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Military: Save Money With (Almost) Free Vacations

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toy-plane.jpgMy wife is active duty military - and with that comes a number of perks. One of those great military benefits is a significant savings on vacations via flights, hotels, and car rentals. Eighteen months ago we went to Hawaii at a cost of half what others would expect to pay. On Saturday, I found out how it would have been even cheaper if I did a little more planning. Today, I'd like to share some of the ways to save money with nearly free vacations - but remember, you may need to be in the military to take advantage of them.

Cheap Military Hotels

Navy Lodge - This is usually our first choice to stay wherever we travel. In the summertime, Newport, Rhode Island is an extremely popular vacation destination with some hotels starting at $400/night. A room, just as good, in an arguably better location, at the Navy Lodge is $75. The rooms are big enough to do cartwheels in and come with a kitchenette (refrigerator, stove, microwave, etc.)

Special Military Housing

  • When we went to Hawaii, we stayed at the Hale Koa, a military hotel that I would rate with the best I've ever been to. It's about $100/night - which is a bargain compared to the $300/night hotels on the left and right of you. Plus, it's the only place you can go to a luau hosted by Glenn Medeiros - sing after me, "Nothing's gonna change my love for you. You outta know by now..."
  • If you prefer to go to Walt Disney World, you might want to check out Shades of Green. I've never stayed there, but prices look to be around $110/night for a prime location on Walt Disney World Resort.
  • While it's not a hotel, there's a small place on Martha's Vineyard that, with extensive planning and luck, can be had for cheap as well. We hadn't been able to book there before we moved to San Francisco. I wish I had more details, but I couldn't find anything published on the Internet about it.

Camping and RV Parks - There are a lot of military camping sites available and Military Campgrounds does a very good job of detailing them. I've been looking at the Petaluma campsite as a cheap place to stay on a weekend of wine tasting in Sonoma Valley. Reading reviews with comments like this really sealed the value for me, "The food at the dining facility is still great, although now the rates went up five cents! All you can eat for lunch or dinner for $3.55."

Space-A: Fly For Free

The military has a program that allows people to fly to many places in the world for free. It's called the Space Available program, but is commonly referred to as Space-A. If it sounds too good to be true, in many case it is. There are two reasons why we hadn't pursued this option in the past:

  • We didn't know how it worked. No one at my wife's job had ever tried to fly Space-A and couldn't really share how it works. This past weekend I spent a lot of time reading John D's Space-A FAQ. It takes some time to understand the jargon and common acronyms.
  • You can't book a flight You show up at the terminal and "hope" that there a plane available, that it's going where you want, and that there is space for you on the plane. Due to 9/11 restrictions, it's often not published in advance where and when planes are scheduled to go. We found that the Pepperd message boards flight schedule information is very helpful for determining where planes are likely to go. For instance, we found that planes leave Travis, about 45 minutes from us, and go to Hawaii nearly every day. A few times a month, they continue through to Australia. This can be a savings of $3000 for the two of us - or it could be a nightmare or waiting and lost vacation time.

Car Rentals

Civilians can find many deals on car rentals. However, we've found that booking through the military gets us a better deal than any of out other connections. Usually it's around $30 a day from Hertz for the cheapest - but they always bump us up a class for free.

Photo Credit: Yogi

Last updated on August 1, 2011.

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14 Responses to “Military: Save Money With (Almost) Free Vacations”

  1. Sweet! It only makes sense though, in addition to these kinds of perks people in the military should be paid more and be better taken over once their duty is up.

  2. Kirk says:

    When I was active duty I used the Space A like a madman. I flew to Europe three times, Australia once, New Zealand once, and across the US twice.

    Also, I found staying in the BOQ was even cheaper than the Navy Lodge’s, but they rarely have family quarters.

    Check out the Navy Lodge in Key West too. It is cheap and walking distance to Duvall Street.

    Military folks need to learn more about this as it is a great way to save.

