Is a European Canal Barge Cruise better than a Regular River Cruise?


European Canal Barge Cruise

Is a European Canal Barge Cruise better than a Regular River Cruise?

You’re about to discover the five times you should choose a barge cruise in Europe over a river cruise.

Watch my video about when barge cruise is better 

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The first, and one of the most important reasons for choosing a barge over a river cruise in Europe, is pace. If you’re looking for a vacation which is slower and much more relaxing, then take a look at a barge cruise.

The reason for that is the way that barge cruises work. First of all, they cover a much smaller distance. They might travel only 50 to 70 miles across the course of seven days. They travel and cruise much slower, and barges do not cruise at night.

Normally what happens is you will have half a day of excursions and half a day of cruising along the canal, or if you’re cruising along the rivers along the rivers. The barges are always docked at night, so it has less time that it can be cruising than on a river cruise where you might cruise all night.

The whole pace slows down because you’re spending half of the day on board the barge as you meander along the canals or the rivers.

If you’re looking for something that’s calmer as a vacation option, a barge is a great option.

Intimate and Social

A second good reason for choosing a barge over river cruise is if you are a sociable person, and like small intimate experiences where you really get to know a few people really well.

A river cruise boat will have between 120 to 200 passengers, but barges are much smaller. For example, on the CroisiEurope Deborah barge I cruised on, there are a maximum of 22 guests, and many other barges are even smaller where you might find there’s an average of 12 guests.

It’s a smaller and intimate experience and you get to know people really well, because you go out on excursions together, dine together and socialise together. It’s a more intimate experience and if you’re the sort of person that likes to travel with less people and you like to get to know people really well, a barge is a really good option.

River cruise boats are quite small in terms of number of people, but this is an even more intimate experience.

Out-of-the-way places

The third area where a barge cruise could be a good option is if you’ve travelled quite a lot around Europe, or you’ve seen lots of Europe, a barge cruise could be a really good alternative, because barges go on canals, they go to more out-of-the-way places. They might go to quieter places, while river cruises go on large rivers and to big towns, often going to many of the well-known iconic towns.

Barges tend not to do that because they go along canals. They go to more out-of-the-way quieter places, smaller villages and towns. You’re going to see parts of Europe that you’re not going to see otherwise. They go deep inside the countryside. You are going to see very different things.

If you’ve seen many parts of a country or you’ve been to all the big iconic places in Europe, a barge is a really interesting way of seeing a different side of a country, because it’s going to take you to more out-of-the-way places.

Definitely it’s a good option to think about if you feel you’ve done quite a bit of Europe, or you don’t want to see the obvious things, and want to see more in-depth and unusual places a barge cruise is a really good idea. If you are less bothered, or have seen all of the big iconic places, and you want to see the more out-of-the-way, more rural, more countryside area of a country, it is going to give you a very different experience.

Lots of options less appealing

Another reason when a barge cruise may be better than a river cruise is, if you’re the sort of
person that’s not bothered with having to deal with lots of choice.

First of all, you’re going to have less choice of the number of places you can go to. Barges largely cruise on canals, about 95% of all barge cruises in Europe are on canals. These are man-made waterways built largely in the 18th century and were designed to transport goods around about Europe before railways came along and, of course, eventually road haulage.

95% of barge cruises go along canals, and because the nature of where canals are, barge cruises tend to be mostly in France, England, Scotland, Ireland and there are a few in the Holland and Belgium area. There’s much less choice of places you can go to.

Not as much choice

Unlike River Cruises where there are a multitude of providers, and there are many different cruise lines, on barges it is much less so. For example, there are only about three or four key providers of barge cruises around Europe. CroisiEurope is one of them, for example, who focus on France.

Also, once you’re on board, there is less choice because (obviously) the boats themselves are much smaller. If you take, for example, the Deborah barge there were obviously the cabins, then on the main level you had a dining room, a small bar area and a lounge area, then outside there was an open seating area where we could eat or relax and a hot tub.

There’s an upper level Sun Deck on many barge cruises. The Sun Deck level is closed when you’re cruising because the level of the bridges is quite low, so it you can’t be out on top deck. On many barge cruises, if you’re cruising along canals you can only use the Sun Deck when you’re docked. A lot of our cruise took place on the river, because the water level was very low in the canal, so we went on the Yonne and the Seine River, and the top deck was available much more often when we were cruising.

You’re not going to find things like fitness centres, work out rooms, alternative dining venues, swimming pools or any of that kind of stuff that you might find on modern
river cruise ships.


Another key area where you are going to have less choice is when it comes to dining. On River Cruises you often find large menus with lots of options, with multiple starters, main courses and desserts. On barge cruising, you tend to have a set menu.

So, again let me give an example on my cruise, breakfast was a buffet breakfast with the usual things: pastries, fruit yogurt. The lunches were a set menu and a four-course menu. The food was very good, and gourmet like, with a starter, a main course, a cheese course and then a dessert course. It was a set menu with one starter, one main course, two cheeses and one dessert. If you had dietary issues, they will cater for them if you arrange it with the cruise line and chef once on board. The evening meal was also a set menu with a starter, a main course and a dessert.

Barge dining

On a barge you have very good food, very high-quality gourmet cooking but you don’t have as much choice. On many of the cruises you’ll find it’s very specific to the region, so on a French barge cruise, you’ll get lots of classic French dishes.

Another area where you’re going to have less choice is when it comes to excursions. Excursions will be included and every day you’ll have one excursion but there won’t be a choice of excursions. Everyone will do that one excursion. Of course, on river cruises they often offer a choice of excursions. They might have more active ones through to more relaxing and calming walking tours.

On a barge cruise you will have an excursion every day but not a choice of excursions, but if that doesn’t bother you and you’re drawn to the pace, the experience and you want to have good food, know you’re going to see the sights, where you’re going to be able to relax and not seeking lots of choice, then definitely then a barge is something worth looking at.


Another key consideration is if you’re not bothered about your cabin being more of a functional place. On a river cruise you can get pretty big cabins, you can get Suites, with balconies and your cabin can become a place where you can retreat to and you might want to spend time relaxing in.

On a barge that’s different. The cabin is a more practical place. For example, on Deborah it had two single beds, quite a lot of storage, a little seating area and then it had an en-suite bathroom with a shower. It’s a pretty small compact space and it’s not the sort of place that you’re going to spend a lot of time relaxing and chilling out in. You can spend that more in the public areas.

It’s less of a place to retreat to because it’s a smaller more compact space, and it’s a more functional space. If you’re not that bothered about having a cabin that you want to spend time in or a private balcony you want to spend time on, a barge is definitely something to think about.

Final thoughts

I had a great time on my barge cruise and it really opened my eyes to an alternative and different way of travelling. It’s definitely something I am going to do much more of. I like river cruising and I’ll really liked barge cruising.

If you’re interested in going on a barge cruise, or even a river cruise, I have many more videos about barge and river cruising and of course ocean cruising too, so why don’t you watch another one of those right now?

Note: I travelled as a guest of CroisiEurope on a 6-night canal barge cruise on Deborah barge in France.

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Gary Bembridge

I grew up in Zimbabwe, but I have been based in London since 1987. My travel life spans more than three decades and that includes more than 95 cruises. In 2005, I launched Tips for Travellers to make it easy and fun for people to discover, plan and enjoy incredible cruise vacations. And the rest, as they say, is history. I have the largest cruise vlogger channel currently on YouTube, with more than 3 million video views per month.

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