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.
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
- 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!