Wally Byam’s dream became a reality when he built his first travel trailer in 1931 light enough to be towed by a car and create accommodations for its owner. Yes, we’re talking about the Airstream, and there are still a few on the road today from the 1930’s. Wally intended his creation to last a lifetime.
New Airstream travel trailers’ list prices range from $36,900 up to $149,900. Thor Industries, now the owner of Airstream, reports that 65%-70% of all Airstreams ever made are still on the road today – that’s a lot of streaming aluminum rolling down the highway each year.
Since used Airstreams are still sought after, it’s best to check sites such as, RVT.com, airforums.com, or airstreamclassifieds.com for pricing. You can also use the NADA Guide but keep in mind there is no blue book for vintage trailers since the Guide stops at 20 years.
Airstream travel trailer models range in exterior length from 16’3” to about 33″ with several models to choose from. Each model has the classic shiny aluminum exterior with the clean lines of an aerodynamic design. While you may choose a particular model to suit your needs, Airstreams models have much in common as to features, built-to-last durability, and the expected brand name quality.
Airstream also makes touring coaches, 5 models to be exact. These touring coaches are similar to a Class B van. One model actually has a slide out Murphy Suite making it what Airstream calls a Class B . New coaches are priced between $149,250 and $221,000.
This brings us to the two lingering questions inquiring minds want to know – why are Airstreams so expensive and are they worth it?
Why the Airstream lifestyle can cost more
Airstreams are recognizable by their aluminum, seamless, hard shell. They turn heads on the road, bogle the mind with their durability and keep us intrigued about those “riveted life” folks pulling their dream behind them as they breeze by you on the road.
The shell is made of a high grade “aircraft quality” aluminum riveted over a steel frame. It is insulated and each rivet is put on by hand to avoid damage to the frame, give added protection and the best possibility for a leak-free seal. It is labor intensive with higher construction costs.
The only plywood used in the travel trailers is the subfloor which is needed as an anchor point for attaching appliances and flooring. The plywood is contained within a double frame to avoid any potential for rotting.
Airstream makes its own furniture which is created to fit the unique design and shape of its travel trailers. Glass tempered windows, and lots of them, are another feature and design well known in Airstream trailers. The Airstream Community gets that feeling of bringing nature inside with them and holding it a bit closer.
Appliances and interior furniture must be carried in by hand since the shell is one-piece which does not allow these items to be dropped in from the roof.
Airstreams tend to have a more modern aesthetically pleasing appeal for a majority of owners as opposed to other RVs that feature dark cabinets and furniture, interior wood framing, carpet and/or a country feel. The curved surfaces and interior features found in Airstream travel trailers tend to equate to higher manufacturing costs.
Airstream’s reputation precedes it. Anyone familiar with RVs and the lifestyle that goes along with owning one, can most all agree that, while many have never owned an Airstream, we at least are aware that the brand is considered to be a luxury trailer.
It should be noted that Airstream did make a few trailer models between 2000 and 2009 that had one slide. Reportedly, the primary reason for discontinuing the slide- out models was the number of sales of these units, weight and a price point that did not justify the factory floor space for keeping inventory and tooling.
Are Airstreams worth the cost?
We’ve noted several reasons as to why Airstreams’ costs are higher than the standard RV. For many people, these reasons alone make an Airstream priceless. However, there are those who aren’t part of the Airstream fan club simply due to the fact of costs and the issues that Airstreams may encounter along the way. An Airstream will still need maintenance on the exterior and interior and repairs on this brand may pinch the pocket a bit more than a standard RV.
There are heated debates on caulk issues for any RV—an Airstream is no exception. The constant movement of parts while on the road makes checking on and maintaining roof and all seams an important issue with RVs. An Airstream may easily be re-caulked a dozen times in its lifetime because they remain on the road for so long.
Due to the aluminum construction, silicone caulks will not adhere well. A polyurethane caulk must be used. This type caulk is more expensive but works well for Airstreams. It should be noted that any RV can leak. An Airstream is not less likely or more likely to leak, but maintaining the caulk goes a long way in achieving a leak-free RV.
Again, as with any RV, the exterior should be kept clean and waxed to maintain Airstream’s clear coat. As an Airstream ages, the clear coat may peel. It will then need to be buffed, polished and recoated. On a good note, black streaks do not seem to appear as much on Airstreams as with other models.
There have been headroom issues in Airstreams. Due to the curvature of the roof, headroom is limited for taller occupants. Also, upper cabinet space can be impeded due to the curved roof. If you’re in the market, take notice of headroom and interior space when viewing these models.
Airstream models can have limited outside storage. RVers need to determine their needs to ensure that the storage suits their requirements.
Airstreams seem to easily acquire dents due to the aluminum exterior. Even a slight collision with a tree or post can result in denting your shiny home. The rounded edges of the Airstream are particularly prone to denting when unfortunately coming in contact with something you missed seeing or miscalculated your distance from.
As with any travel trailer, you will still need trailer brakes, sway bars and know your vehicle’s tow capacity prior to choosing your Airstream dream. Be sure to check the cargo carrying capacity as well for any model you are interested in. They are considered lightweight, therefore, may not be rated to carry as much cargo as some other RV models.
Airstream constructs its trailers with the greater weight distributed over the axles and balanced to improve control while towing. Airstreams are known to tow easier and better than most other travel trailers. You just need to plan your weight distribution when packing your Airstream.
Note to self: Never allow two people to stand in the back of a long, unhitched Airstream without putting the stabilizer jacks down first. Due to the weight distribution, an Airstream can tip and be damaged.
Corrosion can happen but is generally localized and cosmetic. If you live near the ocean or in an area where roads are salted, you’ll need to investigate the potential of and severity this environment may have on your Airstream.
It truly becomes a personal choice of want, need, and affordability. Many people can’t think of RVing any other way. They need their Airstream, they want the lifestyle and, apparently, they have budgeted to have their dream.
With the purchase of an Airstream, you instantly become part of a community. Other Airstreamers honk their horn at you on the road, wave as they pass, and strike up conversations at the campground. There’s even an official Airstream Club you can join.
Airstreams hold their value. If and when you decide to retire from RV life or, heavens forbid, purchase another type RV, you can rest assured this brand will still be worth the money and is sellable.
Many people may find it a bit too confining to travel for any length of time without a slide or two that gives them a bit more walking and elbow room. However, this is all a matter of opinion, for what is comfortable and livable is a personal and individual decision.
Airstream – a trusted and loved brand, well built, durable, high quality, easy to tow and great resale. If you love the look, feel and style, you understand why Airstreams cost so much. And are they worth it? After touring a few and if you fall in love, your answer may just be, YES!
For more info on restoring a vintage Airstream, check out these great resources: