Now things get stressful. Sometime around the time roll call is scheduled they will start announcing the names of people who have made it on the flight. At Ramstein they will call your name twice and if you do not respond, you go to the bottom of the list, so be sure to be where you can hear the announcement and pay attention!

You have to be ready to fly at the time your name is called or your name will go to the bottom of the list. This means have your ID, passenger’s passports, passengers present and ready to go, and bags in hand and ready to be checked. Also, don’t wear your open-toed, open-healed, or high-healed shoes or they can keep you from getting on the plane.

If they call your name, awesome! Go on to the next step! If they don’t call your name, it can be a real bummer. I didn’t make that flight to Wright-Patt that first day and was really frustrated. Decide ahead of time how long you are willing to wait for a flight (my limit was three days) and stick to it. Have a plan B that you can live with just in case you don’t make a flight in your time limit. I waited two days and finally caught a flight to Baltimore on my third day at Ramstein. As soon as I found out I wouldn’t be flying for the day, I went over to the hotel and tried to book a room. If they are full (like they were on my second day of waiting) you can ask for a list of hotels available on the economy and start making some calls.

Step 6: Getting to the plane

After roll call I waited in line for over an hour (I am not exaggerating) to get my boarding ticket. One nice thing about traveling space-a is that on most planes you can check two 70lb bags and take a carry on for free! Also, car seats and strollers do not count against your baggage allowance and you can gate check them so you can keep your kids restrained until you actually get on the flight. Although the baggage allowance is nice, if you can avoid checking bags I highly recommend it. At the end of the flight it took people who checked their bags forever to get them back.

Once you finally make it up to the boarding ticket counter, check your bags, and get a seat assignment it is time to pay. It’s about $34/person for a space-a flight because you are paying the taxes. They took credit/debit cards at Ramstein, but check ahead on the terminal’s website or just bring cash if you aren’t sure. Once you pay you get your boarding ticket and then it’s off to another line to get through security!

The security line was just as long as the ticketing line. It is the same security rules as at a civilian airport. After security a customs officer will glance at your passport or ID card and then you go wait in another line (surprise, surprise) to actually get on the plane. This is the point at which you gate check your strollers if you have them.

Step 7: The flight

They will usually let families with small children get on the flight first. Once you’re on the plane settle in and get comfy! The plane we were on was an actual passenger plane, so it was the same as any other flight I’ve ever been on. However, you could be on less comfortable military aircraft so be sure to come prepared with blankets, pillows, headphones, or whatever you think you’ll need to be comfortable.

Step 8: Arrival

Congrats! You just finished your first space-a flight! But you aren’t done yet! If you just crossed an ocean now you get to wait in…hold on, let the suspense build a minute ‘cause I bet you’ll never guess… another line! This time it’s for customs.

Once you finally make it through customs it’s on to baggage claim. Even if you have a follow on flight you have to get your bags and then re-check them with your next airline. By this point you are probably sick of waiting which is why I suggested to only do carry-ons if at all possible.

Step 9: Getting where you actually want to go

Odds are you did not fly directly into your home town (or wherever your final destination actually is). Since you weren’t sure you would actually get a flight and/or where a flight you could catch would land, now you need to go to a ticket counter and buy a ticket home. If you landed at an Airforce base instead of an airport, ask at the counter for the number for an airport shuttle, and then take the shuttle to an airport and buy a flight to your home town. At the ticket counter be sure to show them your military ID because they probably have a military discount.

Another strategy (which I tried but my stupid iPod wouldn’t connect to the internet) is once your name is called during roll call and you are waiting for hours in a line to get your ticket, get on the internet and book a flight. I would have saved $35 had I been able to do this since they charge you extra for booking flights at the ticket counter.

Step 10: Do a happy dance

OMG, you endured days of waiting, but you saved literally thousands of dollars! Time to celebrate!

Even with all the stress and time spent, I would do space-a again. I mean, it’s a $34 flight! At least now I know what I’m in for and hopefully after reading this, you do too!

Have you ever taken a space-a flight? Let me know about it in the comments below!



