Holiday Travel Tips

Seasons Greetings from Outer Space A!

With the holidays upon us, it’s time for a few tips for Cat 6 travel for those among us intrepid enough to attempt it during the busiest season of the year. While retiree travel is not recommended, as a rule, during periods like the holidays, it may be possible, with certain “restrictions”.

For overseas travel (European Christmas markets are in full swing!) from CONUS:

  • Plan to have your round trip completed by the middle of December. After that, higher category travelers will be pulling children out of school early for holiday vacation, and seats for Cat 6 will quickly evaporate.
  • Be prepared to be extra flexible with alternate departure and arrival destinations and routing. For instance, you could end up flying from Dover to Ramstein, and returning from Spangdahlem to Andrews, or Charleston. Or, travel from Travis to Kadena, and return via Yokota to McChord. 
  • Make sure you have ground transportation options in place, and figure your ground costs into your budget. Car rental, taxis, shuttles, trains, and accommodations add up!
  • Hopefully, you have signed up sufficiently in advance to be traveling around day 50-55, both outbound and returning, to have the best chances within category for a flight. If you’re just signing up to travel now, you chances are considerably diminished.
  • Be on the look out for last minute seats during the holidays. SOMETIMES, it’s possible to travel the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Many of the families that pulled children out early for travel will also return late, so there may be seats available for a quick getaway – if you’re ready to grab them.
  • After the holidays are over, plan for flights to continue to be full through the middle of January.

For travel within CONUS, prosects are generally better. While there may be fewer flights available overall, Cat 2, 4 (EML), and 5 travel eligibility ends upon reaching CONUS, so competition for seats is not as greatly impacted. For the past several years, Lady Cat 6 and sponsor have been able to travel fairly easily cross country to spend Christmas with our families, and return. Flexibility, as always, is key to success! Have a several-day window for travel each way, be willing to go where the flights are. 

Remember to be kind to your terminal personnel and flight crews! They are doing the best they can to accommodate as many travelers as possible during this extremely busy season – and they have families, too. Don’t be the grinch in the terminal ;).

Holiday space a travel for Cat 6 requires extra-triple doses of patience, and flexibility, and a few small miracles along the way.  If you want to try to beat the odds, figure out your options, cross your fingers, and be sure to pack your holiday cheer and good will with you. If you see a harried individual or family struggling in the terminal, getting to or from the plane, or on the flight, help them out! As the saying goes: there are plenty of good people in the world – if you can’t find one, be one! Your patience, kindness, and willingness to share your experience are wonderful gifts to give, so be generous with them!

Wishing you all the happiest and most blessed of holidays, wherever, however, and whether or not you are traveling!

 

 

 

Let the Travel Season Commence!

As the summer vacation season draws to close this Labor Day, it’s time to begin getting organized for fall travel! It’s probably a bit too early to actually try to head skyward if the destination is OCONUS – DODDS students can begin the year up to a month after school starts (and depart up to a month before the year ends), so there will still be plenty of  Cat 2, 3, 4, and 5 families returning for a late start. This means that it’s usually best to wait until the second half of September to initiate travel.

It is NOT too early, however, for PPP (Proper Prior Planning)! Investing some time and organizing now, will make for smoother space a travel in a few weeks.  So, let’s review some basics for Cat 6 space a travel:

PLAN FOR MULTIPLE CONTINGENCIES AND BE FLEXIBLE:  We may want to go to Italy (in fact, we usually do!), but are prepared to go to Germany, or England, or Spain, or wherever, to get there. Start paying attention to the Facebook flight forecasts of the most likely terminals for direct or indirect connections to your destination. Make use of the historical data available at the individual terminals and from sites like The Military Space Available Travel Flight Destination Database (msatfdd): http://www.msatfdd.com/ to plan a variety of possible routes to your final destination (and back). Or, be prepared to go wherever the flights are headed – we once ended up spending a few weeks on Crete, though our original intent was to go to Hawaii!

