Long summer days are best spent on the water soaking up the sun. You can lounge by a pool, surf off a beach, or splash around in a lake, but the truly aquatically inclined should consider taking it a step further. On a houseboat vacation, you’ll actually live on the water, but you’ll also be able to dock or beach and enjoy land whenever you want. It opens two worlds: that of water sports and a wealth of hard-to-get-to shore activities. You can spend your days exploring waterways and cruising around coastlines, all while having the comforts of home at your fingertips.
By definition, the houseboat is no ordinary boat: The vessels have more amenities than you could ever imagine. They’re spacious enough to hold large groups, and many feature hot tubs, slides, grills, fully equipped kitchens, big-screen televisions, and even fireplaces. Plus, you can go swimming right off your back deck. These floating vacation rentals are actually not difficult to use and are available on lakes and rivers across the country, so it’s easier than you might think to get out on the water this summer with a houseboat vacation.
Who can rent a houseboat
Anyone can rent and enjoy a houseboat. Usually you don’t even need special licensing or prior experience to operate houseboat rentals; sometimes all you need is a valid driver’s license.
Even a first-time boater can learn how to pilot a houseboat after a short lesson. Navigational procedures, how to beach and tie off, and other boating maneuvers are typically explained and demonstrated upon rental. However, each state has different pilot regulations, so be sure to check with your boat rental company before you go.
Houseboating is ideal for families or a large group of friends, and it’s even better if you get multiple boats to cruise around in your own flotilla. Because there is a good mix of activities, you can split up during the day and still all come back together at night to eat under the stars and share the hot tub. Get a group together who can go with the flow and get along well in a small space.
Even though houseboats can sleep up to 16 people, you’ll still be living in 800 to 1,100 square feet. As with an RV, it’s close quarters; every bit of space has a purpose, and you’ll likely have to share bedrooms.
How to prepare for a houseboat vacation
While in most cases you will be able to dock your houseboat and get any supplies you need, save yourself the hassle and do all of that grocery shopping before you get on the boat. But go wild with your meal plan—most boats have very modern kitchens as well as outdoor grills. You may want to bring some extra coolers and ice for your beverages; it’ll save you refrigerator space.
If you are worried you may get bored cruising around on a houseboat, don’t be. You can do as much or little as you want. You can swim, grill, fish, watch for wildlife, rent Jet Skis or other motorboats, lay on the beach or the deck, hike, play games, and stargaze.
Where to try houseboating this summer
With the variety of lakes and rivers in North America, you’re never far from a houseboating opportunity. Here are four spots to get you started:
St. John River, New Brunswick, Canada
- Book now: lakewayhouseboats.com, from $1,380 for a three-day weekend on a boat that sleeps six; 10- and 14-person boats also available.
The mature old-growth forest landscape on the Mactaquac Lake district of the St. John River in New Brunswick is a perfect place to try houseboating. There is only one houseboat operator on this river, so you will practically have the waterway to yourself. It’s easy to find secluded little coves where you can park and go hiking, play a round of golf, visit Kings Landing Living History Park, or see the world’s largest axe in Nackawic. The river is wide, and there is little traffic, so you can just drift and spend your time sliding off the top deck into the refreshing water.
Because Lakeway Houseboat Vacations is the only operator in the area, you should reserve well in advance. The houseboat company will give you advice on the best mooring spots and a loose itinerary including what to visit if you are new to the area.
Lake Ouachita, Arkansas
- Book now: houseboatingarkansas.com, from $4,200 for four days; sleeps 10.
Plopped in the middle of green-forested mountains, Arkansas’s largest lake boasts pristine, clear water. It’s best known for its abundant fishing and excellent scuba diving; you can dive or swim here with hundreds of nonstinging, freshwater jellyfish just off your boat. August and September are peak months for jellyfish sightings, when Lake Ouachita’s water is warm and the creatures’ food is abundant. If you’d rather not swim with the jellies, cruise along to one of the lake’s 100 uninhabited islands to explore this area on foot.
Wake Zone Luxury Houseboat Rentals has boats that sleep up to 16 people. The rental company will deliver supplies such as groceries or medicine to your boat, and it also offers captain services to park and moor the boat for no extra charge. Of course, if you would rather pilot your own houseboat, you can do that too.
Lake Shasta, California
- Book now: shastalake.net, from $405 per day for a boat that sleeps 14. Capacity and rates of the fleet vary. For a larger group the Sumerset Houseboat, from $895/day, sleeps 20.
With 365 miles of shoreline, it’s no wonder Lake Shasta has been dubbed the “Houseboating Capital of California.” On any given day there can be up to 450 houseboat rentals on the lake, but the lake is so large, it rarely feels crowded. While Lake Shasta is best known for its water sports—wakeboarding, waterskiing, tubing, jetskiing, kayaking, windsurfing, and swimming—there’s no shortage of land activities. Hike through the evergreens on shore with Mount Shasta’s scenic snow-capped peak looming in the background. Or visit the Shasta Caverns, created 200 million years ago.
Shasta Marina at Packers Bay has been renting houseboats for 20 years. It will also rent Jet Skis with your boat if you have the need for speed. The area is busiest in the summer months when water temperatures reach 78 degrees.
Crane Lake, Minnesota
- Book now: voyagaire.com, from $335 per day for a boat that sleeps six. Capacity and rates of the fleet vary.
Cruise around a national park at the water-based Voyageurs National Park. Created in 1971, the park encompasses land and water areas. Pick up your houseboat rental on Crane Lake, just outside of the park, and cruise into Voyageurs. In this water wonderland, you’ll navigate the same waterways that hardy trappers and traders relied upon over 250 years ago. The area is great for wildlife viewing. Enjoy cool summer nights and warm water in July and August, or go in September to have a chance of viewing the northern lights from the top deck. Or simply curl up onboard with your favorite book and listen to the call of the loon at twilight.
Voyagaire Lodge and Houseboat Rentals provides boat-to-lodge radio communications around the clock so that you can get questions answered immediately. It will even deliver special food and beverage requests to your boat.
This article originally appeared online in June 2018; it was updated on May 10, 2019, to include current information.