Travel While You Can

We came home from our second trip of the year in late November.  Financial independence gives us the flexibility and time to travel as much or as little as we want, and we spent nearly half of 2015 away from Oahu.   In this post, I’ll answer the usual reader questions about where we went and what we did, but people are also asking very perceptive questions about the travel lifestyle.

Before I discuss our after-action report, I’ll share two personal preferences.

First: Yes, we live in Hawaii, but we still enjoy visiting other places! Our daughter is stationed on a Navy destroyer in Rota, Spain, so most of each trip was spent with her. My spouse was also stationed at a Navy oceanography center in Rota in the 1980s, and it was interesting to see what’s changed in 30 years.

Our latest trip had a more ambitious itinerary because we attended FinCon15 (in Charlotte, NC) and USAA’s DigitalMilEx (in San Antonio) in September before heading to Rota. We also cut the trip short by a couple of weeks because our daughter’s deployment started a bit early– and because we caught an incredible pair of military Space A flights that covered 8000 miles in about 30 hours.

Second: Despite the distance that we covered on our second trip, we really prefer slow travel. Instead of racing among destinations we stay somewhere for at least a few weeks while enjoying day trips. Instead of using hotels we’d rather rent apartments, and that’s much easier than we expected. Instead of joining the crowds for big spectacles we try to visit sites during off-peak seasons and times– and later spend a quiet hour in a sidewalk café enjoying the rest of the sights. We also visited friends & relatives who we haven’t seen in decades.

Image of Doug Nordman in the central plaza of Tarragona Spain drinking cafe con leche | The-Military-Guide

Cafe con leche and tapas in Tarragona

This was our typical routine in Andalusia:

  • 5 AM Wake up, breakfast, coffee, work on eBook & blog post.
  • 6 AM Catch up on e-mail & social media.
  • 9 AM Plan the day with spouse. Head out for the first tour or activity, preferably on foot.
  • 2 PM Lunch + café con leche. (Because everything else closes for siesta.)
  • 4 PM Hang out back at our place.
  • 5 PM Head out for the second tour/activity, or just the evening paseo & people-watching.
  • 7 PM Tapas or dinner, talk about tomorrow’s itinerary, stroll back home.

Yeah, party hardcore. Like the title says, travel while you still can. But I can get wild & crazy on Oahu anytime I want, (try to) stay out all night, and recover on my time. Travel is a chance to explore new places and new opportunities without being hung over exhausted, so we take a more thoughtful approach.

Travel when you’re… older.

I have to render a respectful salute and a “Well played, sir!” to the 80-year-old military retiree who we met at the Norfolk passenger terminal. He uses a cane and his spouse kept a careful eye on him, but he moves well and he hauls his own roller bag. He’s flown Space A for longer than I’ve been alive(!), and their stories were fascinating. They weren’t going to Rota like us– they were going to “Europe, hopefully Germany, but Italy or Spain would be nice too.” Their itinerary was “Whenever, but we don’t have visas so after 90 days in Europe we’ll fly back to America, and we’ll probably head home before the holidays.

Their travels were surprisingly inexpensive because they didn’t have to be anywhere. It took 11 days to get a Space A flight from Norfolk to Rota, but we all had plenty to do and see in the Tidewater region between roll calls. Instead of spending thousands of dollars (or frequent-flyer miles) for commercial airline tickets, they used their money for nice AirBnB apartments or military lodges. They rode public transportation or rented a car, and ate at cafes or small restaurants. They didn’t really budget but they had saved up for this trip and knew how much they could afford to rack up on their credit cards over the next three months.

Their real budget effort was on their energy. They knew that they could handle one or two events each day, and they knew that they needed to take it easy. They spent a lot of time reading about their destinations and the culture, and (once they knew where their plane would land) they planned their visits for the cool mornings. They didn’t scamper all over the country (let alone on staircases). They settled in a neighborhood and lived like locals.

While they were talking about their limits, I was imagining all the possibilities for my next 25 years.

