One community, indivisible …

I was writing my Editor’s column for the upcoming issue of Airstream Life the other day, and part of it touched on the recent spread of Airstream’s product line.  I’d like to expand on that here, because the space I allot for myself to bloviate in the printed magazine is very limited.

Once upon a time, and for several decades, Airstream meant aluminum travel trailers almost exclusively.  There were a few experiments here and there with fiberglass (such as the “Wally Bee“) and with canned ham styling (the “Wally Byam Holiday” trailer), but otherwise Airstream stuck to what they knew. Even the painted Argosy trailer line in the 1970s was still mostly the same construction beneath.

Brett Greiveldinger's motorhomeThe Airstream motorhomes of the 1970s were essentially trailer bodies laid atop commercial truck chassis.  Even though the idea of an Airstream motorhome was initially unsettling to travel trailer purists, at least the final product resembled the beloved shape of the iconic Airstream trailer.

Sadly, things went downhill from there for a while.  Airstream made a few stabs at expanding the product line in the 1980s and beyond, introducing creatively-challenged products such as the Legacy fifth-wheel series and white-box Land Yacht motorhomes, both of which were virtually indistinguishable from any other manufacturer’s if you removed the AIRSTREAM labeling. Those products might have been good for the bottom line at the time, but nobody remembers them fondly.

 

VTS1Around 2004-2005, when it became clear that the Class A motorhome business was dying, Airstream stopped producing white box motorhomes and began to try to think a little more out of the box—or perhaps “away from the box”.  The first experiment was the Airstream Westfalia, a Mercedes Sprinter-based mini motorhome based on the popular James Cook sold in Europe.  Airstream imported it and upfitted it to meet US standards starting in 2004.

I thought the Airstream Westfalia was a really cleverly-designed motorhome with a ton of potential, and so did Airstream leadership for a while. But dealers in the US didn’t seem to know how to sell it and Airstream buyers didn’t “get” it. At $85k or so (more than PleasureWay and RoadTrek competitors at the time) you’d want to really be convinced this was the right choice before buying. Only about 192 were imported before Airstream killed the product.

AS_BaseCamp_Lifestyle_bThen they tried the Basecamp, as a sort of rolling sporting goods hauler designed for Millennials and Gen-X’ers who hopefully would not care that it lacked a real kitchen, any sort of bathroom, and cost about $25k.  Unfortunately, it turned out that the target market did care about those things. The optional Kelty tent for the rear didn’t save the original Basecamp from being compared to an expensive horse trailer.

Around the same time Airstream brought out the first Interstate motorhomes, based on the Mercedes Sprinter 2500 chassis.  These Class B motorhomes were moderately successful as far as I know, but the real leap forward came a few years later when it was completely re-designed on the Sprinter 3500 chassis (dually rear wheels) and upgraded in just about every way possible.

Suddenly, Airstream couldn’t make enough of them, and even with the price rising from the $90k neighborhood to $150k+ over the past eight years, the Interstate has become the most popular diesel Class B motorhome on the market. For comparison, Airstream is selling this tight little 25-foot Class B for more than they had been selling their much-larger “white box” style Class A motorhomes in 2005!

In 2011 Airstream tried to dumb down the Interstate to attract a lower-budget audience by building it on a Chevy gas van platform. The short-lived Airstream Avenue was the result. It was a “me too” product: looked like everyone else’s B-van and didn’t have the elite Mercedes diesel drivetrain. There’s a good reason you’ve probably never seen one on the road. It bombed.

I think at this point the light went on for Airstream management. If making the Interstate better was the secret to success, maybe the earlier failures were not because they were too expensive relative to the competition—but not expensive enough! People didn’t want cheap Airstreams, they wanted better ones.

In that context it’s not surprising that the Basecamp eventually came back with a full kitchen, full (wet) bathroom, and lots of clever innovations that transformed it from a essentially empty shell to a functional travel trailer, without compromising the sporty aspect. It’s more expensive than the original design. And now they sell.

