Military Space Available Travel: Tips for Flying Space-A The Navy Way

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Space A travel is one of our favorite retiree benefits! It’s the military version of ultimate travel hacking.

Although most of the system is run by the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, the Navy has a few of its own Space A passenger terminals. When you know how to use the AMC Space A system, you can level up your destinations (and your travel opportunities) on both coasts with Navy passenger terminals.

Image of an approach to Naval Air Station North Island out of the window of a Navy C-40 aircraft with the wingtip in view. | The-Military-Guide.com

San Diego view on a Navy C-40

I’m getting a lot of reader questions about how we used the Navy’s version of Space A on our last trip, so here are the details.

In early 2019, my spouse and I logged over 17,000 miles on Space A aircraft. We flew halfway around the globe (from Hawaii to Europe and back). We only paid for box lunches, a military passenger charter tax, and… one commercial flight on our last leg.

We’ve flown Space A for over 30 years, and that last paragraph has become our “normal” slow travel. The unusual part is that we did most of our trip on Navy aircraft and only had one flight with the Air Force’s AMC system.

You can read a quickstart guide to Space A from Poppin’ Smoke and other sites, and I’ve included the best resources at the end of this post.

Now you’re ready to learn the Navy’s secrets.

[Note: This post is written mainly for military retirees. If you’re an active-duty military family then you’re usually under time pressure to get back home before your leave ends. It’s almost impossible to put together the itinerary in this post unless you’re on terminal leave, or unless you’re a military spouse using a command-sponsor letter to fly without your servicemember.]

“Nords, why are you flying Space A anyway?”

I know I would’ve seen this question in the comments:  We’re financially independent.  We have enough money, we don’t need to fly for free.

We fly Space A for the thrill of the hunt and the in-flight amenities.

Image of the interior of an Air Force C-17 cargo jet with Space A passengers and lots of deck space for spreading out sleeping bags to take a nap | The-Military-Guide.com

Plenty of room to stretch out in a sleeping bag.

Here are some things you can do on a Space A itinerary:

  • Get through security screenings in a few minutes with no crowds.
  • Share an affinity with military passengers who (mostly) know how to fly.
  • Fly with fewer than 125 passengers, and frequently less than 50.  Once in a while, it’s just the crew and a passenger or two.
  • Lay your inflatable mat and sleeping bag on the deck of a cargo jet for a six-hour nap.
  • Enjoy seats on a military passenger jet which are actually bigger than commercial aircraft seats.
  • Find new camaraderie with fellow retirees (and a new audience for your old sea stories).
  • Watch a junior aircrew member give a personal safety brief that reminds you of starting your military career…
  • … and offer to sign off their loadmaster qualification card.
  • Enjoy the memories (and endure the flashbacks) of your military career.
  • Revisit old duty stations– only this time with liberty and money.
  • Discover adventure on the way to your destination instead of commercial-airline frustration.

After 17 years of military retirement (and FI), Space A just feels way cooler. (You’re warned from the very start to be flexible about when you’ll fly and where you’ll land.)  We enjoy it so much that we struggle to remind ourselves when it makes more sense to fly commercial.

Flying Space A as a Military Retiree

I’m going to assume that you already know the basics of the AMC Space A system, or you should read that quickstart post in the Poppin’ Smoke link. Many more details are in the “Related articles” section at the bottom of this post.

[Again, this post is written for military retirees. If you’re an active-duty family who typically flies with CAT III, IV, or V priority, then it’s difficult to put together an ambitious multi-flight itinerary. However, you could try this during terminal leave (at least 30 days) or if you’re a milspouse using a command-sponsor letter to fly without your servicemember.]

Military retirees have the lowest priority (CAT VI) for Space A flights. That’s the way it should be, because we have time and flexibility. Most retirees avoid traveling during the busy Space A weeks of the year (Dec-Jan and Jun-Aug) when active-duty families are traveling.

Retirees can also sign up far in advance of our travel date (usually 60 days) by e-mail. By the time you show up at the passenger terminal, you’ll be among the top names in the CAT VI category and ready to fly anything going your way in the next week. If Space A doesn’t work out then “total failure” is typically a longer stay at your location– or a last-minute commercial airline ticket.

Or you could just monitor the upcoming flight schedule, pack your go bag, and head out for “wherever”. During spring or fall you might sign up for a new Space A list every couple of weeks.

