Space-A Travel Tips: Unveiling the Mystery of Flying with the USAF

Space A travel wing tip

Space A travel wing tip

Are you stationed overseas and looking to plan a trip back to the states but the cost of airfare is breaking the bank?

As a family of six, we thought there had to be a cheaper way than flying commercial! We knew about “Space A” travel from a previous overseas assignment, but never had the courage to try it. Last summer, we had a few weeks to spare and nowhere specific to be, so we gave it a shot.

Mildenhall space A flight
Our youngest gives a thumbs up just after we board the “Baby Joker” Space A flight. The KC-135 built in 1962 took us from RAF Mildenhall in England to McConnell AFB in Kansas, USA.

The mystery that is “Space Available” travel, or Space-A for short, can be a tempting but scary alternative to flying commercially.

Most people know, or at least have heard of someone who has a Space-A travel horror story were she was stranded halfway around the world, burning leave and buying commercial airfare in the end to complete her trip.

When our family decided to give it a try, we did our homework, prepared for the worst, hoped for the best, and learned a lot on our first Space-A travel adventure. Here’s what we learned:

What exactly is Space-A travel?

The DOD allows space available travel on aircraft around the world that have empty seats available after the “official passenger” (or “pax” for short) and cargo have been manifested. All Air Mobility Command (AMC) bases have pax terminals to manifest passengers aboard flights; they are like small airport terminals on base. Additionally, most passenger terminals today have Facebook pages advertising their flight schedule (only 72 hours out by regulation, but they can check longer term if you go in person) and approximately how many seats they expect to have available.

Warning: It’s not as simple as jumping on Travelocity and booking your flights, though. It takes a thorough understanding of how the process works to make your trip successful.

Unless you are trying to go to the East Coast or Germany, you’re probably not going to find something close to your destination. Your overall goal should be getting to the target country where you can finish your travel with domestic flights or a rental car.

Our process

We Facebook “friended” the pax terminals we expected to use about six months out to get a better understanding of the patterns of where that specific base normally flies and how many seats were normally available. While it’s not exact, you can get a good feel for which terminal is your best bet.

We needed to get from England to Indiana. We began our journey from RAF Mildenhall which took us on a KC135 to McConnell AFB in Kansas. We then took a rental to Indiana.

For our return trip, we drove another rental to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. We flew on a C-17 from New Jersey to Ramstein in Germany. From there, we took a commercial flight to London, and then drove a rental car back to RAF Mildenhall where our journey began (to pick up our car to drive another four hours home).

Another warning: Space-A is not an easy one-way trip, so pack light and be flexible! It’s important to keep your options open as flights are frequently delayed or cancelled at short notice.

What category will determine your level of priority?

Passengers anxiously wait to board a Space-A flight at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst en route to Ramstein, Germany.

Space-A passengers are divided into 1 of 6 categories with Cat 1 being the highest and 6 the lowest. Military members on orders would be Cat 1, retirees are the lowest priority at Cat 6. A family traveling on leave with the active duty member is Cat 3.

***It’s important to note that the active duty member has to accompany you to be Cat 3. While you can travel as a dependent alone you will be classed as Cat 6 and there are some additional requirements like a signed letter from the sponsor’s commander.

There are two discriminators used to prioritize potential passengers, category being the first and sign up date second. Your signup date is only used to prioritize within category. For example, if there are two people competing for a seat and one is Cat 3 and the other Cat 6, the seat would go to the Cat 3 pax even if he signed up later than the Cat 6 pax. However, if both passengers were Cat 3, the seat would go to the one that signed up first. Sign up as soon as you can!

Only 19 seats were available from McGuire to Ramstein when we were trying to get back home. Many more than that were signed up and waiting to go. Fortunately for us, we were at the top of that list. However, many did not make the cut and were turned away. One family struggled to figure out what they were going to do when they discovered they would not be on that flight.

It can be frustrating, but stay calm and have a variety of back-up plans.

So how does one sign up for Space-A travel?

