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Could you use a getaway from base life—that won’t break your bank account?
Believe it or not, even today, it’s possible for U.S. military personnel to vacation on a shoestring budget. We’re not saying you’ll be seeing the Riviera from the back of a Rolls Royce, but it really is doable. The secret is not blowing half your budget on where you sleep. Even if you use sites like Hotels.com, commercial lodging ain’t cheap nowadays.
So what’s a man or woman in uniform to do? Where can you and your family stay that won’t wreck your wallet? The answer is “Uncle Sam’s place.”
No—we don’t mean the local barracks: we’re talking about Armed Forces Recreation Centers (AFRCs). They’re joint-service facilities that are operated by the Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Programs. Located all over the globe, they can be found everywhere from oceanfront retreats to big cities to mountain-top getaways and popular resort towns. As a member of the U.S. Armed Forces, you and your family are eligible to stay at a place that rivals most commercial hotels and motels but costs a fraction as much to stay overnight in. Military retirees, National Guard and Reserve members—as well as Department of Defense civilians quality, too.
These are full-service resort hotels. The room rates are based on your rank, pay grade, duty status, room size, and/or the room location. They have fitness areas and business centers. They can easily accommodate families, individual travelers, and larger groups. They also host weddings, reunions and organizational meetings, too. It’s not hard to understand why some of them fill up fast, so we recommend making your reservations as far in advance as you can.
We’re going to take a look at a few of them, but the number of outstanding destinations that have AFRC is longer than we have space to cover here. That’s why you should look for yourself to see where the nearest ones are to the place(s) that you’d like to get away to. You might even find out that there’s one (or more) within driving distance of a place you’ve always wanted—but never thought you’d be able—to go.
Keep in mind: Some AFRCs give priority to active-duty military members on orders (rather than to leisure travelers). The rules can vary widely by lodging facility and service branch, too. Some places may allow pets, but those policies vary, so you should probably make sure that cold-nosed guests are welcome before you book a stay. Although their mailing addresses can often be found on their brochures or websites, it’s a good idea to ask for a GPS-friendly address when you make your reservation. Especially if you’re driving from the airport, this should help you find it more easily.
We can’t recommend using the money you save on a limousine to get around while you’re there, but you should at least be able to relax and enjoy yourself. Every day that you’ve shown up in-uniform is a day on which you’ve earned it.
Every branch has a department that should be able to give you handy information for vacation planning. Before taking any other steps, it’s usually worth your time to get in touch with your local office: The U.S. Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation is the G9 Division overseeing programs and services for soldiers and their families. Marines will want to reach out to Marine Corps Community Services for AFRC-related information. Sailors can contact Navy Gateway Inns and Suites to learn what they can. Airmen should check in with Air Force Services and Guardians should look up Coast Guard Morale, Well-Being, and Recreation to get their latest. Nobody sane plans a vacation because they’re in the market for wasted time and frustration. That’s why we’re hyping doing a little research before you commit to trip your plans.
Before we go any further, just so that we can say that we’ve covered it, there are some nice on-base lodging options available at various locations around the country. We are not knocking those places—or the good folk who run them—at all, but here and now, we’re primarily looking off-base; toward getaway destinations for those who could use a day or more away from all things work-related. We’ve been there and done that, so we get it—and we want to help. As a result, we’re focusing on places a little further off the beaten path (than 30 yards from the commissary).
Edelweiss Lodge and Resort in Germany’s Bavarian region offers breathtaking Alpine views, outdoor fun in the unforgettable areas, biergartens (beer gardens; outdoor areas in where beer and food are served) and European castles. There’s so much to see and do that most visitors don’t stay in their rooms much (unless they caught a bug on the flight over). When you need a breather, you retire into comfortable accommodations with a one-of-a-kind view. Children 17 years old and younger can stay free of charge with you.
Most families have at least one member who craves a Net connection like a fish needs water, so they’re covered, too: free WIFI is included, complements of Stars and Stripes. Pup owners will be pleased to know that dog-friendly accommodations are available, too. If you have some kind of Julie Andrews/Heidi fantasy—we’re not sure we’d like to hear about it, but—it’s Germany we’re talking about, so there’s probably someplace where you can swirl around among the flowers, singing or yodeling to your heart’s content.
Skiers and sightseers should have a lot of fun, as well. Edelweiss is located 56 miles from Munich and 34 miles from Innsbruck. It doesn’t get anymore Alpine than that (not in Deutschland, anyway). You can hit the slopes, snap gigs of pictures along a tour and a whole lot more. The nearby Zugspitze, a 9,718-feet-tall mountain, is the country’s highest elevation. Its peak offers a 360° panoramic view that includes mountain peaks in four countries. It’s also home to three glaciers.
Closer to home, in Hawaii, Hale Koa Hotel is a retreat for military members and their families on the shores of Waikiki Beach. With or without snorkeling gear, we’re talking wall-to-wall, sand, surf and palms. You’re not gonna’ find a better value on Waikiki Beach for your money, room-wise, either. Each one is roughly the same size, sleeps up to four adults and has full in-room amenities. The biggest difference between the rooms is the views. You can request a good view, but their room locations and bedding configurations center around availability, which’s why they’re assigned at check-in.
If you can’t see much out the window, you’ll still be in Hawaii! Beaches some folk would kill to visit are within easy walking distance. The shore isn’t rough, so the place is a swimmers’ paradise. There’s also a reef not far from the shoreline. That helps break up the surf, so reef fish and turtles often swim in to visit snorkelers. Koa Beach Service is the on-site beach concierge, almost like room service on the sand—at special military-discounted rates. Closer to the hotel, Koa Oasis is “a perfect spot for refreshing snacks and cool cocktails and drinks.”
We should probably mention that Hale Koa Hotel is a smoke-free hotel, too—including their lanai (or balconies) and their common areas. We’re not pointing this out to pick on smokers. It’s just best if everyone knows about this in advance. Ideally, we want everyone who goes enjoying their best time possible. Hawaii is not entirely smoke-free, for the record (if you don’t mind a little sulfur with it): Mauna Loa and Kilauea and both among the most active volcanoes in the world.
If your family’s succumbed to Disney-itis, don’t despair: a trip to Disney World doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Shades of Green is another AFRC in Orlando that’s a part of the Walt Disney World complex. It offers discounted tickets for all Mickey-related venues and affordable room rates. To spare you the hassle that parking can become (especially at closing time), they have complimentary buses running to and from the parks and ticket center. You can also get the Extra Magic Hours perk, which can up the enjoyment factor by letting you enter/stay while those who don’t have it can’t.
You might or might not want to consider an off-season stay during nontraditional vacation months like January, too: these can sometimes mean further bargains that aren’t offered during peak tourism seasons. You may want to save that money for when you’re hauled in a tractor beam over to Galaxy’s Edge, Disney’s Star Wars area. Even the littlest of Jedis can tire of the same old same old after a while, so we suggest getting the 3- or 4-day park hopper deals: these are basically open passes to the Magic Kingdom, the Animal Kingdom, Blizzard Beach, and more. You can visit one area, hit a second when you feel like it, and then crisscross back and forth from a third if you want. It’s kind of a Disney park buffet.
You can buy park hopper tickets on-base at your military installation’s ticket office, but Shades of Green sells them, too. You can’t use these tickets in combination with any other promotion or discounts, but they’re still not too bad. You’re also limited to six tickets (which are not valid on certain blockout dates), so you’ll want to check your desired destination’s schedule out and then make your purchase; not vice versa.