2018 Nest Prototype _ Exterior _ Curb Side WEBWell, since Airstream has cracked the code and the economy has been humming well for the past couple of years, Airstream’s new problem is keeping up with demand. Their response has been to come up with more cool ways to go traveling. For example they bought the design of the fiberglass Nest trailer invented by Robert Johans and will be producing that later this year.

The upcoming Winter 2017 issue of Airstream Life will have an in-depth interview with Airstream senior managers that reveals why they bought Nest, what they’re thinking, and how it will fit into the Airstream family.

The other news this month has been that Airstream is launching yet another new product, a Class C motorhome called “Atlas”. It’s also based on the Mercedes Sprinter 3500, but it’s much larger than the Interstate and priced at over $200k.  (We’ll take a close look at Atlas in the Spring 2018 issue of Airstream Life.) This means Airstream will soon be selling five separate lines: Atlas, Nest, Base Camp, Interstate, and the classic aluminum travel trailers.

Airstream Atlas motorhome

People often ask me if Airstream is just cannibalizing its own products. Well, of course they are smarter than that. If the Base Camp was eating into sales of the Airstream Sport 16 and 22-foot travel trailers (which are priced slightly higher), they would have noticed and done something about it.  But so far every new product they’ve launched in recent years has found a new audience, expanding Airstream’s customer base.  Atlas and Nest are expected to do the same.

This all sounds great for Airstream, and great for all those people who are now going to get an Airstream (Nest, Atlas, Basecamp) who would otherwise have not bought an aluminum travel trailer. But did Airstream think about my needs?  Noooooooo.

See, I’ve always had a big challenge in publishing Airstream Life magazine: unifying the community. When I started the magazine in 2004, the hard part was trying to come up with articles that appealed to the vintage trailer owners (of which there are many) and the new trailer owners, plus a small contingent of motorhome owners. Hardly a month went by that I didn’t get a letter from someone griping that “The magazine has too many articles about [insert subject other people care about] and not enough articles about [insert name of letter-writer’s own trailer].”

I still get those letters from time to time. In fact last week someone wrote a lengthy note with their non-renewal, listing all the article categories that they didn’t like as well as a helpful list of the exact articles they’d like to see in the future. The letter concluded by saying that only if I complied would they consider mailing me $24 for a year’s subscription in the future.

(Sadly, it is my policy not to negotiate with hostage-takers. The $24 will have to be sacrificed.)

I try to explain to people that Airstream Life is not about the trailers.  It was never about the trailers, or the motorhomes.  It’s about the other things that Airstreamers are interested in:  community, history, art & design, technology, destinations, etc. Sure, we talk about trailers and motorhomes, but if you look at any issue you’ll see that most articles are agnostic, talking about great adventures or ideas. Whether those things happened in a trailer or motorhome, vintage or new, it doesn’t matter. At least, that’s what I hope.

So in this respect I try to be a Great Unifier. Or to be more accurate, I try to help keep the Airstream community from fracturing. I’ll keep touting the message that no matter which Airstream you own, you’re a part of Airstream Life.  Special interest groups within the Airstream community are cool, but in the end we’re all people united by a common love of travel, adventure, learning, socializing and —well, to be honest—eating.

Numbers games

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I am in the business of publishing stuff about Airstreams primarily because it allows us to travel frequently as a family. It’s a fun job and I meet a lot of interesting people, but the big benefit is lifestyle. With the Airstream we can go out for long trips and it’s not expensive. “Will work for cheap travel,” might have been my motto in the early days.

Every time we are forced to travel without the Airstream I am shocked at the cost and reminded why most families travel rarely. At the moment I have an uncomfortable sensation of impending poverty as a result of traveling without the Airstream. We are in Europe, and it’s lovely, broadening, and expensive.  The apartment we’ve rented in Milan is very nice, but there’s no denying that our cost per night is strikingly high compared to staying in the Airstream.

This year the Airstream will be out for roughly 20-22 weeks (not counting the time we are in Europe), at an average cost of about $25 per day including fuel & campgrounds. (It’s a low number because many days we are courtesy-parking in driveways for free.) We can be away from home for about five months on the same budget as a couple of weeks in Europe, even if you don’t count the airfare. In other words, our daily cost is about 10 or 11 times more expensive without the Airstream.

