I developed this guide after more than a decade of helping people arrange houseboat vacations and taking a few on my own. Iíve also had some miserable trips. The tips in here arenít exhaustive, but should give you a few ideas to help plan a more enjoyable trip, and how to avoid having a bad time.
If you havenít taken a houseboat trip before, you will likely find a lot of useful information. Please note that boat amenities and check out procedures vary from company to company, and even at each marina on the same lake. So not all information will apply in every circumstance.
Probably the number one question I get asked is how long to plan a trip.
Most rental companies offer three, four, five and 7-day trips. You should realize that a three-day trip is really only two nights; four days are only three nights; seven days is six nights, etc. Usually, boats must be returned by 2 pm on the last day of your trip, so three days is not three full days.
Some companies offer shorter trips in the off-season, but my experience has been that it is very rare to get a two-day trip.
The way I determine how many days to go is to ask myself, ďHow many nights could I be locked in a hotel room with these people before I lose my mind?Ē If I am with immediate family, my pain threshold is about four nights and thatís pushing it. The bigger and more luxurious the boat, the longer I can stand others.
You should also consider how crowded the boat is likely to be, whether there is someone who tends to drink heavily (unless thatís you and then maybe the relatives arenít such a problem) and whether you have another vehicle such as a powerboat or personal watercraft so you can get away. If you donít have kids, and someone else is bringing them, this can also wear on your nerves, especially if you like things neat and tidy.
Another item to consider is that after four days, you will probably need to return to the marina for more fresh water and to pump out the holding tanks.
When in doubt, opt for fewer days or a bigger, nicer boat. You are only going to see a mere fraction of the lake anyway (and a houseboat is not the most economical method for exploring). If you have a grand time, 7 days wonít be enough anyway and you will want to return. Most people do.
These are very popular questions.
First, if itís living outside the womb, itís a person. It doesnít matter how many people in your party are children, they count toward the total number. Realize that over-loading is a safety hazard. Donít do it.
Many people write me that they are renting a boat that sleeps ten, has a maximum capacity for 12 and they want to take 14 people on their vacation. This is a big mistake. I wouldnít recommend more than eight people on a boat with sleeping capacity of ten, as it is just too crowded and uncomfortable (unless you have one of the very large, luxury boats). Realize that cargo increases proportionate to the number of people. Unless itís the parents and their 6 kids, one full-time maid/cook and a nanny, I wouldnít put ten on a boat that sleeps ten.
The only time you can do this within reason is if you take a powerboat along and the ďextraĒ people ride in it. And, (this is important), some of the people should camp on the beach or shore in a tent, preferably the teenagers.
If you have a very large group, some people opt for a large, luxury boat which is beached and made into the base camp. The rest of the goup use power boats, smaller houseboats or personal water craft to access the camp area and activities take place on the large boat. If possible, someone should take out the larger houseboat the day before and ďstake a claimĒ on the beach.Ē We usually pitch a tent and make sure there are items laying around that look like we have A LOT of children. People will avoid your beach like he plague and you can have everyone meet you there.
Also, Iíve found if someone is trying to access our beach, simply telling them you will be having a large, noisy group who tends to party around the clock drives people away. This information will be met with gratitude as the interlopers pull away to find a more suitable location.
I understand why everyone wants to know this. They are planning a vacation with three other couples and they want everyone to pitch in, or at least figure costs on a per family basis.
Sorry, but itís impossible.
You should probably agree up front that once the deposit is paid, everyone is on hook for the houseboat rental even if they get called out of town, lose their vacation time or their cat dies. Trust me, things come up. Once youíve paid a deposit, there are usually fees associated with canceling. And when youíve paid the rental fee, youíre committed.
Personally, I think the money should be put aside for the deposit and rental fee before you make the reservation, and perhaps the waiver of liability coverage and any other known fees, like trip cancellation coverage or early board fees. Thatís because whoever is listed as the renter is responsible even if the other parties cancel. So if a couple backs out and doesnít find a replacement, only they are out their money, not the entire group.
