Table of Contents

1. The Chassis

2. Subfloor & Framing

3. Roof Design

4. Cabinetry Construction

5. Interior Finishes

6. Low- to No-maintenance & Service

7. Exterior Materiality

8. The Lifespan of Materials by Design

9. Poor Quality Disguised as Lightweight

By definition, a luxury product should be a quality product.  Unfortunately, in the travel trailer industry, this certainly isn’t the norm.  I will start with this subject to help understand the concepts of quality as it relates to luxury.

When it comes to travel trailers, it’s common practice to disguise a cheap product with an overtly false “luxurious label.”  In 2020, this is no longer a rare occurrence but commonplace with nearly every manufacturer claiming to be luxurious. I get it, travel trailers are selling a dream – this dream is to experience adventure in a high-class and luxurious way. The reality is that very little attention has been given to the design, lifespan, or functionality of the product. Only after the customer takes delivery of the unit will the little quality demons start to show their heads.  For this reason, it is extremely important to know what to look for when buying a new luxury travel trailer.  

These 9 tips are the most important things to look for when considering a luxury travel trailer purchase.

1. The Chassis

aluminum travel trailer ceiling beams

We’ve all heard the quote about building your house on rock vs. sand – the same can be said for aluminum travel trailers.  The chassis is quite literally the foundation that every component and structure is built, and there are several types of chassis on the market today.

Steel is known for being heavy, but very strong and rigid. It is by far the most prevalent and widely used chassis in the travel trailer market today.  However, one of the disadvantages of a steel chassis is rust and corrosion.  Having personally remodeled over 400 vintage travel trailers with all of them having steel chassis, I can’t remember one that didn’t have a significant structural failure.  Over time, when mixed with water, heat, cold, critters, and minerals steel will literally turn into dust.

Like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, a steel chassis must be regularly maintained and painted to prevent complete failure over time.  Aluminum chassis are relatively new and have tremendous advantages over steel.  Naturally resistant to corrosion, aluminum simply does not rust, yet it is very strong.

Another advantage of aluminum is weight savings.  An all-aluminum chassis can weigh in at well under half the weight of a comparable steel design.

2. Subfloor & Framing

The subfloor is the horizontal structure resting directly over the chassis that creates the platform to build the entire travel trailer on.   Without proper waterproofing, wood subfloors will fall-apart and decay over time.  This is the closest design choice for building a house on sand that I can think of.  Look for an all-aluminum subfloor and accept nothing less.  This design will provide a strong foundation for generations to come. With a strong, lightweight, and timeless chassis design, the next spot to look for quality is in the framing of walls and roofs.  There are a number of methods used here with clear winners.  By far, the lowest quality and cheapest to build is a “stick-frame” all-wood construction.

I shudder to consider that over 90% of all travel trailers built today use stick-frame walls and ceiling joists.   Witnessing a stick-framed travel trailer post major accident is all the proof I ever needed to swear off this type of construction.  It’s hard to even imagine how a vehicle built out of wood was even approved for road use.  Think covered wagon!

It simply boggles my mind.  Not only is this building method dangerous, but it is also highly susceptible to rot, decay, and rodent infestation.  In fact, most of the stick-frame travel trailers I have dismantled have serious structural and pest infestation issues.  Another method is similar to this type of building but with light-gauge steel.   This is far superior to wood as steel does not have the pest and decay tendencies of wood, however, steel framing is typically galvanized.  This method is highly susceptible to rust and will not stand the test of time.

By far, the best wall and roof framing methods are aluminum.  Take one look at the way airplanes are made to take a cue for the best structural design for high-quality trailers.  The best way to build out of aluminum is to be completely welded to create a very rigid wall and ceiling envelope.  Aluminum, when smartly integrated with insulation, is by far the best type of quality construction. Look for a travel trailer with an aluminum frame to be sure you are getting the best quality.

aluminum frame in travel trailer
Aluminum Frame

3. Roof Design

This is quite possibly the most overlooked aspect for most travel-trailer buyers.  Most trailer roofs are installed are either rubber, EPDM, or TPO.  All of these are a composite material that is rolled down over the structure (often plywood sheets) to keep water out.  In my experience, this construction method simply does not work.  Water will leak inside from day one.  Over the years, the sun will beat down on the roof and cause a slow decay and eventual failure.

