Inside: Tired of piecing together information about space-available military travel? Check out this ultimate guide to Space-A and get it all in one convenient spot!
You’ve heard about this thing called Space Available Military Travel (aka Space-A). It sounds cool, because hey, free flights, right? But it seems kind of daunting, because you have no idea what the rules are or how to get started.
Sound familiar? If you’re wondering how you can take advantage of this opportunity as a military spouse, here’s a primer to help you understand the who, what, where, and how of Space-A flying.
What is Space Available Military Travel?
Space-A travel is a privilege available to members of the community that allows us to fly free (or nearly free) on military aircraft. As Space-A passengers, we are essentially hitching a ride (or “taking a hop,” as flying Space-A is often called) on a flight that is deemed a military mission.
After all equipment and personnel required for the mission have been accommodated, any leftover seats may be used by Space-A passengers. Flights are entirely dependent on the mission, and the mission is the priority 100% of the time.
To put it bluntly, Space-A passengers are non-essential cargo.
Who Can Fly Space-A?
The Air Mobility Command (AMC) has a detailed summary of who is eligible to fly Space-A and under what circumstances. Space-A travelers are divided into six categories or “Cats,” based on their duty status and reason for travel. Travelers in Cat 1 are highest priority and those in Cat 6 are lowest. In other words, Space-A passengers in Cat 1 are most likely to get a seat.
I’m going to take a stab that you’re most interested in leisure travel for active duty service members and their family members, so we’re talking about travelers in the following categories:
- Active duty service members on leave traveling with or without dependents
- Spouses of active duty service members deployed for 365 or more consecutive days.
- Spouses of active duty service members deployed between 30 and 364 consecutive days
- Spouses of active duty service members stationed abroad traveling unaccompanied on Environmental and Morale Leave (EML) orders
- Unaccompanied command-sponsored spouses of service members stationed OCONUS
- Unaccompanied non-command sponsored spouses of service members stationed OCONUS
Where Can I Fly Space-A?
Depending on your category, you may be able to fly Space-A to any destination in the world to which a military mission is accepting Space-A passengers. In most cases, that means to a U.S. military base, but there are exceptions, including Patriot Express flights. There may also be a random flight to an airport or country where the U.S. does not have any military bases, but those flights are not the norm.
Before we move on, let’s clarify a few terms to make sense of this. The continental United States (CONUS) refers to the lower 48 states. Outside the continental United States (OCONUS) refers to foreign countries, Alaska, Hawaii, and other U.S. territories.
How Can I Fly Space-A Without My Sponsor?
If your sponsor is deployed (i.e. you are Cat 3 or 4), all you need is a memo from his command (here is a sample memo). You can travel wherever and whenever you want starting from the day your sponsor deploys throughout the duration of his deployment. Hold onto that memo, and bring it with you whenever you travel; it’s good through the whole deployment.
Travel for unaccompanied spouses in other situations has a few more restrictions.
If you are stationed overseas with your spouse (i.e. an accompanied tour of duty) and you are traveling as a Cat 5, you can only travel from OCONUS to OCONUS and between OCONUS and CONUS. In other words, you can’t take Space-A flights from one place in the lower 48 to another. The exception to that rule is if you are booked (a.k.a. “manifested”) on a flight to or from OCONUS that stops in another CONUS destination along the way. Here is a sample of the command-sponsored dependent memo you must obtain from your sponsor’s command. It’s good for 90 days or one round trip originating from the overseas duty station.
If you are stationed overseas in a location that allows EML, you can travel as a Cat 4 (i.e. higher priority) if you get an EML memo, but your travel will be restricted. You can only fly between you sponsor’s duty station and CONUS. You must take the most direct route possible. Here are sample EML memos from Pacific Command and Europe Command.
The final circumstance is if your sponsor is on an unaccompanied tour overseas (i.e. you are a non-command-sponsored dependent). You can obtain authorization to visit your sponsor and travel Space-A as a Cat 5, but you have the same restrictions as an unaccompanied EML traveler. Here is a sample of the non-command sponsored dependent memo you need for travel.
The travel memos for EML and non-command sponsored dependents are good for 90 days or one round trip.
Want more details on this unaccompanied dependent travel stuff? Here’s the breakdown with a few examples.
How Do I Get Started Planning a Space-A Trip?
The first thing to do is to figure out which bases near you have flights that could get you to your destination. In some cases, there are many possible paths you could take. For example, if you are on the East Coast and want to travel to Germany, you could fly from one of five or six bases that have regular missions into Ramstein Air Base.