You really need to have the finances agreed to before you depart.
My experience has been that it is nearly impossible to get money out of people after they have gone on the trip. Itís also an accounting nightmare. I think it is easier if you have the fixed expenses divided up first, and then worry about paying for fuel and food later.
Fuel costs depend on cargo weight, how far you go, and how fast you travel, weather conditions, how often you use the generator and the fluctuating cost of gas. On my trips, we usually chug along in the boat, find a nice beach and stay there two nights. Then we move to another beach, stay there two nights and then come back. I generally budget a minimum of $500 for fuel under this scenario. If you have a powerboat or personal watercraft, you will need to budget fuel for those.
Predicting the cost of fuel is problematic as it varies wildly depending on the lake, current gasoline costs, etc. As a rule of thumb, I usually estimate that fuel will cost me about $1 more per gallon at the marina than I would be paying at the pump.
For purposes of determining how much fuel, realize that most houseboats get 1 or Ĺ mile to the gallon. The generator will use Ĺ to 1 gallon for every hour it runs, but it is not necessary to run the generator all day.
When you should reserve your boat depends on how flexible you are. If you want two houseboats, you need to book two years in advance. However, this is not impossible. If you want a holiday weekend (Independence Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day), you need one year in advance. If you have a specific date, specific size boat and specific number of days, you need to book early as possible.
The last week before rates increase sell out early. The week after a rate increase is easier to secure. Seven day boats are usually the most widely available, three days the toughest to find.
The less flexible you are, the earlier you need to start reserving. Usually, there are last minute boats available. So it is worth it to try.
So you have your boat and youíre wondering what to bring along.
It has been my experience that people bring way too much stuff on a houseboat vacation. I recommend that if it is all family, or very close friends, you bring one bag for a blow dryer (which no one ever uses), shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, sun tan lotion, sunscreen, and Aloe Vera Ė any items that everyone will use. This is shared among the group and will cut out a significant amount of luggage. This goes for fishing gear as well. You donít need eight different tackle boxes, four CD players, six blow dryers, etc.
Although there is room for all your gear, it will have to packed, loaded and unloaded.
You then allow everyone to bring one small carry-on type bag of personal items. If it is summer, youíll need bathing suits, a couple of pairs of shorts and t-shirts, pajamas and long lightweight pants with a long sleeve shirt for evenings or sunburns. You do not need dress up items; make up (but Iíve experienced women balking at the idea of leaving it behind), curling irons, etc. Each person will also need sunglasses and any medications they require. These things should be in their personal bags.
You will also need things to do at night, like puzzles, board games, cards, etc. Someone should pack these for the group in one box or bin, instead of asking everyone to bring something to do.
Okay, you really have to trust me on this one, because this will make a huge difference in your comfort level.
Most houseboats do not provide linens, unless you have a larger, luxury model. This means you need to bring with you bath towels, hand towels, face clothes, pillows, sheets and blankets. That is a lot of stuff and takes up the most room.
No one seems to understand the importance of the following suggestion until they go on a long houseboat trip and experience it firsthand. Assign each person on your trip a specific color of towel and bring the matching hand towel and face cloth along. That is that individualís ďpersonalĒ items. After about the second day, the towels are hanging on the railing, the face clothes are soaking wet in the bathroom, and you canít figure out which one belonged to you. Itís much easier when you know you have the only red hand towel.
Also, bring extra dish cloths for the kitchen (you will need them) along with several rolls of paper towels.
Letís talk about bedding. On a recent trip I took I brought with me a fitted sheet for my bed, even though it was winter and we were using sleeping bags. I could have sold that sheet for $20 every night. On my next trip, I informed my traveling companion to bring a fitted, full-sized sheet. He thought it wasnít important and spent the trip with his bare skin sticking to the vinyl of the bed. He then told me he wished he had listened.