SIGN UP:  (If you haven’t already!) Lady Cat 6 and Sponsor usually aim to travel around day 50 of our 60 day sign up, to give ourselves optimal date and time seniority without running the risk of expiring and having to start over at the bottom of the list. We take a look at our planned itinerary, and sign up for our return terminals so we are beginning our homeward journey around day 50 also. And, we sign up at every terminal we think we may even remotely need to fly out of! There is no limit to the number of terminals at which you may sign up, so think big here – you may not NEED to use the terminal you’ve delegated to Plan “G”, but best to be prepared, just in case!

PREPARE FOR GROUND TRANSPORTATION UPON ARRIVAL: Find out whether your desired destination terminal (and any alternatives) has ground transportation available to get to lodging, or wherever else you may need to go. Some bases allow taxis aboard; some do not. Some have shuttles between lodging and the terminal (and some of these have limited hours); some do not. Some allow car rental agencies to pick you up at the terminal; some do not. Some have lodging relatively close to the terminal; some entail quite a hike to lodging (we usually walk if it’s a mile or less – after hours on the plane, it feels good to stretch the legs a bit). Some have a limited list of authorized taxis/shuttles. You don’t want to be trying to figure out how to get where you want to go at 0300 when your flight lands! If you’re going to need to network in-flight with other passengers to arrange a ride, it’s better to know that going in.

PREPARE FOR LODGING/CAR RENTAL AT DESTINATION LOCATION: Make sure that phone numbers for lodging and car rental are programmed into your phone for quick access. We usually make on-base lodging and car rental reservations at our destination as soon as we decide to compete for a flight. If we don’t get seats at roll call time, we call and cancel, or slip a day or two, depending on the flight situation. Having likely phone numbers already programmed into the phone makes the process easy and quick. We have off-base lodging and car rental numbers saved also, in case there’s nothing available at the base where we’re landing.

ORGANIZE CARRY ON: It’s important to be prepared for any type of aircraft you may encounter. This does not have to involve a lot of extra gear; a few essentials will make a big difference in your travel comfort. Consider a thin, insulating base layer you can pop on under your shirt, a lightweight but warm “puffy-style” jacket that can be stuffed into a small sack (and double as a pillow!), a sleeping pad, such as my favorite – the Klymit Static V Recon (https://www.klymit.com/static-v-sleeping-pad.html) – which is lightweight and rolls to the size of a water bottle (in a pinch, a blow-up pool float will also work), and a fleece or lightweight down throw-type blanket that can roll up or be stuffed into a small bag. Sometimes we also pack hats and gloves, so we’re prepared for the coldest conditions we can imagine. Lady Cat 6 does NOT like to be cold! These items, and the rest of your carry on gear (tablet, snacks, medications,etc – whatever you would carry on to a regular commercial flight) should easily fit into a small to medium sized backpack with room to spare.

PLAN FOR YOUR RETURN: When traveling OCONUS, it’s best to be on your return leg by the middle of December. Holiday vacations begin to kick into gear about that time, and seats for Cat 6 start to become scarce. Give yourself a week or so before December 15 to get on a flight back to the US mainland, so you don’t end up competing with Cat 2, 3, 4, and 5 families returning home for Christmas.

Mid-September through mid-December is one of the two best times for Cat 6 travel OCONUS (Mid-January through mid-May is the other). Being prepared can be the difference between having a FABulous experience, and enduring a disaster. Lady Cat 6 finds the above-mentioned items most helpful in that preparation – what are some  your own must-do’s that make a difference for you?

 

 

 

 

 

The Tao of “Hiccups”

A fellow Cat 6 traveler, reading about our most recent space a adventure (which had gone off like clockwork!), inquired whether we ever experience any “hiccups” along the way in our travels.

Oh, Mercy, YES!

We’ve experienced FAILURE: on several occasions (like our planned trip to Italy this past fall from Norfolk) we haven’t gotten out at all. One time, a few years ago at McChord, we called the terminal before driving down, called again when we arrived at lodging on base and were assured of seat release, checked into lodging, and, as we turned from the counter with key in hand, looked at the newly updated lobby screen to find the flight had disappeared.