On the other hand, not all military airfields are active Space-A hubs, so you will have to do some research to figure where you could originate your travel. If you don’t know which bases near you have Space-A flights, you can start by looking at this list of locations worldwide that may have Space-A opportunities.
After you’ve found the bases closest to you, begin studying their flight schedules, which most passenger terminals post on slides via their respective Facebook pages. You can find a list of passenger terminal Facebook pages on the AMC website.
In most cases, terminals post flight schedules a maximum of 72 hours in advance. Exceptions include certain Naval bases, which may share a week’s worth of missions, and schedules for Patriot Express flights. Terminals that have Patriot Express flights post schedules for an entire calendar month. The schedule is usually available a few days before the end of the month for the following month (for example, the April schedule will be available in the last few days of March).
What Do the Facebook Slides Tell Me?
From the slides, you can see where the flights are going, what time passengers must be there (Roll Call), and how many seats may be available for Space-A passengers.
Passenger terminals also post historical slides showing recent departures and how many Space-A passengers got seats. Reviewing the history of flights in and out of a particular base and comparing how many passengers tried to get on vs. how many got seats is useful right before you are hoping to catch a flight. It will give you an idea of whether there is a backlog of folks waiting to depart or whether most passengers have cleared out of the terminal. Here is more detailed information about how to read Space-A flight schedules on Facebook.
You may have to watch the schedules for several weeks or even months to get an idea of where missions fly most frequently and how likely a Space-A passenger in your category would be to get a seat.
If you’re having trouble piecing together a flight plan that could get you to your destination, you can also ask for advice in the Space-A Travelers Facebook group. To join this group, you will need to verify your military affiliation and agree to read the background information in the pinned post. Before asking a question, try searching for the topic in the discussion. With more than 62K members, there are few questions that no one has asked.
Now that you have an idea of what bases you might want to fly to and from, it’s time to sign up.
Signup refers to the process of notifying passenger terminals that you would like to fly Space-A from their location. There are several ways to sign up:
- In person at the terminal
- Via e-mail or fax
- Using the Take-a-Hop app, which has a one-time fee of $6.99.
You don’t have to use the official Space-Available Travel Request form, but this sample shows what information you need to provide. Be sure that when you specify the number of seats required, you include all members of your family, including babies. Space-A flights do not have a “lap child” policy.
When Can I Sign Up?
Priority within a category is based on signup date and time, so the earlier you sign up, the better.
Signup rules vary by circumstance.
- Active duty service members (Cat 3) can sign up starting on the first day of leave. The signup is good for the duration of the leave period.
- Spouses of deployed service members can sign up 10 days before the first day of the deployment. The signup is good for 60 days.
- Unaccompanied Spouses in other situations discussed above can sign up as soon as they have the required memo. Signups are good for 60 days.
At Which Bases Should I Sign Up?
No matter what category you’re in, you should sign up at every base you may want to depart from.
You can sign up at as many bases as you want. If you’re signing up via e-mail, you can send a single message and copy every terminal at which you want to sign up. Many terminals will not reply to confirm receipt of your signup. Be sure to bring a copy of your signup when you go to the terminal to mark yourself present for the flight.
What to Do on the Day of Your Flight
You see a flight you want to take, and you’re ready to give this Space-A thing a shot. Now what? Here’s a rundown of the actual travel process.
Marking Yourself Present
This means going to the terminal in person to let them know you are “competing” for a flight. You can mark yourself present up to 24 hours in advance of the Roll Call time, but you don’t really need to do it until an hour or two beforehand. Marking yourself present early does not give you higher priority than other passengers, but you must do it prior to the start of Roll Call.
When you mark yourself present, bring all of your travel documentation, including any required travel memos and a copy of your signup e-mail to prove the date and time of signup. Confirm that the passenger terminal has recorded the correct number of passengers traveling.
This is the time listed on the Facebook slides, and it refers to the passenger terminal staff calling the names of the passengers selected for a flight. They will start with the highest category and work their way down.
If they call your name, go to the desk with your family members’ military IDs, passports (if headed for an OCONUS destination), and appropriate travel authorization memo, and confirm that all passengers are in the terminal with bags packed.
Baggage Check/Getting Manifested
When it’s time to check bags, all travelers in your family and all of your luggage must be present. On most flights, each passenger can check two bags of up to 70 lbs each. You can also check car seats, which do not count towards your baggage allowance. On some smaller aircraft, weight limits may be as low as 30 lbs. The Air Mobility Command website has detailed information on baggage allowances.
