The Military Guide


Travel While You Can


We came home from our second trip of the year in late November.  Financial independence gives us the flexibility and time to travel as much or as little as we want, and we spent nearly half of 2015 away from Oahu.   In this post I’ll answer the usual reader questions about where we went and what we did, but people are also asking very perceptive questions about the travel lifestyle.

Before I discuss our after-action report, I’ll share two personal preferences.

First: Yes, we live in Hawaii, but we still enjoy visiting other places! Our daughter is stationed on a Navy destroyer in Rota, Spain, so most of each trip was spent with her. My spouse was also stationed at a Navy oceanography center in Rota in the 1980s, and it was interesting to see what’s changed in 30 years.

Our latest trip had a more ambitious itinerary because we attended FinCon15 (in Charlotte, NC) and USAA’s DigitalMilEx (in San Antonio) in September before heading to Rota. We also cut the trip short by a couple of weeks because our daughter’s deployment started a bit early– and because we caught an incredible pair of military Space A flights that covered 8000 miles in about 30 hours.

Second: Despite the distance that we covered on our second trip, we really prefer slow travel. Instead of racing among destinations we stay somewhere for at least a few weeks while enjoying day trips. Instead of using hotels we’d rather rent apartments, and that’s much easier than we expected. Instead of joining the crowds for big spectacles we try to visit sites during off-peak seasons and times– and later spend a quiet hour in a sidewalk café enjoying the rest of the sights. We also visited friends & relatives who we haven’t seen in decades.

Image of Doug Nordman in the central plaza of Tarragona Spain drinking cafe con leche | The-Military-Guide
Cafe con leche and tapas in Tarragona

This was our typical routine in Andalusia:

Yeah, party hardcore. Like the title says, travel while you still can. But I can get wild & crazy on Oahu anytime I want, (try to) stay out all night, and recover on my time. Travel is a chance to explore new places and new opportunities without being hung over exhausted, so we take a more thoughtful approach.

Travel when you’re… older.

I have to render a respectful salute and a “Well played, sir!” to the 80-year-old military retiree who we met at the Norfolk passenger terminal. He uses a cane and his spouse kept a careful eye on him, but he moves well and he hauls his own roller bag. He’s flown Space A for longer than I’ve been alive(!), and their stories were fascinating. They weren’t going to Rota like us– they were going to “Europe, hopefully Germany, but Italy or Spain would be nice too.” Their itinerary was “Whenever, but we don’t have visas so after 90 days in Europe we’ll fly back to America, and we’ll probably head home before the holidays.”

Their travels were surprisingly inexpensive because they didn’t have to be anywhere. It took 11 days to get a Space A flight from Norfolk to Rota, but we all had plenty to do and see in the Tidewater region between roll calls. Instead of spending thousands of dollars (or frequent-flyer miles) for commercial airline tickets, they used their money for nice AirBnB apartments or military lodges. They rode public transportation or rented a car, and ate at cafes or small restaurants. They didn’t really budget but they had saved up for this trip and knew how much they could afford to rack up on their credit cards over the next three months.

Their real budget effort was on their energy. They knew that they could handle one or two events each day, and they knew that they needed to take it easy. They spent a lot of time reading about their destinations and the culture, and (once they knew where their plane would land) they planned their visits for the cool mornings. They didn’t scamper all over the country (let alone on staircases). They settled in a neighborhood and lived like locals.

While they were talking about their limits, I was imagining all the possibilities for my next 25 years.

Military Space A travel


We’ve done most of our 2015 travel on Space A military flights. It’s ranged from the sublime (a C-17 and a KC-135 from Rota to Hawaii in just 31 hours) to the “good enough” (a C-5 from Rota to Norfolk, delayed for several hours on each end with repairs and Customs inspections) to tedious (11 days and six roll calls in Norfolk to finally make a charter 767 to Rota). Even when a terminal is full of people we feel that Space A is less hassle than a commercial airport. We enjoy the military camaraderie… and the price is right, too! We’ll try to use it whenever we have the calendar flexibility.