We’ve experienced MULTI-DAY DELAYS: Our longest waits (so far) have been five days bumbling around between Andrews, Dover, and McGuire before getting out to our desired destination – Ramstein.  On a different trip, five days at Ramstein (with a futile overnight to Spangdahlem tossed in the middle) before something came up to the west coast. The flight wasn’t going where we wanted to go, but we took it, as pickings were slim, and our sign up was close to expiring.

Generally, we wait between one and three days while trying to catch a hop.

 We’ve experienced BEING BOOTED OFF A FLIGHT WE WERE MANIFESTED THROUGH ON: Manifested to Souda By, Crete, we were kicked off at McGuire due to duty passengers and gear boarding. They and their gear put the plane over the allotted weight limit, so off we went.

 We’ve experienced “IMAGINATIVE” ROUTING:  After trying for two days to get home from Yokota, we decided to backtrack to Kadena on the PE, hoping to secure seats back through to SEATAC the next day at the beginning of the run. We didn’t make the cut at Kadena. We ended up, later that day, on a C5 going through Hickam and on to Travis and Kelly Field, in Texas. During the flight, those of us seated near the crew were informed that they expected “issues” to develop that would “require” a delay at Hickam for the weekend. Upon landing at Hickam, we took ourselves off the manifest, deciding to just wait and catch something going to McChord instead.  Four days later, we took off for McChord on a C 17 thirty minutes before our original flight finally “resolved” their “issues” and continued on their way.

We’ve experienced HAVING TO PURCHASE COMMERCIAL TICKETS: To get home from Hawaii (twice), Alaska (once), and various east coast locations (3-4 times, can’t remember for sure) when there were no flights posted on the 72 hour forecast. Sometimes, the cost of waiting around is more than the ticket home.

So, yes, like most space a travelers, we’ve had our share of “hiccups”. But, we expect them, and so we’re prepared – mentally, physically, emotionally, and monetarily. We’ve always got several back-up plans ready in case the first option doesn’t work out. Sometimes, fortunately rarely, the backup plan has been give up, go home, and try again another day.

Lady Cat 6 has said this before: my sponsor and I think of space a travel not as “vacation”, or even “trip”, but deliberately as “adventure”. Once we walk away from our front door, we’re officially ON our adventure. Whatever happens, however long we have to wait, whatever we end up doing while waiting, wherever we ultimately end up, all the things that could ruin a vacation or trip, are all just part of an adventure.

 We’ve met wonderful people and developed lasting friendships while sharing delays. We’ve had experiences while stranded that we never would have otherwise – like wandering the waterfront parks and eateries in Tacoma, taking a boat trippast the Academy in Annapolis Harbor, spending a sunny day at the shore in New Jersey, and relaxing on a beautiful train ride through the autumn forests from Ramstein to Spangdahlem (and back). Heck, I never would have discovered my favorite German restaurant in the whole US – the wonderful Sebastian’s Schnitzel Haus outside Fort Dix – if we hadn’t been stranded at McGuire! I’ve got the AMC Museum waiting  on my list to visit next time we get stuck at Dover.

The Tao of “Hiccups” states: “Hiccups” will happen. Be prepared for them, but do not fear them or fight them. Accept them as they come, for they are opportunities to enrich your travels, offering paths you would have missed wandering down in a direct line between point A and point B.

OMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM 

2016 – Going out with a HOP!

2016 was a FABulous Space A year for Lady Cat 6 and sponsor – hope it was for you, too! 

First up in January was a solo adventure, as Sponsor departed for Rota Spain, from whence he continued on to spend a couple of weeks in Morocco (Let Your Sponsor Go!)! We both had a wonderful time :).

February saw us heading to Hawaii for some sun, sand, and getting together with fellow space a travelers (Aloha! February, 2016), and in April, we were off to tour Sardinia (The Air, the Bus, the Train, the Sea, and Sardinia). In June (Happy Chance) and September, we enjoyed a couple of domestic excursions to the east coast. On the September trip, we attempted to catch a hop out of Norfolk to Spain in order to tour Portugal, but seats did not materialize – sometimes that happens ! So, we just headed north to visit family again, and capped off the long sojourn celebrating the birth of our second grandbaby (a girl!) in North Carolina in November. Sponsor caught a solo hop out of Cherry Point and then back to Pope in October for about a week to take care of business at home. Just after Thanksgiving, we caught a flight home from Oceana.

