Thursday, September 27, 2012

Space A Travel Tips

So sorry for the brief blogging hiatus. This crew has been dog-tired, jetlagged, and busy getting back into the swing of things.   We clearly made it home, and it was oddly uneventful especially in comparison to our adventures getting stateside.  I realize this was our first (and second) travel excursion using Space A, but I think we learned quite a bit from our experiences so I wanted to provide some tips for those of our friends that are thinking they might want to try it. 

Overall, the Space A experience for us was pretty good. I know, that's hard to believe, but there were definitely some factors at play that were completely independent of the typical Space A process that caused us some issues, namely a flat tire and a loooong train ride.  Looking back on the whole experience though, it was actually pretty successful as far as Space A travel can go. Was it worth the monetary savings?  We certainly think so.  Factoring in the train ride, the hotel room in Ramstein, and the rental car home, we spent about $300 total (a portion of that we would have obviously saved had our car not needed a pit stop in Schweinfurt for repairs).  For the three of us to have made that flight to New York on the cheapest flights we found (and we looked a lot, constantly tempting ourselves away from trying the Space A craziness), the cost would have been between $2,300-2,700.  From our perspective, that's quite a good deal of savings!  So, yeah, it was definitely worth it.

For what it's worth, here are some tips that I hope to remember when we do this again.  And yes, I think we probably will!

Tip #1:  Be patient and be flexible.  We knew this was going to be a huge factor for making our Space A travel a success.  You need to expect the unexpected. If you think about it, travel is like this no matter what. Flights are notoriously delayed or cancelled for a variety of reasons, especially during peak travel seasons. I think we just get a false sense of security from having a ticket in our hand and a schedule departure.  Don't get me wrong, these are two things that could never be overrated in my book.  One comforting thing about traveling Space A is that you are with a group of people that are traveling the same way you are.  The comradery you feel and the friendships you can make during the process can be awesome.  Use that to fuel your patience.  If you are traveling with little ones, you can also be comfortable knowing that most of the passenger terminals have some sort of family room for the kids to play.  Ramstein is a huge playground - we were super thankful.

Tip #2:  Get on the list as soon as possible.  If you are a CAT III, which basically means you are active duty or a dependent accompanying an active duty member, you can get on the "list" as soon as your leave starts.  Most of the passenger terminals will take an email with the required documents and information attached.  Do this at midnight of your leave start.  If you have the extra leave (which many military folks do), take an extra day before you actually want to leave so you can get on the list earlier.  Also, sign up at those passenger terminals where you want to leave out of to come home before you actually leave.  This will often give you a few weeks to a month to move up the list.  Be sure to remember to sign up for flights inside the US as well.  Sometimes you can get on a flight that will stop once or twice before getting to your final destination.  For example, when we were at McGuire trying to come home, the C-5 broke and there were only a dozen seats available home that evening.  Had we not made that flight, we were going to head to BWI to catch the Patriot Express home.  There was a flight in the morning from McGuire to BWI that we could have easily taken to get there instead of driving.  

If you are a CAT V or VI, you can request to be put on the list up to 60 days before you leave. That's a lot of time!  We had CAT VI people on every flight we took, so don't think it won't work out.  

Tip #3: Try not to travel during high travel season, i.e. school breaks, PCS season, holidays.  I realize this is easier said than done, but you'll have a much better chance at getting on a flight if your name is higher on the list.  We flew during a low travel time, and being high enough on the list was only an issue when we were trying to get on a flight with only 5 seats available.  If you do want to fly during summer break or at Christmas, it's doable, but it will take a lot more patience and flexibility.  

Tip #4:  Follow the flight schedules for a couple months beforehand but don't over-depend on them.  You can "like" most of the passenger terminals on Facebook, and many of them typically provide a 72-hour schedule.  This schedule is tentative at best.  Not only are flights subject to change, but you can count on it.  Sometimes it's just a couple hours, sometimes it's an entire day, or like it was for our flight to the US, it can be 12 hours early!  Be prepared for everything.  One other thing we weren't prepared for is that the C-5s are ALWAYS broken. It's a running joke with the flight crew.  Those darn planes are constantly getting a leak or breaking a fuel line or Lord only knows what else.  Unfortunately, the C-5s are typically the most scheduled flights and they tend to be able to hold the most passengers.  We were depending on this far too much. The flights we were hoping to leave on out of Ramstein were C-5s and they were all a mess.  In fact, when we left McGuire to come home, the C-5 that we "thought" we'd be on flying home never left the ground that day and we instead caught a flight on a C-17 scheduled later that evening. 

