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Airstream vs Van Life

This has been an ongoing battle for months now. Which is the best way to go? Travel the country in an Airstream travel trailer or build a van instead? We’ve been doing countless amounts of research and watching YouTube videos of others and it’s becoming a really difficult decision to make. I really just wanted to use this as a space to discuss the thought process behind both and if you have any recommendations, please feel free to drop a comment below.


There’s a couple reasons why I’m obsessed with Airstreams.



Back in 1929, the original founder of Airstream, Wally Byam, built the first concept of an Airstream travel trailer because his wife didn’t enjoy camping in a tent. It had many modern amenities like a stove and ice chest.



Fast forward nearly a century, and the Airstream brand still exists today. Over the last 91 years, Airstreams have become an icon in pop culture. In 1969, after the first manned moon landing, NASA had astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins had to quarantine in a custom Airstream in the event that they brought back any diseases from space.






Throughout the years, Airstream models have changed. Currently, there are seven different travel trailers offered by them. This includes the Basecamp (most affordable), Bambi, Caravel, Flying Cloud, International, Globetrotter, and Classic topping in at $157,400.


A big difference between Airstream travel trailer models is the number of axles on the trailer. The lightweight trailers have a single axle which makes them easier to tow with many SUVs, whereas the heavier trailers have dual axles and typically require a pickup truck for towing. Currently, I own a 2014 Ford Explorer that Ford claims can tow up to 5,000 pounds. I’ve been doing countless research for months about what really goes into towing and how a vehicle payload accounts into everything. It’s been a lot of number crunching.



I’ve watched lots of YouTube videos showing walkthroughs and step-by-step tutorials on how to tow properly. I’ve also watched videos of cars and trailers flipping over on the highway because of improperly setup rigs or people who went over their tow capacity. I feel like I’ve seen it all. I can’t say I’m the most finessed driver, so driving with something attached to my car will have to be a constant reminder for myself to be aware.


I’ve been cross comparing two different Airstream models. There is the Bambi (starting at $49,900) and the Caravel (starting at $62,200). They are both single axle trailers and they come in the same floor plans (16ft, 19ft, 20ft, and 22ft). As they go up in length, so does the weight. I was looking at either a 16 foot or 19 foot floor plan.



16 Foot Caravel


19 Foot Caravel



Both floor plans for the Bambi and Caravel models sit around 3,000 to 4,000 pounds. There is over a $10,000 price difference between Bambi and Caravel. Both are the same model, with the Caravel having some more amenities. Is it worth the upgrade to Caravel?


Bambi:


  • No Rock Guards on Front of Trailer

  • No Rear Bumper

  • Air Conditioning Unit on Top Middle of Trailer

  • Wheel Bearings Require Lubrication Every 5,000 Miles

  • Plastic Toilet

  • Manual Hitch Jack

  • Steel Entry Step

  • Performatex Seating


Caravel:

  • Two Rock Guards on the Front to Protect Aluminum

  • Rear Bumper

  • Ducted Air Conditioning Through Vents Located Throughout Trailer

  • Never-lube Bearings

  • Porcelain Toilet

  • Powered Hitch Jack

  • Thule Aluminum Entry Step

  • Leather Seating



According to the Airstream sales person I talked to, there are over 100 difference between the two models. There are differences in the overhead lights, light switches, to shower doors, to entertainment systems, and the list goes on. Above are some of the bigger differences. I honestly feel like the bumper and front guards alone are enough for me to consider stepping up to a Caravel. I spoke to the sales person and he mentioned that I could always get a Bambi and add everything to the trailer afterwards, but the price might not be far off from a Caravel.



So why do I really want an Airstream?


I like the idea of having something that I could attach and detach as I go. If I travel across the country with an Airstream hitched to my vehicle, I have the option of setting it up and leaving it at a campground. I don’t have to tie everything down every time I want to take a trip to the store.


I love the styling. I’ve seen lots of RVs and campers on the roads, and nothing comes close to the feeling I get when I see an Airstream traveling down the highway. They are timeless and from everything I’ve read, they are built better than many other campers being sold today. I’ve heard people say the quality of Airstreams have gone down over the years since parent company Thor bought them. I obviously can’t attest to this personally, but I see mixed things online. It hasn’t been enough to sway my decision.


The ease of use has been another big consideration for me. When I buy an Airstream, everything is ready to go. Over the years, the company has learned and relearned what is important to travelers. Outside of the trailer, it’s super easy to hook up electric and water. Plug the Airstream into the electrical outlet at the campsite and the trailer has all the electricity needed to keep it going through the night. If the campsite has a water hookup, it bypasses the onboard water tank and essentially gives the trailer unlimited water. Every part of the trailer has been designed to maximize space and efficiency.


Having an Airstream travel trailer gives me the best of everything. All the design work has been done for me and bundled into a package to make my travel life easier. The idea of towing something definitely makes me a little unsettled, and this would mean once I decide to get rid of my Ford Explorer, I’d have to purchase another vehicle with at least the same towing capacity. This has led me to consider purchasing a van instead.


