Airstreams are the iconic American camper, but do they stand up to all the hype?
You may be surprised to find that the camper is not all sunshine and roses.
While thousands of Airstream owners may disagree, many find the camper is overpriced and lacks headroom, but there’s more to it than that.
To help you see all the pros and cons of Airstream campers, stick around. Inside this guide to Airstreams, I discuss:
- Reasons Airstreams are so popular
- Why they demand such a high price
- The pros and cons of Airstream design
- What styles of Airstream are available
- If Airstreams are worth the investment
If an Airstream is on your wishlist, or if you’re just interested in its style, you’ll learn about the good, bad, and ugly side of this brand right here, so let’s jump right in!
Why Airstream Campers Are So Popular
Airstreams are such a popular camper because, let’s face it, they really, really look cool.
The sleek aluminum exterior echoes an airplane fuselage’s shape and stands out no matter where it travels.
Around since the 1930s, the Airstream camper is a true American classic that updated its shape in 1969 after the original designer, Mr. Byam, passed away.
That new design rounded the edges even more and made the interior more lavish, which remains the style most people associate with the camper to this day.
Owning a piece of Americana is a massive draw for many RVing enthusiasts, while others find the brand’s exclusiveness a selling point. Nothing quite screams “freedom” than seeing a sleek Airstream going down the highway.
Airstreams owners have their groups within the RVing community, with caravans and rallies held all over the US and the world. This “family” brings more community to an already friendly RVing culture.
While Airstream is still doing a brisk business today, many RVers long to own a vintage restored Airstream over buying new. This craving drives up the demand, and price, of used Airstream campers.
The shiny, silver bullet-shaped travel trailer is the most common and popular Airstream style. Still, the company has made campers and motorhomes in various shapes and sizes over its decades in business.
Insider Tidbit: The Airstream is the only camper that always seems gets a free pass when it comes to RV age restrictions set by campgrounds.
Why Are Airstream Campers So Expensive?
New Airstreams start around $39,000 for the Basecamp model and reach above $250,000 for the Class B Atlas model.
What is it about the Airstream that can explain the high price tag that is double or even triple the cost of a similar style traditional RV?
The aircraft-grade, aluminum-alloy shell is to blame. Hand-riveted aluminum sheets are formed to the curves of the steel framing both inside and out, which is a labor-intensive task that requires expertise and attention to detail.
You are buying quality when you invest in an Airstream camper. No wood-frame, fiberglass-shell trailer can compete for the long-term durability of the Airstream aluminum shell.
All Airstream models receive the same materials and care during the build, unlike other brands that skimp on material quality for their lower-priced models.
After the shell is complete, Airstream delivers craftsmanship in their custom-built cabinetry that fits beautifully into the frame’s curves. All the furniture, trim, and countertops are high-quality and design, which adds to the final cost.
Airstream now touts itself as one of the luxury RV brands and markets it’s campers to high-end customers who want something more unique than a run-of-the-mill motorcoach or fifth-wheel.
The price of an Airstream correlates directly to the higher expense of using quality materials and expert labor, with only a small add-on for the “name.”
You can tangibly see and feel the quality craftsmanship, which is why Airstreams are more expensive than most other travel trailers of similar size.
The Pros and Cons of Airstream Design
The things that make an Airstream so desirable can also be the things that make it hard to live in, especially if you plan to RV full-time.
Let’s look at what Airstream owners with years of experience have to say about the pros and cons of camping in one.
- You’re proud to show it off because it’s the coolest RV there is
- Lots of views, Airstreams have plenty of wide windows
- Bullet shape requires less fuel to tow over a standard travel trailer
- The shape also reduces sway from high winds
- The flexible shell absorbs road shocks which reduces wear
- Lower center of gravity increases control of trailer during towing
- Environmentally-friendly materials can all be recycled
- The brand uses a rubber torsion axle that lasts longer and provides a better ride
- Built to last for decades and resale value is high
- Costs way more than similar size campers
- Needs expensive regular maintenance, especially on that shiny exterior
- Has little interior storage and no outside storage compartments
- The layout is narrow and there are no slides
- Large windows reduce insulation value for heating and cooling
- Ceiling height is shorter than standard travel trailers
- Repairs cost more on average over standard RVs
- The chassis clearance is low, making inclines and curbs challenging
- The battery is too small, leading to poor performance
Airstreams are like people magnets, that attract strangers to stop, chat, take pictures, and ask questions at gas stations, campgrounds, rest stops, and well, just about anywhere.
This quirk can be a great thing for outgoing people who love to share their “Airstream love,” but it can get draining over time.
Maintaining the camper can get tedious. Leaks are common as rivets wear out or caulking between joints loosens as the aluminum shell expands and contracts with the weather.
Regularly checking over all the rivets and seals is a necessary chore to stop water infiltration.
Even washing the camper means brushing with the grain of the aluminum to avoid scratches.
The task of washing and polishing all that aluminum is best left to the professionals, but expert detailing can cost $100-$200 per foot!
As that cost can be overwhelming for most Airstream owners, they must set aside plenty of time to tackle that chore themselves.
Keeping a protective coating on the aluminum is imperative to keep the shine vibrant. As the coating wears down from dust and road grime, the aluminum oxidizes and begins to dull and darken.
