“Your tickets haven’t been paid for.”
These are not the words anyone wants to hear at the beginning of their OCONUS PCS. But from there, it just got crazier and crazier for Megan and her husband. They were supposed to take the AMC Patriot Express flight, but they ended up taking a commercial flight instead.
After a series of unfortunate events, they finally made it to USAG Bavaria. Megan was kind enough to share her experience with us, as well as some tips about how to make your journey less stressful!
About the Patriot Express Flight
It’s not the most luxurious flight, but it will definitely be the cheapest one. And for that reason, it’s the most common way for people to PCS to Germany.
In fact, you might be required to take the Patriot Express. Check your orders to confirm before booking yourself a commercial flight. The most common exception is non-availability, but you need a rare or extreme circumstance for a commercial flight to be approved.
The Patriot Express aka “The Rotator” or ““Cat B flight” is a Department of Defense (DoD) contracted, commercial charter flight operated by Air Mobility Command (AMC). It is responsible for transporting passengers on official military travel orders – especially for military families with Permanent Change of Station (PCS) orders to overseas assignments.
However, Patriot Express flights will often have a combination of “PCSers” (those going to & from new/old duty locations) and those on leave flying “Space-A.”
Space-A travel is the process of allowing eligible travelers to fill vacant “Space-Available” seats on aircraft flying missions on official business.
Like most commercial aircraft you’ve been on, the Patriot Express provides comparable amenities such as assigned seats, in-flight meal service (special meals with advanced request), civilian flight attendants, movies, headsets, and pet shipment.
Pacific Routes: If PCSing to the Pacific region (such as Japan, Guam, & Korea) then these flights originate from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in the United States.
European Routes: If PCSing to the European region (such as Germany), then routes originate at the Baltimore International Airport in the United States. If PCSing to European regions outside of Germany, then your Patriot Express flight may originate from Naval Station Norfolk, VA.
One of the upsides of taking the Patriot Express is that everyone on the flight is in the same situation you are. So when everyone lands at Ramstein Air Force Base, everyone is given instructions for what to do and where to go next.
So if you’re really nervous about missing a step or getting lost, this flight can help make that transition to Germany a bit easier for you.
But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy process! It is, however, the same process for everyone.
Getting on the flight
The Patriot Express only goes from Baltimore (BWI) to Ramstein on specific days. No matter where you are in the US, you need to get yourself, your family, and your luggage to BWI in time to make your flight.
The travel office at your current duty station can take care of arranging your flight itinerary, but be sure to double triple check that your flights have been booked and paid for!
Don’t forget to obtain command sponsorship for your family members. Check out our PCS Checklist blog post for all the things you need to remember for your move!
Speaking of luggage, Patriot Express is more generous than commercial flights:
• 2 pieces of checked luggage no more than 70 lbs
• 1 standard issue B-4 duffel bag no more than 100 lbs
• 1 45-inch hand carried item (small suitcase, garment bag, backpack) that fits in overhead or under the seat
• 1 hand carried personal item (purse, cosmetic case, briefcase) that fits in overhead or under the seat
And that’s per person. Keep in mind, however, that you’ll still have to lug it around from airport to airport, on the bus, and then to your hotel!
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Arriving in Germany
After your 9-hour flight, you’ll land in Ramstein, which is on the opposite side of Germany from USAG Bavaria. Once you collect your luggage, you’ll either check in at the Ramstein Inn (located across the street from the terminal above the Ramstein SUPER BX) or you’ll stay in a town nearby (get with your unit or sponsor about accommodations).
Important tip: If you take the Patriot Express, you do not need to book your transportation from Ramstein to Grafenwoehr/Vilseck when you land. USAREUR (the Army command in charge of operations throughout Europe and Africa) is in charge of that.
After a good night’s rest (hopefully), a bus will take you to Grafenwoehr/Vilseck. It’s a long drive and will likely take all day.
Yes, all day. You may see on Google maps that it’s less than 5 hours, but because you’re on a slow-moving bus, and that bus driver will take breaks, the drive will take all day. Keep in mind, per German law, all pets must be in their crate under the bus for the entire ride. You can let them out to potty when the bus takes breaks.
But once you get to building 244 at USAG Bavaria Grafenwoehr, you’ll start in-processing and meet your sponsor.
Can you avoid the bus? Good question. Although uncommon, you can ask your sponsor to pick you up at Ramstein. If they’re kind enough to give you a ride, offer them gas money for the drive and make sure their vehicle is big enough for your entire family, luggage, and any pet crates.
If you choose to fly commercial when you PCS to Germany, you may be more comfortable, but you’ll need to manage more of the logistics yourself.
Getting on the Flight
You need the following documents before booking your flight:
• your orders
• command sponsorship
• passports for every family member
At minimum, you’ll need your tourist passports. Ideally, you’ll have your SOFA stamps as well! You should also have your EFMP screenings completed by this point.
You can book the flight through SATO, which is very familiar with the PCS process. You can also use your local travel office or do it yourself.
Keep in mind that you should not be paying for these flights out of pocket! Use your government issued credit card to book your transportation. And make sure your card is active before embarking on this journey.
Also, many of the airlines have global partnerships, so be aware when booking your flights and showing up to the airport. For example, Delta, Air France, KLM, and Virgin Atlantic have a joint venture. Always double check your tickets and flight information so that you know where to check in!
And speaking of check-in, commercial airlines have a weight limit of 50 pounds per piece of checked luggage. But if you show them your orders when checking your bags, they’ll usually waive the fees for excess weight. (Key word: usually.)
Travel tip: Ask for a possible seat upgrade! When flying commercial from the United States, let the ticket agent know you’re flying with US military orders overseas. Every once in a while you may get a nice ticket agent who will offer you a seat upgrade because of your military service. Americans are super patriotic, especially when it comes to serving your country overseas. My ticket agent bumped us up to first class on my PCS to Germany! You don’t know unless you ask!
Arriving in Germany
As soon as you book your arrangements, let your sponsor know the details. Your unit will need to organize your transportation from the airport. Closer to your travel date, let them know:
• how many family members are traveling (including pets)
• how much luggage you will have
• any changes to the flight schedule
• which airport you’re arriving at!
It may also be a good idea to send a couple pictures of your family so that your sponsor can easily find you in a crowd.
After you land, you’ll go through customs before you reach baggage claim. Have your tourist (fee) passport, your no fee passport (with your SOFA stamp), your military ID, and your orders readily available.
You don’t need to hand the customs agent everything at once. But if they ask for more information, it saves you the trouble of sifting through your bags!
Tips from Personal Experience
After a rather eventful experience with Patriot Express and commercial flights, Megan shared her tips with us!
Double triple check your flights: there’s no such thing as being too cautious! Patriot Express flights are posted one calendar month at a time on a standard set schedule. If you’re taking a Patriot Express flight, you can check the Facebook page for updates. If you’re flying commercial, stay up-to-date on the airline itself as well as your destination.
Roll Call: Depending on which Patriot Express flight you’re on, you may have a roll call. Be present during possible roll calls when your plane arrives and/or when it’s time to check in for departure. Get to the airport early and ask the Patriot Express ticket agent about roll call procedures.
Prepare to wait: The Patriot Express has a reputation for departing late. The shops and restaurants will not stay open, so make sure you have enough snacks and entertainment!
Plan ASAP for pets: There are limited spots if you take the Patriot Express. Call to reserve one as soon as you know which flight you’re on! Your pets can also fly commercial or with a pet shipper. But regardless of how they travel, get started on the process ASAP. Also remember that if you fly with the Patriot Express and then take the bus to your duty station, you will have to put your pet in its crate under the bus for the whole ride per German law.
Ask for HELP: Don’t be shy to reach out to your gaining community for help with your PCS. Search within the Facebook group of “A Perfect PCS to Germany” for FAQs or ask your specific questions to community group members. We’re all here to help 🙂
Upgrade your seats: Remember if you fly commercial, there’s a chance you can upgrade your seats. Doesn’t hurt to ask!
Prepare for the Wurst with a Smile
The biggest tip Megan has for people PCSing to Germany? Prepare for the worst.
We all expect long lines, overpriced airport food, and a crying child somewhere along the way. But when you’re moving to another country on orders, the pressure is on.
So download an extra season of your favorite show and get comfortable! Eventually you’ll look back on this moment as the beginning of an incredible chapter of your life.
Still stressed about PCSing to Germany? Get the Ultimate PCS Checklist to ease your worries!