I won’t post an entire travel guide here, but today’s tools are much better whether you’re an active-duty family (Category III) or a military retiree (Category VI).

The biggest Space A improvement is Facebook, where unclassified departures schedule are posted 72 hours in advance. (I’ve heard that the long-range schedule requires a CAC login on a secure network.) Search Facebook for your passenger terminal and “Like” it to follow its flight updates and learn about its facilities. Learn all of the system’s rules and tricks from  Sign up with Facebook’s “Military Space Available Travel” group page to ask questions or share info.

Since you’re saving thousands of dollars on military flights, spend $6.99 for the Take-A-Hop MilSpaceA app. Use it to research your passenger terminals for everything from accommodations (on base and out in town) to transportation, dining, and shopping. Then use its e-mail module to enter your personal data and automatically send all of your requests to your chosen passenger terminals. As you gain more experience, you’ll learn what questions to ask at the customer service counter.

Active-duty families may have a better chance of traveling during school vacations, while retirees can be totally flexible. Either way you can sign up for multiple destinations by e-mail, and while you’re in one passenger terminal you’re slowly gaining priority on the list in another location. Retirees can stay on a destination list for up to 60 days, so when we landed in Rota we immediately signed up in the terminal for return flights to “anywhere in the U.S.” and planned to start showing up for roll calls 50 days later. Then a few days later we signed up by e-mail for flights to Hawaii from the Mainland bases where we expected to land.

Get a smartphone

(If you’re a Millennial or Gen Xer then the next few paragraphs will seem funny– and stupid. You can skip down now, or feel free to mock this post on social media.)

If you’re a fellow Baby Boomer then here’s a “Well, duh” tip for your next trip: get a smartphone.

Yeah, I know. Nobody likes to see zombie geezers shuffling through the streets, heads down with eyes glued to those screens. You’ll miss all the sights and get run over by a bus!

Image of the city of Toledo Spain at dusk |
Toledo at dusk (from outside the walls) You definitely need a smartphone for these streets.

Um, no.  Get over yourself and just use the phone for navigation & planning. Our unlocked $175 used iPhone 5c and a $50/month T-Mobile “Simple Choice” international calling plan paid for itself many times over while navigating the labyrinthine streets of every Andalusian town and city. “Real” paper maps are getting hard to find (even at a reasonable price) and their fonts are so small that you’ll need a magnifying glass. (And at night, you’ll want a bright light.) On our second trip, we fearlessly (and flawlessly) navigated routes which had confused the heck out of us on the first trip. (“Oh, now I understand– highway N-IV really is parallel to A-4!“) One of our rental apartments was at the end of a barrio alley and a change of plans required us to phone the substitute “greeter” for the keys– neither of which would have been achievable without a map app and e-mail bandwidth… and being able to phone the greeters to tell them we were at the door.

My presbyopian eyes need the iPhone’s “large font” setting, and occasionally a magnifying lens. The flashlight app was used a couple of times, too. We still ended up doing the zombie shuffle for the first couple strolls in Sevilla, but old dogs really do learn new tricks.

Home Maintenance

Much better than the last trip! (See the “Related links” at the end of this post.) This time we emptied our fridge, propped open its doors, and had no problems. (Unfortunately when we returned home and plugged it in, however, it immediately fried its motherboard for a $200 repair.) We didn’t have any water leaks because we shut off water to the entire house and shut off the fridge. Our photovoltaic array made hundreds of kilowatt-hours of extra electricity (at 30 cents/KWHr) while we were away.  We’ll have $18/month electric bills for most of 2016.

Image of pile of mail held for three months of a trip to Spain |
Three months of mail.

Our mail pile was pretty small for three months.

Green waste was a challenge. Our yard got a lot of rain while we were gone, and our bougainvillea hedges grew at least three feet. Our palm trees dropped a lot of branches, too. Oahu recycles all of its green waste into mulch, and they pick up twice per month. We have four 65-gallon cans for our green-waste exercise but a month later we’re still catching up.

Did You Miss Home?