So yeah, I miss the Airstream. Someday I’m going to work out an European Airstream and travel in that.

If we were using an Airstream right now, we probably would have camped at Camping Ca’Savio (a 45 minute ferry ride away) when we wanted to visit Venice. Actually you can camp there right now in an Airstream if you want, because they have six of them set up as permanent rentals right by the beach. Eleanor and I rode a ferry from Venice and walked across the narrow peninsula (stopping for gelato along the way, as is mandatory in Italy) to check it out.

Camping Ca'Savio Airstreams

Even though we can’t roam as much as we would with the Airstream, it has been a good trip. I find it useful to take some time to reflect on everything from a distance. The past few years have been heavy with obligations and challenges, and now I think we have the chance to get back to the sort of life we have enjoyed in the past.

That means working less frantically, leaving more time our daily schedule for ourselves, and taking more time on trips. For example, it has been about five years since we attended a good old fashioned weekend rally that we weren’t hosting ourselves.  I miss the simplicity of just showing up and hanging out with friends and fellow ‘streamers without any obligations at all. I guess you could say that my goal for the next few years is to “see more, live more, do less.

This is part of the reason why there will be fewer Aluma-events next year and in 2017. It was a lot of work to run around the country to host five-day events in Oregon, Ohio, Florida, and Arizona (all the while doing advance work for new events in California and Ontario). So in 2016 Brett & I will be hosting Alumapalooza and Alumafandango only.  Alumapalooza will continue as an annual event because it’s the “homecoming” event at the factory.

Other events, such as Alumafandango and Alumaflamingo will show up perhaps every other year. Alumafiesta in Tucson is gone forever*. So if you want to go to an “Aluma-event”, don’t wait for “next year”—there may not be one.

 * The brilliant campground management decided they could make more money by refusing rallies during “peak season”, AKA the only time anyone wants to be there. They offered that we could hold Alumafiesta in May. Let’s have a show of hands: who wants to go to Tucson in May?

Cutting back the events has given me time to work on other projects, which is why I finally managed to complete my Airstream Maintenance book this summer. If you don’t have a copy, check it out. Initial reviews have been great on Amazon, Airforums, and blogs.)

And that brings me to a minor rant. This has nothing to do with Airstreams and probably few people other than me care about this issue, but I have to say publicly that Amazon has done a serious disservice to niche publishers with their Kindle royalty scheme. You see, Amazon says that if you publish your book on Kindle with a retail price between $2.99 and $9.99, they’ll give you a fair 70% of the revenue.  That makes sense. After all, the author/publisher does the heavy lifting in this equation and takes on most of the risk, including research, writing, editing, design, and marketing.

But if you set a price above $9.99, Amazon cuts the royalty to 35%. This is their way of discouraging “expensive” Kindle books (since when is $10 expensive for a book?) In other words, Kindle authors gets less money for books priced at $19.00 than for books priced at $9.99. Amazon snarfs up the rest, even though their work is the same regardless of the retail price.

This sucks for a niche publisher like me.  I can’t justify spending years writing lengthy niche books (219 pages in this case) which only a few thousand people will buy, and letting Amazon take 65% of the revenue. Basically, their Kindle pricing penalizes people who publish specialized information.

So I won’t sell my maintenance book on Kindle.  Sorry, Kindle owners. But the good news is that Apple is more reasonable, and so you will find Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance” in the Apple iBookstore at $24.99.  You’ll even save a few bucks compared to the print edition, if you like e-books. I hope you’ll give it a look either way.

We’ll be back in the Airstream in October. In keeping with the “see more, live more, do less” philosophy, we have no particular agenda for the trip back west from Vermont to Arizona, but we will take some time to allow things to happen along the way. After all, taking extra days in the Airstream is easy and affordable.  That’s a place where the numbers always work.

How to keep your Airstream traveling forever

It’s hard to convey how happy I am to tell you this:  My long-awaited Airstream maintenance book is finally coming out!

I’ve been working on it for years. It covers everything you need to know to keep your Airstream travel trailer in great running condition for decades, by yourself, with simple tools and no prior experience.

