Canal Boat Holidays – Totally Different, Totally Peacefully!

If you are looking for something a bit different for you holiday this year or experience some of the best organized tours in the world, why not look into canal boat holidays? Navigating waterways is lots of fun.

That said, know first that canal and waterway cruising is not a holiday that will please everyone. If you like playing tennis and golf all day, if your idea of happiness is lying beside a pool looking at the young ladies in their miniature bikinis, if you must absolutely be able to enjoy a hectic night life every day of your holiday – then a canal cruising holiday is most certainly not for you.

On the other hand, if you don’t mind gliding peacefully through some of the most beautiful country in the world at a speed of around 7 km an hour, seeing parts of the countryside that other people never do, avoiding all the rush hour traffic, and slowing down the pace of your life to a gentle amble, then a canal cruising holiday will be very much your speed.

Canals are not straight roads you rush down. Typically they turn around following the bends of the countryside, although, occasionally, you may find yourself going through a town – even through the center of a major city.

To liven the proceedings you will frequently come across locks which, in almost every case, you will have to work yourself. You soon get used to it. It is a small but pleasant skill that provides an enjoyable break in the day. It is also a good place to meet people from other boats who will be full of information and advice – some of it correct and valuable.

There are several guide books available for each country, and they list the waterside pubs, which are some of the most interesting and attractive of hostelries in Europe.



If you are going to be operating the boat yourself – and there is no other way to totally enjoy the experience – then you need to be agile enough to get on and off the boat fairly quickly and you need to have somebody to steer the boat. In fact, a three person crew is preferable. If that is impossible, then there are hotel boats, especially in France, which cater to your needs.

There are no high levels of skill involved in handling a canal boat. It is not like a yacht. Steering is either from a small hand wheel or a tiller at the back of the boat, and you have a throttle lever to control the speed. When you hire the boat you will be given a very short training course to show you how to handle the locks, bridges and other items of canal technology.

There will be a towpath running along one side of the canal, which is where the horses used to walk when they towed the boats. When you want to stop you can moor the boat on the tow path side. There is no charge for mooring and you either use mooring posts or hammer some stakes into the ground.

You, of course, carry your water with you and you will have to re-fill the tanks every second day or so. You will not have that trouble with fuel as typically you will be supplied with enough to more than last for the duration of your holiday.

You can cook on the boats – all utensils are supplied – but you will probably find yourself having dinner at one of the many waterside hostelries. You will have to take with you proper boat shoes so that you do not slip on wet decks.

On older boats, the person steering can sometimes be annoyed by the sound of the diesel engine. This is not a problem on the newer boats which are normally those for hire. In either case, it is only the person steering who notices. At the front of the boat there is no noise except for the lapping of the water and the swishing of the reeds.

In Britain, the canals are fairly narrow – two meters is fairly wide – and that is why the boats are called ‘narrowboats’. Despite their lack of beam these boats have all of the conveniences of home including showers, kitchens and the inevitable television. Note that they never come equipped with telephones – it is not meant to be that sort of holiday. But if you need to be in constant touch you can hire a mobile phone.

Almost all boats have a dining area which can be made up into an extra double berth. Unless you are very pushed you should avoid this. It is only suitable for young people.
Thus the rule is that if you are hiring a boat for four people you hire a six person boat.

The electricity – after all, this is Europe – is weird and wonderful and if you need to use a hair dryer or recharge a camcorder you need to check with the hirers very carefully before you start out.

In Europe there are several cruising grounds, some more attractive than others. For example, canal boating in Scotland sometimes means that you are sailing across quite large bodies of water and you need something other than a narrow boat. Ireland, on the other hand, has become a major area for canal cruising and many of the canals have been restored and reopened.

In Ireland the Grand Canal and Barrow Systems and the Shannon River offer you the freedom of 240 kilometres of uncrowded waterways. The start of the Grand Canal is only 100 km from Dublin. The Shannon is the backbone of a vast network of inland waterways, joined to the Erne via the newly restored Shannon-Erne link. The Grand Canal connects it to Dublin and the east coast, while the Barrow Navigation makes it possible to travel to the south east. The river immediately to the south is ideal for beginners. But it is in England that British canal cruising comes to perfection.


There Are Three Areas You Can Go For Canal Boat Holidays

The first is the Norfolk Broads which consists of canals and rivers connected to lakes which are called Broads. There are no locks in this area, but there are tides and you need to acquire the skill of using the tides to move you along.

This is some of the most beautiful country in Europe, and even for England, it is a very quiet and remote place.

