First time on a houseboat: 25 things you need to know!

For those who want to spend their first holiday on a houseboat, we've put together answers to the questions most frequently asked by our clients.

Houseboating on the rivers and canals of Europe attracts many a traveller, even people who have never been out on a boat before. But what are the essentials you need know before hitting the waterways, and why shouldn't you be apprehensive about it? 

1) Do I need a boat licence or other licence to drive a boat?

It all depends on the country you are travelling to. In most countries, however, no licence is required and anyone over 18 can drive a houseboat. In the Netherlands, Ireland, Poland and Italy you only need an ID card or passport. In France, you can get a "provisional driving licence" from houseboat rental companies, after some basic training, which will be valid for the duration of your voyage. In Germany, the situation varies from state to state — in Mecklenburg and Brandenburg, you can sail with a rental certificate only; south of Berlin, including cruising through Berlin itself, you need a captain's licence. With or without a licence, remember that the captain must never consume alcohol or other intoxicants before or whilst driving the boat.

2) Can I drive a boat even if I've never driven one before?

Absolutely. Houseboating is pretty slow and steering is easy — the boat typically has a throttle lever with 2 positions (forward and reverse) and a steering wheel, so you'll pick it up in no time. Plus, the staff of the company you'll be taking it over from will show you everything from steering to mooring.

Two women aboard a houseboat, steering

3) How do I plan my trip? How far can I cruise in a day?

The normal cruising speed of a houseboat is around 6–10 km/h (a little faster downstream) and getting through a lock takes an average of 20 minutes. If you're boating 4 to 6 hours a day, you'll be able to cover somewhere between 30 and 40 km (excluding time in the locks). So, you can plan your trip accordingly and work out where to stop off and how many days you need for your journey.

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4) Where can I moor when houseboating?

One of the benefits of houseboating is that you can virtually stop off anywhere — that is, except at places that are privately owned or where explicitly prohibited. This means it's not a problem to stay out of town in the countryside — just be sure to respect the environment and be considerate. In the towns and villages you can use the marinas that have been designed for boats. Some of these are free whilst others require a fee — usually the ones where you can connect to electricity or draw water. But these marinas are practical and offer a range of facilities at your disposal. When renting your houseboat, you'll be given a map of the marinas.

5) How do you anchor in the countryside?

If you want to anchor in the countryside, the houseboat is equipped with mooring poles. The team at your departure base will show you how to use them during the briefing. If you will be anchoring on a lake, check the weather conditions — if there are strong winds, anchoring on a lake is not a good idea. And be aware that in Ireland you are only allowed to anchor on lakes during the day.

6) Is there anything to watch out for?

Check the weather. If you're travelling in towns, you don't have to worry about it so much, but on lakes, for example, powerful winds can be dangerous. So anchor securely and don't travel if it would be risky. Similarly, on canals that run through the countryside, watch out for large fallen branches downwind. If water levels are low and it is a dry period, shoals or rocks could put you in danger — you'll be advised of this by the boat hire company. Also be aware of other boats and, on lakes, people speeding along on jet skis. Just like when driving a car, you should keep an eye on others. And, follow the rules and guidelines the boat rental company will inform you of.

7) How will I make it through the lock?

 The number of locks varies depending on the destination (few when the landscape is flat but many in hilly terrain). Don't be afraid of them and don't try to adjust your plans to avoid them unnecessarily — it's not difficult at all to pass through a lock. Plus, the time you spend in the locks can be used as an opportunity to meet other travellers and perhaps get some interesting tips. Going through a lock is easy if you follow the basic rules — go slowly and carefully, and be patient if there are several boats waiting.

Houseboat on the way through the locks

YACHTING.COM TIP: What else should you know before your first houseboating holiday? How to choose the ideal destination for your crew, what class of houseboat to choose, what to pack for the trip... Find out everything you need to know before your first trip in our First time on a houseboat section .

8) Are all locks automatic? Do I need to know anything?

There are several different types of locks manually operated with a lock keeper, automatic with a lock keeper (usually on larger rivers), but also there are manually operated locks without an operator (on canals and rivers that are less frequented). If you come across such a lock, you have to negotiate it yourself — it is easier if you have two other people helping you. The technicians at the exit base will demonstrate the automatic lock control system and explain how to operate it. The on-board booklet will also give you instructions on the types of locks and how to operate them, so you can review everything on your travels. But you can also count on the lock operator helping you, although they will need your cooperation. This will all be explained to you at your departure base.