Free 4-Day Weekend Trip Planner

Ah, the 4-day weekend, a.k.a. a 4-day, a.k.a. a DONSA, a.k.a. arguably one of the best things about being in the Army. If you’re stationed OCONUS a 4-day provides the perfect opportunity to get out and take a quick trip to another country (like we did in Greece and Switzerland). The only down side is that you’ve got to do so much planning and researching and scheduling that it can make your head spin!

Make planning your next weekend getaway easy with this free Excel download!

Well, lucky for you, I’m a big nerd! I’ve got this weird Microsoft Excel obsession (yeah, I know, I should get that checked out) and am going to share with you the ultimate 4-day trip planner that I’ve created.

It’s got snazzy things like drop down menus

Drop Down Menu
Oooo. Ahhh.

You can fill in the blanks with all your trip information…

Fill In Blank
Pretty fancy, huh?

It adds up all your expenses for you…

Now that's just sexy.
Now that’s just sexy.

And it’s all yours! Just type in your email and follow the steps to get access to my super-secret page of free downloads!DOWNLOAD NOW!



6 Reasons why you Should Travel the World with Kids

Are you the type of person that thrives on excitement? Are you the kinda guy (or girl) that loves a challenge? Are you slightly masochistic? If you answered “yes” to any or all of these questions then you, my friend, should try traveling the world with a kid (or two or three)!

6 reasons to travel with kids

People often ask me why I travel with my kids. I’m not really sure if it’s because they are just curious or if it’s because they are concerned for my sanity. Either way, I sat down and thought about it and came up with a list. So without further ado, here are the reasons why I travel with my kids and why you should too (travel with your kids, that is, not mine… although you can totally borrow mine for a week or so if you want)!

1. A pack mule is your spirit animal. Do you dream of laying on the beach in your bikini with nothing but a Mojito in your hand? Ew! Me either! I’d much rather shove my mom-pooch into a “figure-flattering” ruched one-piece while I carry a baby in a car-seat, a toddler, a six-year-old’s hand, towels, buckets, shovels, a picnic basket full of snacks, a cooler full of drinks, hats, sunscreen, diapers, wipes, water shoes, Hot-Wheels cars, an umbrella, a camera and car keys. Sure, son, I can definitely hold your sunglasses too! I know you aren’t holding anything else and you can clearly see I’ve got my hands full, but I wouldn’t want you to have to strain your delicate little wrist, now would I? That’s right, just balance it precariously on top of the cooler while we try to cross the street without getting hit by a truck… Good times!

2. You think looking at historic landmarks for a duration of more than 3 seconds is overrated. Oh, look, the Parthe – Jonah, don’t chew on that leaf – non. Oh, look, you can see the whole city from – Nate, stop throwing rocks over the castle wall you’re going to hit somebody in the head and kill them – up here! You know that the only way to truly appreciate the wonders of the world is to realize that life is short and that this 3-second glance is all the time you will get to enjoy what’s before you before your children run away and/or injure themselves and/or destroy a famous building that’s stood for hundreds of years – until it met your horrific offspring. Ah, building mem’ries!

3. You can finally compete with those “crunchy moms”. Did you know that every time you bottle feed a baby a crunchy mom dies? Don’t worry, it’s okay, all you have to do is clap your hands three times and say “I don’t believe in vaccines” and they’ll come back to life. No longer do you have to deal with feelings of inferiority for clearly not loving your child as much as a crunchy mom does because you don’t use cloth diapers! If you travel the world with kids, the next time a crunchy mom gives you a dirty look for feeding your child a chicken nugget you can respond with “Oh, believe me, I know this is basically a gluten-covered dog turd – it’s nothing at all like the chicken nuggets we fed our children in Paris, don’t you agree? Oh, you haven’t taken your children to Paris? I see.” (Insert smug stare here). Now they feel guilty and inferior! See how I turned that around? Bam!