The river Thames provides yet another area for cruising, but it has some differences. The locks right up to Oxford are worked by lock keepers, who know the area and are normally great characters in their own right. The banks of the Thames are a panorama of English history and you could not be bored for one minute.

Then there are the canals which run throughout England and Wales. There are about 3,000 km still available for recreational use, as they are rarely used now for commercial transportation. It is here that you have to use a narrow boat. It will come with all the comforts of home and is very simple to use. Anyway, you cannot do much damage at a maximum speed of about 7 km an hour.

The centre of the canal system is in the city of Birmingham, but most of the canals run through the countryside. You amble along and enjoy the scenery and then at night moor beside a waterside pub. You probably will only travel for four hours or so a day, which will leave you plenty of time for exploring.

It takes about 15 minutes to get through a lock and you need to change your way of thinking of distance from km to lock km. You will it normally find that you travel at something under 30 lock km a day.

You can either cruise from your starting pint and back along the same canals or you can go on a circular tour which brings you back to your starting point. Take the advice of the boat yard as to how long a trip will take. Their judgment is better than yours. Canal cruising on the Welsh borders between Chester and Llangollen can get a little crowded at the height of the season, but many regard this as the ideal first trip.

There is much discussion as whether to carry a bicycle. You will find that carrying a bicycle for each person on-board will make the trip much more interesting because it is very easy then to cycle along the tow path to some close by destination. On the other hand storing them can be a dashed nuisance, and if you put them on the cabin top you will find problems with overhanging trees and some of the bridges, which can be very restricted. Nevertheless, they improve the holiday no end.

When you have finally decided where to go, and have arranged to hire a boat, buy a guide for the canals you intend to cruise. In Europe Nicholsons, Pearsons and Waterways World each publish a series of guides. These are useful on the cruise, as they will show you where the villages, pubs and water points are. An overall map of the system is useful for appreciating where the canals are in relation to the rest of the country, and for overall planning.

There are no big differences between cruising in Britain and cruising on the continent. Perhaps the biggest difference is that on the continent the major canals are still used for commercial traffic. But otherwise it is much the same. You never go faster than eight km per hour – there is a speed limit – and you need to allow 15 minutes for going through a lock. Otherwise, it is a very similar experience and the canal system extends through France, Germany and Holland.


Frequent Asked Questions About Canal Boat Holidays


Where does drinking and washing water come from?

On your holiday, your boat will have a full tank of water for both the kitchen and the shower. A full tank will probably be enough to last for your trip, but if you need more there are lots of public moorings where you can fill up with water.


How much does the fuel cost?

This all depends on how far you go and at which speeds, but you would expect to pay between 40 pounds and 100 pounds for a week’s cruising. Costs in Scotland can be higher, so if you’re looking at exploring north of the border, it could cost up to 130 pounds per week.


What safety equipment do I need?

If there are any non-swimmers, or children, in your boating party then it’s a good idea to have some buoyancy aids on board in case anyone falls overboard. Make sure that everyone has a good pair of sensible, non-slip shoes for walking around in, and you’ll need at least two people that are physically able to jump on and off board and work any locks you pass through.


Can I bring my dog?

Most holiday companies won’t mind you bringing along a well-behaved pet dog, and your dog will thoroughly enjoy the many great walks along the canals and rivers when you moor the boat. Don’t forget that if you are looking at boat holidays abroad, pets will need a pet passport.


7 Things you must take on your Canal boat holidays

Collapsible luggage – Don’t bring hard suitcases with you. They take up valuable room on the boat. Canal lovers couldn’t care less if you you’ve got expensive brand name luggage.

Torch – This is useful for finding your way back to the boat after a night out in town. We don’t want you falling into the water.

Canal map – These special maps show the position of the locks so that you can plan your journey. They also have the location of amenities such as refueling points, refuse sites and toilets.

Waterproofs – The driver’s position is pretty exposed so if there is a downpour you want to be protected. You don’t want to have to moor up every time the heavens open

Suncream – You’ll probably be spending a lot of time outside, so make sure you are well protected. The inside of the boat can get pretty hot on a sunny day.

Your favourite foods – canal boats come with a fully fitted kitchen so you can bring your favourite food with you and cook it on board. This makes a canal boat holiday very economical. On the other hand some people like to plan their holiday around the local pubs, which is great if you like ‘pub grub’.

Pirate flag – OK, not entirely necessary, but great fun for the kids. Dads seem to love them too.


Canal boat holidays are a great experience for the whole family and offer a wonderful way to spend quality time together away from the usual stresses and strains of modern life. You really do leave your cares behind as you meander down rivers and canals at your own pace, taking in nature and stopping of for a meal and a drink as and when you please.

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