Winnebago on the Water

Want to spend your vacation on the water? Renting a houseboat is an offbeat way to get away with your family.


My family vacations every year with friends who have a son close in age to our 8-year-old daughter. Rather than explore a European capital city or take an extended U.S. road trip, last summer we decided to do something a bit different—rent a houseboat on the Erie Canal.

A week on the water in a 42-foot boat with just two cabins, having not only to steer the boat, but also to navigate the many locks and bridges found along the route? Why not.

Which Body of Water?

Houseboat trips in the United States are available from the Great Lakes to Arizona to Florida. Deciding on where to go depends on how much work you want to do. Renting a houseboat on a lake is much easier than renting one where you have to navigate locks and bridges. Figure out the goals and desires of everyone in your party—if most just want to relax and swim, then our trip wouldn’t work for you. We had a fair amount of work to do navigating the Erie Canal, and we got off the boat every day to explore. That worked for my group, but we talked at length about the pros and cons beforehand.

What’s Included

No matter which route you choose, you are responsible for the food and sundries you’ll need for your trip. Most houseboat rentals come with linens and kitchen basics, plus maps, flashlights and basic first-aid gear. Also, the price of fuel is usually built into the rental fee, but be sure to ask. At some boat tie-up spots, you’ll be responsible for a nominal docking fee. One great thing about renting a houseboat is that you can see a variety of places without having to repeatedly pack and unpack: All your gear stays on the boat while you roam.

What You Need to Know

Yes, someone will have to steer the boat. A lesson is included no matter where you go. The company will make sure you are clear on all procedures and have you demonstrate your understanding before they cut you loose. If you can drive a car, you can take the helm of a houseboat.

On the Erie Canal

The Erie Canal was built to transport people and goods from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. Completed in 1825, the canal 363-mile-long canal cuts through varying terrain, hence the need for locks to raise or lower boats. During its heyday, the canal had 83 locks; today it has just 35. It was a boon to towns along its route, and though its boomtown days are long gone, we chose the Erie Canal for the adventure of navigating the locks and the opportunity to explore many of those historic towns, seemingly frozen in time circa turn of the 20th century, along the way.

We rented from Mid-Lakes Navigation, located in Skaneateles, N.Y,. (tel. 800-545-4318; because they’ve been in business since 1968, plus we wanted to be able to drive there from Boston.

Named for a town on the canal, our boat the Honeoye is one of the five largest houseboats Mid-Lakes offered. It includes two bathrooms, which was essential since there would be six of us on board. All the boats come with linens, outfitted kitchens, maps and two bicycles. The high-season rate (from May through October) was $2,850, and included a driving lesson, fuel, tolls and post-trip cleaning.

After we loaded up the boat, we had a driving, docking and locking lesson from Owen, of Mid-Lakes. We had to go through our first lock (Lock 29 at Palmyra) with Owen directing us. (We named my friend Elizabeth captain.) A 14-ton boat doesn’t move too fast—our top speed was about six miles an hour, and even though it can be tricky to dock, Elizabeth, a champion parallel parker, was a natural.

Locking in and out can be a bit difficult too. You slowly go into the lock and members of the crew (Elizabeth’s husband Jorge and my husband Rob) held us steady with ropes attached to the lock walls while the water either went up or down.  

Since we had a captain and crew, we made the kids deckhands, and I took on the role of communications officer. My job was to call ahead to the lockmasters to ask permission to go through the locks, and in one case in Fairport, to raise the bridge.

From Macedon, where you board the boats offered by Mid-Lakes, you can head either west on the canal toward Rochester or east toward Seneca Lake. We wanted to visit the town of Seneca Falls, birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement—don’t miss its outstanding Women’s Rights National Historic Park and Museum (tel. 315-568-2991;—so we headed east. Along the way, we passed through the towns of Newark, Lyons and Clyde. Our first night we docked at Lyons and cooked on board, but the next day we went as fast as we could to reach Seneca Falls. It took us most of the day, but we really enjoyed relaxing, bird watching and getting more comfortable with the lock procedures. The kids liked sitting on the roof of the boat reading and we all took turns steering.

The main pleasures of the trip, though, were not really found in the towns. They were found cruising along the canal and spotting a golden eagle with a fish in its talons, or watching the joy in my daughter’s face when she caught a fish with a less-than-stellar fishing pole we bought at a discount store in Clyde. Early on, we noticed another boat from Mid-Lakes tied near us and played ‘tag’ with them throughout the week. We’d wave at people we passed (who laughed at the pirate flag we had hoisted), and nervously docking on the bank of the canal one hot day to repeatedly jump off the boat into the cooling canal waters also brought big smiles

For one week, it was like we dropped out of our very hectic lives into another time, one where floating down the canal looking at clouds for hours, talking with your friends and family, was all that mattered.

Lake Powell, Ariz.

I had a very different houseboat experience on a quick trip to Lake Powell in Arizona. Lake Powell is the second largest man-made lake in the United States and is a water sports wonderland. A large part of it is actually in Utah, but the Lake Powell Resort & Marina is in Arizona. Houseboats here range in size from 44 feet to 75 feet in length. I stayed on a 75-foot boat, which had, among other amenities, a water slide and a hot tub. For the most part, boaters here anchor on a beach on the lake and use speedboats (available for rent and which you can tow behind your houseboat) to explore the gorgeous surrounding scenery.

One day I took a powerboat to visit the Rainbow Bridge National Monument, a spiritual site important to the Navajo and a popular tourist site on the lake. The Sandstone arch is 290 feet tall at its highest point and is the largest natural bridge in the world.

There is about 2,000 miles of shoreline, which gives you some idea of the size of the lake. The lake is park of the Glen Canyon Nation Recreation Area, which encompasses 1.25 million acres. The stark beauty of the red-rock canyons and wide open spaces is spectacular. The boat I was on rents for about $12,000 per week in high season, but it sleeps 12 people.

Destinations: Arizona, Seneca Falls

Themes: Family Travel

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