Dents are inevitable in the exterior, and getting them out can be difficult and pricey. Most Airstream owners take this expense on the chin because it’s worth it to keep the exterior lines smooth and sleek.
Repairing aluminum panels can also be quite a challenge, as Airstream has used a different thickness or grade of aluminum over the years. Getting the right match for your camper may be extremely difficult.
The same premise goes for parts. Anything from drawer pulls to a light fixture may be impossible to locate or may cost more than you’re wallet likes.
Lastly, the shape of the roof plus the aluminum inhibits your ability to walk on it or mount things like solar panels or racks that other RVs can handle with no issue.
Airstream Renovation Facts
An old Airstream shell can cost around $10,000 and sounds like a steal compared to a new model’s cost.
But, if you want to restore that camper to its original glory, you’ll most likely spend anywhere between $35,000 (for a general renovation) up to $90,000 or more for a genuine Airstream rehab if you can locate all the components.
Dealing with all the Airstream curves equals time and money, as a precision fit is crucial if you want to increase the use of space.
Keep that in mind if you have grand dreams of bringing an old Airstream back to life. You can do it, but it won’t be anywhere near as straightforward or cost saving of a project as you think.
The Types of Airstream Campers on the Market
There are 10 current Airstream models on the market, two of which are Class B motorhomes.
Here’s a quick breakdown of each model with the current listing price:
Airstream Travel Trailers
The Basecamp travel trailer comes in a 16 or 20-foot model with a 6′ 4.5″-7′ 2.5″ interior width and a 6′ 3.5″-6′ 7″ internal height.
Does have a cooking space, bathroom, and rear sleeping for two to four people. Starts at $39,100.
The Sport comes in a 16 or 22-foot model with a maximum 7′ 7″ interior width and a 6′ 4.5″ internal height.
The model offers a cooking space, bathroom, and sleeping for up to four people. Starts at $47,900.
The Bambi comes in lengths from 16 to 22-feet. All sizes have a 7′ 7″ interior width with a 6′ 4″ ceiling height.
The model offers a rear bed and dinette-to-bed, a galley, and a bathroom. Starts at $51,400.
The Caravel comes in lengths from 16 to 22-feet. All sizes have a 7′ 7″ wide interior with a 6′ 7.5″ ceiling height.
The model offers sleeping for up to four with a rear bed and dinette-to-bed, a galley, and a bathroom. Starts at $64,000.
AIRSTREAM FLYING CLOUD
The Flying Cloud is the most popular Airstream travel trailer and comes in lengths from 23 to 30-feet. All sizes have a 7′ 7″ to 8′ 1″ interior width with a 9′ 9″ ceiling height.
The camper can sleep up to 6 or 8 depending on the size, as the larger model has a bunkhouse option. The model has a kitchen and a bathroom with a shower. Starts at $81,200.
The International comes in lengths from 23 to 30-feet. The shorter sizes have a 7′ 7″ wide interior, while the larger ones offer six more inches. All have a lower ceiling height of 6′ 7.5″.
This model features more luxurious amenities and styling and offers sleeping arrangements for four to six people. Starts at $94,600.
The Globetrotter sleeps up to six and comes in lengths from 23 to 30-feet. It has a 7′ 7″-8′ 1″ interior width a 6′ 7.5″ ceiling height.
The floorplan is more deluxe with a queen-size bed, couch, and rear bathroom with shower. Starts at $99,300.
The Classic has full-time RVers in mind. Models come in 31 and 33-foot lengths with an 8′ 1″ wide interior and 6′ 7.5″ ceiling height.
The Classic has a rear bedroom, a sizeable front couch, closets, and can sleep up to five. Starts at $161,900.
The Interstate is a luxury Class B that creates the ultimate in comfort for a solo or couple. The diesel engine provides power and durability, and the 23-foot length is ideal for parking just about anywhere.
The Interstate offers a Tommy Bahama Package that upgrades the chassis.
Starts at $165,143.
The Atlas is pushing the limits of Class B with its 24′ 9″ length. The interior is very spacious for up to two people, with a couch turned bed via a push of a button.
Starts at $244,046.
Are Airstreams Worth the Investment?
Airstreams are totally worth the investment if you plan to use them often. Their sheer durability alone makes them a “one-and-done” RV purchase.
With approximately 70% of Airstreams ever made still on the road, it speaks to the strength of the Airstream company.
It’s common for owners of other recreational vehicle brands to swap out campers every five years or so. Upgrades or changes add to the overall cost of living the RV lifestyle as many lose money from the poor resale value.
When it comes to Airstream resale value, it’s also top of the list as the quality build holds up well to miles of travel and use.
A well-maintained, small vintage Airstream can often bring a higher price than larger, newer units, which is very impressive.
So, from the money standpoint, an Airstream is worth the price, but what about the other factors?
Having to shine up all that aluminum continually can tax even the most enthusiastic of Airstream owners.
Stressing over dents, dings, or bottoming out can detract from travel enjoyment.
If repairs are necessary, they’ll likely cost much more than if you own a more traditional camper, and you may have difficulty finding a shop with the right parts.
All campers, even Airstreams, will have issues somewhere down the line.
The appeal of owning an Airstream is more about appreciating its design and being part of an American institution that separates itself from the average RVing crowd.
If you have the money and temperament it requires to take on the extra care owning an Airstream requires, then you’ll find it is absolutely well worth it.