Our last itinerary (April-June 2019)

We live on Oahu, so we closed up the house and started our journey from the AMC passenger terminal at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. We’d signed up 50 days before (for our 60-day limit) and had 10 days to get to “anywhere on the east coast”. We didn’t know whether we’d make a flight to Norfolk or Charleston so we had our eye on a mission to North Island in San Diego.

Our first travel leg was:

We stayed a week in Norfolk for a family reunion.

After the reunion, we’d originally planned to catch a Space A flight to Rota (Spain) or Ramstein (Germany). When we first deplaned at NAS Oceana, though, their mission board had a once-in-a-lifetime flight the following week to… Amsterdam and Denmark. We’ve never even heard about that before, let alone seen it on a schedule. We signed up on the spot.

Image of Amsterdam street corner with buildings leaning in different directions on 400-year-old unstable foundations. | The-Military-Guide.com

Amsterdam’s unstable foundations and leaning homes.

Our next set of flights:

We roamed around Amsterdam from late April through mid-May. We even had several meetups with friends who were passing through on their own slow travel. After you’ve read this post, you’re welcome to browse the public photo album (with captions) on my Facebook page.

We eventually left Amsterdam’s Centraal Station in an express train, and then switched to a local line for a station near the Ramstein Air Base in Germany.  That cost the two of us $293.08 to Frankfurt, and another $81.57 for the local train to Landstuhl. (Thanks to Dan of KeepInvesting$impleStupid.com for dinner and a ride to the base!) Ramstein was the base we were originally planning to fly into with Space A… until we were distracted by the once-in-a-lifetime mission to Amsterdam.

Image of military and cargo jets from the Ramstein Inn room looking onto the Ramstein Air Base ramp in Germany | The-Military-Guide.com

Ramstein Air Base view from our base lodging

(I’m afraid we didn’t do much around Ramstein. Despite our annual immunizations, I came down with an epic respiratory infection and my spouse picked up a nasty case of the flu.)

After a couple days in Ramstein we headed back to the U.S.:
4000 miles from Ramstein to BWI Passenger Terminal on the military’s chartered Boeing 777 Patriot Express. (BWI’s Passenger Terminal is part of the Baltimore-Washington International Airport.) Our $70.66 head tax for two people included the typical civilian in-flight food & beverage service.

After landing at BWI, we completed our Global Entry traveler interviews.  We had filled out the GE applications (and paid the fees) from Honolulu over six months earlier– and we were never contacted for a Honolulu interview. BWI is one of the sites that does GE interviews upon returning to the U.S. from overseas.

When we finished our customs inspection, we asked several staff and were finally directed to the GE office. They looked us up in their database, confirmed our IDs and passports, collected a full set of fingerprints, and asked us whether we’ve ever been arrested. (“Not quite.”) Our GE cards (including TSA Pre-check) were mailed to us a couple weeks later.

We drove from BWI to CampFI Mid-Atlantic (in Spring Grove, VA). After our weekend we carpooled with a friend to Norfolk. The Norfolk AMC Passenger Terminal didn’t have many flights on the schedule so we decided to try flying west from NAS Oceana again.

Image of Navy Blue Angels F/A-18 Hornet aircraft at Naval Air Station Pensacola, with the wing of our C-40 passenger jet in foreground. | The-Military-Guide.com

Blue Angels on the flight line.

Oceana’s next flight was four stops, all in one very long 12-hour day:

  • 1100 miles from NAS Oceana to NAS Key West.
  • 800 miles from NAS Key West to NAS Pensacola.
  • 800 miles from NAS Pensacola to Tinker AFB. (We flew the Blue Angels!)
  • 1300 miles from Tinker AFB to NAS NI.

We spent an enjoyable weekend in San Diego. We were stationed there in 1994-97 so we drove around our old neighborhood and brunched at a ChooseFI meetup before the premiere of the Playing With FIRE documentary.

We were waiting for a Navy C-40 mission:

  • 2600 miles NAS North Island – Hickam
  • … and the flight was canceled at the last minute.

By that point, we were ready to go home and there were no more scheduled Space A flights for at least three days. We cashed in some commercial airline miles, rode to San Diego’s commercial airport, and flew home on Hawaiian Airlines.

I’ll admit it: I was a tad hypercompetitive about making the entire trip by Space A, so that last-minute cancellation stung a bit. At least Oahu’s welcome-home surf was 8-10 feet on the south shore.

Our final tally was 17,400 miles by Space A, 2600 miles by commercial air, and 300 miles by train. During our two months of slow travel, we flew through 12 time zones. Among box lunches and the head tax, we spent a total of $81.86 on military airfare.

