Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Space-A Tips and Tricks

In addition to all the favorite people I wanted to see, one of the underlying factors that helped me finally decide to go to California for Nikki’s wedding was the timing during the last two weeks of April… just after spring breaks were wrapping up but well before summer vacation. In other words, a potential sweet spot for space-A opportunities. It didn’t work out to Space-A off Guam, but luckily I had reserved a miles flight that would get me to Hawaii in time to catch the commercial ticket I booked to and from the States. Basically, if you can get to Hawaii without paying for it, you save about $750 each way. And yes, my friends, that is mostly why we Guammies go to the trouble to fly spontaneously (because it can, indeed, be trouble).

On this most recent (and most favorite!) Space-Adventure, I flew out of San Francisco Monday morning. My friend Ashley (from San Diego AND Guam) who now lives in Hawaii picked me up from the Honolulu airport. We had lunch together, got caught up, then she dropped me off at the Hickam terminal 45 minutes before a roll call to Guam, my first of about six opportunities in the upcoming 72 hours. I signed up for the upcoming flight that had 10 seats available. I was the first person to be awarded a seat in the roll call, and the first of only two total passengers who wanted on. Like clockwork, we loaded up in a van, headed to the plane, boarded, and got the somewhat scary safety briefing (they like to tell you every detail about evacuation procedures, how to self-administer oxygen, what the alarm bell means, when to brace for impact… yeah).

As I was getting comfortable on my row of red cargo mesh seats deep in the dark pit of the windowless cabin, sinking down into my book waiting for the blind liftoff, one of the crew came over and asked, “Hi Ma’am, would you like to sit in the cockpit for takeoff?” Uhhh, YES PLEASE!! So I followed him up to the front of the plane, strapped in to the jump seat between the pilot and copilot, and a pair of headphones plopped around my ears. The crewmember explained the procedures to start up the engines, the functions of the seemingly thousands of gauges and meters in front of me, and the discussions the pilots were having with air traffic control.

We waited for our turn to go, taxied onto the runway behind a Fed Ex plane (Hickam and Honolulu International share a runway), and waited for the “all clears.” We had a fantastic view of Waikiki and Diamondhead Crater in front of us and were surrounded by crystal blue water on all sides of the peninsular runway. Then I heard, “Punch it!” The pilot threw some levers around and off we went!  We climbed into the sky at a rate of 3,000 vertical feet per minute (I figured out how to read the gauges). The pilots taught me how to use the microphone on the headsets so I could ask really important questions like, “So what do you do for the remaining 8 hours?” (nap, read magazines) and “Has the captain turned off the fasten seatbelt sign yet?” (Yes…)


 Forget first class...

Shortly after the cockpit takeoff, a crewmember offered me a bunk BED and a blanket. So yes, I flew across the Pacific warm and toasty in a bed for $4.55. This, my friends, is why Space-A rocks! (sometimes...)

All in all it was a really fun memory for what will likely be my LAST Space-A flight from Hawaii back to Guam… weird! In the next few weeks that sweet spot Space-A timing window will disappear down as summer break ensues, and with only four months left on Guam, there aren’t any more trips back and forth in the foreseeable future. It has been so awesome having Space-A in my back pocket for getting to and from the mainland. I’ve saved a ton of money, got to travel much more comfortably, and had some pretty neat experiences along the way. So thank you, Air Force!

For those who have Space-A in your future, I leave you with some valuable and practical travel tips… some I’m just passing along and others I learned the hard way. Here goes!