On most houseboats, the beds are vinyl-covered cushions, which are quite comfortable, but also very slippery. A full-size fitted sheet keeps you from sliding all over.
So what I recommend is a generous supply of fitted sheets for each sleeping area on the boat (usually singles and full-size beds). I recommend sleeping bags, even in the summer, as they provide an extra level of cushioning, and allow the bedding to be easily cleared up and put away during the day. This is a great job for the children (more on that later).
I suggest everyone bring their own pillow they sleep with each night at home. It gives you a sense of familiarity.
This is probably the single biggest job and the easiest to mess up. It requires a great deal of planning and organization. If you read nothing else, read this section. The worst trip I ever had was when I allowed someone else to take care of all the food and cooking supplies. They forgot so much stuff, it ruined the trip and we actually left two days early. The quickest way to start people bickering is to mess up the meals.
There are a couple of different approaches to the food issue. If you are splitting costs, some people like to assign a meal or a day of meals to each couple on the boat and have them bring along all the ingredients. I donít like this because you end up duplicating a lot of supplies, or someone forgets a key ingredient.
Another option is to plan a loose menu of specific meals and split the cost. This is how we usually arrange it, while letting everyone buy his or her own beverages.
You can save a lot of money by preparing food in advance and bringing most of your supplies from home so you arenít buying them a second time and you can use smaller containers for items youíve purchased at warehouse stores. Two people do not need a half-gallon of coffee creamer or three packages of spaghetti noodles.
I try to prepare the dinners and freeze them at home in foil containers. The ovens on some of the boats are very small (like the size you would see in an RV) so donít do big pans. I learned this the hard way the one trip.
Buy your meat at home and freeze it solid. Then, take all the items, pack them into Styrofoam coolers, put dry ice on top (ask your grocery how to handle this safely) label the cooler and tape it shut with duct tape. I have meat stay solidly frozen for over three days.
Do this the night before you depart. You do not want to wait until you have the vehicle packed and are leaving town, because you will have to unpack in the parking lot of the store and reorganize everything. So, if you are buying your food in your hometown, do it before you pack to leave.
This will stay frozen for days (only open the cooler to retrieve the frozen items) and keeps the meal stuff away from the sodas and munchies. You will need to pull out dinner items in the morning and allow them to defrost in the ice chest. The rest of the food can be stored on the big cooler on the boat. I try to never rely on the refrigerators and use them only for storing the eggs and condiments. They just arenít real reliable and some are electric and require that the generators run full-time. Leave the ice cream at home.
On most houseboats, only one person can comfortably cook at a time, so keep meals simple. I try to use the grill (which enlists one of the men into cooking). Another mistake Iíve made was not having a varied menu. People love pasta salad, but not every day with lunch.
Breakfast is usually pancakes or scrambled eggs, some meat, fruit and biscuits. Anything you can make a large amount of fairly quickly works well. People (especially children) seem to eat a lot more on a houseboat trip and diets usually go out the window.
For lunches, we buy a selection of deli meats, cheeses and chips, fruit, etc. and allow everyone to make their own sandwiches.
IMPORTANT: You will need to bring everything with you on your trip, so make a list. Most people forget items such as salt and pepper, condiments, coffee, creamer, sugar, butter, spices, cooking oil Ė the items you have on hand at home for cooking. Youíll need to bring everything with you so this is where organization pays off. Oh, and bring one very good sharp knife with you for cooking. The ones on the boat have been used to cut fishing line, open packages, filet fish and are incredibly dull. Youíll thank me for this suggestion later.
Other items to remember are a small camp shovel and firewood if campfires are allowed at the lake. Bring a small tub for water and place it next to the entrance of the houseboat. This will allow everyone to dip their feet in, and keep the sand out of the cabin.
Another key issue is to bring disposable plates, cups, and coffee cups, utensils, and foil pans, napkins. The sinks on most houseboats are very small and no one wants to spend a couple of hours doing the dishes.