4. You love being broke. You know that feeling when you’ve paid off all your debt, you’ve built up a good emergency fund and you’re making solid monthly contributions to your Roth IRA? Blech! Like, sooooo annoying, right?! Even the Bible says that money is the root of all evil, so it’s pretty much your Christian duty to get to spendin’!

“Money is bad.” – God

Aw, bummer, I found a great deal on flights – it’s only $200 to fly from Europe to the US. But wait! I’ve got 5 people in my family, so now I get to spend $1,000! Plus, lets add some baggage fees for all the crap my family has to bring everywhere it goes. YES!!! Just have some kids so you can multiply all your travel expenses by 5 and money will disappear from your bank account as fast as Oreos do from my pantry when I’m pregnant (that’s pretty much lightning speed, BTW)

5. Mario Kart was your favorite game as a child. Didn’t you just love swerving all over the road to avoid obstacles, listening to the catchy sound effects and music while being shot with turtle shells? Well, now that you’re traveling with kids you can relive your favorite childhood game! Except now the obstacles are real-life 5-hour traffic jams, the music is “The Wheels on the Bus” 18,000 times in a row, the sound effects are a screaming baby and arguing preschoolers (don’t worry, you can hardly hear them over the sound of your own sobbing), and the turtle shell is a sippy cup flying at your head! Awesome!

6. You want your children to see the good and the beautiful in the world. This is it. I know we’ve been having fun till now, but this is the real reason we travel with our kids. The more we travel the more we realize that people everywhere are more similar than they are different, there are more good people than there are bad, and that if you look hard enough you can find something positive in almost every place and situation. You should travel the world with children to teach them that the world is bigger than the little corner that they are used to. You should travel the world with children to show them that no matter where you go in life your family will keep you safe and try to help you have fun. You should travel the world with children so they will appreciate coming home. Even though it can be a challenging and scary, you should travel the world with children to show them that working as a team and being brave can help them get to the places that most other people never have a chance to see.

Have you traveled with children? WHY, please tell me WHY(?!?!?) you would do such a thing in the comment section below!



The real deal with long lines at airport security

So did you guys hear about this article where TSA is blaming passengers for the ridiculously long lines at airports? Crazy, right?! Go ahead and look up, passenger. See that? That big thing looming over your head? That’s a bus. TSA threw you right the heck under it.

The

As it just so happens, I used to work for TSA. It’s been eight years, so some things might have changed, but from my experience I think TSA’s claim that it’s all the passenger’s fault is not totally accurate. Sure, there are some things passengers could do to speed up the process like Valerie and Valise explains in this post, but passengers have no control over major factors in the speed at which people move through a security checkpoint like the amount of flights scheduled at one time, how early an airline will allow check-in, or the amount of TSA workers on shift at a time. Besides, even if most people take the time to learn how to pack (Going Awesome Places has a really good post on this, BTW), how dress (this type of shoe would be good), the proper way to package liquids (didn’t think I’d leave you hanging, didja? Here ya’ go!) and how to handle their crazy kids (last one I promise! Read this from Walking on Travels or read this great article from Trips with Tykes) all it takes is one uneducated person to slow down the line for everybody behind them.

So what was TSA thinking when they placed the blame on passengers? Why would any organization so brazenly bite the proverbial hand that feeds it? Three words. They. Don’t. Care. Here’s a little story to tell you why.

Imagine: The year is 2005 and little Debra (that’s me) is a 19 year old army reservist who just got hired on at TSA. She gets taught everything she needs to know to carry out the task of securing an airport. Once out of training, she enthusiastically starts carrying out her duties. Please start playing your favorite Rocky-style training music right now and get ready for the following montage.

  • Oh, that checked bag weighs 75lbs? No problem for this bag lifting pro! *uses She Hulk strength to throw bag into luggage scanner*
  • Oh, you thought you could just park in front of the airport all willy nilly? Move along lingering creepy guy – Freedom called, she needs this parking spot!
  • Oh, there’s a cell phone/probably-definitely-a-loaded-firearm-or-something-totally-dangerous-in-your-pocket-setting-off-the-metal-detector-nope-never-mind-guess-it-was-just-a-cellphone in your pocket? Get that thing outcha pocket and put it in a bin, sir!
  • Oh, you think it’s no big deal to have toothpaste that’s in a 4oz container? That’s how terrorist win, muthatrucker! *slam dunks said toothpaste into trashcan*
  • Oh, you want to take your pocket knife on an airplane? NOT TODAAAAY!

