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Houseboats have the same sort of appeal as treehouses or genie bottles: They make a magical experience out of the mundane human need for shelter. And houseboats have the added benefit of mobility. You can get from here to there while sunbathing on the dock with a book, grilling steaks, or indulging in other pleasures that car, plane, or train travel would prohibit. And they make those activities more fun than they'd be on dry land; even the most banal daily chores, like making beds or washing dishes, become a novelty when they're performed on a floating abode.

Most domestic houseboat rental agencies are regionally based and rent vessels on marinas in manufactured, dammed up lakes, such as Lake Powell or Lake Mead. This is because natural lakes and rivers are often too rocky or shallow for amateur sailors, and most houseboat rentals don't require previous experience behind the wheel of a boat.

Seven Crown Resorts (tel. 800-752-9669; www.sevencrown.com) rents houseboats on the California Delta and three man-made lakes, including Lake Shasta, Lake Mead, and Lake Powell. In the California Delta -- a 1,000-mile network of rivers, tributaries, and channels between Sacramento and San Francisco -- Seven Crown boats depart from Paradise Point Marina, near the towns of Walnut Grove and Locke. Prices are significantly cheaper before Memorial Day and after Labor Day, and cover either two-night, four-night, and seven-night rentals, which is typical of most houseboat rentals. The cheapest vessel is the Crownship, which sleeps six or seven and includes a full kitchen with cookware, microwave, and refrigerator, and a gas barbecue on the deck. Two-night rentals are $750 off-season and $1,050 peak season; seven-night rentals are $1,250 off season and $1,750 peak. The Summit sleeps ten to twelve. Two nights during off season are $1,150, and seven nights are $1,750. During peak months, two nights are $1,350, and seven nights are $2,200. Taxes are included on the published Lake Shasta and California Delta prices, but not on the Lake Mead and Lake Mojave offers, which are 7.5% and 5.85% extra respectively.

The New Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas (tel. 800-206-9438; www.lakepowell.com) is located in the artificial lake that settled into Glen Canyon after construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, on the Arizona-Utah border. Their best deal for spring, if you book before June 10, qualifies you for discounts on powerboats or jet ski rentals as well. Three nights on their 44-foot Explorer, the most basic craft, are $1,394, including taxes and fees. For seven nights, the price for the same boat is $1,775. The Explorer sleeps ten and come with an RV-sized gas stove, a small refrigerator, and outdoor gas grill, but no televisions, generators, or other appliances.

For the broadest range of marinas, including vessels that amateur captains can steer down mighty natural waterways like the Mississippi or Hudson rivers, see Houseboat Rentals (tel. 888/696-2628; www.houseboatrentals.com). The website acts as a sort of industry clearinghouse, sponsored by Houseboat Magazine. The site features listings for houseboat rental agencies in 15 countries and 61 U.S. states and Canadian provinces, including Alaska and Hawaii. Each month, Houseboat Rentals highlights a featured destination, and they run an archive of previously published stories as well.

A convenient map lets you click on the region that interests you most to see what options are available there. If you click on the Minnesota border, for instance, you'll see listings for S&S Houseboat Rentals (tel. 800/728-0131; www.ssboatrentals.com). They rent boats for travel down the upper Mississippi River. Before June 17 and after Labor Day, a luxury boat that sleeps six is $1,276 for four midweek nights (Monday to Thursday) and $2,041 for a full seven days. In high season, that same vessel is $1,595 and $2,552. All S&S boats depart from Lansing, Iowa. Weekly rentals can venture as far as either Winona, Minnesota, or Guttenberg, Idaho. On weekend trips, you can float to either La Crosse or Prairie du Chien, in Wisconsin.

We recommend you start exploring your options from the Houseboat Rentals home page. Scroll through the destinations they service, from marinas in South Africa and New Zealand to Belgium and Ireland. For travel in Europe, houseboats may be the cheapest way to cover ground while you take shelter, at one fairly low price.