Bicycling in Kilkenny

Bicycling in Kilkenny

Flying for Free: Part VII

One of the philosophies of the space-a traveler is to make the most of every time and place they are in. There is no need to waste the mone...

Friday, July 14, 2017

Flying for Free, Part I

Stay tuned for more blogs about our Ireland adventure soon, but in the meantime, enjoy reading my real time accounts of our attempts to get to Spain via Space-A military travel.

There is a huge benefit to military service that most civilians know little to nothing about. This phenomenon, known as space-a travel or military hops, is kind of a legal hitch-hiking service, but instead of cars and trucks, potential passengers are invited to catch rides on military aircraft.

Space-A travel can be likened to flying standby on commercial flights except that military flights aren’t nearly as plentiful or reliable, and they can often change course or cancel at any given moment without warning or explanation, but when the cost is considered, the inconvenience can be well worth the uncertainty.

My family was personally introduced to this concept of free travel while stationed at an overseas military base in Spain. With so many flights to other European destinations and even regular flights headed back to the United States, it was almost silly not to give the flights a shot.

For the most part, flying for free worked out well for us. We used the service to fly back home to the states on several occasions. Sure, there were times when we would get stuck paying for a few nights at a hotel room while waiting for connecting flights to appear, and other times we had to rent cars to get us to other military bases offering flights to our intended destinations, but with our large family, the amount of money we put out for those minor inconveniences paled in comparison to what it would have cost had we paid for seats on commercial flights, and the adventure often found along the way was an added bonus!

Our first experience using this unreliable yet free service as a retired military family was last year during our summer vacation. Accepting that we probably wouldn’t stay in our Spain based Airbnb rental for the entire month we had paid for, we went into the whole process knowing that we’d have to be flexible, and relatively speaking, it worked out well, and we still ended up spending far less than we would have had we purchased airline tickets for the entire journey.

We figured the first thing we should do is get to the east coast of the United States. With so many major military flight hubs out there, we were certain we could find a ride to get us across the pond civilians so fondly call the Atlantic Ocean.

And getting to the east coast was fairly simple. With several days to spare before our rental period would begin, we were able to easily get our family on board a flight to Charleston. We were happy to head to that Air Force base because in addition to being a major hub that often has flights to Spain, it also happens to be the current home of our seventeen-year-old daughter’s best friend whose family had been stationed in Spain the same years we were there.

The days we spent in Charleston were pretty amazing. Maria enjoyed visiting with her friend while we appreciated seeing her family again as well, but on top of all that excitement, we also got to tour the historic city and bask in its southern charms.

Had our travels not been dictated by the limited routes offered by the space-a military flight system, we might never have gotten to check that beautiful travel destination off our bucket list.
We got to see so many beautiful homes and historical sights, but after a few days of no available flights to Spain, I began to get concerned. Not wanting to spend more time paying for a hotel room while simultaneously paying for a vacation rental across the sea, we finally gave in and bought some pretty cheap tickets that would get us to Madrid. From there, we took the train and then the ferry to our final destination of Rota in Andalucia, Spain, before enjoying an uneventful and free journey back to our home in Washington State a little less than a month later.

This year, we are going for a repeat but hopefully without having to purchase any tickets at all. We chose to visit Spain again because in addition to its beautiful beaches, relaxed culture, and amazing food, I also  have a very dear friend there who honored me with the role of godparent to her daughter a little over two years ago.

We paid for our July 15th to August 15th Airbnb rental several months ago while again knowing that we may not be able to stay there for every day we have paid for. With this knowledge and a forced willingness to remain flexible, we began watching for possible flights on the 12th of July.

Not wanting to have to buy tickets from the east coast again this year, I have been hoping and praying for a direct flight to Europe from our west coast home, and it actually appeared on the official list of flights  just hours before our busy work and school schedules would allow us to hit the road and begin our highly anticipated beach vacation.

With intense excitement and anticipation, our family stayed up the entire night preparing for that flight. Laundry had to be done, packing had to be done, and snacks had to be bought. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from travel, space-a and commercial alike, it’s that a traveler should never get on a plane without packing some healthy and easily travelable food. There have been several occasions when I’ve been stuck on a delayed flight through one or more essential meal times and have also arrived at locations in the dead of night when no nearby restaurants were open for business.

With so much preparation needed in such a short amount of time, we never actually went to bed the night before the flight. We weren’t worried, though, because we were certain we’d be able to sleep on the plane. One of the nice things about flying space-a is that there are no flight attendants hitting my arm as they move up and down the aisles, no unruly passengers, and no persistent noises in the form of dinging call bells.

John and I left our home with our two youngest children at 4:20am and drove the 62 miles to the air terminal offering the flight destined for paradise. When we arrived just before the 6am roll call, we were informed that the system was currently down and they would need to wait for it to come back online before they could check us in. Worried that downed computers might ground our flight, or worse, make it leave without us, I asked what would happen if their computers failed to come back up again. The uniformed passenger service agent assured us that we would still be eligible to take the flight as they would manually enter our information instead.

There was nothing else to do but wait. We chose 4 seats from the almost entirely empty terminal and piled our luggage worthy of a month-long voyage in front of us. We struck a conversation with the young woman  who was rocking her sleeping baby just a few chairs down and discovered that she was on her way back to Rota where her husband is currently stationed. She explained to us that she and her daughter had been here visiting family for a month, and they were more than ready to go back home to Rota where her husband was anticipating their return.

Our conversation was interrupted by the intercom, “For those passengers wishing to sign up and be marked present for our flight to Rota, Spain, please approach the customer service counter with passports and appropriate IDs in hand.”

Excitedly, John and I both quickly grabbed the passports and raced over to the counter. “Did you pre-sign up for this flight?” the agent asked as he scrolled through a long list of names on his computer screen.

“Yes,” I replied looking at the emails on my phone, “we sent the email with our passport information last night.”

“Last night,” he repeated, “Do you remember what time you sent the email?”

“No, but I can tell you,” I said. I scrolled through my sent messages and found the one I was looking for. Holding up the phone for him to see, I told the agent that we sent the email around 4:20pm.

He took my phone and looked at the time stamped on the sent message. “Oh good,” he said reassuringly, “We don’t have this email in our system, but since you have proof that you sent it, we can put you in line as of 4:20 yesterday afternoon.”

His words began to spark some concern in my mind because space-a lines can be a tricky business, and out of the six levels of priority, retirees fall to the bottom. That means if 20 active duty members and/or their spouses signed up after we did, our place would be last and only ahead of other retirees who signed up after us. For this reason, I started to get a little worried, but with only 3 other passengers in the terminal and 52 available seats, I quickly let go of any fears creeping into my mind.

Between comparing travel stories with our fellow Spain-bound passenger and communicating with our Airbnb host concerning our impending arrival, we dreamed of sitting in a beach bar holding a glass of sangria knowing that we were just a few short hours away from making that dream a reality.

1 comment:

  1. Very eloquently put! I think John and Teresa should be rewarded handsomely for all their sacrifices and efforts!