The Ultimate How-to Guide for Houseboating the Erie Canal

If you’ve been following along for a while, you may recall that my husband and I spent a wonderful week houseboating the Erie Canal back in 2018. Over this past winter, we were trying to think of a COVID-friendly vacation to take in 2021, and it got us thinking back to how much fun we had on the canal. And so, dear readers, we decided to head back out there this summer, and we had yet another enjoyable week houseboating the Erie Canal.

If you’re planning a trip this summer or next year, this is the ultimate guide to planning your own amazing adventure on the canal! Below you’ll find information on the following:

How to Rent a Houseboat on the Erie Canal

Our boat, Canadice, docked in Palmyra, NY

In 2018, we rented our houseboat from Midlakes Navigation, but nowadays the rentals are managed by Erie Canal Adventures. They have taken over the original Midlakes fleet, and we even got the exact same boat we had last time! In the past few years, they’ve upgraded the engines and interiors and added glorious, glorious air conditioning to all the boats. THAT, my friends, was a spectacular addition because it was HOT on our trip this time around.

Erie Canal Adventures rents houseboats for 3, 4, or 7 nights at a time. The boats come in 3 different sizes, so you can choose whichever option works best for you and your group. The days of the week you can book will also depend on the length of your charter and the availability of the boat size you select.

For 2021, the charter options were as follows:

  • 3-night charter: Friday-Monday or Saturday-Tuesday
  • 4-night charter: Monday-Friday or Tuesday-Saturday
  • 7-night charter: Friday-Friday, Saturday-Saturday, Monday-Monday, or Tuesday-Tuesday

Our boat, Canadice, is one of their smaller boats (33/34 feet), and it’s the perfect size for a couple. There is room in the kitchen to fold down two additional sleeping bunks, but if you’re bringing kids or traveling with another couple, I’d personally recommend upgrading to a larger boat, especially if you’re doing the 7-night trip. You’ll have more storage space and much more room to spread out.

You can check the rates and schedule online, but note that 2021 looks sold out at this point. However, plenty of 2022 dates are already on the calendar! You can also call to ask about cancellations or add your name to their wait list if you’d still like to try to get out there this year. 

What’s Included on the Boat

The boats have pretty much everything you need! Once you book your trip, you’ll receive a detailed list of everything that’s included, but here’s a few items you can expect to find onboard.

  • Kitchen Supplies: Cooking utensils, dishes, and flatware
  • Linens: Sheets, towels, blankets, pillows, shower mats, kitchen towels and washcloths
  • Outdoor Supplies: Bikes, a cooler, a small propane grill and grilling utensils
  • Cleaning Supplies: Dish soap, hand soap, kitchen towels, paper towels, toilet paper, and garbage bags

Fuel and Water: You boat will also come with more than enough fuel to last you a week, but you will need to top off your water tank every day to ensure you have plenty of water for showering, flushing the toilet, and using the sinks. There is a hose provided on the boat, and most towns along the canal have water spouts you can access, typically for free. We usually topped off right before leaving the dock so that we always set out for the day with a full tank.

What to Pack for Your Trip on the Canal

Even though your boat comes well-equipped, you will still need to bring some things along with you.

  • Children’s Life Jacket: If you will be bringing a child that is 30 pounds or less, you must bring a life jacket for them and they must wear it onboard. (Life jackets are included on the boat for older children/adults.)
  • Bike Helmets: Though bikes are provided, helmets are not so bring your own if you want to use one. Helmets are required in NY State for children 14 and under.
  • Bar soap/Toiletries: There is one small bottle of dish soap and one bottle of liquid soap for hand-washing. However, if you prefer bar soap for the shower, you’ll need to bring your own, in addition to all your normal toiletries.
  • Paper/Plastic Products: I also suggest bringing along a box of tissues, an extra roll of paper towels, ziplock baggies/storage containers, and any kind of paper/plastic picnic supplies you might need if you plan to eat in any of the parks along the canal.
  • Food/Water/Beverages: Most importantly, you’ll need to supply all of your own food, drinking water, and beverages for the duration of your trip. The refrigerators are small (think slightly larger than dorm size), so I wouldn’t recommend stocking up on too much fresh food at the start. For reference, we completely filled our fridge up with: 2 dozen eggs, a dozen tortillas, a dozen apples, 2.5 pounds of cold cuts, sour cream, salsa, butter, mayonnaise, cheese, half and half, and a couple peppers and onions. There wasn’t room for anything else!
The kitchen (aka the galley)
That’s the fridge on the left – not all that big as you can see!
  • Bagged Ice: You’ll also want to reserve that precious fridge space for food, which means you’ll need to buy ice regularly throughout your trip so you can chill your beverages in the provided cooler.
  • Canvas Shopping Bags: Also note that stores in NY State no longer provide plastic bags, so I highly recommend bringing along some heavy-weight canvas bags to do any shopping and for carrying those heavy bags of ice.
  • Kitchen & Hair Care Appliances: As long as you stay at docks with shore power during your trip, you can also use coffee makers, toasters, instant pots, hairdryers, curling irons, and other appliances that heat up. None of these are provided, though, so you’ll need to bring them with you (and remember NOT to use them if you’re not attached to shore power!)

