Self-Drive Barge Trips in France: The Complete Guide for Newbies
The most noteworthy journeys take you outside your comfort zone. But self-driving a barge in France? Before my own boat trip this summer, I worried it would jettison me so far outside my comfort zone that I’d be in a different galaxy.
I get seasick at the merest ripple, and my driving even scares me. (Hey, I live in New York City, so I don’t need to get behind the wheel that often).
Since you’re reading this, you know I survived. So did the passengers, who included my two daughters, two of our friends, and a dear friend from college. Though it seems wrong to categorize everyone in that way, since my kids’ friends are now my friends, too, in a deeper way than I could have imagined before this trip.
You see, to accomplish this type of journey, you need to become a team. Navigational challenges arise, meals need to be planned, ropes must be untangled and coordinated, and so much more. Every night, that teamwork was bolstered by playing games on deck, which also built bonds between the twenty-somethings and us oldsters.
Miraculously enough, I completed the whole boat trip without feeling nauseated. Turns out barges are stable enough, and canals are calm enough, for landlubbers like me. In fact, halfway through, I found myself planning my next barging vacation.
It was that much fun.
But it’s not a dummy-proof vacation. If you’ve ever considered this type of trip, here’s some advice gleaned from my personal experiences, and from talking with fellow boaters along the canal.
We chose to have our barge trip on France’s oldest man-made waterway, the Canal du Midi (pictured above), which was commissioned by King Louis XIV in the 1600s. We were intrigued by the history of the canal, the wines of the region, and the fact that we would be stopping at some of the country’s most impressive medieval fortified cities.
Other French canals are equally appealing for different reasons. Nature lovers often choose to float through the Camargue region, with its saltwater marshes, pink flamingoes, and wild horses. Those who want Renaissance castles, Roman ruins, and wine head to the Nivernais and Loire Valley. The waterways of Alsace-Lorraine offer a similar dollop of history spanning both German and French culture (the area has changed hands numerous times over the centuries), and includes forests and marshlands in protected reserves. There are even more French regions available to bargers to suit a variety of interests.
We rented from Le Boat, and were very pleased by the vessel itself—a three-bedroom, three-bathroom beauty with a full kitchen (pictured above)—as well as the service. Because we were boating at a time of record heat in France (on one day, it was 106 F/ 41 C) and the boat’s air conditioning was dependent on canal water which also was unusually warm because of the heat wave, we had some mechanical issues along the way. They were solved within 90 minutes after we called Le Boat's base, I’m pleased to say.
Le Boat is the largest of the firms operating in France, but there are rival companies that are worth checking out, along with peer-to-peer rentals, with various pricing schemes and types of vessels available. Be aware that peer-to-peer rentals may not provide technical support, or even any training, making owner-direct rentals a more difficult option for inexperienced bargers.
When you make a booking with a boating company, you’ll be given a menu of potential extras, some of which will make your vacation far better, others of which can be skipped.
On the “must have” front, I’d put insurance first. You’re driving an expensive boat on a canal that's filled with other pleasure boaters, many doing this for the first time. Accidents can happen, so it’s better to be covered.
Bike rentals are also a must. Often, the boat's dock will be a good mile or more from the sights you want to see. Having a set of wheels allows you to visit and do much more.
The bikes Le Boat rented us came with locks and fitted snugly on the back of our boat. Unfortunately, because one of my daughters had broken her ankle before the trip, we had to rely on taxis in some destinations, which was a huge expense since French taxis are ridiculously overpriced. When lots of people are traveling in France, such as during the summer, just getting a taxi can be quite difficult. We spent too much time sitting around waiting for a ride. So I’ll reiterate: Pay to rent bikes.
The extras that I’d consider maybes include a late checkout option and a cleaning option. With the former, you have more wiggle room to get back to base on the last day of your trip, which is important if you want to be able to tie up somewhere else on your last night. And with the cleaning option, on Le Boat at least, boaters only need to bag up their linens and remove trash. Without that pre-paid option, you to give your boat a thorough scrub yourself.
Many boat companies also offer a welcome pack of food so that you have eggs, butter, bread, and other essentials in your fridge when you first board. Since going to European markets is such a fun activity, I’d say skip this extra unless you’re pressed for time.