Military Space A travel

We’ve done most of our 2015 travel on Space A military flights. It’s ranged from the sublime (a C-17 and a KC-135 from Rota to Hawaii in just 31 hours) to the “good enough” (a C-5 from Rota to Norfolk, delayed for several hours on each end with repairs and Customs inspections) to tedious (11 days and six roll calls in Norfolk to finally make a charter 767 to Rota). Even when a terminal is full of people we feel that Space A is less hassle than a commercial airport. We enjoy the military camaraderie… and the price is right, too! We’ll try to use it whenever we have the calendar flexibility.

I won’t post an entire travel guide here, but today’s tools are much better whether you’re an active-duty family (Category III) or a military retiree (Category VI).

The biggest Space A improvement is Facebook, where unclassified departures schedule are posted 72 hours in advance. (I’ve heard that the long-range schedule requires a CAC login on a secure network.) Search Facebook for your passenger terminal and “Like” it to follow its flight updates and learn about its facilities. Learn all of the system’s rules and tricks from  Sign up with Facebook’s “Military Space Available Travel” group page to ask questions or share info.

Since you’re saving thousands of dollars on military flights, spend $6.99 for the Take-A-Hop MilSpaceA app. Use it to research your passenger terminals for everything from accommodations (on base and out in town) to transportation, dining, and shopping. Then use its e-mail module to enter your personal data and automatically send all of your requests to your chosen passenger terminals. As you gain more experience, you’ll learn what questions to ask at the customer service counter.

Active-duty families may have a better chance of traveling during school vacations, while retirees can be totally flexible. Either way, you can sign up for multiple destinations by e-mail, and while you’re in one passenger terminal you’re slowly gaining priority on the list in another location. Retirees can stay on a destination list for up to 60 days, so when we landed in Rota we immediately signed up in the terminal for return flights to “anywhere in the U.S.” and planned to start showing up for roll calls 50 days later. Then a few days later we signed up by e-mail for flights to Hawaii from the Mainland bases where we expected to land.

Get a smartphone

(If you’re a Millennial or Gen Xer then the next few paragraphs will seem funny– and stupid. You can skip down now, or feel free to mock this post on social media.)

If you’re a fellow Baby Boomer then here’s a “Well, duh” tip for your next trip: get a smartphone.
Yeah, I know. Nobody likes to see zombie geezers shuffling through the streets, heads down with eyes glued to those screens. You’ll miss all the sights and get run over by a bus!

Image of the city of Toledo Spain at dusk |

Toledo at dusk (from outside the walls) You definitely need a smartphone for these streets.

Um, no.  Get over yourself and just use the phone for navigation & planning. Our unlocked $175 used iPhone 5c and a $50/month T-Mobile “Simple Choice” international calling plan paid for itself many times over while navigating the labyrinthine streets of every Andalusian town and city. “Real” paper maps are getting hard to find (even at a reasonable price) and their fonts are so small that you’ll need a magnifying glass. (And at night, you’ll want a bright light.)

On our second trip, we fearlessly (and flawlessly) navigated routes which had confused the heck out of us on the first trip. (“Oh, now I understand– highway N-IV really is parallel to A-4!”) One of our rental apartments was at the end of a barrio alley and a change of plans required us to phone the substitute “greeter” for the keys– neither of which would have been achievable without a map app and e-mail bandwidth… and being able to phone the greeters to tell them we were at the door.

My presbyopian eyes need the iPhone’s “large font” setting, and occasionally a magnifying lens. The flashlight app was used a couple of times, too. We still ended up doing the zombie shuffle for the first couple strolls in Sevilla, but old dogs really do learn new tricks.

Home Maintenance

Much better than the last trip! (See the “Related links” at the end of this post.) This time we emptied our fridge, propped open its doors, and had no problems. (Unfortunately, when we returned home and plugged it in, however, it immediately fried its motherboard for a $200 repair.) We didn’t have any water leaks because we shut off water to the entire house and shut off the fridge. Our photovoltaic array made hundreds of kilowatt-hours of extra electricity (at 30 cents/KWHr) while we were away.  We’ll have $18/month electric bills for most of 2016.

Image of pile of mail held for three months of a trip to Spain |

Three months of mail.

Our mail pile was pretty small for three months.

Green waste was a challenge. Our yard got a lot of rain while we were gone, and our bougainvillea hedges grew at least three feet. Our palm trees dropped a lot of branches, too. Oahu recycles all of its green waste into mulch, and they pick up twice per month. We have four 65-gallon cans for our green-waste exercise but a month later we’re still catching up.

