Space Available (Space-A) travel is one of our favorite retirement activities. We blocked out February for our first Space-A trip in February, 2016 when we decided to leave the winter weather behind with a visit to the Andalusia area of Spain (also called the Costa del Sol) and the Mediterranean coast of Portugal (the Algarve).
Rota Naval Base proved to be an ideal gateway to these areas. Located on the northern side of a bay with the much larger city of Cadiz to the south there is much to see and explore in this area alone. Patriot Express (contracted charter airline) flights leave from Norfolk Naval Base and return weekly. We didn’t hesitate long to get the bags packed and hit the road.
We had registered 60 days before the date we wanted to depart. Before leaving for our journey to Norfolk Navy Base on the departure date, we called the Norfolk Passenger Terminal to confirm the flight was still on the schedule and the “show time.” “Show time” is the time by which you must have checked-in at the terminal and be physically present in order to be processed for the flight if selected. If your name is called and you aren’t present with luggage, your priority within your category plunges to ZERO. We arrived at the passenger terminal on a Tuesday at the appointed time, checked in at the passenger service desk, found an on-base restaurant, and returned well ahead of the show time to begin the nervous few hours wait for our names to be called (or NOT). We were lucky – we got on, but it was another few hours before everyone was processed and aboard the plane (after 11:00pm). Eight hours later (+ six hours time difference on the clock) we arrived in Rota, by now about 10:00 am local time on Wednesday.
We picked up the car we had reserved through the NEX car rental at the Rota Passenger Terminal and headed for the MWR office. We knew of two weekend trips by using the Rota website (MWR page). The two weekend trips were still available and we signed up for them (Cordoba and Cadiz). Then we checked into our room for some sleep! We enjoyed exploring the town of Rota. There are many great restaurants, many with water views, and the historic Cathedral and Castle are worth seeing.
Our MWR trip to Cordoba was amazing. We boarded the bus for the 3 ½ hour trip, meeting our guide for a three-hour walking tour. The Cathedral is a wonder of Moorish arches (over 1000 they say) and is the third largest place of worship in the world. We walked through the Jewish Quarter which had been a center of culture and scholarly discourse during the days of the Romans and the Goths. We had a fantastic lunch in a restaurant by the Cathedral, “Restaurante Bandelero”– our first taste of Iberian ham and of paella. The trip back was leisurely and scenic.
Our MWR trip to Cadiz was during Carnaval, the local celebration before Ash Wednesday, much like Mardi Gras. The crowds lined the parade streets and everyone seemed to be in costume. We estimate the crowd at about 100,000, but it was an orderly and courteous crowd. We had the most fun by snagging a sidewalk café table and watching the sights. We were glad to leave the driving to our bus driver!
The next day we headed for the south coast of Portugal (the Algarve) to spend the next week exploring all the seacoast villages. Because it was winter season we were able to find a real deal on our coastal resort apartment, part of a large hotel/timeshare establishment. Our three room suite in Albufiera rented for $27 per night (in the summer it is $180) – another good reason for traveling off season. We visited a different coastal town each day; our favorite was Lagos – small and easy to get around. Good shopping for cork products abounded (yes cork is a product of Portugal and is used for many products besides wine stoppers!) and the restaurant San Sebastiano provided our most memorable lunch. I used Rick Steves’ guides to plan our side trips and always found his suggestions accurate and worth following.
The Rota/Norfolk plane usually returns each Friday so we decided to give it a try (by now it was eleven days later). We did get on, but we had a backup plan for an extra week if we had not been selected – to visit again our favorite spots in Spain, knowing that the lodging was inexpensive because of the off-season rates.
So the trip is a memory now, but we are planning to go again in October – where is yet to be determined. We love Space-A travel. Yes it is cheap, but our reasons are more than economic. We enjoy meeting people as we travel – we get tips from everyone as we wait in the terminals. We have sometimes traveled or eaten together with new friends after we get to our destinations. We enjoy seeing our troops coming and going, getting a chance to thank them personally for their service and being reminded of their sacrifices for our safety and the safety of our country.