One reader asked very interesting questions:

Do you get homesick? I know you were used to lots of travel due to being in the Navy, but that was quite awhile ago, did you get used to being comfortable at home?


That’s a complicated question, and maybe the answer is that it’s part of our personalities. People are always asking me how I could live on submarines or on a 30×40-mile island, yet from my personal perspective I wouldn’t enjoy being an aviator or living in a city.

I travel for the experiences. I love sharing my daughter’s sea stories and watching her make her way in the world. (Every time we see her she’s more mature and she’s tackling bigger projects.) I enjoy hanging out with my spouse and having the deeper, more reflective conversations that we don’t usually achieve at home (amid all of its chores and projects). During our trip we met up with one of my cousins who I haven’t seen in over 30 years. And, of course, every once in a while I’m astounded to realize that I flew 8000 miles around the world for amazing sights in 3000-year-old towns, to (try to) speak a different language, and to eat incredible food.

I know that I’m not a perpetual traveler like the Kaderlis or the Terhorsts, and I like having a home base. I love watching sunrises from our familyroom, and when we’re home I hardly ever miss one. I enjoy working on my desktop computer’s speedy solid-state drive and my 23″ monitor instead of a tiny iPad screen. During our trip we slept in 14 different bedrooms, and it felt great to come home to our mattress. I appreciate the irony of that emotion coming from a submariner who used to sleep on a 72″x28″x4″ block of foam-rubber-covered Naugahyde.

I don’t feel homesick when we travel, but I get tired of being cold and dressing warmly all day (and all night). I really enjoy coming home to our Hawaii lifestyle.

Of course I don’t miss yardwork or broken plumbing or noisy neighbors or Oahu traffic. And I’m considering upgrading my three-year-old iPad2 to an iPad Air 2 or even an iPad Pro.

We’re already planning our next trips. We’ll return to Spain in July for a two-week Mediterranean cruise (and a week in an Italian villa) with a couple of shipmates. (We’ll have to deal with Europe’s summer humidity and crowds but it’ll be good to hang out with old friends.) There’s FinCon16 in San Diego next September and maybe other conferences. After that we don’t have any plans, but someday we’d like to return to Bangkok. We also want to go diving in Palau or Truk or even spend a few months in Australia. On balance, a little homesickness seems to be a fair trade.

But we’re not extreme voyaging to Antarctica or climbing Kilimanjaro or even taking an Alaskan cruise. I’ll watch those on the Travel Channel.

Were there any holiday traditions that had to be altered due to being on the wrong continent?

No worries: military families know that you celebrate your holidays when everyone’s home together, not just by the calendar.

We celebrated our daughter’s birthday together (on the actual anniversary date of her birth!) for the first time in six years, and we celebrated Thanksgiving together the week before we all left Rota. Her ship deployed early due to “world events”, and they celebrated Thanksgiving at sea. Since our daughter was underway, my spouse and I leaped for a flight that was going from Rota all the way to Travis AFB. We were mildly concerned about being “stuck” in northern California during Thanksgiving week with too many Space A crowds going home for the holidays (and too few flights), but our fears were groundless. We didn’t even need to fly commercial. Six hours after we landed we scored a second flight to Hawaii. We got home so quickly that we celebrated Thanksgiving on Oahu with friends… instead of in a Space A passenger terminal… or Napa Valley.

Are you back up to 100% surfing time?

I’m not gonna lie: Andalusia surfing is not up to my Hawaii expectations. I really miss Hawaii surfing when we’re on travel, although I got in two small fixes. The breaks at Cadiz’s Playa de Santa Maria and the town of El Palmar were cold and windy, with long drives and difficult parking. I wore a full 3mm wetsuit plus booties and gloves. I’m going to enjoy Hawaii surf for as long as I can remember how to paddle back in, even if I could live anywhere in the world with one of Kelly Slater’s wave machines in my yard.

As soon as we returned home, I renewed my passport.  (It’s my third one in 13 years of retirement.)  We’ll be ready for the next trip!

Here’s a question for you readers:  what are your travel plans for financial independence?  How much do you set aside in your budget?

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