The only way to prevent this is to require the roof of a true luxury travel trailer is made from a stronger product that will not decay or break down.  The best solution I’ve found is making the roof from 100% aluminum.   A roof is the one area where water is most likely to find a way into the interior.  To counteract this, it’s key to ensure that the roof is made from a single sheet of aluminum, with no seams, because seams on the roof are potential spots where water will find its way in overtime and cause damage to the interior.  

aluminum travel trailer with aluminum cabinets

4. Cabinetry Construction

When looking at cabinetry, the key item to realize is that this space will be undergoing what is equivalent to a 9.0 earthquake each time you travel.  Quality cabinetry construction is key.  Wood cabinets are made from lightweight composite wood, resin, and plastic, which is just another industry term for cheap. These veneers have unhealthy levels of glues (hello VOCs!), particle-board, and fake looking representations of wood.

Wood easily degrades with repeated use, especially in a small space.   Screws fall out, laminated panels come apart, handles fall off.  The hardware is most important as well.  Residential-style cabinetry hardware is simply not built to be used on the road.  These hinges, handles, and locking mechanisms will inevitably fail and require constant adjustment or replacement.  With this type of hardware, it will be common to reach your destination and find several cabinets open and all the contents shattered or broken on the floor.

I can only recommend one style of cabinetry – that is purpose-built for use in mobile environments, you guessed it, all-aluminum cabinetry.  This style of cabinets has features like full-length piano hinges, full aluminum frame, and multiple positive locking mechanisms to keep the drawer and doors closed while the travel trailer is being moved.   The surface of aluminum cabinets must be powder-coated as well.  This all-aluminum cabinetry design is highly durable, very easy to clean, and will last a lifetime.

aluminum travel trailer cabinets locked

5. Interior Finishes

Interior finishes are one major area where “looks can be deceiving.”  In the travel trailer industry, the interiors of trailers are receiving visual makeovers and becoming much more in line with modern-day design needs.  But before buying a trailer, look a little deeper to understand exactly how the unit was built.  Things to look out for include:

  • Most interior walls have nothing more than a one-eighth thick piece of cheap plywood with a faux wallpaper.  Take another look at how these are put together. What trailer builders call “mechanical-fasteners” are in reality just staples.
  • Cheap wood framing as the structural component of the wall.
  • Wallcoverings with dangerous VOC-emitting adhesives.
  • Fake elements – Take a closer look at that beautiful wood cabinetry. Is it actually wood or just a high-resolution “picture” of wood printed on top of composite sawdust?  Is the tile in the shower real or just plastic made to look like tile? Are the countertops solid-surface or just a thin veneer laminate designed to look like real stone?
  • Paint is made for covering drywall in homes and has no place inside a travel trailer.

A quality interior will be built from real materials that are purpose-designed to last a very long time – materials that are real and durable.  Pay close attention to the types of fixtures used – are they plastic or metal?  Look for real wood accents, not laminate or particleboard.  Is the flooring durable and installed in a way that won’t crack, peel or fall apart?  Are the countertops solid surface?  Is the cabinetry made from metal or wood – metal is by far superior.

6. Low- to No-maintenance & Service

When buying a travel trailer, you are inviting something beautiful into your lifestyle.  This is something that will provide you the home-base for all sorts of travels, adventures, and discovery.   Perhaps the simplest, and oddly most overlooked value when it comes to selecting a travel trailer, is what the ownership experience will feel like.

I encourage you to search online for “RV horror stories” to understand what it means to welcome a poor-quality travel trailer into your life.   A luxury travel trailer should perform well now and 10 years from now.  Daily, monthly, and yearly maintenance needs to take time.

How much maintenance will a trailer really require?  It depends on whether you bought quality or not. Consider how much time you are willing and able to dedicate to keeping your trailer maintained and in tip-top shape.  While cheap breaks and falls apart, quality is designed to function and designed to last.   Consider how much time you are willing to spend dealing with repairs and service items when components break or fail all together.

A luxury travel trailer is all about spending time with the ones you love, in the places you love.  It should be purpose-built with little-to-no maintenance requirements and allow you to spend the most time doing the things you love.

living vehicle aluminum travel trailer parked on snow

7. Exterior Materiality

Travel trailers are designed to move and to be experienced in all types of environments.  Whether it be rain, snow, or salt on the road, or desert sun and sand, the exterior must be designed to withstand a myriad of elements.  Unlike a traditional brick and mortar home, trailers must respond to ALL conditions – as the open road and adventure is not always sunny and 75!