Some General Space-A rules we try to follow:
1. Go only when you have time to be flexible, NEVER when you need to be somewhere at a specific time. And never fly between mid May and mid Sept. (when families and dependents are flying). We blocked out the entire month of February although we planned to be gone for two weeks.
2. After you choose a location you may want to get on Facebook with the base. Many bases now publish monthly schedules for their flights AND they often publish how many seats were available and how many were used. Over time you can get a good estimate of when to go. We decided on Rota, became a “friend” on Facebook and by reading the Facebook posts we had an accurate idea of how many planes went to Rota each week. The Norfolk/Rota flight, for example goes each Tuesday on a contract flight, a 767/757 with all the amenities of regular flights without the hassle! Both the Norfolk NS and Rota NS passenger terminals have Distinguished Visitor (DV) lounges for O6 or GS-15 and above rank. Ask at the check-in desk for directions.
3. Plan ahead and register 60 days prior to the date for each base from which you might leave (We live in Williamsburg, VA and we knew that flights went from Norfolk to Rota each week). We sent emails to each base – a more certain ways to do things. You can find the email address by “googling” each individual base; or you can find the email address in any Military Living® book. Don’t forget to send emails for your return flight. Guesstimate your return date and register by email 60 days ahead. Remember that if you take an intermediate flight inter-theater while you travel it will cancel your registration for the flight back.
4. Make a lodging reservation for the nights you expect to arrive. Navy Lodge and Air Force Inns seem willing to let you make a reservation and cancel it up to 6 pm on day of arrival. Since many flights go overnight and arrive early morning (in Europe) you have plenty of time to cancel if you don’t make the flight.
5. If you plan to rent a car, call the base or commercial rental agency beforehand and make the arrangements. Usually you have time to cancel if not selected for a flight, but don’t forget to do it in the midst of returning home or making other plans. While it’s unlikely that you’ll need an International Driver’s License to rent a car, it’s a small price to pay if you need to furnish one to the police if you have an accident or are stopped for a traffic violation. Most AAA offices can issue one for less than $40 and it’s valid for one year from date of issue.
6. Take a portable GPS with you downloaded with the correct international maps. We used a Garmin for the entire trip and were always able to find our way easily – it would have been a nightmare without it. It’s always helpful to have a backup paper map for a high-level overview of your trip, but they often lack the detail of when to turn left or right to get on the correct major highway.
7. The ITT/MWR office on base is a real asset in trip planning. We often look ahead (on the Internet) and see what trips are being offered while we are there. If there is room, the MWR-sponsored trips are convenient, reasonable, and allow you freedom from having to drive yourself – worth every penny.
8. Keep in frequent contact with your return passenger terminal beginning a few days before your expected return flight to ensure your flight is still on the schedule and the show time hasn’t changed.
9. On arrival your outbound destination, the first thing to do after clearing customs is to go to the passenger check-in desk. Ask them to verify you are in their system and print out a copy of the registration which will show the date your registration will expire and when you will lose any priority. Also it’s a good idea to ask for a business card showing the terminal telephone number and ask how to dial using your phone for on-base, in-country, and inter-country calls. If they can’t find you in their system, now is the time to show your printed Space-A email request which includes the date sent so they can manually enter you in the system. Better to get it straightened out early than be surprised at check-in just before departure show time.
Specific Tips for Rota Naval Station Car Rental: Rota Naval Station NEX has a car rental desk in the terminal. You can call, make the reservation and cancel without penalty if you don’t get on a flight. The commercial number if calling from the US to Rota NS is: 011-34-956-82-2675. There are cheaper deals off-base, but we like the convenience of pickup and drop-off on base. Keep the keys until you’re confirmed for a seat, and then drop the keys in a convenient lockbox in the terminal. If not selected, you still have the car. Standard car is diesel, non-air conditioned, manual shift. Be sure to check if you want other than a standard car.
Toll Roads in Spain and Portugal – Spain: Roads with an “AP” designation (blue background) are toll expressways. You can pay the tolls with cash or a credit card. Credit card is easy either at an automated station at the toll plaza or look for a toll booth where an attendant will accept your credit card. Portugal: Roads with an “A” designation (blue background) are toll expressways. When crossing the border, signs will direct foreigners to exit and “register” their vehicle. At a clearly marked automated station, insert your credit card and follow directions in English. A photo is automatically taken of your license plate and associated with your credit card. Thereafter, sensing stations along the route charge your card with the amount of toll for a segment of the road. Failure to “register” will result in severe penalties (up to an amount equal to total tolls for driving the entire national road system). The registration automatically expires in 30 days, However, if you use it less and return the car you can cancel the registration immediately by following directions on the receipt you receive at the automatic station. BE SURE TO DO THIS TO PREVENT THE NEXT RENTER FROM CHARGING THEIR TOLLS TO YOUR CREDIT CARD.
Use of NEX, Gas Station: Use of these facilities is not permitted under the Status of Forces Agreement with Spain. However, there is a “Market Place” located next to the NEX and Souvenir shop inside the NEX that travelers may use. The Market Place is stocked with almost anything a traveler might need in the way of food, drinks, sundries, etc. There is also a food court with a Subway and Starbucks that is available.
Base Exit and Entry: Rota Naval Station is a Spanish base that the United States is permitted to use. That means there will sometimes be rules to follow that are unlike Naval bases in the U.S. and other foreign countries. Base exit and entry are among these: don’t ask, don’t fight it, just do it. When exiting, be sure to have military ID cards and passports for all occupants. A U.S. security police person may request to see military ID on exit. Also have rental car documents and any previously issued dashboard base registration display sheet. No matter whether you are off-base for 15 minutes or two weeks, every time you return you must register (or re-register) at the Spanish security building before proceeding to any base entry gate. You will need military ID’s, passports of all passengers, and dashboard vehicle registration sheet when you visit the US Personnel window inside the Security Building. We did not use taxi transportation off base so we’re not sure what is required. Our guess is that a minimum of military ID and passport must be presented on re-entry for a taxi passenger. Taxi’s are allowed on-base and seem to be readily available day or night.
On-Base Lodging: There are two options: Navy Lodge (front desk from U.S. dial 34-956-82-2643) and Navy Gateway Inns and Suites (front desk from U.S. dial 34-956-82-1851). The main difference between the two seems to be that at Navy Gateway your room is not guaranteed for a fixed time and you may be asked to vacate if the room is required for higher priority personnel. You may reserve and cancel Navy Lodge anytime and they serve a complimentary breakfast daily. The costs are virtually identical.
Day-Trip Destinations near Rota: Stop by the MWR office and pick up information and maps about these destinations: Rota town, Cadiz, Chipiona, Sanlucar de Barrameda, Jerez de la Frontera. Rota is charming and your first stop should be the Castillo de Luna where there is an “I” tourist information office. Cadiz, Chipiona and Sanlucar offer beautiful views of the Mediterranean. Jerez is the sherry production capital of the world. You could easily spend a few days in Cadiz or Jerez.
Food: Food and wine in Spain and Portugal are inexpensive, delicious, and one of the best reasons to travel there. Tapas are the smallest size dish. There is a usually a half or full size plate offered of the same tapa (we forgot the Spanish terms). We found that the tapa size was often more than we could eat so it’s easy to over-order. Our rule became to order only one or two tapas for each of us at first, and then decide whether we needed more after finishing those. We did not find a bad restaurant during our stay. Check the Rota MWR for local Rota restaurant recommendations.
Tom and Ina Berkey Williamsburg, VA
Report 269 • September-October 2016 • Volume 46, No. 5