Space-A Philosophy
  • Do NOT depend on Space-A as your way to get somewhere on a deadline. Always have backup funds or miles to get you where you need to go. It is entirely possible to spend as much on hotels and rental cars when you are “stuck” as the original flight to get home would have. So definitely have a sensible back-up ready to go.
  • Do NOT take Space-A flight changes personally! The fact that you are trying to get back in time for dinner, a wedding, youth group, or your friend’s going away party has absolutely zero percent to do with landing gear malfunctioning, fuel sensors going haywire, or flights not taking off from their previous destination yet. The flights don’t care what your social plans are, so don’t attach your emotions, happy or sad, to the flights. There’s no crying in Space-A! Adopt this philosophy and Space-A becomes much more of an ally. (This, sadly, was one of the tips I learned the hard way… whoops!).
  • The only thing that doesn’t change is change itself. So do yourself a favor and just expect the flight you are on will change. It will change after you make it through roll call. After you check your bag. After you buckle your seatbelt on the flight. Even after you take off! Our code for Nick knowing if he needs to pick me up from the Air Force base is if he hasn’t heard from me within four hours of the last time I called him. After four hours (halfway through the 8-hour flight), there is no longer the chance of us turning back to where we took off from. Hopefully :)
Tips for Taking Off
  • If you qualify, get an EML order from the administration department of your sponsor’s command. This can bump you up in category (if you live OCONUS) or qualify you to travel without your sponsor (if they are deployed). Request the letter about three months before you intend to conclude travel. About eight weeks before you intend to travel, head to the terminal you intend to fly out of and sign up. Peyt's Island Super Secret Tip: You can also email some of the terminals (like Hickam), and they will back-date your sign-up to when you sent the email. Print out a copy of the email you sent with the date and time on it and bring it with you. Just in case, don’t delete it from your sent emails list.
  • Check flight schedules – Most terminals list flights in a phone message recording 72 hours out. More recently, many AMC passenger terminals are offering flight schedules on Facebook! This has made a world of difference getting to eye flights at a glance instead of having to wait through the long and wordy recordings. Hickam's Facebook Page
  • Guam people – If you know someone who lives on Andersen AFB and has MCV for cable, they get a channel that lists the exact same flight info that is listed at the terminal, including the type aircraft assigned for the mission you are looking at. Most who have this fun benefit are happy to share the info (Thanks Breen!).
  • Learn your military aircraft. Then you’ll know why to get excited about C-17’s, C-40’s and KC-135’s and why to not get your hopes up about C5’s (they are notorious for breaking down and getting pushed back a few days). And why to cringe a little if a C-130 is the only thing smoking east (they are loud and slow and freezing). Spacea.net has a great listing of all the aircraft types. They have a ton of other useful info about each base's amenities and accessibility.
  • Learn the Space-A calendar. Major holidays and summer break are a total long shot. In that case, it's better to buy a ticket and save yourself the trouble. I've heard of people on Guam taking a month to get out of here after school let out. That's a really long time to be in limbo.
Essential space-A pack list:
cool pants hansel
  • Warm clothes, blankets, hand-warmers, hats, scarves, multiple pairs of wool socks… get the idea? It doesn’t matter if you are hopping from a tropical island on the Equator to a tropical island in the tropics. You can count on Space-A flights to feel like you are traversing Antarctica on the way. I have a lightweight fleece zip-up sleeping bag I usually travel with. It’s handy on military and red-eye commercial flights (and often at my final destination too since I tend to freeze easily).
  • Layers galore! If you have convertible pants (yes, the really fashionable zip-off-into-shorts kind), this is the place to rock them. It’s the most practical way to transition from sweaty 100-degree runway sweatshop to 40 degree Arctic Circle in-the-sky. Plus the good ones (like these North Face ones) are made out of quick-dry material, so you won’t freeze sitting in sweated-through jeans for 8 hours.
  • Close-toed shoes. This isn't a suggestion, it's one of the rules. They won't even let you accept a seat if you come to roll call wearing sandals.
  • In-flight entertainment & accessories: If you bring books and magazines, bring a headlamp in case the flight is dark. (Flashlights are annoying because you have to hold them and the book). If you have noise-cancelling headphones, they are totally worth the extra space they take up. Ear protection is provided by the flight crew, but watching movies on your laptop is a whole lot more pleasant without engine feed cutting in or having to crank the volume up all the way.
  • Sleep kit: Regardless of whether I am Space-A-ing or not, I always travel with a small bag containing an eye mask, ear plugs, Ambien, and a blow-up pillow. I can pretty much sleep anywhere, anytime with that concoction.  If you know you are going to be flying overnight or into the early morning, you may want to consider bringing a small blow-up sleeping pad. They are a pain to lug with you once you get to your destination, but well worth it to be able to sprawl out and make a nest in the middle of the often-open cargo space.
  • Don't get stuck with this for 8 hours!
  • Food! While you can (and should!) buy a boxed lunch for $4.55 (this is the only cost of the flight), be aware that the box lunch contains Oreos, chips, crackers, a soda, a Rice Crispy Treat, and a lousy excuse for a sandwich. While this is a terrific menu if you are in middle school, if you’re like me you might start to crave real food after six hours of snacking (especially when you still have three more hours to go). Pick up Subway or a big salad on the way to the terminal and bag up some fresh veggie sticks. The planes have water coolers where you can fill up a water bottle (so add one of those to the pack list too). Some have hot water, so a few teabags and your travel mug aren’t a bad idea either.
Essential Space-A etiquette:
  • Be extra appreciative and super friendly to all members of the crew. (The curmudgeon old vet who grumbled about the obnoxious extra long safety briefing didn’t get asked to sit in the cockpit during takeoff, now did he?). Always remember it is completely optional for these crews to decide whether or not to accept Space-A passengers. The mere fact that we exist means extra work for them… lugging our heavy bags up the steps, making room for us, and keeping us happy and safe during the flight. And they are saving us a TON of dinero (literally thousands!). So get your thank you’s and your smiles ready. Perhaps you too will get offered a bed in the sky :)
  • Be on the look-out for Space-A friends. One thing I’ve noticed about fellow Space-A passengers is how quickly we realize how much we have in common. We all have common threads of military service or dependent-hood running through our stories of why we're traveling, and we all have the same goal (getting from A to B by spending as little as possible). I’ve seen people land everything from rides to the airport, cars to drive around, and even free places to stay, all as a result of friendly conversation at the terminal and some mutual (inevitable) changes in Space-A schedules. I once shared a cab with a carload of people from Kaheohe Bay to Hickam. Nice paying $15 each instead of $60 since we stuck together on that one.
  • Be a listening ear for the veterans you run into. Space-A (free travel!) is one of their greatest retirement benefits, and many of the vets I have run into are traveling solo. They tend to have some pretty amazing stories and are often just looking for someone to share them with. On my flight to Alaska last January, I sat by a sweet old Vietnam vet who had flown to Alaska to spread his wife’s ashes after she had just passed away from cancer. He figured he could escape winter for a month on Guam at a friend’s house and was on his way back to Alaska to say his last goodbyes to his wife's family before heading home to Oklahoma to start his new life without her. Our rapport actually came in handy when I got to Alaska and, as a Space-A first-timer, wasn’t sure what to do next. He showed me how to call a cab that had base access and how to get to the lodge down the road (which I thankfully didn't need because of my Space-A angels). That’s the thing about the vets… they’ve all done this a zillion times, so definitely worth listening to them :)
  • Oh, and along those lines, if you are traveling solo, try to help out the moms traveling with kids! Even something simple like offering to watch their bags during trips to the ladies room or offering to order food can make a big difference to those whose arms are full.
Feel free to add additional tips and pack list items! I’d love to hear the clever ways you have made the A in Space-A stand for Awesome :) Happy Space-A-ing, and good luck!

