10 expert tips for planning the perfect lake vacation

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If you love a lake vacation, you probably already know that proper planning can be the difference between stress-free fun and all-out chaos. 

Whether you’re envisioning a weekend lake getaway, a weeklong trip or an even more extended stay (lucky you!), the key to the best lake vacation is preparation. And that goes for newbies, as well as seasoned LakeLubbers!

Keep reading for our expert advice on the best lake destinations, packing tips, lake activities, accommodations and more. We’ve even got some pointers on how to have fun on your lake vacation even if the weather doesn’t cooperate.

Girl paddleboarding on lake in a bikini

1. What are the best lakes in the U.S. for vacation?

Great lake vacations for families start with, you guessed it, choosing your ideal destination! 

With in-depth reviews of more than 1,600 lakes in the U.S. (and 2,100 worldwide), LakeLubbers.com is the perfect spot to start your research to find the best lake in the U.S. for you and your crew.

We just can’t stress enough the importance of knocking this task off your to-do list early. The sooner you select the best lake vacation destination, the better your chances of securing your preferred accommodations, excursions, rentals, restaurant reservations and more. 

Factors to consider when choosing where to go for a lake vacation include whether you plan to fly or drive, when you plan to travel and whether you prefer a lively, active vacation or a quiet, leisurely one.

Lake Tahoe, California

Fun side note: The last Tuesday in January each year is National Plan for Vacation Day, which is dedicated to encouraging people to plan fun and relaxation for the upcoming year. Did you know Americans leave more than 600 million vacation days unused each year? That’s crazy. Don’t let it be you! Start planning now.

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2. Figure out where to stay at the lake

Once you’ve figured out where you’re going on your perfect lake escape, it’s time to plan where you’ll stay. Again, we recommend nailing this down early!

aerial view of lakeside condo units with boat slips
Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia

Hotels vs. vacation rentals for lake vacation

If you’re traveling with a large group of friends or extended family, a lake vacation rental property is probably a better choice than a hotel room or rooms. Because you’re renting a home, condo, cabin or townhouse, these options are often larger, offering more space for family and friends to cook together, relax, play games, enjoy cocktails, etc.

Other advantages of a vacation rental at the lake: They often include kitchen and laundry facilities, and many are pet friendly.

Of course, you may find these accommodations fill up early since some groups reserve the same property for the same time year after year, whereas hotel rooms are generally more easy to find and book.

In addition to hotels and vacation rentals, some lakes offer more budget-friendly lodging options, including campgrounds, RV parks and houseboats. 

You’ll even find bed and breakfast inns, old-fashioned summer camp-like resorts like this one on Pelican Lake in Minnesota, all-inclusive options like this one on Lake Champlain in Vermont, and super high-end resorts like this beauty on Mackinac Island overlooking Lake Huron.

PRO TIP!

Vacation rental homes can be a great money-saving option if you’re traveling with multiple families because the cost is split, reducing the amount everyone pays. Plus, many come with amenities like private docks, pools and beaches you’re just not going to find at a hotel.

Condo overlooking Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia
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3. Book your boat rental and water sports equipment rentals in advance

Once you have your lodging secured, it’s time to reserve the other things you might need for an awesome lake vacation.

If you don’t have your own boat and want to be able to get out on the water, you should contact a marina or boat rental company to lock in your preferred watercraft on the dates you’ll need it. 

There are a number of types of boats, but choosing the ideal one for your needs shouldn’t be difficult. Popular options include: Pontoons and tritoons, runabouts (also called deck boats or ski boats), wake surfing boats, fishing boats, personal watercraft (jet skis, Waverunners and Sea-Doos) and sailboats.

Of course, each lake has its own restrictions on what types of watercraft are allowed on its waters so it’s imperative you book through a reputable company. States also have varying requirements for licensing (boating and fishing), so be sure to do your research!

Other fun, easy ways to get on the water include canoes, kayaks and paddleboards. Check with local marinas and water sports equipment stores if you prefer to rent. 

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4. Plan fun things to do a the lake ASAP

You’ll want to get input from your entire crew when deciding what to do on your lake vacation. Ideas to explore include:

  • Swimming
  • Standup paddleboarding (SUP)
  • Kayaking
  • Canoeing
  • Boating
  • Jet skiing
  • Tubing
  • Fishing
  • Water skiing
  • Wakeboarding
  • Wake surfing
  • Golf
  • Hiking
  • Cycling
  • Visiting local sites, including historical sites
  • Shopping
  • Visiting local wineries and craft breweries
  • Beaches

PRO TIP!

Don’t guess where the fish will be. Hook up with a professional guide for an epic angling excursion. We recommend FishingBooker.com, which offers more than 20,000 fishing experiences around the world and exclusive pricing.

Angler with large fish

While all of these ideas may not be available at the lake you choose, you should certainly be able to find plenty to keep you, your family and friends busy. Like accommodations and boat rentals, you’ll want to plan and line up at least some of your awesome lake adventures in advance.  

IMPORTANT! Don’t forget to make time for some spontaneous outdoor exploring, too, such as a lakeside bonfire or stargazing. The night skies at lakes can be pretty spectacular.

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5. Plan things to do on a rainy day at the lake

Even the perfect lake vacation can go awry if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate. But planning ahead in case you get a poor weather day or two can result in some fun downtime and family activities.