Before you board your boat, you can stop at the WalMart very close to the marina or one of the Wegman’s a bit further away to buy all your provisions. Pretty much all the towns you stop in will have a grocery or convenience store near the canal if you find you need anything else during your trip. 

How to Operate the Boat 

If you’ve never driven a boat, don’t worry! You can still rent a houseboat on the Erie Canal. Once you book your boat, you’ll receive an engine manual, which you should review before your trip. The day you pick up your boat, you will also go through an orientation with Erie Canal Adventures staff.

Video Orientation: First, you’ll watch a set of videos that run you through how to operate the boat. After, a staff member will take you on board and physically walk you through the steps you saw in the video. They will also ensure you know how to tie off dock lines, but you should spend a little time on YouTube before your trip learning some basics, like how to do a cleat hitch or secure your dock lines to a piling

Cruising along the Erie Canal!

Onboard Orientation: Then you will be asked to take the boat off the dock and do a brief transit with a staff member to practice what you’ve learned. You will test out the tiller (push it in the opposite direction you want to go, by the way), they will have you show you can turn the boat around, and then you’ll practice bringing the boat alongside the canal wall just like you would if you were docking the boat. You will also typically be taken through the nearest lock, Lock 30, to learn how to “lock through”.

Once the staff member is satisfied you seem comfortable handling the boat, you’ll drop them back off at the marina and set off on your own! If you’re not an experienced boater, ask a lot of questions and take your time with your training. Do NOT leave the marina if you’re unsure about anything.

Also, don’t forget to ask about things like lighting the stove, oven, and water heater, operating the A/C, etc. They’re not essential to driving the boat, but they are essential to enjoying your trip! This should all be covered in your orientation, but ask questions if anything is unclear.

How to Navigate the Canal

During your orientation, you are normally taken through a lock, but there were issues with the closest lock on our trip so we were unable to do so. Note that locks and bridges are mechanical objects, and it is not uncommon for something to break down or for locks/bridges to temporarily go out of service. If you’re not aware when something like this happens, you’re probably going to have a difficult time on the canal.

Sign Up for Canal Alerts: Which brings me to my most important suggestion for your trip: sign up for the “notice to mariners” email updates! If there are lock or lift bridge closures or any type of canal issues, you’ll receive an email letting you know. Before your trip, you should review the current notices, too, in case they may have an impact on your itinerary planning. During our own trip, one of the locks we were passing through was scheduled to be closed for an entire day. Since we received the alert, we knew to avoid trying to pass through that lock on that particular day.

Review the NY Canal Corporation Website: You should also familiarize yourself with the NY Canal Corporation’s website, which has really helpful info for navigating the canal. Here you’ll find mapshours of operation, details on mileage, and contact information for all the various locks and bridges.

A beautiful day on the Erie Canal

Driving in the Canal: Otherwise, navigating the canal is pretty straightforward. In most cases, you won’t encounter much traffic, so try to stay within the center of the canal. If you do see a boat, move to the right to ensure you both have room to pass. Similarly, if a boat behind you wants to pass, move to the right to give them room to do so. However, keep in mind that the bed of the canal doesn’t drop straight off from the canal edge – it’s a slope. So don’t go TOO far to the right. And if you approach no-wake zones, paddlers/rowers, or smaller vessels, do slow down to reduce wake.

Transiting through Locks and Lift Bridges

Radio Communication: During your trip, you will encounter locks and lift bridges. As the captain, you’ll be responsible for radioing the lock or bridge operators to request permission to transit through. They will let you know whether you need to wait or if it’s ok to proceed. Be patient and polite – several of the operators manage more than one location and often drive back and forth between bridges. They will typically ask you where you’re heading so that they can radio ahead to any other locks or bridges to let them know to expect you. 

Control Your Speed: And most importantly, remember that “slow is pro”. Do not approach locks and bridges at full speed! You should pull your speed way back so that you can stop more easily if your passage hasn’t yet been cleared. Plus, you really don’t want to banging around inside the lock at full speed. Not only could you damage the boat, but you could damage the lock as well, and that’s going to ruin everybody’s day. Take it slow and you’ll always have more options available to you if something doesn’t go as planned.

Locking Through: When you do encounter a lock, radio ahead to the lock tender to request permission to lock through. They will open the lock gates and you’ll typically see a green light signaling that it’s safe to enter. If you’re ever unsure, just radio back to confirm. If you’re the only boat entering, I recommend stopping around the mid-point of the lock unless the tender tells you to stop elsewhere. 

Once inside, you’ll need to come right up alongside the wall, and you and one of your fellow passengers will each grab onto one of the lines hanging on the lock wall so that both the bow (front) and stern (back) of your boat is secure. Try to secure your stern first since you can always use your bow thrusters to pull the bow in toward the wall. Once you get your stern secure, don’t forget to shift into neutral so you’re not still drifting. 

Inside a lock

Erie Canal Adventures gives you gloves to use when handling the lock lines. Since the water level goes up and down inside the lock, the lines get pretty muddy and slimy, so I highly recommend using the gloves! The most important thing to keep in mind is that you want a secure grip on the lock lines, but you do NOT want to tie your boat to the lines or the wall.  Inside the lock, the water level goes up and down. All you’re doing is holding on to these vertical lock lines as the water level changes. 