For the most dependable flights, look to the Patriot Express flights going through BWI to Ramstein and Aviano.  Those are chartered flights with a relatively fixed scheduled that are flown by United.  It's not as cool as flying on a military plane, but if you are looking for a little more dependency, that'll be the way to go. There are also nearly always over 100 seats available on those flights so there's close to a guarantee you'll get on one.

Tip 5:  If you are leaving out of Ramstein, book a room.  Ramstein lodging allows you to cancel pretty far up to the last minute. I think we could have canceled as late as 5 a.m.  Things would have been much easier for us if we'd had a room to go to that first night.  Since everyone was in the same boat, we can to shuffle quite a bit and pay more than we wanted to for a place to shower and sleep.  

Tip 6:  Drive your car to the terminal.  Our flat tire really did us in.  That was a horrible way to start our adventure.  In hindsight, we probably should have tossed the towel in and stayed with a friend that night.  As it turned out, we would have likely been on the same flight to the U.S. The train works, and it's very doable to Ramstein (and not terribly expensive), but it is nice to have a place to store your things and escape when you need a break from the terminal.  We didn't realize how much carrying all of our things was adding stress until we didn't have them in our possession anymore.

Tip #7: Be prepared for flying on the cargo planes.  Flying on a military cargo plane is super cool.  We loved that part of our experience.  In many ways it was a parent's haven.  The planes are loud, distracting, and cold.  It keeps the kids quiet or puts them to sleep, and quite frankly, if it doesn't, not a soul will hear them anyhow!  But they can get very cold, especially the C-17, and this is the case no matter what time of year it is.  We packed warm jackets, hats, gloves, and scarves, and I was so glad we did this!
We were bundled up for our flight - this is when we landed, it was cold!
Also, if you have the space, bring blankets or a sleeping bag, and even pillows. You get two checked bags up to 70 lbs. and a carryon.  That's plenty of space especially if you have a backpack that you can attach a sleeping bag and other things to.  If you get to ride on a C-17, they let you lie down on the floor once you hit a safe altitude.  (Even though you are basically staring at your checked cargo the entire flight, they won't allow you to access it.)  This is a really awesome thing EXCEPT the floor is REALLY cold and it only gets colder the longer you are on the flight.  I was wishing we had sleeping bags and floor mats like several other folks brought with them.  We managed, but we certainly could have been more comfortable.
Many folks were prepared for a C-17 flight with sleeping bags!
We cuddled up to stay warm
Another view of the C-17 as folks were starting to wake up before we landed.

Tip #8:  Bring food or cash.  We are starting to get accustomed to this even on commercial flights these days, but there truly is no food on these flights unless you plan ahead.  Bring snacks, a cooler, or pack things in your carryon.  Many of the flights will offer "box" lunches that you can purchase for $4.55/piece.  Totally worth it. It's not gourmet or anything fancy, but it will give you a sandwich, a couple snacks, a soda, and a water.  Believe it or not, it's actually a fair amount of food. 

Tip #9:  Have fun and try to enjoy the free ride.  The Air Force cargo transport team is crazy cool.  They handle amazing operations every day.  While we were waiting to get out of Ramstein, the US Ambassador to Libya was killed.  As our government responded to this emergency situation in the middle east, the airport was hopping.  Flights were changing and moving all over the place.  You can meet some really interesting people and get to observe our military at work on the ground.  It can be a really exciting experience.  

So, for what's it's worth, these are my tips for flying Space A.  If you are heading stateside from Germany and you have a little flexibility in your schedule, I can't recommend it enough.  It's very doable with a dose of patience.  In fact, if your parents are veterans, you should strongly encourage them to use it as well.  I couldn't believe the number of retired folks we saw that fly Space A all the time.  We even had an older couple, by that I mean in their 80's (he was a WWII veteran!), fly home to Germany with us.  They had been flying Space A all the way from Travis Air Force Base, which sits just south of Sacramento, California.  Both of them had walkers and needed quite a bit of assistance.  The flight crew was awesome and ready to assist.  It was phenomenal to watch them adapt to the passengers' needs.  All I have to say is, I really hope when Big R and I are in our 80's, we're even half as adventurous as these folks were.  

I hope this is helpful for those of you that think you might want to try flying Space A in the future.  Feel free to contact me if you want to ask more questions.  I talked to so many people before we left because I was clueless about what to expect. You hear nothing but horror stories, and I knew that couldn't be all that was out there.  It's not too much of a nightmare if you know what to expect and you are prepared.    


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