Did You Miss Home?

One reader asked very interesting questions:

Do you get homesick? I know you were used to lots of travel due to being in the Navy, but that was quite awhile ago, did you get used to being comfortable at home?

That’s a complicated question, and maybe the answer is that it’s part of our personalities. People are always asking me how I could live on submarines or on a 30×40-mile island, yet from my personal perspective, I wouldn’t enjoy being an aviator or living in a city.

I travel for the experiences. I love sharing my daughter’s sea stories and watching her make her way in the world. (Every time we see her she’s more mature and she’s tackling bigger projects.) I enjoy hanging out with my spouse and having the deeper, more reflective conversations that we don’t usually achieve at home (amid all of its chores and projects). During our trip, we met up with one of my cousins who I haven’t seen in over 30 years. And, of course, every once in a while I’m astounded to realize that I flew 8000 miles around the world for amazing sights in 3000-year-old towns, to (try to) speak a different language, and to eat incredible food.

I know that I’m not a perpetual traveler like the Kaderlis or the Terhorsts, and I like having a home base. I love watching sunrises from our family room, and when we’re home I hardly ever miss one. I enjoy working on my desktop computer’s speedy solid-state drive and my 23″ monitor instead of a tiny iPad screen. During our trip, we slept in 14 different bedrooms, and it felt great to come home to our mattress. I appreciate the irony of that emotion coming from a submariner who used to sleep on a 72″x28″x4″ block of foam-rubber-covered Naugahyde.

I don’t feel homesick when we travel, but I get tired of being cold and dressing warmly all day (and all night). I really enjoy coming home to our Hawaii lifestyle.

Of course, I don’t miss yard work or broken plumbing or noisy neighbors or Oahu traffic. And I’m considering upgrading my three-year-old iPad2 to an iPad Air 2 or even an iPad Pro.

We’re already planning our next trips. We’ll return to Spain in July for a two-week Mediterranean cruise (and a week in an Italian villa) with a couple of shipmates. (We’ll have to deal with Europe’s summer humidity and crowds but it’ll be good to hang out with old friends.) There’s FinCon16 in San Diego next September and maybe other conferences. After that, we don’t have any plans, but someday we’d like to return to Bangkok. We also want to go diving in Palau or Truk or even spend a few months in Australia. On balance, a little homesickness seems to be a fair trade.

But we’re not extreme voyaging to Antarctica or climbing Kilimanjaro or even taking an Alaskan cruise. I’ll watch those on the Travel Channel.

Were there any holiday traditions that had to be altered due to being on the wrong continent?

No worries: military families know that you celebrate your holidays when everyone’s home together, not just by the calendar.

We celebrated our daughter’s birthday together (on the actual anniversary date of her birth!) for the first time in six years, and we celebrated Thanksgiving together the week before we all left Rota. Her ship deployed early due to “world events”, and they celebrated Thanksgiving at sea. Since our daughter was underway, my spouse and I leaped for a flight that was going from Rota all the way to Travis AFB. We were mildly concerned about being “stuck” in northern California during Thanksgiving week with too many Space A crowds going home for the holidays (and too few flights), but our fears were groundless. We didn’t even need to fly commercial. Six hours after we landed we scored a second flight to Hawaii. We got home so quickly that we celebrated Thanksgiving on Oahu with friends… instead of in a Space A passenger terminal… or Napa Valley.

Are you back up to 100% surfing time?

I’m not gonna lie: Andalusia surfing is not up to my Hawaii expectations. I really miss Hawaii surfing when we’re on travel, although I got in two small fixes. The breaks at Cadiz’s Playa de Santa Maria and the town of El Palmar were cold and windy, with long drives and difficult parking. I wore a full 3mm wetsuit plus booties and gloves. I’m going to enjoy Hawaii surf for as long as I can remember how to paddle back in, even if I could live anywhere in the world with one of Kelly Slater’s wave machines in my yard.

As soon as we returned home, I renewed my passport.  (It’s my third one in 13 years of retirement.)  We’ll be ready for the next trip!

Here’s a question for you readers:  what are your travel plans for financial independence?  How much do you set aside in your budget?