(Pictured above: Cyclists biking the path that runs alongside the Canal du Midi)
Before booking your boat, you have to figure out your itinerary because you’ll have to tell the company which of their ports you’d like to start and end at, and when. Doing so will require creating a rough schedule; LeBoat's website has helpful maps with estimated travel times between stops. It’s handy to remember that going through a lock can take between 30 and 60 minutes, depending on whether there’s a line of other boats for it (which happens in high season). Locks are shown on most maps, and most boats travel between 4 and 7 miles per hour (2.5–4.5 km).
By limiting your boating time this way, you make sure that you have time to not only see the canal, but also the extraordinary sights near it. Research what’s nearby by picking up our terrific guidebook Frommer’s France and by looking at the many blogs that recommend sights and activities by each canal. Do take the latter with a grain of salt, though, as sometimes the suggestions are paid ones (and therefore sometimes made to seem more exciting than they are).
(Pictured above: A lock-side sculpture garden on the Canal du Midi)
As I mentioned earlier, our trip happened to coincide with a ferocious heat wave. Next time I organize a canal barge trip, I’ll book a spring or fall jaunt instead. Because of the nature of barging, participants spend a lot of time outdoors driving the boat, handling ropes, and going through locks. We made that tolerable by leaving as early in the morning as possible (most locks didn't start operating before 8am), but having more comfortable weather would have given us more flexibility.
(Pictured above: A bridge on a canal in the Loire Valley)
Part of the joy of canal barging is the serendipity of it. You can dock your boat literally anywhere. The vessel will come equipped with a spike and a gavel so you can tie up the boat wherever there’s a dirt bank, or you can tie your anchor rope around something on shore. That being said, you will need to tie up your boat for at least some of the nights of your trip at ports that supply hookups for water and electricity. Those don’t usually need advance reservations.
Restaurants and attractions are a different matter. On the first night of our barge vacation, we tried to walk in to a highly recommended canal-side restaurant and were turned away. It actually had table space, but not enough food in the kitchen for walk-ins. Usually you can get away with making restaurant reservations earlier in the morning or on the day before, though not always. If there’s a place you really want to dine, secure a booking as early as possible.
For other types of activities, like wine tastings, tours, and some attraction visits, you will likely also need bookings. We did a terrific free wine tasting experience near the city of Carcassonne (pictured above), which we found through the helpful wine tour website ruedesvignerons.com. I made the reservations several weeks in advance, and it’s lucky I did, because all of the spots for that tasting subsequently sold out.
You don't need a special license to operate a boat on France's canals, nor is prior experience necessary. However, if you go with a boating company, your rental will include a 1- to 2-hour instruction session during which you’ll learn about driving the boat, common problems to look out for, and instructions on navigating the locks. For the Canal du Midi, that lesson included very pointed warnings about the low height of the bridges (see above), a weird quirk you can’t gauge accurately until you’re extremely close.
We made a video of our session, and that turned out to be very helpful later, when we discovered that our boat was turning at moments when we didn’t want it to. It turned out our boat had two steering wheels, one on deck and one in the galley, and someone in our party who shall remain nameless kept leaning on the one below deck. Having that video set us straight—in more ways than one.
Gloves are key both because the ropes can be rough on the skin and for sanitary reasons: Barges dump their waste directly into the canal, so water that clings to the ropes is often more than a little icky. We wore gloves whenever we touched the lines, and we thoroughly washed our hands afterwards.
(Pictured above: A man in a lock handling ropes without gloves. Eww!)
The biggest surprise about barging was how many other boaters we met along the way. Each day, by happenstance, we’d pair up with two, three, or four other boats. We’d see them at locks since all the boats on the canal move at roughly the same speed. We met groups from Spain, South Africa, Australia, France, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Germany—though, interestingly, no other Americans. And we chatted across decks as the waters rose and fell in the locks (a 20-minute process, at least, each time), sharing tips and learning about each other's lives.
It was truly delightful—as was the entire weeklong journey, despite the heat. My college friend traveling with us, Kara Flannery, told me, “The time we spent on the boat was so meaningful. It was a real bonding trip because everyone had to be present, and not on their phones, since we were working together. It truly was a great, great vacation."
Oui, I concur.