Maintenance of your Airstream is not nearly as difficult as most people think, and with just a few basic tools and this guide, I think you’ll find you can do almost every routine task yourself. No more trips to the service center for every little thing.  No more feeling like you are at the mercy of the mechanic because he recommended changing the air in your tires and replacing the blinker fluid.  You might even find that this book saves one of your vacations, if something goes wrong on the road!

Let me tell you, writing this book was therapy for me. When I started Airstreaming in 2003, I knew nothing. I didn’t know how to fix anything, or even where to look to find the cause of a problem. I got a little better by 2005, when we went out on the road full-time. The next three years were trial-by-fire, because all kinds of things started to happen to the Airstream, and inevitably they’d happen when we were 200 miles away from the nearest assistance, so I had to call my friends and have them tell me what to do.

That’s the hard way to learn. So I wrote this book, with help from those same friends & Airstream Life contributors, to collect all the knowledge into a single volume.

I thought I had learned a lot about Airstreams after seven years of intense travel and lots of on-the-road repairs, but during the next four years (while I was writing this book) my eyes really got opened. I had long talks with Airstream personnel.  I read every guide I could find from every major supplier to Airstream, including Dexter, Alcoa, Atwood, Wineguard, Parallax, Hehr, Dometic, Marshall, Cavagna, Fantastic Vent, Zip-Dee, Corian, Forbo, and many others.

I collected articles from decades of “Schu’s News” and read several other “white box” maintenance guides cover-to-cover.  I talked to dealers, polishers, repair shops, and restorers.

And when I finally had a draft written, I put every word through intense review by experienced Airstream mechanics, retired factory staff, and knowledgeable Airstream owners. At the end, I realized I had often been confused, deluded, or just plain mis-informed by half of the junk I’d read online from self-appointed “experts”.  (They make things so much more complicated than they need to be!)

I think you and every other Airstreamer can benefit from the last four years I’ve spent working on this project.  I wrote the book specifically to suit every level of mechanical ability, so it doesn’t matter if you don’t even own a screwdriver. There are many things you can do to keep your Airstream going strong, and fix problems when they occur. Right now Brad Cornelius is working on the illustrations, 40 or so of them.  When he’s done, I think the book will run about 200+ pages, spiral bound.  That’s a lot of material, because it covers all these topics:

  • How To Inspect (to find problems before they occur)
  • Your Traveling Toolkit
  • Interior Cleaning and Appearance
  • Exterior Cleaning and Appearance
  • Aluminum Body Repair
  • Leak Prevention, Detection, and Repair
  • Windows, Doors, Locks, and Vents
  • Plumbing
  • Running Gear & A-Frame (including wheels, tires, brakes, and bearings)
  • Loading
  • Storage and Seasonal
  • Electrical
  • Propane System
  • Climate Control
  • Gas Appliances
  • Resources

Bottom line: this book is unique. No other book available contains so much Airstream-specific maintenance advice.

You can buy a copy from the Airstream Life Store right now.

I hope you love it. If you liked “The Newbies Guide To Airstreaming,” (my other book), I know you will.

If you’re wondering why it’s called “(Nearly) Complete”, it’s because no guide is ever really done.  Things keep evolving and new ideas pop up, and so my plan is to keep updating and expanding the book over the years. I want to thank the people who have helped me with the first edition, and thank you in advance for any tips or additions you add as you use it.

All new!

Yes, you’re noticing a fresh new look to this blog, and the entire Airstream Life website. We just went live with it yesterday, and wow, am I relieved about that.

I’m not big on updating stuff just because you can.  I like to use things until they can’t be repaired anymore, which explains why I was still using a 6-year-old laptop until last week when it finally died. (I also like vintage stuff that works better than the modern stuff, which explains some other appliances around our house.)

But in the case of a website, that philosophy doesn’t work.  I was getting nastygrams from Google complaining that the Airstream Life website wasn’t “mobile friendly,” which means you couldn’t read or navigate the content from a phone or tablet. A few years ago nobody cared about that, but now it’s virtually mandatory since millions of people now access the Internet from their little pocket devices.