Related articles:

Fast Personal Growth Through Slow Travel
Surprising Secrets Of Slow Travel
Your Mortality

About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
This entry was posted in Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Travel While You Can

  1. Our plan is to have a base, like you do, but in an apartment to avoid the maintenance and security issues you described when traveling. Beyond that, we would have health care and irregular expenses (eg Christmas gifts, auto maintenance/replacement, etc.) to cover. We know our retirement income will be X and regular covered expenses will be Y. X – Y will be our everyday expenses, and whether they pay for our living in our base or traveling won’t matter. We’ll be like the couple you described who knew what they could spend in the 3 months. When you have a plug number (like Paula Pant’s anti-budget), it’s pretty easy to plan – do whatever you want, but don’t spend more than X – Y.

  2. Rob @ The Military Financial Planner says:

    Great info! What we all should aspire to!

  3. vanguard23 says:

    Thanks for sharing your Space-A experiences. My wife and I have yet to take advantage of it but intend to do so starting next month, with hopefully a flight to and from Andersen AFB from Hickam…want to take baby steps. We’ll also probably “venture out” and take flights to Washington and Alaska in spring and summer. When we get the hang of things, then maybe we can do some international travel to Japan, Australia and New Zealand further down the road.

    One thing that I am mildly concerned about is, with the unpredictable nature of Space-A travel, how does one time making reservations for lodging at their destination or a layover base. Are military lodging facilities more understanding of this and make allowances to accommodate Space-A travelers? I have seen some folks “camped out” at terminals with their sleeping bags…and don’t necessarily want to go that route…done our share of that during multiple deployments.

    Having achieved Financial Independence, we don’t necessarily have a strict budget for our travel expenses…but we are generally cost conscious (i.e thrifty) anyway. We figured, traveling Space-A would add a certain element of adventure to our travels…as long as it’s not too much adventure.

    By the way, I found it somewhat amusing to hear your challenges with tackling your green waste…mainly palm fronds/branches. After spending from 2 to 3 months in Italy while my wife was stationed there, I always dreaded cleaning up the yard upon my return…and yes, it took maybe 2 months to catch up with all that green waste.

  4. Doug Nordman says:

    I like your plan, Jason!

    We haven’t had any security issues– it’s a combination of house sitters, living in a cul-de-sac with nosy neighbors, and not having anything worth stealing. No problems in 15 years, although I do bring the longboards inside the house before we leave.

    I’m ambivalent on the maintenance. We’d do well with a ground-floor townhouse or garden apartment (and access to a community garden) but I’m always concerned about noisy neighbors. When it comes to fixing a fridge or getting a tech to fix it for me, I think the former is a lot less time (with roughly equivalent hassle). A yard service while we’re gone would avoid a lot of catch-up work when we get back. I think I’m enough of a control freak that I’d prefer to own instead of rent, but we’ll see how I feel about my fierce independence in 20 years or so.

    Your financial approach works very well for us. I don’t think I’ve updated our annual budget since our daughter launched from the nest five years ago– there’s no point when we’ve reached financial independence and our wealth keeps rising faster than we spend it. I no longer balance a checkbook (just review the statements) and I’ve almost stopped using Quicken.


    C’mon in, Rob, the water’s fine!


    Thanks, Vanguard! I think you’ll do great with Guam and the rest of the Pacific– let us know how it works out. It’d make a great “Lifestyles In Retirement” post…

    Our lodging success is traveling during off-peak times in areas with extra rooms. July and Christmas would be tough. Most military lodging can barely handle a Reserve/Guard drill weekend, and they don’t make special accommodations for Space A travelers. (Except for flag or general officers…) We’re always willing to spend more money at a military lodge to upgrade from a standard room to a suite or VIP quarters, since it’s a short-term stay and not much of a price difference. Otherwise we’d end up catching a cab to the off-base hotels, getting a good night’s sleep, and revising our plan when we have a feel for the next passenger roll call.

