Combine luxury and easy adventure while seeing the world with an experienced crew
Canal cruises are a fantastic small-group vacation option — Photo courtesy of Delpixart / Getty Images
When most people think of a vacation cruise, they may imagine an ocean liner or perhaps a large river vessel. However, there’s another exclusive, lesser-known option to consider: canal cruises (also called barge cruises). This unique type of luxury cruise is designed only for small groups, moves at a slower pace and allows guests to board and disembark at their leisure.
How do canal cruises compare with river cruises? The overall experience is fundamentally different. While some barges operate along rivers, these smaller vessels are mostly found along the smaller, scenic canals. They combine upscale accommodations and service with easy adventure, taking passengers along narrow waterways to various destinations, such as wineries, castles, markets, museums and villages.
Onboard, the experienced crew members navigate the barge, arrange excursions, prepare meals, shop for provisions, coordinate food and wine pairings, manage housekeeping, tend bar, and oversee the total comfort and safety of guests.
Intro to canal cruising: a luxury experience
A surprise concert awaits guests on L’Impressionniste, a European Waterways ship — Photo courtesy of Jill Barth
Essentially, these private, premium cruises have about 20 passengers on board (and a crew of 10 people or less). This floating “home away from home” provides guests with a high-end experience, including culinary specialties, comfortable quarters and stellar hospitality.
In a post-pandemic world, many cruisers are seeking lighter crowds, attentive service and soothing environments. Canal cruises provide the ultimate in privacy, with access to enchanting towns, famous landmarks and iconic museums. The exclusive lodging experience and activities for these micro-groups are much more intimate than even the most acclaimed river cruises.
Canal cruises take passengers through some of the world’s most charming and historic landscapes, such as the world-class wine region of Burgundy, the striking highlands of Scotland and the incredible waterways of Venice. Days are spent cruising and sightseeing in picturesque locations. In the evening, the barge docks overnight for guests to enjoy dinner, cocktails and onboard amenities, such as a hot tub, games or conversation.
Who was voted the best?: Best River Cruise Ship (10Best Readers’ Choice Awards 2023)
Canal cruising can accommodate most ages and abilities
The Anjodi, the founding member of the European Waterways fleet, cruises on the Canal du Midi in southern France — Photo courtesy of European Waterways
This style of travel is ideal for guests of most ages and accessibility levels. It’s also a popular choice among multi-generational families who want to experience a bucket-list trip, while ensuring everyone feels comfortable. These cruises can be arranged directly with a cruise company or a travel agent who specializes in barge cruises.
Additionally, barge cruises offer many customizable options and potentially flexible itineraries. Groups can book the whole barge for their party, or individuals and couples can secure a spot on a shared canal cruise. Some may offer a theme, such as culinary, golf, wine, music, history or art.
Canal cruising is also popular with solo travelers seeking to connect with like-minded people while on holiday, as it offers the perfect blend of “me time” and “hanging with the crowd.”
On a typical canal cruise, staterooms are available in various sizes, all with private bathrooms. Cabins are often temperature-controlled, and barges are generally equipped with WI-FI and modern conveniences.
Who was voted the best?: Best River Cruise Line (10Best Readers’ Choice Awards 2023)
Guests enjoy incredible onboard culinary experiences
Many culinary delights are offered on a canal cruise — Photo courtesy of Jill Barth
The culinary experiences on canal cruises are often a major highlight, as they are crafted by a professional, onboard chef using plenty of locally sourced ingredients and regional recipes.
Frequently, the meals are customized for the passengers on the cruise. Everyone usually dines together on board and sometimes on land during excursions, depending on the itinerary.
The meals include specialities of the surrounding region and seasonal ingredients. For example, guests might visit a nearby cheese shop or regional winemakers during the day — and then enjoy the bounty at dinner that evening.
Who was voted the best?: Best Small Cruise Ship (10Best Readers’ Choice Awards 2023)
How to book a canal cruise
Canal cruises take passengers along scenic, narrow waterways — Photo courtesy of Jill Barth
Canal cruising is typically one-stop shopping and offered as an all-inclusive experience, with a per-person rate that covers accommodation, local transfers, gourmet meals, wine (and beverages), excursions and more. The rate also includes service from the crew: a captain, chef, tour guide and hosts.
Since these trips require a specific type of waterway, cruise operators normally arrange a chauffeured pickup near a main city center or airport and transport and store luggage for passengers.
A few noteworthy companies that offer canal cruising include European Waterways, a company that offers a number of options in various countries; Grand Victoria, a single barge located in Burgundy, France; and Elegant Waterways, a smaller cruise outfit with three lovely vessels.
On barge cruises, gratuity is not included, so passengers should plan to leave 5% to 10% of the cruise fare as a show of appreciation for the crew. While not every operator is the same, crew members typically speak English, as well as the local language.
Just like any trip, always ask about what’s included before reserving because every cruise will be slightly unique — which is part of the fun!