Now, technically van life was the original idea. There is a movement happening right now that has people from all age ranges and locations downsizing and moving into a van. Laura and I have watched countless YouTube videos, seeing how people are doing this. We’ve been following Sydney Ferbrache’s Instagram account, divineontheroad, for a very long time and have recently been listening to her podcasts. She is a solo female traveler who has two dogs and travels the country, while giving tips for mental health and lifestyle. Her content is incredible and really inspiring.


Recently, she did a podcast with a van life couple that I hadn’t heard of before. Their names are Eamon and Bec. They are based out of Canada, and they have just finished their second van build. After binging their YouTube channel, I have to say they have some wild content. They have traveled all over the world with their original van. Seeing what van life looks like in Morocco, to Paris, to Spain, and back to Canada is incredibly eye opening.


But from what I’ve learned through Eamon and Bec, and Sydney, goes further than metal on four wheels. It’s a lifestyle. It’s an opportunity to take an empty vehicle and make it your own. I’ve watched videos of Eamon walk around a hollow Mercedes Sprinter van and envision what he wants his home to be like. And episode by episode, I see that home come together.


In no way am I a handy person. And maybe I shouldn’t say that, because I haven’t tried to be handy. Maybe if I actually tried, I would be successful. But after seeing other people do it, I am inspired to do what it takes to build out a tiny house inside of a van. I love the idea of creating something from the ground up and calling it my own. And watching Eamon and Bec’s videos have gone beyond inspiring me to do that on my own.


But what goes into building a travel van?


I am, in no way, an expert. But I have been researching like crazy for months and there’s a lot on my mind. First, what van am I going to buy? Based on everything I’ve read, it seems like there are two different vans that have the attention of van builders. This is the Ford Transit and the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.



The Ford Transit seems like the more affordable route. A base Transit cargo van is going for $34,510. But then there are a million options. How high do you want the roof to be? There are three different options for that (Low, Medium, and High). Each option adds more to the price. Then you have to decide the length of the van (Regular, Long, and Extended). Then you pick the engine option (3.5L V6 or EcoBoost 3.5L V6). Do you want all-wheel drive? That adds almost another $5,000 onto the price. So as I started spec’ing out what I’d like, the price of the van goes up to about $50,000. And this is a van that doesn’t have anything in it yet, except for two front seats.


Ford Transit


The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is another option. Their customizing structure is a little different from Ford’s. Their Sprinter cargo vans start at $34,495, making them technically more affordable than the Transits. So when it comes time to customizing, their layouts are a little more straightforward. You pick the roof heigh and the wheelbase (length). You can choose between a Standard roof or a High Roof and the wheelbases are 144’’ or 170’’. There is also an option to go with 170’’ extended which makes the length of the van about 24 feet as opposed to the almost 23 feet in the regular 170’’ model. After deciding a wheelbase, you choose and engine and payload option. Mercedes gives you the choice between a gas powered 4 cylinder engine or a 6 cylinder diesel engine. The payload option is basically how much weight you plan to put in the vehicle, and that also varies the price. Going to four wheel drive in the Mercedes is about an $8,000 extra.


Mercedes-Benz Sprinter



Both options price out pretty close to each other. I personally like the styling of the Sprinter, but because it is a German vehicle, I get anxious about the repair costs and how difficult repairs will be. We know people who will repair American cars, but avoid German cars like the plague.


So the cost of the van is one thing. But then how much does it cost to actually furnish it? This is where I’m still learning. I have looked up lots of general quotes and have seen other van lifers talk about it and it’s a huge range. But it seems like that range is anywhere between $20,000 and $60,000. So that would be the cost of the van plus tens of thousands more to make it livable. The price of this goes far above the cost of an Airstream.


So then this is the dilemma, and honestly a dilemma we’re fortunate enough to have. The Airstream is more affordable and because it doesn’t have an engine, the longevity is there. With maintenance, I have no doubt it will outlive me. It will definitely outlive my Explorer. But then there’s the issue with towing. It’s much easier maneuvering through a city or some road obstacles in a van than an SUV with a trailer hitched to it. The Airstreams tend to have a little more width to them as well. The trailer seems a little bit of spacious. It’s also a separation from my car. After driving all day, I get the chance to go into a different vehicle that I wasn’t in all day.



With the van comes a more condensed life. Everything is in one place. It’s an opportunity to downsize and really think about how to utilize space. This is the same exact concept with the Airstream, but the van is more personalized. Everything is custom built by you (or for you) and has it’s own unique touches. I’ve seen probably hundreds of van build videos over the years and, while many vans are built similar, no two are exactly alike. This gives a sense of personality. If I buy an Airstream, I’m buying a floor plan that sells to masses. Of course I can customize it once I get it, but it doesn’t feel quite as personal.


So at the end of the day, in my eyes, it really comes down to two things. Do I want something timeless and retro that is already built and will be more affordable, or do I want something more compact and customizable that I can take anywhere I go? At the end of the day, they’re both serving the same purpose. But it really comes down to how I want to live my adventure.



*Airstream photos from airstream.com

*Ford Transit photo from ford.com

*Mercedes Sprinter photo from mbvans.com


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