Pax Terminal at McGuire Dix in New Jersey
reading and waiting to fly
Pax Terminal at McGuire Dix in New Jersey
phone charging station

First, you must be on leave before you can sign up. Signing up is as simple as sending the pax terminal an email with the full names of all passengers, their DOBs, and your leave authorization number. You can find the email address on their respective Facebook pages.

Some pax terminals have a handout listing worldwide terminals with phone numbers and email addresses as well. It will cost you nothing to sign up, and there isn’t a limit on how many terminals you can sign up with. One important tip is to sign up with all terminals you can possibly use during your travel as soon as your leave starts for both the outbound and return legs of your trip. That way, when it’s time to go home, you have been on the list for weeks (potentially) and will have greatly increased your chances of getting on the return flights.

***Print your email — if the pax terminal can’t find your email in their system, they will honor your hard copy. It doesn’t matter if it’s government or personal email.    

Ready to fly, now what?

Once you have found a flight you want and have signed up with the terminal via email, all travelers will need to be at the terminal for roll call no later than the show time listed for that flight on the Facebook page. Roll Call

This is where the anxiety sets in as the terminal slowly fills with people, all looking around trying to gauge where they fit into the priority. Some terminals have monitors that show who has checked in for the flight and where they sit on the priority list.

At check-in time, they will confirm the seats available and conduct a roll call to fill them. All members of your party must be present with required documents, otherwise you’ve missed your chance. You’ll need passports (if traveling internationally, Mil ID for all members 10 and over, and your leave authorization).

Once you’ve made it on the flight, you will be issued a ticket, then you check your luggage (each person is authorized two 70-pound bags), purchase box meals if desired, and proceed through security.

It’s usually a bit of a wait once through security but RAF Mildenhall and McGuire AFB both had a kids play area and vending machines in the secure waiting area. Finally, you’re given a quick safety brief and bused to the aircraft for boarding.

Ready to board, but what do I need to know?

Remember this isn’t Emirates, you’ll need to plan a little to ensure comfort during the flights. The airplanes are loud (earplugs are available in the terminal) and cold. We recommend packing a sweatshirt and blanket in your carry-on. Also, you are required to have closed-toe shoes. You’ll want to pack plenty of snacks and drinks for the trip. However, both of our flights had bottled water available for passengers as well as a snack-pack  for purchase.

kids activities on KC-135 flight

Flying on a C-17 and KC-135 is not your typical form of flying over the Atlantic. We did not have assigned seats and they were not as cushioned like your typical passenger plane. However, it was unique and fairly comfortable. If you have a sleeping mat or hammock, you can stretch out for a nap upon reaching cruising altitude. We were allowed to walk around as much as we wanted. We got to view the cockpit of the KC-135. Our boys even got a tour of the boom operator’s position and watched him maneuver the boom while flying over Greenland! This was a sight we will never forget!

Our trip was successful, and it was a fun and adventurous experience that I would recommend with appropriate planning.

Below, are my top tips for Space-A travel in summary.

  • Follow AMC terminal Facebook pages months out to identify which ones you’re most likely to use.
  • Sign up with the terminal the minute you go on leave for both legs of the trip.
  • Pack plenty of warm clothes, entertainment, snacks, sleeping bags and headphones for the flights.
  • Any child over 10 must have a valid military/dependent ID. Also, make sure everyone has all appropriate passports (travel passports and “no-fee” passports if living overseas).
  • Always travel with a copy of your orders/leave paperwork. You may need them!
  • Roll with the punches, your travel most likely won’t follow your planned itinerary, have secondary and tertiary plans to account for getting bumped or cancelled flights. Check flight information regularly, because flights are tentative and space is limited.
  • No WiFi on the planes, but you may use electronic devices in the air. Some pax terminals have charging stations, but some may not. Come with phones/tablets fully charged or bring a battery charger with you.
  • Visit the USO at the pax terminals for snacks/suckers for the kids. They are there to support YOU!
  • Have patience and be flexible, but most importantly have fun! It’s an adventure you won’t soon forget!