The most common for wood-framed construction is to use fiberglass. Over time, fiberglass is quite simply, a very poor choice. Fiberglass requires constant maintenance, cleaning, and caulking.  Because it may not be welded, fiberglass relies heavily on excessive use of caulking to keep out water.  An aluminum exterior is my top choice.  Aluminum is naturally light in color to keep heat radiation down in hot environments and is naturally resistant to decay.  And aluminum offers many options, be it raw mill finished, heat-treated with paint, or anodized like the aluminum used on most metal roofs today.  I highly recommend an anodized aluminum finish to create a very even appearance that is not susceptible to differential oxidization.

8. The Lifespan of Materials by Design

As an architect, I’m fascinated by the concept of the honesty of materiality.  One key feature of a material’s honesty is how well it functions over a long period of time.  Take one look at the Statue of Liberty, for example.  The manner Lady Liberty was built will last centuries, as it was intended.  The green color is a natural protective layer that was formed from copper and resists all sorts of decay.  Similarly, materials used in trailer design should embrace the natural characteristics of the material itself and actually get better with age.

A material successfully used in one application may not be appropriate for another.  Adopt this critical viewpoint when considering the materials of a trailer and ask yourself, “How will this wear in 5, 10, or 20 years?”  Consider the way you plan to use the travel trailer.  What types of abuse will the material be up against?   What expected maintenance will be required to keep the material functioning at a high level and doing what it is intended to do?

9. Poor Quality Disguised as Lightweight

Lightweight design is one of the key principles of trailer design and engineering.  Weight is often directly at odds with quality and is a very delicate road that trailer designers must navigate.   One of my biggest disappointments in the trailer industry today is this “lightweight design” illusion – which is really just another way to hide the concept of “cheap.”   This is by far the biggest lie I’ve found in the industry today.

True lightweight design is difficult, time-consuming, and meticulous.  If a travel trailer is being touted as lightweight, consider this a red flag and be skeptical.  The main point here is to dig deeper to make your own decision based on real data, not flowery high-design interiors.   Take a closer look at the quality of the walls, cabinets, and fixtures.  Push on the walls – what are they made out of?  Open the cabinet door, what type of hinges are used?  How will the cabinet door be kept closed while being transported, with your food and dinnerware pushing up against the door?  Is the cabinet itself real – made from genuine, solid materials?  

Touch and feel the fixtures, such as faucets, lights, switches, handles, and anything that is designed to be touched on a regular basis.  What are the fixtures made of?  Plastic is very common and disguised as metal and wood. This is not quality.  Do the switches look cheap?  If something looks good on the surface but feels poorly made, consider first, and please take this one seriously – how long will this last given the harsh realities of what a travel trailer is actually designed to do?  

Most importantly, if the manufacturer is putting cheap fixtures right out front and center for everyone to touch and see, consider what the quality would be in all the items you aren’t able to see – inside where quality really matters. So, take a close look at walls, cabinets, and fixtures.  These are three excellent indicators that will tell you instantly if the term lightweight is a clever lie that is covering up the truth – cheap.‍

living vehicle in front of a canyon

The items in this list are what I have found to be the greatest indicators of a quality-built travel trailer. The responsibility to learn the truth is up to you.  I encourage you to ask questions and take your time to determine if a travel trailer meets your quality standards.  If you discover that a trailer does not meet your high-quality needs, the answer becomes an easy “no thank you”, and the search continues.

When it comes to purchasing a new travel trailer, I do not recommend buying a trailer that is lacking in quality, no matter the price.  It simply isn’t worth your time or money.  A travel trailer not only a sizeable investment but will be housing the friends and family you care about most - yourself included.  Shortcuts when it comes to quality are not only a poor investment but dangerous for your personal safety.  Unfortunately, the travel trailer market has become commoditized and manufacturers are competing on price.  Very few are focused on quality.  

If you are primarily focused on budget and are not able to find a quality new travel trailer that suits your needs, I highly recommend considering buying pre-owned.  The unfortunate truth is that many manufacturers of travel trailers are simply okay with releasing products that barely work.  In fact, I have found this practice has become a sort of a consumer-led, quality-control business model. Instead of making all components built to a standard of quality to last for years to come, this becomes a fix it in warranty game.  

I believe that quality is not only possible but will one day become the standard in the RV industry.  This does require a cultural shift.  If consumers stop buying poor-quality travel trailers, manufacturers will no longer build them.