When you enter a lock on the higher side, it can definitely be challenging sometimes to grab onto a lock line. Be careful leaning over the side of the boat and use the provided boat hook if needed in order to get ahold of a line. As the water level decreases it will be much easier to get a nice grip. If needed, you can also pass a dock line around the lock line – just remember not to tie it. This is helpful when you enter on the lower side. As the water level rises, it can be hard to maintain a grip near the top, but the extra length you get from a dock line wrapped around is enough to get you through the locking process.

I filmed the video below in 2018 when we were docked in Lockport, NY. We were able to catch another one of the canal boats passing through the double locks there. The process is same – you’re just going from one lock straight into another before you continue transiting along the canal. (FWIW, I don’t recommend standing on top of your boat while transiting through locks…)

How to Plan Your Itinerary

Canal Guide: To help with planning, I recommend using the towns guide Erie Canal Adventures sends with your confirmation to start and then get into the details with this free canal guide. You can use it fully digitally or get a free paper copy sent to you for $10 shipping. It’s more geared towards paddlers, but it has tons of useful info regarding mileage, towns on the canal, and the services available at the various docks.

Distance/Time Grid: Erie Canal Adventures will also send you a distance grid that shows you the estimated time it takes to travel between towns. This is essential for planning because you cannot rely on distance alone for estimating your travel time. Transiting through locks take about 20 minutes, and that’s assuming the lock is ready for you as soon as you arrive. During our 2018 trip, it also wasn’t unusual to be asked to wait 10 minutes or more for a lift-bridge to be opened.  Once we even waited 40 minutes!

East vs. West: From Erie Canal Adventures’ marina in Macedon, you can choose to spend all your time to the west, to the east, or a combo of the two. During our first canal trip, we stayed exclusively to the west (check out our 2018 itinerary). This year, we split our trip between the east and west. Regardless, you have to bring your boat back to the starting point, so you’ll be doing some backtracking. 

To the west, there are many small towns and they’re not too far apart, so you will have a lot more options. There are also more lift bridges than locks, and bridge crossings are typically quicker than lock crossings, allowing you to cover more ground faster. To the east, you’ll need to transit much further between towns, especially if you’re planning to go down to Seneca Falls.  There are also more locks, which means you’re adding a lot of time just to get through the locks. However, the eastern portion has more natural beauty and felt more secluded.

All alone on the Erie Canal

If it’s your first trip on the canal or if you’re only doing a 3- or 4-night trip, I’d recommend staying to the west or splitting your trip both east and west. If you’re looking for a quieter week or don’t plan to spend much time off your boat, though, the east could work great for you!

Dock Fees: Most of the towns we visited didn’t charge a fee to stay overnight or to use the electricity or water. Many even have showers, restrooms, and Wifi available, all completely free of charge. If there is a fee, a dockmaster will typically come by while you’re docking to collect it from you. Try to keep some cash on hand to make it easier to pay the overnight fee. 

To get the most out of your trip, I also recommend scheduling your longer days of cruising earlier in your trip. As the week stretches on, you’ll get more tired so it’s nice to save those shorter jaunts for the end. Also, keep in mind that not everything you want to do or every place you want to visit will be open the day you’re there. If you specifically want to see or do something, do check the days/hours in advance to ensure you’ll be able to make it there on the day you’re planning to be in that town.

Where to Stay and What to Do

Each of the towns on the canal has its own vibe, but they’re all pretty charming and delightful. We enjoy visiting breweries, and there are quite a few in walking distance from the town docks. Food is also important, and we didn’t have a bad meal on the canal on either of our trips. Though bikes come with your boat, we never took them out, but the canal path is excellent for biking. We usually opted to just explore the towns or simply walk along the canal ourselves.

We’re also pretty good at finding pool tables and enjoy spending an evening playing pool and meeting the locals.  You can also consider heading back to Macedon one night early and take a day trip to the Finger Lakes, which is what we did this year. We spent our last day exploring the Canandaigua Lake area, and it was just lovely! Even if you bring the boat back to Macedon early, the boat is still yours. You can take a day trip and then head back to spend your last night on board before heading out of town.

One of the adorable historic boathouses at Canandaigua Lake

Your boat must be returned by 9:00 am on your last day so that the staff can get it cleaned and prepped for the next round of guests arriving at 12:30. We actually found that it was much less stressful this year to already be at the marina when we woke up that last day. Also, we were able to get most of our belongings packed up the night before and we were ready to hit the road at 9:00 am rather than just getting back to the dock like everyone else. No matter what you decide to do, though, I know you’re going to have an amazing time!

For more ideas on where to go, what to do, and where to eat and drink, check out our 2021 Itinerary.

Tips and Resources from our 2018 Trip on the Erie Canal

And for even more ideas and tips on houseboating the Erie Canal, check out the whole series below from our 2018 vacation.

I hope you’ll have an opportunity to head out on the canal next summer. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions or need help with your trip planning!  

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