During baggage check, you can request a meal, (if meals are available — usually a box lunch with sandwich, chips, cookie, and drink), which costs $5-$10, depending on the location. Once you’ve checked your bags and have your boarding passes, you are “manifested” on the flight. The terminal staff will tell you the estimated boarding time, but it often changes without notice, so stay in the terminal.
Once they announce boarding, all passengers go through security. Military passenger terminals follow Transportation Security Administration regulations, so you have the same restrictions for carry-on items as on civilian planes. You sit in a secure area of the terminal until the bus arrives to take you to the aircraft. You board the plane from the tarmac.
What to Expect on the Flight
Patriot Express flights are very similar to civilian flights. They have regular airplane seats and in-flight service.
Flights on military aircraft are no-frills. The crew provides earplugs, water, and sometimes chips or cookies, but you walk over to the refreshments and get them yourself. Depending on the type of aircraft, there may be regular seats or web seating along the sides of the plane. If it’s a cargo plane and there is space on the floor, you may be able to lie down on a blanket or compact air mattress (if you brought one) or hang up a Texsport hammock. Not all planes (or flight crews) will allow you to hang a hammock, but it’s nice to have in case you’re able to use it.
For all military aircraft, two tips apply:
- Dress in layers. It can be very cold or very warm, depending on the type of aircraft, where you’re sitting, and pilot preference. I see many passengers (especially children) wearing shorts, but I don’t recommend it unless you have a pair of sweatpants handy.
- Bring hand wipes. The lavatory sinks generally don’t have running water. Instead, there is a pile of antiseptic wipes, but often not enough to last for the entire flight.
Tips for Traveling with Kids
All passengers over the age of 10 need a military ID. If you have children under 10, bring their passport or a printout from Milconnect that shows their military ID number. This second requirement was implemented in 2017, and some travelers may tell you that the passenger terminal didn’t ask for it, that a birth certificate was fine, etc. While that may be true, it’s best to cover your bases and bring the printout.
As with any travel with kids, bring plenty of activities to keep them entertained. It can be hard to predict how much time you will spend waiting in the terminal, so be prepared with movies downloaded to your tablet, cards, books, and other travel-friendly games.
You should also bring a stash of snacks. Even if you ordered a box meal, you won’t get it until you’re onboard, and you don’t want to be stuck in the terminal with hungry kiddos. The snack bars in the terminal have a way of being under construction the one time you didn’t plan ahead with snacks of your own.
Ear protection in the form of headphones – or even earmuffs – is a good idea. The flight crew will give you foam earplugs, but they may not be comfortable or suitable for young children.
Free Flights Sound Too Good to Be True. What’s the Catch?
The main challenge with Space-A travel is that it’s unpredictable. Missions can change at any moment. The pilot can decide to leave early or not to take any Space-A passengers. Or the aircraft’s destination can change after you’re already in the air.
Add these considerations to the fact that aircraft (some types more than others) often have maintenance issues that can cause a flight to be delayed by a few hours or several days. Unlike with a commercial flight, if any of these things happen, you have no recourse as a Space-A passenger. There is no such thing as being rebooked on a later flight. If you don’t get on the flight you wanted, you might not have any other Space-A options in the foreseeable future.
All these warnings are to say that Space-A is not a good choice when you have a short period of leave or when you really need to be somewhere by a certain time, whether that’s for a wedding, a holiday, a family emergency, or a work commitment back home.
You can increase your chances of getting a seat on a Space-A flight by traveling outside of the busiest seasons. The most difficult times to fly Space-A are during the summer PCS season and the winter holidays.
Think of Space-A travel as an adventure. Along the way, you will meet other travelers who will remind you how helpful and supportive the military community can be. You may also have the chance to fly in a military plane, which is not something most Americans get to experience, and honestly, it’s pretty cool. If you think of your journey in this way, you will be better-prepared to handle any parts of the process that don’t go as planned.
Even if you’ve read the above information three times, you might still have questions. The best thing to do is to keep reading as much as you can about flying Space-A. Join the Space-A Travelers Facebook group and follow the discussions. I guarantee that many of the questions asked by other group members will apply to you, and after a while, you will find that you know the answers!
Keep following the Facebook slides to get a feel for where flights are going and how many Space-A travelers are getting seats. You may start to see patterns, either weekly or seasonally.
Finally, before you plan a major family vacation using Space-A, consider doing a dry run. Try a short trip within CONUS to help you learn the process. That way, you will know the ropes and feel more comfortable planning a bigger adventure.
Want more on military life?
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- Military Base Gate Etiquette: 10 Small Ways to Avoid a Giant SNAFU
- 7 Myths About Tricare for Military Families…Debunked