From Airstream to AirBnb

The biggest problem with any RV, I think, is taking care of it when you’re not using it. Airstreams rarely die while they are happily in their favorite medium, the open road, but they do slowly deteriorate if neglected in storage. (I wrote about this in my book “The (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance“, and suggested some strategies for preserving your Airstream while it is resting between trips.)

It’s ideal if you can keep your Airstream at home where you can keep an eye on it, but not everyone has that option. When keeping it at home isn’t possible, a storage lot is usually the solution. I’m not a huge fan of storage lots because Airstreams get stolen from them despite the purported “on site manager” and “24 hour video surveillance” and gated entry, but if you pick wisely and put some protection on your trailer (like a Megahitch Lock) it’s a reasonable risk.

For the past 16 years I’ve been lucky enough to be able to keep my Airstreams at home and plugged in, with the bonus of using them as guest house and office. I’ve ducked the expense and minor hassle of off-site storage. But no longer: I’ve moved to a place where the Airstream just can’t fit.

Coincidentally my Airstream travel is decreasing substantially. For the past decade I’ve logged about 120 nights and 8,000-12,000 miles per year, traveling from southwest to northeast and then back again each summer (with wild detours as far as Seattle and Florida). That’s a lot of travel. But now I don’t expect to be making that trip in future years, which means the Airstream will be used more like the average: a few weekends here and there, and the occasional week-long trip in the region.

All of that has made me start to think a bit outside the box. So I’m going to do something I previously said I’ve never consider: I’m renting my Airstream on AirBnb here in Tucson.

Yes … I really am.

I guess I see things differently now. First of all, the Airstream has a lot of life left in it. It’s a 2005 Safari 30 bunkhouse, which might be old for any other sort of vehicle (especially white box RVs) but is “barely broken in” by Airstream standards. I see Airstreams all the time that are 30 years old and still don’t need their first interior renovation. Being on the road for 40 or 50 years is no big deal in the Airstream world. So there’s no way I’m going to write it off at this point.

Second, I hate the idea of paying to store the trailer somewhere far away. There are no convenient and safe storage lots near my home, and here in Arizona it’s best to have covered storage (because of the intense sun 360 days per year). That puts the monthly cost of a storage space in the range of $120-50 per month, which is just an annoying steady drain on my wallet. As an AirBnb, the cash flows the other way.

Third, since I’m not going to be living in the Airstream for long periods of time anymore, I’m not as protective of it as I was. I just don’t need to keep it stocked so that I can fly off on a moment’s notice for a monthlong trip. I can be a weekender like most people: Load up what I need on Friday afternoon, and clean it out on Monday.

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And perhaps most importantly, it’s not going anywhere. Being a stationary rental means that no inexperienced yahoos will be towing my Airstream. It’s sitting in a lovely private driveway near downtown Tucson, surrounded by tall fences and a gate, and watched over and managed by a sweet lady who lives on the property. She’ll clean it and re-stock it after each rental, take care of the customer service, and let me know if there are any problems.

This is definitely an experiment. I don’t know what hassles we might encounter (although I can imagine quite a few!) Certainly there’s a learning curve for each new occupant. I’m hoping to alleviate that by dumbing down some features. For example, I’m going to take away the awning pole in favor of a fixed shade awning we’ll put on the property later. We’re only providing a key for the padlock, so people won’t get confused about the door handle lock. The water heater switch will be marked “DO NOT SWITCH OFF”, and there will be a one-page info sheet in the rental to educate people about operation of things like the thermostat, toilet, stove (“use the lighter provided”), and vents. We’re also going to have at least a 3 night minimum stay, and encourage longer stays with a weekly rate discount.

Getting the Airstream ready has been challenging but fun. The first step was to just pull out all the personal items—a bigger task than you might think, thanks to the accumulation of 14 years of heavy travel. That step alone took a few trips and I’m still sorting through all the stuff. A shockingly large portion of the gear went straight to the trash, because it was so scuffed, stained, worn, scratched, cracked, dented or discolored that I couldn’t leave it for the rental. (Keep in mind that most of this stuff has been to 48 states and is 14 years old.) Lots more cosmetically challenged but functional stuff will be donated.

The second step was to hire cleaners to go through the trailer and do a deep cleaning. Two professionals took four hours to clean the interior from stem to stern. Every cabinet and cubbyhole got scrubbed out. They couldn’t make the trailer like new again but they did a pretty good job at making it fresh. I’ll be following up with a few minor repairs and maintenance, like re-caulking the shower and re-gluing some loose trim.

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The third step was to come up with a list of everything we’d need to make the Airstream comfortable for visitors, and go shopping. That included all new towels, sheets, blankets, pillows, rugs, small appliances, and a handful of supplies. I was able to keep some of the dishes, glasses, coffee mugs, and cookware since that stuff held up pretty well over the years of bouncing around the nation’s roads. Still, I spent about $500 to outfit the trailer and there’s another $100 or so likely to be spent before I’m done.

Will it pay off? Early indications are very promising. We haven’t yet listed the Airstream on AirBnb but we already have it rented from November 5 through November 30 at an “introductory rate” of $40 per night (plus cleaning fee). It seems that people love the idea of staying in an Airstream. And it doesn’t hurt that the location is fantastic: just a 5 minute walk through residential streets to Tucson’s funky Fourth Avenue shopping district and a short bike ride from downtown. I’m certain that the Airstream will be booked solid all winter, especially during our popular Gem Show season in early February.

It’s an interesting thought that you can buy an Airstream and actually have it make money for you. This turns the entire idea of an RV being a depreciating asset on its head. (Well, maybe not just any RV, but ones with a certain appeal. I’m sure a well-renovated vintage trailer would also be popular.)

At this point I think my major problem is that I’ll actually have to block off rental times in order to be able to go on my own trips, and I’ll always be thinking about the revenue that I’m forgoing. But on the plus side, the process of getting ready for AirBnb has motivated me to completely clean and refresh all the stuff in the Airstream. It was always cleaned along the way but I never had a reason to dump all the well-worn stuff until now. It’s really a lot nicer inside now with the dust and detritus swept away. It feels almost like a new trailer, and that has brought back a tinge of excitement for the next trip.

Of course there are still a lot of things that can go wrong or become a hassle. I’ll update the blog again later as this experiment plays out. In three days our first customers will move in, and I’m sure we’ll rapidly learn exactly what it takes to make an Airstream into a successful AirBnb.