The reason the girls and I have made two trips (without Matt) the past two years to the good ol’ U.S. of A is simply because we have the benefit of using space-available (space-a) travel i.e. we can travel from Okinawa to America (and a few other places) for little or no cost at all.
If you are able to use space-a travel you will know, if you haven’t heard of it then you probably can’t use it! Although you may not be sure how it all works and to be quite honest the first time you do it, it can be a little overwhelming as it is pretty much preparing for the unknown and while I could write a post about the various categories and the step-by-step instructions on how to sign up for it, I am not going to, simply because the thought of it overwhelms me and there are already a lot of resources available to help you understand it.
Having said that, if you do have specific questions please feel free to email me at email@example.com or drop me a message on Facebook and I would be more than happy to help.
So, what does it really cost to ‘fly for free’? well like I said earlier with space-a travel you really have no clue what way its going to go; you may get on a flight to California only for it to be redirected midair to Texas or you may depart Hawaii for Japan only for it to land back in Hawaii 6 hours later (both are true stories that happened to us last year!) and because of that EVERY space-a story is different; so just because one person incurred no cost, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be the same for you.
A HUGE factor into determining how much it will cost depends on where you live and where you are trying to get to. Generally flights commencing in the Asia-Pacific area will disembark on the West Coast, while flights starting out in Europe will end up on the East Coast. That is not to say that there aren’t flights to other areas, there are, just not as regular.
Matt’s family live in the mid-west, so whenever I space-a I know there is more than likely going to be some cost involved. I have seen a handful of flights landing right into his hometown, but of course they are never around when we are ready to hop (another term for space-a travel).
There are 4 areas where costs may incur which you need to consider when deciding if a space-a flight is financially worth it, which I will discuss in more detail with examples below;
1. the flight itself
2. hotels along the way
3. ground transportation costs
4. internal commercial flight costs
1. The Space-Available Flight
Generally speaking most of these flights are free, however some will incur a tax. Last year we flew from Japan to Texas and there was no head tax involved, this year, however, we flew from Japan to Seattle and had to pay a $35 head tax each (3 of us = $105, still not bad for a long haul flight!)
On most long haul flights you will be give the option to purchase box meals (the space-available version of an in-flight meal!) the past 2 times we have travelled these cost $6 each ( 3 x $6 = $18)
Other than those two items there wont be too much of a cost involved; in my experience anyway.
Just as a side note, I would probably check in advance if they are going to offer box meals, so that you can plan accordingly.
Total Cost of Space-A Flight = 18 + 105 = $123.00
2. Hotels along the way
This is one of those ones that is kind of hard to predict simply because you don’t necessarily know when you are going to need a place to stay.
We have had times where we needed to book rooms in the middle of our journey to the U.S (and on the return leg) and others just once we reach the United States.
If you can space-a travel then you should have access to on-base lodging; these are generally cheaper than off-base facilities, so definitely try here first.
This year we got all the way to Seattle without needing lodging along the way and then Matt booked us 2 nights at a hotel for when we arrived; we had planned to use credit card reward points but that didn’t quite work out and Matt ended up splurging on a room for us. I am not going to complain because it was bliss ending a long journey at a nice hotel where Eden & I used the complimentary spa-treatement products in the evening but this probably didn’t need to be as high of a cost as it was! (2x nights at the Crowne Plaza $300)
(if you are wondering why we spent 2 nights in Seattle and not just 1, the flights were cheaper on Monday even with the cost of an extra night at a hotel, plus if you book using militaryfares.com they only accept bookings with a minimum of 18 hours notice)
Coming home we had to fly to the West Coast and basically stay there for as long as it took for us to get a flight back to Japan, which this time took 3 nights (3 nights at on-base lodging = $180) and then we had to stay 1 night at lodging in mainland Japan because there were no flights returning to Okinawa that day (1 night at on-base lodging = $63.00)
Also, often if a flight is manifested, to say Okinawa from California via Hawaii, there is a chance you will be staying in Hawaii; when you register for a flight you can ask them for the flight plan and approximate layovers so you get an idea of when you may need to book accommodations.
Total Cost of Hotels = 300 + 180 + 63 = $543.00
3. Ground Transportation Costs
This is another of those costs that will really depend on your own personal situation; maybe your space-a flight will land right where you are trying to get, maybe you know people who will drive you from A to B, or maybe you can rent a car. Unfortunately in our case none of these were viable options.
When we landed in Seattle our hotel provided a free shuttle to/from the airport, perfect! Unfortunately on our return leg we flew into Sacramento Airport and had to take a shuttle to get to the base ($65!) and then again once we were in Japan and we needed to get from the base to the airport ($40).
Total Ground Transportation Costs = 65 + 40 = $105
4. Internal Commercial Flights
In some situations you may be allowed to space-a within the U.S. (for example if your Active Duty spouse is with you) but in my case, wherever I was manifested to within the U.S. was where my journey ended; in an ideal world this would be where you are trying to get to and therefore incur no extra costs, but I am sure for many, like me, this isn’t the case. We had to fly commercial from Seattle to Nebraska ($412.3) & then on our return journey from Nebraska to California ($561.12).
We also opted to get a commercial flight from mainland Japan to Okinawa ($331.96) because no space-a flights were showing on the schedule for the next 3 days and we weren’t sure how long it would be until one came up, plus having been away for 5 weeks we were ready to get home so it was money well spent.
Total spent on Commercial Flights = 412.30 + 561.12 + 331.96 = 1,305.38
SO how much did it cost us to ‘fly for free’…
1. the flight itself 123.00
2. hotels along the way 543.00
3. ground transportation costs 105.00
4. internal commercial flight costs 1,305.38
The total cost of ‘flying for free’ $2,076.38
I had estimated to spend around $1500 on our trip knowing that we would need internal U.S. flights, accommodation & shuttles, but I wasn’t expecting to fly commercial from mainland to Okinawa which cost us $371.96 (flight + shuttle) and I was hoping that our internal flights would have been a little cheaper.
I hope you can see how every situation is different when you fly space-a, how for some it can literally cost nothing more than a box meal IF you choose to buy one but for others it can cost a lot more. It is definitely worth considering all these 4 factors before embarking on a trip because they can definitely add up and other than the box lunch this doesn’t include the inevitable food costs along the way!
Despite spending $600 more than I anticipated, was it worth the trip? Absolutely! financially it was still cheaper than buying 3 commercial tickets from Japan but also we knew that this would probably be our last time visiting the U.S while living here in Okinawa. Eden had such a blast with her family, that alone made the entire trip worthwhile!