Next, we’ll describe the advantages of the Naval Air Stations.

But first, here’s a funny Space A story:

The Enterprise Rent-A-Car center at BWI uses a different computer system than the tiny little Enterprise franchise in Virginia Beach by NAS Oceana. When we rented the car at BWI, we told them that we’d return the car in Norfolk (and they noted that in their computer system). When we flew out of NAS Oceana and left the rental car’s keys with the Aviation Duty Officer, the VA Beach franchise agreed to pick up the car from the NAS Oceana long-term parking lot… but then they “forgot”.

Two weeks after we returned to Oahu, the BWI office asked me when I was planning to return their car. Enterprise BWI did not talk with Enterprise VA Beach, and vice versa. It took me three more phone calls (and three more weeks) for the VA Beach office to get around to picking up the car. (I had to coach an employee to the car over the phone as they walked the Oceana long-term parking lot.) It took another two weeks for the BWI office to retroactively clear all the credit-card charges and give me an accurate bill.

Well, in any case, it’s funny now.

Fly Navy! (Space A)

The Navy’s passenger terminals have their own procedures and tend to be much less formal. It’s similar to using a scrappy local airline rather than a monolithic bureaucratic MegaCorp. If you’re used to the Air Force AMC system, you may be surprised at the Navy’s lack of structure. (You might not even get a boarding pass for the flight.) If you’re in the Navy, then it feels like coming home.

First, while most AMC Space A passenger terminal schedules are on Facebook, only a few of the Navy Space A passenger terminals use social media. Some of them will give you the mission schedule over the phone.

Next, they may have their own rules for passenger lists. Some will only keep you on the list for 45 days. Another may require you to mark yourself present (in person) a day or two before the flight. One passenger terminal is notorious for listing its missions as go times– not the usual show times of 2-3 hours prior to the flight. Before you make any plans based on Facebook information, phone the terminal and try to talk to a human.

Third, Navy passenger terminals may not be busy. Some of them are “black holes” in remote locations with only a couple of missions per week. If the mission is canceled (or the plane breaks) then you may be stuck many miles from a commercial airport… and the local hotel is full on a Saturday afternoon… and the rental car companies close at noon Saturday until 9 AM Monday.

Image of the logo of the MilSpaceA Take-A-Hop app | The-Military-Guide.com

Best $6.99 app I’ve had.

Fourth, it’s absolutely essential to use an app for local base/community info. We greatly enjoy the Take-A-Hop MilSpaceA app, and at $6.99 it’s worth every penny. It’s saved us hours at finding transportation & lodging, and it greatly automates the Space A signup process. But again, call the Navy passenger terminal and try to speak with a human before you make the rest of your plans.

Fifth, some passenger terminals list arrivals as well as departures. You might also figure out that another passenger terminal’s departing mission is arriving at your local base. If you learn (from the other passenger terminals) that a mission is arriving at an airfield near you, then tell your local passenger terminal what you’ve learned and ask them to check into it. You may be the only one who knows about it.

Finally, and most importantly: not a lot of people know about the Navy passenger terminals. You might be the only Space A passengers to show up, and your fellow passengers might all be locals.

Major Navy Space A Passenger Terminals

Here are more details of the major Navy Space A passenger terminals. Most of this info is found on Facebook (if they’re on FB) or in the Take-A-Hop app.

Naval Air Station North Island (Coronado, San Diego):

  • This is the terminal that lists go times, not show times. You need to be at least two hours prior to the times on their page, especially in case the mission lands early and the crew is in a hurry to take off. (Ask me how we know.) Most of their aircraft are C-40 military passenger jets.  NAS North Island may still be using a 45-day limit on their Space A signup list. They get a lot of “feedback” on that, as well as their practice of listing wheels-up times instead of show times.
  • On weekends, phone or visit this terminal to check their schedule. (Cell phone service can be spotty on the island.) They might not update the FB page until Monday morning, and Murphy’s Law Of Space A means that’s when you’ll learn that you’ve waited all weekend for a canceled flight. Let’s not get into how we’ve learned that. More than once.
  • The Navy Gateway Inn & Suites is in the middle of the base (a short walk from the passenger terminal). The Navy Lodge is on the (very nice) beach but it’s a longer shuttle ride to the terminal.

