Canal du Midi in southern France.

Piloting a Boat Through French Canals

Traveling Through France by Canal Boat

It is easy to travel through the canals of France on your own rented boat. You can rent it in advance, pick it up, and take off for a week of leisurely crusing along one of the many canals. The boat provides your lodging overnight and a base for visiting small villages and viewing the countryside along the way. How do I know about this?

My parents have gone to Paris a number of times on their own, but neither speaks any French. No problem, Paris is very easy to get around.

But they were interested in seeing Normandy. Since I took French in high school and don't mind traveling off the beaten path, how about I meet them in Paris, we rent a car, and I drive them around Normandy?


Well, one thing led to another, and the car in Normandy turned into a boat, plus a couple that they are close friends with. And then three years later, a second trip on a different canal. And then a few years later, a third trip. Here are descriptions and pictures of our experiences and some suggestions if you are interested in organizing a similar trip for yourself.

Highly Recommended

It is easy to do — both setting up the rental in advance, and then getting around by boat. My boating experience had been pretty much limited to canoes, but a 13-meter diesel-powered canal cabin cruiser was no problem.

Your travel logistics are easy — you have your bedroom (sorry, "berth") on board. You wake up in the morning, tied up at some village along the canal. Someone gets fresh bread from the local boulangerie and you have breakfast on board. Then you start motoring along the canal. You cover maybe 15-25 km during the day, drifting along at just 6-10 km/hour. You can stop for lunch at a village along the way, and you tie up for the evening at another village where you get dinner. It's France, so there are great meals available even in small villages.

It's not very expensive — we went during the most expensive time of the year (mid-June to mid-July), and it worked out to about US$ 100 per day per person for the boat plus provisions. Since that includes your housing, plus your transport, plus breakfast, plus some lunches, that isn't bad. In the off-season (say, March and October) the price is half that or even slightly less.

There is a lot of information here — what was growing into one overly large page has been broken into sections. It would probably make the most sense if you look through it in order.

First, though, here are some pictures to give you an idea of what you will see along the way. The boats we rented had an upper deck well above the water line. With the canal often slightly above the surrounding ground level, we had nice views of the countryside and villages we passed. The engine is quiet, so it's very peaceful as you seem to drift along. There are small villages, some larger towns, and a few chateaux along the way.

A small village next to a canal in central France

A small village

A small village next to a canal in central France

A road often ran along the canal.

Fishermen on a canal bank in central France

Fishermen on the bank.

People walking and riding bicycles on a canal bank in central France

People walk and bicycle along the paths beside the canal.

A tree-lined canal in central France

A long straight stretch lined with trees.

Farmland beside a canal in central France

France has a lot of very good farm land.

Chateau near a canal in central France
Grounds of a chateau near a canal in central France