HomeTravelTips and ResourcesTravel SOS – canal boats

Travel SOS – canal boats

As a travelling nation, we’ve taken to cruising like ducks to water. Last year more than 1 million Australians took a cruise of some sort, so it can get crowded on the high seas and the famous rivers these days. But if you are after a waterway less travelled, consider a barging holiday.

A barging holiday is not for those who want to live life in the fast lane. Most of us can move faster than a canal boat, which has a top speed of just 7km/h. Canal boats, or barges, may not be speedy but they can take you to places that no vehicle of any other kind can.

The UK and Europe, two of our favourite destinations, are riddled with canals, thanks to a legacy of the Industrial Revolution. There are more than 32,000km of canals criss-crossing the UK and a further 40,000-plus kilometres across Europe. In both destinations, barges link hamlets to big cities, meander through pristine parks and forests, and dissect some of the biggest cities. Ever heard of Camden Lock? It is in London, on Regent’s Canal, and you can’t get any more central than that.

pretty red canal boat in coventry

Plus wherever you go, you BYO your own accommodation. This is such a bonus, as anyone who has ever arrived in foreign town late at night without accommodation will testify. Good for the budget too.

While there are thousands of choices for where you can go, the first decision of a barging holiday is whether to choose a guided trip or the self-drive option. Being captain of your own craft has many advantages, not least of which is that you decide where you want to go and when.

Crucially, you don’t have to be an old salt to be the captain of your own craft. A couple of hours’ tuition, mainly around navigating the inevitable lock systems, will see you on your way to holiday bliss. Laws governing boating vary from country to country but generally if your country demands a licence, then you will have to provide one. It’s complicated for us Aussies because the states differ on this, so to be safe, it’s best to check the legalities with the boat-hire company.

But if navigating a lock sounds as if it’s hard yakka, you can jump on board an organised canal cruise and let the captain do all the work. They cost more but your money not only buys the captain’s expertise, but also extras that can turn a holiday into a lifetime memory.

French travel specialist Kate Stedman of French Fusion is a devotee of guided barge holidays. “A guided barging holiday can offer all manner of extras such as a personal chefs, maids, food, wine, tours and excursions that are often too hard to get into, wineries, castles, and museums.

older couple standing on the back of a canal barge

France has 7000km of navigable canals, with the pick of them being the Canal du Midi, the 241km canal in southern France generally acknowledged as the most beautiful in the world. “It is world-heritage listed, you travel through some of the most spectacular country in the world, but you do have to traverse the 63 locks between Toulouse and Sete on the Mediterranean. And while they are automated, it’s not easy task,” Kate says.

A good site to start exploring European waterways is european-waterways.eu/e.

The UK canals are narrower than found elsewhere and as a result the boats never exceed 2.13m in width. The longest narrow boat you will find is 22m, which matches the shortest lock on the British system.

These days, narrow boats are generally well-kitted with full kitchens, sat-nav television, wifi, flushing toilets and even spas. Of course, there are more spartan, and economical, options. And you will find boats that can sleep any number from two to 22.

The UK canal system, in particular the canals of England and Wales, are under the auspices of the Canal & River Trust & River Trust. Lots of great information on its website including a how-to video for newbies.

Related articles:
Beginners guide to barging
Cruises like no other


Kay O’Sullivan is no accidental tourist. More than a decade ago, she decided to combine two of her favourite things – journalism and travel – and become a travel writer. Since then, she has written about travel for numerous papers, magazines and on the internet, both here and internationally.


Do you have a travel questions? If so, email your Travel SOS to newsletters@yourlifechoices.com.au

YourLifeChoices Writers
YourLifeChoices Writershttp://www.yourlifechoices.com.au/
YourLifeChoices' team of writers specialise in content that helps Australian over-50s make better decisions about wealth, health, travel and life. It's all in the name. For 22 years, we've been helping older Australians live their best lives.
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