Needless to say, lil’ Debbie is loving her job. She works with some great people, feels like she’s really doing something to help people, meets local celebrities, discovers amusing things in people’s bags and finds the work mentally stimulating.

However, not to long after she starts this job, passengers start making comments to her. For some craaaaazy reason, they don’t like being wanded and patted down. They feel like their privacy is being violated by bag searches. They get mad when they’re selected for random searches. And they take it out on Debra by refusing to return her friendly smiles, ignoring her gentle instructions to empty change from their pockets, throwing hissy fits when they have to be subjected to further screening, and calling her an idiot when she has to throw away their precious liquids.

Deb is confused. Don’t these passengers understand she is just following protocol? Even if she wants to let them keep their liquids, she can’t or she gets fired. Even if she sees that patting down a baby or an old lady is ridiculous, if she refuses and only pats down people that look like terrorists (whatever that means) she will be profiling and she gets fired.

Perhaps if TSA trusted her to use her best judgement, she could do something to help out the non-terrorist passengers to move through security with more privacy and a higher liquid keeping ratio, but don’t the passengers understand that TSA is part of the Department of Homeland Security and therefore part of the US Government and therefore a giant bureaucracy that cannot and will not trust the judgement of one little TSA agent?

Perhaps if the airline agents would show up at their counters the same two hours before the flight that they suggest passengers show up, they could help get passengers through with plenty of time to spare. Maybe if they explained to passengers the reasons their tickets might indicate they need selective screening (you bought your ticket in cash, you bought a ticket the same day you want to fly, you bought a one way ticket, and any other potentially shady thing that makes it look like you’re fleeing the country) they could help ease some of the confusion and stress of those who have to go through extra screening. Perhaps if airlines explained what time of day/week the most flights were scheduled to passengers so they could avoid the busy times they might be able to avoid long security lines all together.

As it stands, passengers don’t understand these things and the airlines don’t seem to want to help explain travel tips to passengers so it looks like TSA, to include Debra, is just a bunch of jerk faces trying to make people miss their flights.

Slowly but surely, Deb gets tired of passengers passively and actively hating her. She still carries out her duties as per regulation, but the spark starts to die out. The desire to help people make it through security quickly fades. Why should she help or care about people that are mean to her? What incentive is there for her to help people make their flights? It’s not like she gets paid extra for screening more people. Even if people fly less, she works for the government. Remember that bureaucracy comment from before? The benefit of the bureaucracy means that unless Debra does violate some regulation, it makes it really hard to fire her. So her motivation is to follow regulation to the letter rather than using her brain to try to help people quickly through security. She gets that passengers are frustrated, but she’s frustrated too. She feels powerless and unliked by passengers, so she inevitably stops caring so much about said passengers’ well-being and general opinion of her.

Despite trying not to care what everybody thinks of her, Deb is apparently a hopeless people-pleaser dislikes the feeling that everybody thinks she’s a worthless waste of oxygen. Deb hates the feeling so much that two years later, when the army reserves decides to deploy her to Iraq for a year, she decides she likes the possibility of being blown up by IED’s better than she likes working for TSA and joins the active army.

The end.

So how can you make it through security quickly? Try to avoid the airline counter all together by checking in online ahead of time and printing your own boarding pass. Follow tips from the posts mentioned in the first paragraph. However, I don’t think a real solution to the problem of long airport lines will be reached until people stop trying to find out who’s to blame and rather start trying to fix the problem. Even if long security lines are the passengers’ fault, how does being mad at them actually fix the problem, TSA? Until airlines, TSA and passengers start working together lines will remain long and frustrating for all parties involved.

Do you have a solution to the long lines problem? Comment below!