Are you ready to take a Big Trip in your Airstream?

I have traveled in my Airstream for two to four months in the summer, every year without fail since 2009. I also lived full-time in my Airstream for three years before that.

That's 15 years of Airstream travel—covering over 200,000 miles of towing, and over 2,000 nights spent in the Airstream. I've been to every continental US state in my Airstream, many times over.

After all of that, I figured I had learned just about everything a person could know about long Airstream trips.

This summer I took Tothie for her first "Big Trip" and introduced her to extended Airstream travel. Although she was fairly experienced from our monthly trips over the previous year, going "full time" for three months was an eye-opener for her—and I was surprised to find that I learned quite a few things too.

Planning and executing a long trip (say, more than a month) is very different, and in some ways much more challenging than typical getaways. Here are 9 tips to help you, if you decide to go for the Big Trip: 

When packing, organization is everything

You'll travel more heavily loaded on a long trip, of course. All that extra gear can force you to re-think how you store things in the Airstream and the truck. Since everybody's situation is a little different, my top recommendation here is to start early. We spent about two months working out all the details and still ended up making adjustments after we got on the road.

Failure to organize well isn't fatal, but you'll spare yourself a lot of frustration if you think things through beforehand. There was a day when I found myself forced to pull everything out of the truck bed—in the rain—in order to get to the one thing I really needed at that moment. You can bet that on the first sunny day that I went through that truck bed and re-arranged so that wouldn't happen again.

Related to this, don't pack things in the Airstream that you'll have to get out of the way in order to use the Airstream—like bicycles, grill, and other large objects. If you can't fit it in a permanent storage spot (like the truck bed) you should consider leaving it behind. The process of having to clear stuff from the hallways and beds of the Airstream every single time will get old, quickly.

(If you need to carry bikes and are wondering about how to do it, read this blog.)

Don't overplan

Whether you're the type that wants to know where you'll be spending every night, the type that likes to "wing it", or somewhere in-between, it's still important to leave some room for flexibility.

You'll undoubtedly encounter interesting places or people that you want to spend more time getting to know. The less appealing possibility is that you might have to stay some place longer than you intended because you need a repair. Either way, keeping a little looseness in the schedule will pay off, I guarantee.

My technique is to plan the major stops and figure out the minor ones as I go. If I plan to hit a destination that requires reservations far in advance (like Key West or Glacier National Park) I'll book those and have fun working out how to connect the dots later. During those periods of the trip, Tothie and I enjoyed taking turns conflating Google maps, campground websites, paper maps, Campendium, and our daily moods and goals to pick the best campground on our route. 

Site #100 at Interlake RV Park near Rhinebeck, NY

Expect the unexpected

A multi-month trip is a long time to be away from home base. On a trip of that scale, unexpected stuff will happen.

Sure, you'll plan for mail forwarding, prescription pickup, and maybe even arrange a dog grooming appointment somewhere along the way. But if dear old Uncle Fester in New Jersey drops dead during your trip, you'll have to deal with it somehow. Will you park the Airstream and fly home immediately? Send a sympathy card and keep traveling?

Since you can't know your response to every possible situation, the best thing to do is to agree amongst yourselves at least on the broad plan. In our case, knowing some elderly relatives were "not buying green bananas anymore," we talked about how we might respond in various theoretical scenarios.

These plans don't have to be set in stone, but it's a lot easier to talk about how you intend to respond in case of an emergency when you're not actually in the emotional turmoil of it.

Beware the social media pressure

Keeping up with social media is hard, whether you're trying to see what everyone else is up to, or report from the road.

For one thing, you're going to find out that a lot of America still doesn't have reliable cellular coverage, especially out west. Even with good coverage, uploading lots of photos or video is a hassle. You're also likely to be too busy enjoying your own experience to check Facebook daily as all Americans are apparently expected to do these days. (I would argue that being disconnected is a good thing, but that's another blog.)

"Disconnected" at Devil's Tower National Monument, WY

Many people asked us if we were going to blog, video blog, or Instagram our travels this summer, and we said "We'll try."

We failed.

The social media stars of the world spend an inordinate amount of time putting together content to make their lives seem glamorous. I don't know about you, but at this age I don't feel the need, and most of the time we were just too busy.

When we weren't too busy, we were relaxing. It just seemed like way too much work to document our days, so I satisfied myself with a few snapshots and went on enjoying life.

(Sorry to those who were hoping to read about our travels.)

What privacy?

Tothie and I found something interesting: the amount of privacy we wanted over three months was quite different from what we would accept during a long weekend trip. 

You can hold your nose (figuratively and perhaps also literally) for a few days of vacation travel and put up with a lot of stuff. But after the weeks grind on, the truth becomes gradually more unavoidable. The smaller the space, the more quickly the need for privacy becomes an issue, if it's going to be one.

This is highly dependent on the people involved, so my advice is only to think about how tolerant you are of living together in a small space. Felix Unger and Oscar Madison will not survive for long. 

As a stopgap, consider taking a break during your travels. We booked a house in Maine for two weeks during our trip, which became an experience-inside-the-experience. The house allowed us to stretch out for a while, do a deep cleaning of the Airstream, and take care of some work projects that needed more intense attention. The change of scene refreshed us for the final month of our travels. 

Be as self-sufficient as you can

I'm always harping on the need to carry tools and information so that you can handle common Airstream problems by yourself. Trust me, it's usually not a good option to rely on some friendly technician or mechanic coming by. You may not have cell reception, you may not be able to find help within 50 miles, and you are virtually guaranteed to severely disrupt your trip if you can't take care of basic things yourself.

