Why Military Families Should Avoid Space-A Travel Over the Winter Holidays

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A U.S. Air Force plane on a snowy runway
Photo courtesy of Air National Guard, MSgt Mark C. Olsen

The winter holidays are one of the busiest and most expensive times of year to travel. Of course, we all want to visit family and take advantage of what is often a slow period at work. But these trips can get expensive, especially if you need to fly overseas and buy plane tickets for the whole family.

Seems like a great time to save money by flying Space-A, right? Well, maybe not.

Eligibility for Space-A flights is a fantastic privilege available to active duty and retired military families. Under the right circumstances, you can save hundreds – or even thousands – of dollars, particularly when traveling outside the continental United States (OCONUS).

But Space-A travel is not the best option for every situation, and the year-end holiday period is one of those times when you’re better off finding alternatives.

Here are four reasons why you should avoid Space-A travel during the holidays.

1. More Competition . . . for Fewer Space-A Seats

Flying Space-A is really challenging at three times of year: PCS season; school vacations; and the year-end holidays. In the latter two situations, there are many military families hoping to save money on travel, so competition is fierce, particularly for travelers in the lower categories.

If you’re active duty on environmental and morale leave (EML) or ordinary leave (Categories 2 and 3, respectively), you have the best chance of getting a seat.

But if you’re an unaccompanied dependent (Category 4 or 5) or retiree (Category 6), it’s pretty risky. And of course, no Space-A category is higher priority than the mission, so if the mission is canceled, so is your free flight.

Also, there are usually fewer military missions right around the holidays (the flight crews need a break, too), which means less potential for Space-A seats.

2. Your Actual Vacation Could Be Very Short

To allow for the fact that you may need to wait several days for a flight, when flying Space-A, you should allocate several days at either end of your vacation to travel time.

Personally, I don’t recommend flying Space-A for vacations/leave shorter than 2 weeks, because you might spend a good chunk of it waiting in passenger terminals.

That rule applies any time of year, but as noted above, you may wait even longer (if you get a seat at all) during holiday season.

3. You Might Miss the Big Events

Space-A is never a good option when you need to be somewhere by a certain date, whether for a wedding, a funeral, a cruise departure, or Christmas dinner.

When flying Space-A, you won’t know until the last minute if there is a flight from your departure point to anywhere close to your target destination.

Even if the perfect flight is on the schedule, many times no Space-A seats are released, or — especially during the holidays and other busy times — 100 other passengers are vying for 10 seats.

If you are fortunate enough to get a seat, that’s only the first hurdle. A change in the mission could delay your departure by several days or re-route your aircraft to another destination. The mission could also get canceled entirely.

When flying Space-A, there is no rebooking on another flight, so you must hustle to make other arrangements.

4. Your Backup Plan Could Be Very Expensive

When flying Space-A, you should always have plans B, C, and D. If all else fails, you may need to buy a commercial ticket, which, at that point, will be on very short notice (and very expensive!).

Bottom Line: Buy Commercial Tickets Early

It’s worth biting the bullet and paying for commercial tickets if you need to travel during the holidays. That way, you can have control over your travel schedule and feel certain that you won’t miss important events with family.

Sure, holiday fares are pricey, but buying tickets well in advance is cheaper than scrambling to find a flight two days before Christmas if Space-A doesn’t work out.

If You Want to Try Space-A Anyway . . .

Maybe you’ve got some use-or-lose leave and you just want to go somewhere. Perhaps you’re retired and you’ve got the time and flexibility to wait for a flight. Or best of all, you’re on terminal leave, so you’re still in Category 3, but you have no time constraints.

If you still want to try Space-A this holiday season, here’s my advice.

  1. Think of your trip as an adventure. That way, if it doesn’t go as planned, you will still get something out of the experience. The same advice applies no matter what time of year you’re flying Space-A, but even more so during busy travel seasons.
  2. Be flexible and creative. If you have a particular destination in mind, consider departures from all air bases within a day’s drive (you can check Space-A flight schedules online). For example, if you live in Pennsylvania, you could fly from JB McGuire-Dix, Dover Air Force Base, or any of the bases in the Washington, DC area.
  3. If you’re feeling especially adventurous and willing to go wherever there’s a flight, check the schedules at the nearest base, look for a mission with a lot of seats, and give it a shot.
  4. Be prepared to leave on a moment’s notice. Sometimes missions come on the schedule only a few hours prior to departure. If you’re in a position to take advantage of the situation, you just got lucky!
  5. Finally, stay within CONUS to increase your chances of getting a seat. Overseas flights tend to be more competitive during the holidays. If you really want to travel OCONUS, check the DOD school calendars and avoid flying during winter break.

No matter what time of year you’re traveling, there are never any guarantees when flying Space-A. However, if you follow the advice above, along with these other strategies and tips, you can greatly increase your chances of success!

A version of this article was first published on PCSgrades.

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