I originally posted about my 2012 Space A trip on Epinions.com. Since Epinions is now defunct and I want to preserve those stories, I am going to repost them here on my travel blog. Keep in mind, these reports were written in May 2012.
Our very first military hop to Europe! Part I… flights
May 29, 2012 (Updated Aug 14, 2012)
The Bottom Line Our first military hop…
This is going to be a long story, so I will post it in parts…
Those of you who regularly read my Epinions reviews may have noticed that I haven’t posted in almost two weeks. That’s unusual for me, because I usually have plenty to write about and lots of time to do it in. As it turns out, my husband Bill and I just returned from a somewhat “seat of your pants” trip to Europe via military “hop”. I had been wanting to do this for some time and Bill surprised me with an email a few weeks ago, letting me know that he had arranged for time off so we could do it. I just got back yesterday and now have plenty to write about and lots of time to do it in. So here goes…
The adventure begins…
What is a military hop?
If you’re not affiliated with the U.S. military, you might not have heard of space available travel. The U.S. sends planes all over the world to carry out military missions. Some of the planes are chartered aircraft from Delta Airlines or Atlas Air. Some are military planes operated by the Air Force. When they have extra room on these planes, the space is made available to members of the military, retirees, and their dependents.
These flights cost next to nothing. People who want to take space a flights are ranked into categories based on their duty status and relevance to the U.S. military’s missions. A person who is going somewhere on military duty, for instance, gets top priority. Someone going home on emergency leave gets second priority. Bill, as an active duty soldier on leave, was marked “category three”. The ranking continues to category six, which includes retirees. It can be tricky to get a flight, especially if you’re a lowly category six. That’s why it makes sense to be prepared to purchase a commercial ticket or have some other “plan B”.
Before I was an Army wife, I was an Air Force brat. My parents traveled “space a” many times when I was growing up, but they never took me on any of their travels. So I was curious about what they had experienced. Since we live in North Carolina, we are within driving distance to several Air Force bases and Baltimore-Washington International Airport, which has a terminal for U.S. military operations.
Bill joined a couple of messageboards dedicated to military space a travel. The one he checked most often was, by far, Dirk Pepperd’s board (www.pepperd.com). Every day, he would watch the trends in flights going into or out of the air bases closest to us. The flight schedules are typically released 72 hours beforehand. We were looking for a flight going out May 19th, so we started watching the messageboards for the air bases closest to us.
For about a week prior to our trip, we thought we’d end up leaving out of Charleston Air Force Base because it was closest to us and seemed to have the most seats available for flights to Europe, especially to Rota, Spain. I was researching things to do in Spain and thinking we’d finally get to see Seville together. But on May 16th, it was clear that Charleston wasn’t going to have any flights going anywhere we wanted to go. After checking all the other bases closeby, we turned our attention to BWI. On May 19th, it was offering 195 seats to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. We surmised that was our best bet to get a flight and decided to drive all day to get there.
We had to be in Baltimore by 8:00 that evening… that was when “show time” would be. In reality, people were showing up much earlier than that. We arrived in Baltimore at about 6:00pm, signed up for a flight, and were immediately approved. We then got in line behind what seemed like hundreds of servicepeople in uniform, most of them with weapons locked in cases. They were headed to Afghanistan. We also saw lots of families with pets. They were moving to Germany for an assignment. There were also plenty of retirees. It looked like most of them were successful in getting on the flight.
We stood in line for about an hour to drop off our luggage. The USO was there to give us care packages… yes, even the civilians! A man asked me how much I weigh and I lied, of course. Then we were at the ticket counter, where we dropped off our bags and paid the $16 per person head fee. Yes, Bill and I paid just $32 to fly to Germany!
Flight to Germany
The flight was conducted by Atlas Air, an airline contracted by the government. It was like just about any other flight, except many of the people onboard were on their way to war. The guy sitting next to Bill and me was in uniform and looked pretty petrified. It was his first deployment. He didn’t move the whole flight and didn’t speak until toward the end, when he confessed that it was his first time.
The aircraft looked like it had once been operated by a Japanese airline. The signage was all in Japanese and the seatbacks all had video monitors on them with poorly translated English instructions. The programming was all in English, but some of it had Japanese subtitles. I watched the Christmas episode of Glee, then switched to the channel that showed our progress toward Europe.
Back in Germany!
We arrived in Germany in the afternoon, picked up our luggage, and made our way through customs. A nice German lady helped us get a cab, which showed up minutes after we called. The guy driving it was an American veteran who moved to Germany 33 years ago and had raised his family there. We were telling him about our two years in Germany and how we had hated to leave. I swear, if we ever had the chance to live there again, I’d take it in a heartbeat!
The cab driver dropped us off at Kaiserslautern railway station and wished us a good time. We purchased a three day Germany pass and hopped on an ICE train (inner city express) to get to Cologne, Germany. I wanted to go there because of the cathedral… and the fact that the airport is a hub for Germanwings, a discount airline that offers cheap “blind booking” flights. Bill and I had flown with them twice when we lived in Germany. I was eager to take another blind booking flight and see where we ended up.
On our way to Cologne, we looked at the beautiful Rhine region flying by and I remembered how much I love Europe. Bill and I had never been to Cologne before, except once in 2008 when we had to change trains there on a trip from Germany to Brussels, Belgium. The connections were so quick we had no chance to see anything there.
When we got off the train, we were both exhausted. We checked into the first hotel we saw… an Ibis that was literally in the station. We checked in, dropped our bags, took showers, and immediately headed out for some dinner.