Truth be told, the old website had a lot of other problems too.  My programmer back in 2008 did the best he could with the technology of the day, but he had to invent some kludgy work-arounds to make the site do what I needed back then. Now, all the magic is done with wonderful WordPress plug-ins that can do virtually anything you can imagine. So the site is less proprietary and more reliable & faster.

Of course, most people will just notice the new look, not what’s under the hood.  That’s fine. I really like the new blog format because it will allow me to run larger photos. When I’ve got a really nice Airstream shot, that’s important. For example …

Monahan Sand Dunes TX Airstream Mercedes
Airstream camped at Monahan Sand Dunes State Park, Texas

This is just the beginning. In May we’ll also introduce a new Airstream Life store, with new products that I’ve personally picked because I think they are essentials for Airstream travelers.  More on that soon.  But if you want to see a few early picks, check out “Airstream Upgrades.”

As part of the new site, we are updating a list of favorite blogs. If you’ve got an Airstream-related blog and update it frequently, send me the RSS feed link and it might get added to the list!

In the meantime, let me know if you have any feedback about the site, leave a comment. Thanks!

Special thanks to Wally Byam

That Interstate trip I took last July in California wasn’t just for fun.  At the time I mentioned that one goal was to write a guidebook for Interstate owners, much like the Newbies Guide To Airstreaming.  Well, I’ve finally done it. It took a few months of research to put everything together, and another couple of months for Jennifer to complete the illustrations and layout, but I think the result was worth the time.

Airstream Interstate motorhome coverThe Interstate motorhome is a tricky machine. Not only is it packed with a zillion features that all need explanation, but Airstream continually modifies it during production, so it’s very hard to make blanket statements about anything. So once I started driving it around, I realized I was going to need to tread very carefully in order to explain it properly. That’s why the book has over 40 illustrations just to cover the basics, plus six essential checklists, and many more hints and tips. (Yes, that was a sales pitch, but hey, I’ve got to make a living.)

Even with the learning curve, the Interstate is really very easy and fun to use. I borrowed one for 10 days to do some first-hand research, and I found that it only took a week to get comfortable with it.  With this book in hand, I probably would have been up-to-speed in a day or so—which of course, is why I write these things.

The book is now published on Amazon Kindle and Apple iTunes, so you can get it as an e-book from either of those sources. (I’m not yet sure if it will be available in print format, but hopefully that will happen early next year.)

Newbies Airstreaming cover croppedWhile Jennifer was working on the illustrations, I was making final updates to The Newbies Guide to Airstreaming, so the Second Edition will be coming out in a week or so on Kindle and iTunes, and we should have printed copies later in October.

Lots of little things have changed about Airstreams since I wrote the first version, but I was surprised (and pleased) to see that most of the essentials haven’t changed at all.  If you’ve read the Newbies Guide, you might have noticed that it’s almost as much about the philosophy of Airstreaming, as it is about the practicalities.  In other words, it’s just as important to understand the “why” or even the “zen” of Airstream travel, as it is to know which valve to pull when you are dumping the tanks.  That zen of Airstreaming has remained constant since Wally Byam’s days. In short, relax, and explore.

Wally expressed this as his “Four Freedoms.”

    1. Airstream travel keeps you free from reservations and inconveniences of modern travel because you can make your own schedule and travel in your own vehicle.
    2. You are free from many of the limitations of age, meaning that young children and elderly people alike (and of course all us Baby Boomers in between) can expand their horizons and live healthier lives.
    3. Airstreaming gives you what Wally called  “the freedom to know,” meaning that you can explore the world intimately, meeting real people and experiencing things in a way the average tourist never gets to do.

And finally, they all add up to “the freedom for fun.” If you adopt the principles of Airstream travel fully, you can’t help but have a good time.  You are freed from your worries and ailments and schedules, so that your mind opens to new possibilities and new opportunities.

I’m glad none of that has changed.  I put a lot of effort into writing guides that help remove your worries about the mechanics of Airstreaming (whether trailer or motorhome) so you can relax and get the real benefit of traveling this way. But Wally Byam did the real work when he invented the philosophy.