My last houseboat trip was a nightmare because I allowed someone else to take care of all the food. This person was not organized and didnít believe in making lists or planning. They forgot all the meat (except four steaks and I still canít figure that out because we bought dry ice and youíd think theyíd realize it when they looked into the cooler), the can opener, corkscrew, wine, bed linens, fishing pole, fishing tackle and a bunch of other stuff. This individual also argued about how to pack it all and what to bring. It literarlly ruined the trip.
From now on, I will be sure to check what everyone is bringing against a list before we pack it up.
My number one rule is: Someone must be in charge.
We have a couple of other rules that work very well on our vacations. One is the assignment of duties.
We have a Captain and a Co-Captain. The Captain ONLY pilots the boat and is usually the person with the most boating experience. The Captain does not cook, clean up or do anything else, but pilot the boat. The Captain does not ever drink alcohol while the boat is underway. The Co-Captain is usually a younger male who can lift the 50 pound anchors, keep the boat from slamming into the dock, etc. The Co-Captain rides on the back while the houseboat is moving away from the docks to prevent any water toys from taking on water, or the houseboat from hitting buoys, etc.
The Co-Captain does not have any other chores, either.
Everyone else is required to sit in view of the Captain while the boat is pulling into the dock or beaching. This means the Captain doesnít have to worry about whether someone has fallen overboard, etc. He also can call on people to help with docking, or relay messages from the Co-Captain.
Children are assigned the duty of cleaning up the bedding, such as rolling up sleeping bags, putting the beds back up into sitting areas, etc. Keeping the cabin neat and tidy will make your experience much more enjoyable.
One or two people generally cook, and someone else handles the clean up.
There are a few things you can do to save money your houseboat vacation.
This first one will also save you a lot of time and aggravation. Some houseboat companies offer the option of a pre-board or early board. This means your group may sleep on the houseboat the night before your departure. The cost is generally around $300 to $700 for the night, or somewhere in that neighborhood. This is an excellent option when you take into account the cost of a hotel room and a meal out. But more importantly, it allows you to load your boat at night when itís cooler and there is less foot traffic and have everything properly stowed away. You wonít be able to leave the marina that night and you will have to process your paperwork the next day. But youíll save a ton of time and get off the dock hours early.
Sadly, my last trip it also allowed me to realize how much stuff we were missing.
The second recommendation is to rent a powerboat or ski boat as a tag along with our houseboat. We rent a houseboat, beach or anchor it in a quiet cove and use the powerboat for fishing, water skiing and sightseeing. It uses a lot less fuel than the houseboat, youíll be traveling much faster and it breaks the group up into two parties. That way, if a few people want to go see whatís up on the next bend, the entire group doesnít have to go along. It also gives you a speedy way back to the marina for supplies.
The third is to stow your cargo smartly. This means to distribute the weight evenly in your houseboat. (An early check in will allow you to do this.) If your houseboat is level, it will use less fuel to travel on the lake.
And always, always top off the tank when you pass a fuel dock!
I get asked a lot about what maps to have on the bigger lakes, like Mead, Powell and Shasta. I recommend the most detailed maps or charts available, plus a waterproof map. The reason for this is that you can get quite lost in the back canyons of a lake. A waterproof map just makes sense given the environment.
We do sell maps on our website, but they are also available at the marinas. If you enjoyed our tips and plan on purchasing a map, we would appreciate the business. We would REALLY appreciate your houseboat, powerboat, tour or lodging reservation (your reservation is my paycheck). The address for maps is www.canyon-country.com/shop
Lake Powell: www.canyon-country.com/lakepowell
Lake Mead: www.canyon-country.com/mead
Lake Mohave: www.canyon-country.com/mohave
Lake Shasta: www.canyon-country.com/shasta
© 2006-2007 Shelly James
Canyon Country Online, LLC
HOW TO PLAN A HOUSEBOAT VACATION