Pulling his Lightning McQueen suitcase, 3-year-old Dallin Wightman turned around on the Yokota Air Base flight line and waved to the Boeing 757 adorned with an American flag.
"Bye bye, big plane! Bye bye," he said to the Patriot Express. "See you later, big plane!"
It was a far sweeter scene than the one that followed our first Space-A trip to the States last year. That one ended with few smiles and zero good-natured waves goodbye. And getting to our car required much more than a straight overseas flight and a walk across a flight line.
Two years, and two completely different experiences flying Space-A. I expect that's the norm.
I documented last year's epic journey with my then two-year-old son and pregnant wife. It was a story of survival and beating the clock - the end-of-leave date clock, that is. Finally reaching our car at Yokota felt akin to an in-over-his-head marathon runner crawling on his hands and knees to the finish line.
This time, we merrily made our way to the car with a cart full of bags and the knowledge that I didn't have to report for work for another four days. By our demeanors, you would've thought we were just leaving for vacation.
The formula for a successful trip was concocted by learning from last year's mistakes.
Lesson No. 1: Don't assume that all AMC terminals release their schedules a month in advance. In fact, assume the opposite. Last year I figured they all did based on the fact that Yokota does. When we found out that most terminals release them only 48 hours in advance, we had to jump through hoops to track things, monitoring our desired departure terminal's schedule via phone every day to find out when we needed to get on a commercial flight and return to that terminal. This year, we simply leaned on the Patriot Express for our return flight to Japan because it leaves from
Seattle every Monday and Wednesday night.
Since we had to be back in Tokyo by Saturday, we flew commercial from our vacation spot in the States to Seattle in time for the Monday roll call. Even though we could have counted on making the Wednesday flight, which would've given us more vacation time, we wanted to play it safe and get back on Monday to give ourselves two cracks at it. Ours were the first names called for the Monday flight. Stress free, we were back in Japan with time to get over jetlag.
Lesson No. 2: Sign up everywhere. Print out everything. Keep everything with you. And know what everything says. Last year, I goofed up in Hawaii by not realizing I had a print-out with me proving I had signed up with the terminal one day before the guy whose family ended up bumping us from the flight. I was counting on the terminal's computer system to account for my sign-up date. It didn't. So always have the proof with you. That goes double when traveling through Seattle, where terminal workers rely first and foremost on confirmation printouts. A young mother of two got caught without a confirmation printout, costing her family a seat on the Monday flight. When we left, she was checking into commercial rates. It was a cruel dose of reality for her, I'm sure.
Lesson No. 3: Develop an instinct for contingency plans. This doesn't really apply to getting stateside. You just take the first flight that you can get on, whether it's to Seattle on the Patriot Express or to Travis Air Force Base in California on a C-130. The idea of contingency has more to do with getting back. Our path home last year landed us in states and on islands that we never had any intention of visiting. This meant we found ourselves lugging bags around much more than we planned. It also meant having to secure lodging at the last minute.
On the baggage issue, we decided this time around to basically pack for a weekend and ship back most of our stateside purchases. Not only did we not want to haul everything around - two young children can be a handful as it is - but we thought we might also save money on baggage fees that commercial airlines charge. Whether we accomplished the latter is debatable because we ended up spending a small fortune on shipping. But the end result was much better than last year's nightmare.
As for lodging, the experience we had last year while stuck in Okinawa nearly did us in. We started calling hotels as soon as we landed and were consistently told there were no rooms available anywhere on the island. My exhausted and very much pregnant wife's eyelash-batting finally got us a room at the Air Force lodge on Kadena, which I think was supposed to be vacant in case a high-ranking official showed up.
This time around, we booked rooms in advance and canceled them if they weren't needed.
This article may be a slight disservice to people who already know the ins and outs of Space-A travel. After all, nobody needs or wants any more competition over seats. But when it goes so incredibly right, like it did for us this time around, you end up wishing others could have the same experience.
Personally, I'm looking forward to hearing my son say, "Hello big plane! Hi! We're back!" sometime again soon.