    We do a lot of last-minute calling ahead because we don’t know our destination (let alone our date/time) until we make the passenger manifest. (We get the phone numbers from the Take-A-Hop app and the AMC base info sheets at the passenger terminals). Many military lodges seem to release their reservations near midnight. Just before we left Rota, the Travis Air Force lodge said “Reserve weekend, sorry, wait list.” When we landed on the Travis runway at 11 PM, the lodge said “No rooms, sorry.” When the passenger van dropped us off there just after midnight (so that we could stay on their wait list and then call a cab to town lodging), the lodge staff suddenly had a suite for us. We were only in it for six hours(!) so it was a great convenience at a good price. If we’d spent Thanksgiving week at Travis then we would’ve reserved the next available day in the lodge and gone out to a town hotel.

    I think the financial aspect is that you’re saving a lot on airfare (and commercial hassles) while spending some of the savings on lodging.

    I don’t know if this is a new AMC policy, but we’re seeing passenger terminals close at 2200 and re-open at 0400 daily. (Including Hickam & Travis, but not yet Rota.) I think it discourages “campers”. Peoples’ sleeping bags are probably for the aircraft: C-17s and KC-135s are freakin’ cold! But when you can stretch out on the fuselage deck then a sleeping bag (and perhaps a yoga mat) are luxurious.

    As for the adventure: Plan B can always be a commercial ticket for the next available flight. Plan C would be a different destination. Many airlines charge the same price for one-way or round-trip when it’s a last-minute purchase. We’re taking a hard look at this for our next trip because we need to be at a cruise port by a deadline date, so we may do part of it with commercial flights.

    I wish we could eat green waste! It really annoys me to go grocery shopping for veggies while I’m discarding the grass clippings, bougainvillea stalks, and palm fronds…

  5. Gerald Zeigler says:

    Hi Doug (Nords?). We met on the recent Travis to Hickam leg. When you introduced yourself and the military-guide I was thrown off a bit, trying to figure out how I knew you. I went back and read your book again. A couple of years after I retired from the Navy, I read your book. It affirmed our decision for me to stay home with the children, one of which is our retirement baby, born 9 days after I retired. My wife is still active duty and your book aligns rather nicely with the decisions we made over the years. We have been talking about doing country hopping when we are both fully or semi-retired, staying in each place for one to three months. Seems to me to be a good way to explore and experience the world. Until we get to the point that we are ready, we will be reading the stories, like yours. Thank you.

  6. Doug Nordman says:

    Hey, Gerald, good to hear from you again! I’m glad the book’s advice is working for you guys.

    And the next time I travel on a KC-135 I’ll have an extra pair of warm socks…

  7. HawkeyeNFO says:

    Great stuff here Nords! You are doing exactly what I want to be doing in about 12 years, when our 3 kids are done with high school and (hopefully) off at college or graduated from college. The only thing you do that I have no desire to do is wake up at 5am!

    Haven’t done any space-a flights yet, but living now in Germany I am close to so many places that are an easy drive, train ride, or $40 plane ticket to get to. We just got back from Bavaria and Austria last week, and Italy the week before Christmas. Now Mrs NFO has been severely bitten by the travel bug, which is great because I’ve loved travelling since I was a kid.

    Uncle Sam’s Navy will retire me in 2017, and then we will be moving back to the DC area. There are so many space-a flights from BWI and Andrews alone, or we could take a little trip to some other nearby AMC terminal, and we will definitely take advantage of the opportunities. Because we don’t have as much flexibility with our time yet, we use airline miles to ensure we can travel on a schedule. Almost all of the miles came from signup bonuses, so our travel expenses are quite low.

  8. Doug Nordman says:

    Thanks, Hawkeye, sounds like you have a great plan!

    My 5 AM internal alarm clock is definitely a personal problem…

  9. Ryan says:

    I did a lot of traveling while I was still on Active Duty – being stationed in England made it easy to take trips throughout the UK and to the European mainland for a long weekend. Of course, my rich uncle was also kind enough to foot the bill to send me many other places (some of which I’m not eager to return to!).

    Things have changed now that I have young children. It’s not quite as easy to pick up and go. But I love the idea and adventure of Space-A travel. Just pick up and go, and let your itinerary sort itself out as you go. For now, deadlines and structure are the rule of the land. But I love the idea of slow travel when I become more “seasoned.”

  10. Doug Nordman says:

    Exactly– we’re still “seeing the world”, but now it’s on our terms!

    I’m in your camp on traveling with kids. Ours was challenging to travel with as a baby, but she got better every year.

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