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9) How much does it cost to go through a lock?

There is no charge for using a canal lock. However, it is usually good practice to tip the lock keeper — ask the company you're renting the boat from. In France, for example, people typically tip around 1 euro (but of course this is at your discretion). In the Netherlands, you'll sometimes find a clog on a pole to put a tips into.

10) Are the locks open non-stop?

In France, they are usually open from 9 am to 7 pm, with a break for lunch. But check if the locks will be closed on public holidays, such as May 1 or July 14. In Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, and the Venetian Lagoon in Italy, locks are open all day — check your logbook for details.

11) Is it possible to cruise on a houseboat at night?

It is prohibited to travel on the river at night, as manoeuvring in the dark poses a number of complications. The locks are also closed at night.

Houseboat anchored at night

12) Do I have to return the houseboat to the place where I rented it?

Contact our sales representative to discuss all options when booking your boat. Usually houseboats are chartered for round-trip routes, but many companies offer one-way trips, with additional services such as taxi transport to the point of departure or, conversely, transfer of your vehicle to the destination, or advice on public transport.

13) Where can I leave my car?

Most of the river bases that rent out houseboats also offer paid parking (guarded, sometimes even covered). Discuss all your options with our sales team when booking your trip.

14) Can I houseboat wherever I want?

During your holiday, generally you can cruise and moor your houseboat anywhere (except places where mooring houseboats is prohibited). However, you must always keep to the rental period of the houseboat, so be sure to plan your trip so you arrive back on time.

Houseboat supporting a small arch bridge

15) How long will the water supplies last on my houseboat?

The capacity of the water tank varies according to the size and type of boat, but usually lasts around two days. Refilling the water tank every day is recommended. The water from the tanks is drinkable, but we advise keeping it mainly for showering, cooking, washing dishes and cleaning.

16) Where can I refill my water tank?

There are a number of water supply points along the waterways — these are marked on the map you'll find on board the boat. Check this when booking.

17) How long will the fuel last on a houseboat?

When planning your trip, ensure you take into account the cost of fuel in addition to the houseboat rental, which is charged separately. The tank will be full when you set off, which should be enough for a two-week holiday. The boat will then be refuelled when you return to base, with you then paying for the fuel. Should your trip be longer, the staff of the boat rental company will discuss everything with you at the start of the cruise.

18) Will there be standard 220 V sockets on the boat?

Boats are usually equipped with a battery or generator for AC voltage. This electricity is used for lighting and powering the fridge — but expect the battery to run down quite quickly, so you'll need to recharge in port. The boat also has a 12 volt socket where you can charge your mobile phone but don't forget to bring an adaptor.

19) Won't I get cold on the houseboat? Is there a heater?

The boats have heating, either gas or diesel. Have them show you how to operate it at the handover.

20) Can I cook on the boat? How is it equipped?

On board, you'll find crockery, cutlery and everything you need for cooking. Most have a stove, oven, fridge, sink, pots and pans and an assortment of utensils sufficient for the maximum number of passengers expected on board.

Equipped kitchen on houseboat Tarpon 49 Quattro Prestige

The kitchen on the Tarpon 49 Quattro Prestige is well equipped

21) Should I bring my own linen?

It all depends on the individual companies, check when booking your boat — some offer linen, others don't. Also check if payment for any linen is included in the boat rental fee.

22) Is there hot water on the boat?

Yes. When the engine is running, it produces hot water, so if you run out, just turn the engine on for a few hours.

23) Where do I buy my groceries?

It's not a problem to go shopping in the villages and towns you'll be passing through — you'll get a map before you set off. But it's a good idea to do a big shop for basic foodstuffs before you depart and you'll find supermarkets near most houseboat bases. Alternatively, you can pay the company to do your first shop for you as some offer this service.

24) What if the boat breaks down or something on it?

If you have any problems, call the departure base, there is always someone available — you will find the number in the boat's manual. If the problem can't be solved over the phone, a technician will be sent out to you as soon as possible (it's a good idea to remember landmarks in the area you are cruising, so they can find you as soon as possible).

25) What should I do if there is an accident?

Houseboats are insured in the event of an accident, so you are only liable for damages up to the amount of the deductible. However, we recommend that you go through the insurance and read the conditions carefully. Plus, it is a good idea to have your own liability insurance and standard travel insurance.

Which houseboat will you take on your holiday?

We will be happy to help you with the process of choosing the right houseboat and destination for your holiday. Contact us.

FAQs: What you should know before your first houseboat trip