12 comments:

  1. Thanks for your amazing, super helpful post!! I'm hoping to space a at some point this summer.. tough time to do it I'm sure, but I'm hoping for some good luck!! -Breen

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    1. Breen - You live 5 seconds from the terminal that will get you to Hawaii... you will be totally fine because if you don't get on one, you can just go home! Easy peasy :) Thanks again for your help looking up flights for me!

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  2. You are brilliant Peyt! I'm pretty sure you about covered all the basis of Space-A!

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    1. And you, my friend, could certainly write your own expert post and teach us all how to find WWII bunkers to sleep in :)

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  3. Meghan MoorhouseMay 9, 2012 at 4:13 AM

    I read once that Space A is like public speaking---everyone is afraid of doing it but it gets easier and easier the more you do! We are going to try to Space A one-way to Europe this summer......just one direct flight and Bob will be on leave, so we are a pretty high priority category. I was nervous about trying to get back with Space A since he'd have to fly over and get us (and I figure more OCONUS families are trying to get to the States than vice versa), so we're flying commercial back. Space A rocks if you are flexible and adaptable!

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  4. I love this post! Mind if I link to it on my blog? It's a must-read!

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    1. Of course not! Go right ahead... and then follow all the advice and hop over my way with Little TF :)

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  5. Peyton, you are an adventurer. I never dared to fly Space-A. I didn't like the idea of being strapped to the side of the plane. Great blog! Much love, Pamela

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  6. Peyton,

    Great space-a blog entry; I can't believe I'm only now discovering it. You did a terrific job covering the human side of things when traveling space-a.

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    1. Thanks Robb - I'm delighted to share the info with your followers. Happy Space-A-ing everyone!

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  7. We are retired military and are mulling over a space-A trip in the spring. What are the luggage limitations? How does that work? And carry-on?

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    1. Hi Linda - For the most part it works like a commercial flight. You typically get two checked bags up to 70 lbs. each and your regular carry-on bags. Sometimes certain types of aircraft will set a weight limit, sometimes as low as 50 total lbs. per passenger. It's always a good idea to travel as light as possible in the off chance there's a plane going where you want that has weight restrictions. Good luck and have fun! Spring is a GREAT time to Space-A!

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