House for Sail
What's the best way to score a waterfront hotel room? Put the hotel in the water.
(MONEY Magazine) – Ah, vacation. Under a sky full of stars, the soft jets of the Jacuzzi massage your back, which is a little sore from water-skiing. A bottle of wine and two glasses await in the master suite. Your son and his friends are on the beach roasting marshmallows while your daughter curls up to watch a DVD after a long day in the sun. You just sit, gazing at the silhouette of the pines against the night sky. You can't think of any place you'd rather be than this...boat.
That's right. As in houseboat. As in your own private bed and breakfast that floats, carrying you to a different idyllic cove every night (if you want) and keeping you out of the reach of cloying souvenir hawkers and tourist-trap restaurants. Charter houseboats can be downright palatial, and the price rivals what you'd spend at a waterfront hotel.
"You have all the comforts of civilization, but you're in the middle of the wilderness," says Helmut Meixner, 58, who rents a houseboat every year with his family. Recently they cruised Lake Cumberland in Kentucky, one of at least 32 states where rentals abound. Texas (Lake Amistad), Pennsylvania (Raystown), Nevada (Mead), Florida (the Keys)--no matter where you live, you're probably near a hotel on the water. Literally.
What it Costs Like hotel room rates, houseboat rental prices vary according to size, location and season. Generally, a vessel that sleeps six runs in the hundreds of dollars a day, and 16-person rides cost about $1,000 a day (that's $62.50 per person at full capacity). On Shasta Lake, deep in a Northern California national forest, Shasta Marina Resort rents a 16-person boat that has two bathrooms, a hot tub, a barbecue, a kitchen and a waterslide, at $6,000 for seven nights during peak summer season. Most prices drop in spring (better for fishing) and early fall (when the warm water is ideal for skiing and tubing, which you can do if you rent or bring along a motorboat). Some lakes have restaurants, but most people pack coolers full of meals or groceries and eat onboard. Some companies will even stock the kitchen for you.
Getting around Rental companies provide instruction on maneuvering a houseboat, which can feel like a school bus until you get the hang of it. (It gets easier.) One drawback to cruising from cove to cove: gas prices. Expect to pay as much as $1 a gallon more at lake pumps. (Houseboats move about 5 mph to 10 mph and burn eight to 18 gallons an hour.) You could save by anchoring in one inlet for a few days and using the dinghy to go on jaunts.
Finding a boat Convinced? So are a lot of people. Make reservations at least six months ahead for peak season, a year ahead for holiday weekends. Search for rentals by state at houseboatrentals.com. And don't be surprised if you come back--65% of the clients at Forever Resorts, a leading rental company, have houseboated before. And according to the Houseboat Industry Association, one in 10 renters ends up buying a boat.