Carry basic maintenance parts and supplies, carry tools, and definitely have what you need to replace a flat tire.  All of the DIY kits we recommend come with instructions, and we also have a lot of helpful videos that explain how to do basic procedures by yourself.

Self-sufficiency also means having a back up plan for when you can't connect to the apps you love.

I'm always mildly amused/horrified when I hear modern urbanites claiming that all you need to navigate this world is a cell phone with Wayze or Google Maps. Yeah, try that in the Utah backcountry sometime (but bring plenty of water because you'll be there for a while), or when towing the Airstream through the plains states or the hundreds of rural miles between big cities. You'll soon learn that the Internet-reliant navigators you're used to won't be of much help about half the time. 

Some Millennial Airstreamers don't like to hear this. Or, that they should carry actual cash with them on their journey too. But at the risk of incurring "OK, Boomer" comments I will say that a smart traveler still carries some cash for toll booths and emergencies. You can't Venmo your way out of every situation, and ATMs don't grow on cactuses.

A GPS—or a map—works when the cell signal fades. We relied on a Garmin GPS as well as an old fashioned paper atlas nearly every day to get our bearings.

Lunch spot after walking in White Sands National Park, White Sands, NM

Remember that it won't all be roses

There will be ups and downs in your travels. Nobody has a perfect life. We all know that. Sometimes you have to set up or unhitch in the rain. Or your only campground option for the night has ticks that set up residence in your dog.

So when a tire chunk hits the Airstream and dents it, do your best to let it go. This is more important on the road than it is at home. If one of you storms out the door in anger, you're still going to have to come back and finish the trip together.

You and your partner (if you travel with someone) need to support each other through the thick and thin. Before you launch on your trip, just know that there will be challenging times as well as many wonderful ones.

Dream big

Tothie had a "bucket list" item that she thought she'd never get to: Ever since she saw "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind" she had wanted to visit Devil's Tower National Monument.

She also wanted to visit Mt. Rushmore, see her elderly Aunt Eve in Ohio, catch up with friends in Maine, visit Monticello, tour the Airstream factory, and get married by an old college friend in Michigan.

Courtesy parking in Douglas, MI

Sometimes it wasn't convenient to make these stops and she was willing to concede that we weren't going to get to all of them. But we did. Because we weren't likely to ever replicate this trip, every stop was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And as a result, all of them became treasured memories.

The Big Trip is your chance to do the things you've always wanted to do. Don't wait for "another time" if you can possibly hit the spot you've dreamed about on this trip. There's no time like the present time, and there's often no better way to visit a place than in your Airstream.

Drive less, stop more

One sure way to take the fun out of a trip is to spend day after day driving. It's a slog, and mostly what you'll see is Interstate highway with the endless repeat of American generic fast-food and truck stops.

For scheduling reasons we had no choice but to drive madly from Tucson to Gillette, Wyoming, work an intense week, and then continue madly onward to Lebanon, Tennessee for another intense week. The driving was awful, 400+ miles most days. We limped into each campsite with a sense of relief that the long day of driving was over, but also a sense of dread because it was going to happen again the next day. 

By the end of July, after 4,000 miles of mostly uninspiring travel, Tothie was "unimpressed" with the Airstream summer trip. I couldn't blame her. Most of it wasn't fun. We had a big talk and got over it, but thank goodness we had some time off planned for August.

At the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery in Lititz, PA

So slow down your expectations, and you'll probably have a better time. Remember that the goal of Airstream travel is to be able to explore places, not drive a lot.

Finally, allow all the time you need to explore, but don't overdo it. You'll remember your trip more fondly if you head home before it stops being fun. Once back at home base you can spend a few weeks appreciating the things you left behind, and start thinking about the next Big Trip!

5 comments

Wallace Najera

Wallace Najera

Very good article and many interesting points. I learned a few new things and it reinforced what I already knew. I haven’t taken our Airstream out for more than a week but would like to next year. Although some of the content of your article includes common sense things, I’ve found that not everyone posses this common sense (like carrying cash). Thanks again for posting this.

Imelda Hill

Imelda Hill

Love this article. John and I are finishing our longest trip since getting the Airstream 12 years ago. We, too, have decided to drive much shorter days, mostly because we plan Harvest Hosts stops between longer campground stays w/hookups, laundry, grocery shopping and a big attractions, (museums, hiking, biking, National and State parks). And, just as we were leaving Baltimore having visited family and friends, JB’s Mom died. We returned that same day, and the starter failed on the TV. Our ‘plans’ did change, as well as our routes but so far none of our planned, major stops (Alumapalooza, Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, Alumalina this week to end this adventure) were canceled or interrupted. Sometimes, you just take a hike or a deep breath and realize how truly fortunate we are to have an Airstream and the time to travel.

Tom Feury

Tom Feury

I find this article to be “spot on” and applaud you.
Although we only travel for a solid month each year, we also so several shorter trips.
Personally, I really want to do the “long trip” but my best friend and wife is not. She is ready to return after a few weeks. But still – it’s an adventure! 30k in 3 years with 150 nights ain’t not’in!

Cheryl

Cheryl

Loved the part of being self sufficient. Was in Big Bend TX when extensive power outage occurred. “Power’s out” was refrain from those gathered at Visitors Center, as others wandered in. Two different millennials responded: “that’s ok, we’re just going to use the Internet.” The other: “I just need the ATM.” The group: “The power’s out!” Duh
Also gas station that only took cash on Sunday morning.

Patti

Patti

Loved the article as I do all of your blogs! Most of it is common sense…but it’s nice to hear common sense validated because sometimes you think…are we being over the top. We haven’t been able to do ‘the big trip’ yet, lots of a month or less but looking forward to across N.A. in a couple of years…so much to see, so little time! I

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