Perhaps you have considered many brands or perhaps you always had aluminum dreams and it’s Airstream or bust for you. However you came to the decision, you desire the shiny awesomeness of the world’s greatest travel trailer and are now on the hunt for one to call your own.
Like most purchasing decisions, I think you need to start with what you need, then explore your options, and finally, pick the option that best suits your needs. Let’s get started with some questions designed to get you thinking about what you need.
- How much time will you spend in your Airstream?
- How many people will typically sleep in your Airstream?
- What activities do you plan to do in your Airstream?
- How much handy work for your trailer are you willing or able to engage in?
- What type of interior style makes you feel at home?
- Are you the rugged adventure or the lap of luxury type?
- Do you want to buy it with cash or credit? Either way, how much are you able and willing to pay?
New vs Used
A shiny new Airstream is a wonderful thing. The look beautiful, smell wonderful, and everything is incredibly clean and shiny. They also come with extensive warranties on nearly every part and component. They will have the most recent technology and newest appliances as well as features the manufacturers have added over the years. They will also be very expensive, among the most expensive trailers money can buy.
People generally buy used Airstreams because they can save money. Like cars, the sweet spot is often used Airstreams only a few years old where the owners have had a change of heart or financial status. Unless they were in an accident, it is unlikely they have any significant damage and you will shave off at least a quarter of what it would cost to get a brand new one. Trailers with many years or miles on them may need significant repairs. The older it is, the more important a thorough inspection is going to be. Many, very expensive defects can very hard to see by just “looking.”
Of course, some folks specifically want “Vintage” Airstreams. In this case, it is like buying an antique. You are looking for a specific aesthetic and style and depending on how rare it is, and in what condition it is in, you may pay a real premium for it. A perfectly restored vintage Airstream can easily cost as much as a new one. Most will be short of that mark and you may well be able to get a bargain on one. While the motivations may be a little different, the need for inspecting one carefully before buying remains.
Large vs Small
New Airstreams start on the small end at just over 16′ long and can go as big as a smidge over 31′. Vintage models can vary even more widely. The obvious advantage of going big is that you have more space in your trailer. This means you can sleep more people, have more storage, more appliances, bigger bathrooms, bigger kitchens, more places to sit and so on. Your only traveling advantage is you will have larger tanks for waste water, this means you can spend more time somewhere before needing to find a dumping station.
Smaller Airstreams are easier to tow and can be parked in more places. We have had to camp outside of some national parks because their camping and trailer spaces were simply too small for our 30′ trailer and the big truck we tow it with. Smaller Airstreams can be towed by smaller vehicles. A 16′ sport can be towed by nearly any SUV equipped with a sturdy hitch. They are also simply easier to tow because they have less trailer sway, less momentum, and can make tighter turns.
And of course, there is price, the bigger they are, the more they will cost. My recommendation is to start by checking out the largest models. See how they feel. Then explore subsequently smaller models, each time asking yourself, is this comfortable? So long as the answer is “yes, this feels comfortable” keep looking at the next size down. When you start to feel unreasonably cramped in any part of the trailer, you should go one step up from there. Basically, get the smallest one that feels comfortable and you should be happy.
There are two real considerations here, style and function. The more time you plan to spend in your Airstream, the more important both are. The best way to find out what will work for you is to tour Airstreams in person. Even if you plan to buy used from a classified, head to an Airstream dealer and tour as many models as possible. Wear clean clothes so you can sit in the chairs, lay down in the bed, stand in the shower and pretend to cook in the kitchen. Go through the motions of living in it and you will best discover what your needs are.
Picking the right styling is really a matter of taste. You want to feel good while inside the trailer. If you feel a sense of comfort with an edge of excitement that is probably exactly right for you. If you feel somehow stressed or sad you should keep looking.
Selecting for function is harder. There will always be compromises because there is a limited space. Sleeping, eating, and using the bathroom are all essential for pretty much everyone. When you examine an Airstream, simulate each of these activities to some degree. Just looking at the toilet won’t really let you know if it’s going to fit you. Have a seat, try to get comfortable. If you have hobbies or plan to work inside the Airstream, think carefully about that as well. Where will you do that and how disruptive will it be for others in the space available?
I recommend against too much consideration to storage space. Your trailer will generally cost more than the stuff you put in it, so better to get the trailer that fits your lifestyle, and then buy stuff that fits in your trailer.
Is the price right?
If you are looking at a new airstream, make sure you get the best price from the dealer that you can. They cost a significant amount so a small percentage of savings on the price can be a big boon. The rule of thumb is that you should be able to great a new Airstream in the range of 15%-20% off the manufacturer’s retail price. Until you hit that range, don’t fall for anyone telling you they are going to disappear or run out or any other tactic to get you to hurry. The only reason to “act now” is if the price is good.
If you are going to finance an Airstream, take the loan terms into account as well. Exactly what is a good rate will depend on your credit and the prime interest rate at the time so I don’t have specific advice. Do some research on car loans and know your credit rating going in. Try not to swap better prices for worse loans or the like, get a good deal on both!
Tips to get a good price on new airstreams
- Pick a specific sales person at the dealership, promise to buy from them when you find the right deal
- Comparison shop at dealers in your region of the country
- Hit up the trade shows if your dealer is there, sometimes they offer better bargains
- Ask your sales person to let you know about deals as they come up
- Tell them up front you are looking to get 20% off retail but you have some flexibility
- Don’t be in too much of a hurry, start shopping before you intend to buy
If you are shopping for a used airstream, things tend to be more complicated. If you buy from a dealer, the same tips above apply but instead of retail prices, hunt around for the same year/condition of ones you are interested in and bring those with you while shopping. Also, if you do hit a great bargain, you may indeed want to seal the deal. But, never rush an inspection of the trailer, go over it in any and every way you can think of to make sure there are no surprises. This page on vintage airstream is great for models from the 70s or older. For newer ones, hit up sites like Airstream Classifieds and do comparisons of like models.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate, the worst that happens is folks say no. Your best approach is to name a price you want to pay but think is fair. Just make sure you are interested in buying it before haggling. Getting a concession on price and then saying nevermind is wasting peoples time and energy.