Whew! 

As the year draws to a close, we are busy packing for our next adventure (tomorrow, we hope!): a flight to Norfolk for New Year’s with family in the snowy northeast, followed by a stop in North Carolina to kiss the baby, then completing the circuit back to Norfolk to try for Rota again. 

Ringing out the old year with a hop, and ushering in the new with another – doesn’t get much better than this! May the space a gods smile down upon us all in 2017!

 

 

 

 

Tidying Up

As the end of another Space A year approaches, Lady Cat 6 is busy tidying up her little universe. Broken links have been repaired, new links have been added, and information has been updated. Once a few final bits of galactic debris have been attended to, all will be current once again…just in time to head out onto the taxiway and take to the skies in 2017!

See you out and about in “Outer Space A”!

Stormy Weather!

Lady Cat 6 STRONGLY advises checking in with your outbound terminal if you are planning to try to hop to Yokota, Japan, over the next week or so!  Currently, space a travel is severely restricted. Storms, floods, and power outages are affecting Yokota, and there is NO – NONE – NADA lodging available for space a passengers until further notice.  It is all being used to shelter personnel who are flooded out of or have lost power to their homes. Travis, Hickam and SeaTac already have notices on their Facebook Pages. There are currently no notices regarding Kadena, but I would watch their situation also.

Be prepared…

Don’t Trip Over That SOFA!

In every foreign country where our nation has troops stationed, we also have formal agreements with the governments of those countries spelling out the conditions under which our troops are hosted. Those agreements are called Status of Forces Agreements, or SOFAs. While Cat 6 travelers do not need to be intimately familiar with ALL the details of these agreements, one particular aspect seems to be a stumbling point for many – where can we, and where can we NOT use commissaries and exchanges?

Lady Cat 6’s personal philosophy is that I travel to experience the cultures of the people in the countries I visit, and that includes using their grocery, sundry, and drug stores (pharmacies).   In all my travels in Europe and Asia, I have never been to a location that does not have these commercial establishments in the local area!

That being said, knowing what is permitted in the countries we visit can save a lot of frustration. In some countries, like Italy, visiting retirees are free to use US facilities. In others, like Germany, we are not.

Ours is not to reason why; ours is but to abide by the agreements our government has negotiated.

Fortunately, there are handy little charts,

here:  https://www.aafes.com/exchange-stores/overseas/ 

and here: https://www.commissaries.com/documents/contact_deca/faqs/authorized_shopping_outside_us.cfm  

 that provide information regarding shopping at exchanges (BX/PX/Navy Exchange) and commissaries overseas. Simply find the country you want to visit, and find your answer. Easy-peasy!

Since so many retirees transit or visit Germany in our travels, a few notes are in order:

Regarding Ramstein, the main point of entry into Germany for space a travelers: though retirees are not permitted to use the commissary or BX, they CAN, except for car rental concessions shop at any of the private vendors (feel free to load up on Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas bling!), in the mall complex, and they CAN purchase sundries at the little shopette. Retirees can also take advantage of the tours provided by MWR.

 It is possible, if one intends to visit Germany for 30 days or more, and one desires to document that intent, and provide receipts for all purchases, to make arrangements to shop at the commissary and BX and pay the attendant taxes to the German government. Instructions on the requirements and process are found here:  https://www.commissaries.com/regions/exchange_shopping_germany.pdf 

Regarding the Edelweiss Resort: many retirees in the past have enjoyed staying at the Edelweiss Resort, in Garmisch. No longer. Details can be found here: http://www.edelweisslodgeandresort.com/reservation-eligibility  Never fear though, Germany has many resort properties and tour operators we CAN utilize, in addition to thousands of charming B&Bs, restaurants, and other recreational opportunities!

 Some SOFAs are soft and warm and cushy and easy, some are firm and streamlined and spare and forbidding.  Successful Cat 6 travelers are aware of the particular “styles” of SOFAs in the countries they are visiting, and know when to sit and relax, and when to stay off the furniture!