  3. Ryuko says:

    Like you’ve touched on, most bases that do Space-A flights have a pretty regular schedule to at least 2-3 destinations, just like the Travis-HI (I’d guess it’s Hickam AFB on Oahu, smack right next to the int’l airport).
    I’ve never had the free time to go yet, but I figure once I retire, I should have no problem, say, grabbing a Space-A flight to Europe and just chillin around until a return flight becomes available :p.
    As far as the Navy Lodge, I’ve been in probably a dozen different ones. Since they’re designed for transient families, every single room is, like you said, a decked out suite. They do vary significantly in quality, but most are about the same quality you’d expect at a Courtyard or Residence Inn, only much cheaper. Oddly I’ve noticed the Navy Lodges and Exchanges (mini-WalMart for the troops, for those who don’t know what an Exchange is) are almost always much nicer, with a much more luxurious feel to them than those of other services.
    For some reason (a devious one, I suspect), most bases don’t familiarize newcomers too well with the location of MWR and ITT facilities or how to use them — but there’s SOO much money you can save VS going out in town. Event tickets. Major theme parks. Camping/boating rentals. Even sailing certification classes, at a fraction of what you’d pay out in town. They say that, the more people who use these facilities, the more money they are willing to pump into the system. I’ve personally seen several MWR programs’ funding cut because of lack of use. Remember, when the Big Guys in the government calculate how much they should pay and reimburse us, they also calculate in the value of MWR benefits, used or not, so we technically hurt ourselves if we waste a resource.

  4. Luke F says:

    Any way that us normal civilians can use any of these things to our advantage? Definitely sounds like it would be something that would be great to have.

  5. Lazy Man says:

    Ryuko, don’t get me started on the commissaries ;-) amazing savings to be had. Yes, we are looking at Travis to Hickam. The only downside that I forgot to mention about the Navy Lodge is the bed… I find that I have to bring an egg crate with me it’s so rough.

    Luke, sorry, perhaps you can get some of the benefits if you have a friend in the military. For instance, my wife (before we were married) could sign up for the Navy Lodge and she could have gotten me a separate room as a civilian.

  6. irina says:

    Thanks, LM. It reminded me that I was told several times to contact military bases for contract work as a family entertainer.

    As a professional entertainer, I can take a free cruise and take one friend along too. I have not done it yet, but I have the offers on the table to do that when I am ready.

    If you are not an entertainer, but can teach a class or give lectures, it is possible to get a free or very discounted cruise too.

  7. M. says:

    Ah, Navy Lodge. I miss them! My dad was retired military and we stayed in Navy Lodges all over the Northeast when I was a kid. Because of the cheap rates and kitchenettes, we were able to take longer summer vacations than we could have otherwise. I’m envious that you get to stay in them now!

  8. OH how i miss the military benefits! My dad was in the Marine Corps, and we used to take advantage of alllll those!

    While some are more adventurous than others (such as the stand-by flights), there are loads of pennies to save :)

  9. When my DH was active duty USMC, we stayed in the guest cottages in Camp Lejuene for a few days. It was lovely and the price was right!

  10. Tom says:

    Lazy – I didn’t realize your wife is in the military. So am I.

    My wife and I went to Hawaii (space A) and stayed at the Hale Koa for our honeymoon. It was a great time. I don’t remember the exact cost but we had an awesome three week vacation at a great price.

    We have also done Shades of Green a couple times. It is great and inexpensive.

  11. escapee says:

    don’t forget you can also get discounted tickets to attractions in different cities as well!

    http://mwr.navy.mil/mwrprgms/itt.html

  12. jennifer says:

    lazy,thanks for the info. Iam looking to save $ on our next military vacation to hawaii. We just got back from Disney World. They are offering a free 5-day pass for the military and that person can purchase up to five more passes for $99 each. Now thats a bargin they are also offering 40% resort stay and a $75 gift card if you go on your birthday. We took advantage of all of these.

  13. Anne Leon says:

    we w0ould like to go to disneyworld or disneyland around christmas time, but I dont even know how to get started/ how do i start?

  14. Scott V says:

    I am not military, but unlike LukeF, I am not a “normal civilian”. I am a DOD contracted firefighter. I live & work on a US military base overseas. I have been doing this kind of work for 6+ years. I have been trying to find out how many things I am eligible to use – SpaceA? (I get the feeling the answer is “no”.) How about hotels & vacations/R&R military discounts? Is the main “proof” a CAC?

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