By Marc Acton
What's Space A?
Every day, DoD airplanes fly all around the world. When these planes aren't full, military personnel (and often their family members) can fill the empty seats. Usually these flights are free if they're within the U.S.; flights outside the country require a small tax. Most of the available seats are on flights run by the Air Force's Air Mobility Command that include destinations in dozens of countries.
Almost Everyone is Eligible
All active duty personnel can fly Space A, and usually their dependents can, too, even unaccompanied. This includes Guard and Reserve dependents in certain cases, like if their sponsor is deployed for 120 days or more. Retirees who are eligible to receive retirement pay can fly and bring their family members with them. Reservists and guardmembers who are on active-drilling status (not Individual Ready Reserve) can fly, too, when they're not on duty - but only to U.S. states or territories, which includes some appealing locations like Hawaii, Guam, and Puerto Rico.
Each kind of passenger must bring a different set of documentation. You'll need identification (passports or visas if you're traveling overseas) and copies of leave orders, if applicable. Reservists, guardmembers, and retirees need extra documentation to prove their eligibility. Find the specific eligibility and documentation requirements on Air Mobility Command's travel website.
Find a Flight
The biggest hurdle to Space-A travel is the scheduling. For security reasons, specific times and destinations of flights are not published more than 72 hours in advance of a flight. So while some locations do have “regular” destinations they fly to, Space-A passengers should adopt the Marines Corps' unofficial motto semper gumby (always flexible), avoiding concrete plans based on flight schedules that change often.
Most major Air Force bases have passenger terminals, as do many Navy and a handful of Air National Guard bases. Check out the full list of terminals. Most post their available flights on Facebook. If you can't find your terminal there, most terminals make their schedules available on recorded messages, or you can call the terminal directly.
Commercially produced guides list routes for each Space-A terminal, but don't make any major plans based on these published routes, which often are out-of-date by the time the books make it to print. Only the individual terminal's 72-hour notices are reliable, and even those are subject to change without notice. That semper gumby attitude will take you far. The best way to make the most out of Space-A travel for leisure is to show up at a major passenger terminal that has lots of flights and go where the wind takes you.
Get a Seat
Once you know what terminal you will depart from, sign up with the terminal to get your name on “the list.” You don't have to sign up for a specific day. Putting your name on the list tells the terminal you plan to travel with them. Do this as soon as you can, up to 60 days in advance of the dates you want to travel. Usually you can sign up online, but check with your terminal because each has its own rules.
Once a flight you'd like to take is announced, show up prior to the roll call time listed on the 72-hour notice and check in with the terminal personnel. You'll tell them which flight you'd like to take, and they'll ensure all your paperwork is correct. If seats are available, they're given out based on the category of the travelers who want them. While a full list of the category breakdown is available online, the basic rule is, the more necessary the reason for flying, the higher the category assigned to the passenger. Active duty servicemembers and their accompanying families traveling on emergency leave are Category 1, for example, while retirees, guardmembers, and reservists are lowest priority.
Within each category, seats are given on a first-come, first-served basis. At the roll call, terminal personnel go down the list by category, filling seats based on who has checked in for the flight. If multiple travelers in one category are competing for a seat, the traveler who has been on the sign-up list the longest will get the seat. This is why signing up as close as you can to 60 days out is important. A passenger in the same category who has been on the list for 45 days will get a seat before a passenger who has been on the list for 35.
Be Ready for Anything
If you're traveling for fun, you're a low-category traveler. That means you should be prepared to wait to get what you want. It's worth repeating, the No. 1 key to flying Space A successfully is flexibility. It is not unusual for flights to be delayed or canceled. Don't make the mistake of assuming because is a flight goes exactly where you want to go that you're going to get on it. If you have the luxury of coming back for the next week's flight, you're more likely to be successful. Even better, adjust your plans on the fly and pick a new destination to keep from wasting away in a terminal hoping your number will be called.
Have a Backup Plan
Fight the unpredictability of Space-A travel with a backup plan, especially for return flights. If you absolutely have to be somewhere at a certain time, you might want to consider other traveling options. But if you have the time and the desire to see whatever corner of the world makes itself available to you, Space A can be an incredibly cheap way to scratch the itch for adventure.