NAS Whidbey Island (Washington):

  • It’s a three-hour shuttle/ferryboat ride from SeaTac airport, and the base is relatively small. Its remote location means that not many passengers will compete for flights out of here– but they fly to Japan, Hawaii, and the east coast.
    Be sure to check for rooms at the base before you head there. The Navy Gateway Inn & Suites is closer to the passenger terminal. The Navy Lodge (Seaplane Base) is on the opposite side of the base.

NAS Oceana (Virginia Beach, VA):

  • This terminal doesn’t do Facebook. “Signing up” usually means that you fill out the passenger manifest by hand just before the flight leaves. We’ve never had a boarding pass here. Stay close to the counter personnel because when the loadmaster (or even the pilot!) shows up for passengers, nobody will announce it on the PA system and they won’t spend much time looking for you.
  • Call 757-433-2903 for Oceana’s schedule. Listen carefully to the recording, because for weekend missions you may have to mark yourself present in person on Thursday. They may also list their schedule for seven days instead of three.

Naval Station Norfolk’s Passenger Terminal

  • Naval Station Norfolk’s passenger terminal is so big & busy that it’s actually part of the AMC system. It has more flights (because AMC) but it also has more passenger competition. It’s a 30-45 minute drive from NAS Oceana, so research your options carefully.

Japan

  • Japan has several Naval Air Facilities, but I haven’t spent enough time there to learn the details. (My spouse and I hope to remedy that deficiency after the 2020 Olympics.) You can find more info at Poppin’ Smoke– Stephanie has lived in Japan for many months and she’s a hardcore expert on all things there.

Other Naval Air Stations are listed on Wikipedia and Military.com. Again, you may be able to research their passenger terminals and policies on Facebook, but call them before you make plans to go there.

Would we fly Space A again?

You bet.

Our next itinerary starts on 1 September with FinCon19 and Military Influencer Conference in Washington DC, followed by FI Chautauqua in Porto, Portugal. After that we plan to wander the Iberian Peninsula for another 60 days or so. You can stalk my public Facebook page for updates and photos.

Your Call To Action: Before You Go

  • Download the Take-A-Hop MilSpaceA app.
  • Use the Take-A-Hop app to e-mail your signup for the list about 50 days before you want to fly (or 35 days for some Navy passenger terminals).
  • Research the Space A passenger terminals at your possible destinations and familiarize yourself with lodging & transportation at those bases.
  • Plan to wear close-toed shoes on the flight (mandatory) and multiple clothing layers (or you’ll freeze).
  • Be flexible!

The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement Price: By Doug Nordman: This book provides servicemembers, veterans, and their families with a critical roadmap for becoming financially independent. The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement All Author royalties donated to military charities. Last Updated: 10/10/2018

Related articles:
The Air Force AMC Space Available Travel Page (“the references”)
Space A Frequently Asked Questions
DoD Instruction 4515.13 “Air Transportation Eligibility” (the source reference)
Poppin’ Smoke quickstart
Poppin’ Smoke Facebook group
Poppin’ Smoke gear for a Space A flight
The Take-A-Hop MilSpaceA app
Poppin’ Smoke advice for the Hickam AMC passenger terminal (I helped edit the details)
Facebook pages for:
Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam AMC Passenger Terminal
NAS North Island Air Terminal
NAS Whidbey Island Air Terminal
(NAS Oceana Passenger Terminal doesn’t have a FB page.)
Surprising Secrets Of Slow Travel
Fast Personal Growth Through Slow Travel
Travel While You Can
Lifestyles In Retirement: 90 Days In Spain
Lifestyles In Retirement: Long-Term Travel
The Frugal Effect
Our Amsterdam photo album, with captions (Facebook, public access)

WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

4 Comments
  1. Just discovered your website and book — great info! I have flown Space A three times (twice on AD, once as a Cat VI). Ironically, one of the AD journeys was from Wright-Patt AFB, OH, to San Diego on a Navy P-3 Orion that had been diverted into WPAFP due to storms over TN. Looking forward to trying your tips for flying Navy Space A!

  2. This is so cool. Going to send to my stepdad who is retiring from the Coast Guard this year.

    By the way, found this from a link on this article, if you’re interested. It’s an article about you – https://wealthyjoeinvesting.com/2019/10/08/guest-post-if-you-follow-the-program-you-can-have-anything/

    • Thanks for sharing the post and digging up that link, Brian!

      Space A is a great benefit for servicemembers who are on terminal leave and still have CAT III status. I hope your stepdad is able to take full advantage of it.

    Comment? Question? What's on your mind?