• Boat shows give you the ability to see dozens and dozens of different models, all on the same day. Some in-water boat shows allow for sea trials.

  • Many dealers are ready to wheel and deal at the shows, and they’re a great place to negotiate for your best bargain.

  • There are also countless boating accessories, marine electronics, and services on display at boat shows.

  • Visit one of the top 10 boat shows in the nation: including Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Annapolis, Seattle, Houston, Chicago, Newport, Palm Beach, Boston, and San Diego.

Our Boat Buyer’s Guide is chock full of information, and should help any prospective boater get a good idea of just what type of boat will be best for their needs. But once you’ve decided on a type of pleasure craft, be it a pontoon boat, a flybridge motor yacht, a deck saloon sailboat, or anything in-between, you need to do some serious boat shopping to find the exact model that’s ideal for you–and the perfect place to make that happen is at a boat show.

Boat shows give you the opportunity to check out all different shapes, styles, and sizes of boats on the same day, in the same place.

Attending a Boat Show

While going to a show is pretty straightforward, a little insight into how to attend one effectively is in order. First off, you can scroll down and see our list of the top 10 boat shows in the nation to find one that’s close to you. You can also visit the National Marine Manufacturer Association (NMMA) Worldwide Boat Show Calendar, which lists out over a dozen NMMA-produced boat shows. You’ve found one that’s close by and timed right? Excellent – let’s get started.

Prepare for your comparison shopping by getting a notepad, a flashlight, and a pocket-sized mirror on a telescopic arm (the type they sell in auto-parts stores). You’ll want the notepad to record important details about specific models. The flashlight and mirror come in handy for inspecting parts of the boat you can’t easily see, such as inside the anchor locker or underneath the gunwales. Poking and prodding into small spaces and dark corners, where the builder never expects anyone to look, can provide a lot of insight into just how much care went into a boat’s construction. Look for tell-tale signs of extra effort, like wires and plumbing lines that are well-supported even where they’re out of sight, fiberglass edges that are ground smooth instead of left ragged, and deck hardware that’s mounted with through-bolts and backing plates instead of screws driven through fiberglass alone.

Also make sure you carry your cell phone, and be ready to snap off lots of pictures. Yes, you want to take them of the boats. But also take pictures of the placards dealers will place on them, detailing options, specifications, and pricing. It’s important to keep track of all these details because before you make any decisions about the comparative value of different boats, you need to be sure you’re comparing apples to apples. One manufacturer may call item “A” a standard feature that’s included in the price, while another might call it a cost-adding optional feature. By the time you get all the features you want, this can make a huge difference in the final price of any particular boat. If you don’t figure out the “real” cost while comparing different models, it’s easy to be confused or misled.

Snap off a picture of the placards placed with boats of interest, to record all their details and the show pricing.

While you’re at the show, try to see as many boats as possible and don’t get too hung up on any one model until you’ve seen all the choices. In fact, many buyers will walk the entire show floor with a map of the displays in hand (these are usually in the guides available at the show entrance) and mark off the locations of potential boats of interest without closely examining them. Then later they can go back and look at the options that caught their eye, one by one. At extremely large boat shows, it may be prudent to sit down with that guide and try to pick out which displays you want to see before you start walking around, too.

Some boat shows, like the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, are so massive that it can be overwhelming. A little pre-planning can go a long way towards making your boat show experience a good one.

Why Go to a Boat Show

Along with the ability to comparison shop, boat shows provide the opportunity to make good deals. Although we believe you’re best-served by thoroughly researching all options before you make any final decisions, remember that dealers are at the show with one thing in mind: selling boats. If you’re willing and able to sign a contract on the spot, you may be able to bargain for an unusually good deal.

Even if the exact boat you want isn’t sitting on-site at the show, just being there gives you some extra advantage. If you find a model that’s perfect but isn’t outfitted exactly as you’d like, you can talk turkey with the dealer about ordering in a new hull instead of purchasing the one they have in the show. Some manufacturers – though not all – will offer a slight discount to dealers when they order and pay for a boat up front, as opposed to the usual practice of ordering a boat on “floor plan” (credit). This discount is usually around three to five percent of the boat’s cost. And if the dealer is going to save some cash on the deal, he or she should be willing to share the benefit.

Even if the exact boat you want to buy isn’t on-site, being at the show gives you the opportunity to sit down with the dealers, order the exact model you want, and get the best possible price. Photo of the Bay Bridge Boat Show courtesy of Annapolis Boat Shows.

Attending a show will also give you some additional buying leverage, particularly in its final hours. To maximize it, plan to visit a very large boat show twice, once on the first day and a second time on the last day. For one-day shows, plan to spend the entire day and visit the dealer early in the day and late in the day. Don’t buy anything on the first go-round. Then, when you show up near the end of the show, the dealer will know you’re serious. He’ll also want to close out the show with a last-minute sale – so this is a great time to get down to brass tacks.

That said, when looking at the bottom line don’t feel like you need to haggle for every penny. Most boats are marked up in the general vicinity of 30-percent, but a dealer’s overhead usually runs at over 20-percent. So they actually don’t have a huge margin to work within. And there’s an advantage to making sure the dealer is just as happy as you are, because they’ll be more likely to give you better service on maintenance and repairs—and they’ll want you to come back when it’s time to upgrade.

An added bonus for you northern boaters: boat shows are also a great way to get out of the house during the off-season. Most have plenty of extra activities and events to keep both parents and kids entertained, and going to the show can be a ton of fun. Boat shows should be looked at as educational opportunities, too, because there will often be seminars, demonstrations, and experts on the scene who can answer any questions you may have.

Many shows have demonstrations, seminars, and other interesting events in addition to all the boats. Photo courtesy of the Progressive Chicago Boat, RV, & Sail Show.

Top 10 Boat Shows in the Nation

So, are you ready to make a good deal on a new boat, gain some new nautical know-how, or shake off the winter blues and go visit some boat shows? Here are the top 10 in the nation:

  1. Miami International Boat Show

  2. Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show

  3. Annapolis Boat Show

  4. Seattle Boat Show

  5. Houston International Boat Show, Sport, & Travel Show

  6. Chicago Boat, RV, & Sail Show

  7. Newport International Boat Show

  8. Palm Beach International Boat Show

  9. New England (Boston) Boat Show

  10. San Diego International Boat Show

Written by: Lenny Rudow
With over two decades of experience in marine journalism, Lenny Rudow has contributed to publications including YachtWorld, boats.com, Boating Magazine, Marlin Magazine, Boating World, Saltwater Sportsman, Texas Fish & Game, and many others. Lenny is a graduate of the Westlawn School of Yacht Design, and he has won numerous BWI and OWAA writing awards.