Make a list of contingency plans for rainy day lake activities. Examples include:

  • Take in a movie at a local theater
  • Visit area wineries or craft breweries
  • Check out what other indoor activities are available where you’re staying such as museums, aquariums and community theaters
  • Plan a relaxing spa day
  • Play some good, old-fashioned board games. Or, if you’re on a grown-ups only trip, try some fun new ones. We love Five Crowns and That’s What She Said.
  • Hunker down and binge a new series on your streaming service of choice

See? There are plenty of activities that can answer the question, “What to do at the lake when it rains?”

PRO TIP!

Use sites like GetYourGuide and Groupon to find significant discounts at your lake destination. Save on thousands of great deals at restaurants, spas, breweries and wineries, as well as boat tours, helicopter rides and more.

Woman using Groupon on laptop to find deals and coupons
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6. Make your lake dining plans in advance

One of the best parts about a lake vacation is heading to breakfast, lunch or dinner by boat to enjoy lakeside dining. 

Granted, you probably don’t want to eat EVERY meal out, but figuring out where and when you do want to enjoy dining at local restaurants should be near the top of your to-do list.

To capitalize on the full experience, do a little advance sleuthing to find out where the locals go to get the freshest meals and enjoy the best atmosphere and lake views. Facebook groups are a great place to start.

Lake restaurants can get really busy, especially during high season (usually summer). If possible, go ahead and make reservations so you’re not so stressed come vacation time.

Choose an off time of day for a lakefront meal so you’re not competing with as many diners for a table. And, if you’re able to make reservations, be sure to ask for a table with the best lake view.

One of the best parts about a lake vacation is heading to breakfast, lunch or dinner by boat to enjoy lakeside dining. 

Granted, you probably don’t want to eat EVERY meal out, but figuring out where and when you do want to enjoy dining at local restaurants should be near the top of your to-do list.

To capitalize on the full experience, do a little advance sleuthing to find out where the locals go to get the freshest meals and enjoy the best atmosphere and lake views. Facebook groups are a great place to start.

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7. Plan easy meals for lake vacations

Easy is the operative word when it comes to planning the menu for food and drinks for your trip. If you’re renting a lake house, condo, cabin or townhome with a kitchen, consider preparing breakfast, snacks and even lunch in advance. Bring it out with you on the water, to the dock or on a picnic.

Some super budget-conscious lake lovers even prep and freeze meals in advance and then transport them to the lake via coolers with ice to go in the freezer. This allows them to spend more time enjoying lake fun and less time in the kitchen while on vacation.

Another great idea is to create a shopping list in advance and knock it out on the first day so you don’t have to make return trips or use a service like Instacart to have groceries delivered straight to your accommodations.

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8. Select books to read on vacation at the lake (and music!)

Page-turning books and killer playlists are essential to a fun and relaxing lake vacay.

Start asking friends now for book recommendations and line them up in advance, whether in paper or digital form. We like using Goodreads and Amazon to get ideas for great lake reads, too.

For music, you may want to create several playlists – chill, party, kids, etc. Use Spotify, Pandora or Apple Music to start curating ideas and then collaborate and share with others in your group.

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9. Order personalized lake gifts and gear for your lake vacation

If you really want to notch up the cool factor on your upcoming trip, think about ordering personalized, lake-themed apparel and drinkware for your crew. Family vacation shirts are always a hit and make for wonderful photo opportunities.

Shirts, hoodies and insulated tumblers are just a few of the items that will have you the envy of everyone on the water. Some of the most popular designs and products in the LakeLubbers Shop include:

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10. What to wear to the lake

You may be asking, “What do I need for a week at the lake?” From sunscreen to sundresses to super soakers, we’ve got it all covered in a FREE, easy-to-download PDF that you can print out and use over and over. 

Since the packing list is pretty comprehensive, we’ll just hit the highlights here.

In the gear department, you’ll want to make sure you have a quality cooler to keep food and beverages cold. We use and love this cooler, which keeps ice for days! It’s also available in a smaller size that’s perfect for taking on the boat.

You may also want to consider one of these super cute insulated tumblers that work amazingly well for both hot and cold drinks. Plus, you can order different colors and personalize them with each person’s name!

Other essentials recommended for a lake vacation:

What do you wear on a lake vacation?

Comfortable and casual is usually the vibe so choose your clothes accordingly. Since you’ll likely be getting in and out of the water frequently, you’ll want to bring several swimsuits and coverups, extra t-shirts and other clothes. Note: Amazon has some super cute and inexpensive items that can get to your house in a jiffy if you’re tight on time.

Nights on the lake can get chilly so be sure to pack a sweatshirt or jacket, too, if you’ll be outdoors. 

In regard to what women should wear at the lake (and men, too, for that matter), it’s critical to bring a hat or visor (preferably with UPF protection) to shield your face from the harmful effects of the sun. Remember, water reflects the sun’s rays, making a hat even more important. 

Once you have everything packed, load up your gear and luggage into a handy rooftop cargo carrier and you’ll be ready to head out on your perfect lake vacation. 

Never leave an important lake item behind!

Download our FREE, reusable packing checklist.

How to plan a lake vacation conclusion

A lake getaway is one of the best vacations you can have, packed with fun for the whole family. Advanced planning is key so be sure to book your accommodations, boat rentals and equipment rentals in advance, make your lake meal plans and dining reservations, and get started early on packing. 


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