Canals were used primarily to transport goods. Not just foodstuffs, manufacturing goods, and basic supplies, but luxuries like glassware could be sent along the smooth ride of the towboats.

Passenger travel by canal became popular, reaching its luxurious peak just as steamboats and railroads made the slow "packet boat" obsolete. "Packet boats" were refined over the decades between the 1820's and the 1850's to create the precursor to the floating palace of the steamboat era. When the option was jarring, dusty and muddy travel by stage, the silent, brightly painted and comfortable packet boats were a thrilling option. However, all is relative. During the summer, the crowded boats became attractive to mosquitos and flies; escaping to the less crowded roof of the boat, which served as the upper deck, put one in danger of low bridges. Passengers often had to prostrate themselves to avoid injury; the proud or unmindful could suffer broken limbs. A young New Jersey man traveling on the Erie Canal to Ohio wrote that "if we get our eyes fixed and gazing with delight on anything perhaps at that moment we are loudly called to beware, the bridge, which fright scatters all our pleasures far and wide."

Still, the packet boats offered a modicum of luxury to the nineteenth century traveler at an egalitarian price. "Everything on the Canal is life and motion," wrote a Boston man in 1846. "A packet has just passed filled with passengers and a man playing the viol and Gentlemen and Ladies dancing." As the roof was used as a deck, the inside of the packet boats was lined with cushioned benches. Eating tables stood in the center. At night, the boat was divided into men's and women's sides by a screen or drop curtain; the benches became beds and overhead hammocks could be pulled down for braver passengers.

The canal boats were soon overtaken by steamboats, and steamboats by railroads. Americans had been primed for a comfortable traveling experience.