Not many products actually deserve the label “iconic,” but Airstream travel trailers have earned it. Most people can’t tell a matte-white Starcraft from a Chinook or Gulf Stream being towed behind a truck. But catch a glimpse of one of those big aluminum Twinkies going by, and you know exactly what it is.
Airstreams are so associated with the golden era of RVing that boutique “glamping” resorts have popped up around the country consisting entirely of refurbished Airstreams. With the constraints of life in 2020 bringing a desire for socially distant, self-directed escapes, RVs and travel trailers are as popular as ever. What better time, then, to test an Airstream Flying Cloud. We used it as our dead weight in our towing tests for Truck of the Year. We also lived in it, for a long weekend in the country.
Airstream offers the Flying Cloud in five lengths and 14 floorplans ranging from 23 to 30 feet long and priced from $78,900 to $102,400 to start. Depending on configuration, it can sleep up to eight. Our 23FB test unit was the smallest and least expensive model, configured with a queen-size bed at the front, a full bathroom with shower at the rear, and the capacity to sleep four if you convert the dining table and banquette into a small bed.
Officially, the dry curb weight is 4,806 pounds as configured, though with a full tank of fresh water and full propane tanks, ours weighed in at 5,200 pounds, leaving 800 pounds of cargo capacity. The tongue weight is listed at a relatively light 467 pounds. Those specs put it well within the capability of a modern midsize truck, but we’d recommend either a weight-distributing hitch or a bigger truck. The trailer pushes around smaller trucks on a standard ball hitch, despite the numbers.
For the hefty sum of $78,900, the Flying Cloud 23FB does come well-equipped. Outside, it features a 30-amp, 13,500-BTU air conditioner and heat pump, twin propane tanks, an electric tongue jack, and four pull-out awnings to shade the windows. Inside, there’s the bathroom and enclosed shower, a three-burner stove, a 5-cubic-foot refrigerator, a microwave, a sound system, and a small TV on an adjustable arm. Ours was further upgraded with a solar panel (connections for solar panels are standard) that easily kept the batteries charged while “dry camping” in a site without hookups; your results will vary with tree and cloud cover.
You do have to put in the work, though. The stabilizer jacks are not powered and aren’t strong enough to level the trailer, and they must be cranked down manually. The awnings are also manually deployed and must be unlatched with a long metal stick and quite a bit of trial and error. The main awning on the door side of the trailer is particularly cumbersome with its screw latches, which have to be both unscrewed and flipped off with the stick, and it doesn’t get any easier putting it away. The stick itself is stored in a compartment in the rear bumper that can’t be locked and has two bolts for handles that get very hot in the sun.
The windows that do open pop out from the bottom by pushing on rods on either side. Warning labels on each window note they stick in hot weather. They’re not kidding. It can be very difficult to pop them loose on a hot day. Thankfully, the twin electric vent fans in the ceiling do an excellent job of cycling out hot air from the trailer.
Once you’re set up, though, it’s easy camping. The stabilizer jacks limit the movement of the trailer as you walk around—there’s a mild shaking at most. The dining table slides out for easier access to the seating. Covers for the kitchen sink and stovetop increase your limited counter space when the appliances are not in use. There’s storage everywhere, from cabinets above the kitchen and dining areas to space under the seats, as well as vertical closets and under-bed storage.
LED lighting throughout keeps your power usage low when you’re not hooked up to ground power, and outlets connected to a 110-volt inverter are conveniently placed in the bathroom, dining, and sleeping areas. The optional solar panel is a must-have if you plan to camp outside traditional RV parks or other locations with access to electricity, as you can easily burn through the batteries in a day.
It also helps to know a few RVing tricks. Although the instant water heater works the moment you turn it on, other appliances take time. The pilot on the gas oven will need to be relit every time you turn the gas off, and if you’re running the fridge on propane rather than electricity (mandatory if you don’t have hookups), it takes hours to cool down, so you should start it well before you plan to use it. We didn’t run out of propane running the fridge, stove, oven, and water heater over the course of a long weekend, but a gauge on the tanks would’ve taken a load off our minds wondering how much was left.
Those aren’t the only tanks you want to watch, either. The 37-gallon fresh water tank lasted the duration of the trip, but only because we were careful to minimize dish washing and only took two short showers each. The 37-gallon gray water and 17-gallon black water tanks can handle the onboard fresh water but are much more involved to dump if you add water to the fresh tank and run out of waste capacity. Of course, cutting showers short is easy to do in such a small enclosure. No matter the floorplan, your headroom is limited by the Airstream’s curved ceiling.
It’s just one of the many compromises you accept in trade for the midcentury-cool Airstream aesthetic. Starting at nearly $80,000, the Flying Cloud is at least twice the price of some similarly sized competitors, and it comes with far fewer features. Little things like powered awnings and stabilizer jacks, fireplaces, and larger TVs. Airstreams also miss bigger things like slide-outs—those pop-out sections on the sides of travel trailers and RVs that greatly increase interior space. Airstream doesn’t do them, so you’ve got to squeeze past other occupants all the time. (Those who have served aboard in the Navy will understand.) Plus, there’s limited seating space. Forget about outdoor kitchens, too (though at least there’s an external gas hookup for a camp stove).
More than that, our Flying Cloud had a number of small issues unbecoming of such an expensive unit. The sheet aluminum comes from the supplier with a plastic layer to protect it, and many of the interior rivets still had bits of plastic stuck to them where it had been peeled off after installation. One rivet, directly above the head of the bed, was missing altogether. Nearby, the electrical outlet next to the bed only half worked; the USB ports were functional, but the 110-volt plugs were not. One of the speaker grilles above the bed and one of the hinge covers in a cabinet continually fell off in transit. The cushions for the banquette are each held on by a single strip of Velcro and would inevitably be found scattered across the floor after towing.
Then there were the bigger issues. The powered tongue jack was nice, but apparently it had no limit switches at the ends of its travel. If you didn’t let go of the switch in time, the jack would lock up and the motor housing would twist itself out of your hand and around the jack until it jammed against the propane tank enclosure, damaging the enclosure. Above, one of the screw latches securing the main awning was installed misaligned, making it even more difficult to use. Inside, none of the interior walls fit flush with the walls of the trailer, with gaps as large as they were uneven.. The finishes on the furniture looked like they’d come from Ikea, and the vinyl floor was unimpressive, especially when less expensive competitors offer hardwood.
As much as we enjoyed glamping in the Flying Cloud, we couldn’t shake the impression you’re paying for the Airstream style (and lifestyle) more than anything. The look is iconic, and icons cost money. A lot of it. In trade, you’re giving up a ton of features and amenities commonly found in (admittedly anonymous) trailers costing less.
As people who glorify supercars that lack features you’d find in a base model Kia, we understand, in principle. In practice, however, the compromises add up quickly.