7 Top Tips for Booking The Best UK Canal Boat Holiday in 2024

Hiring a canal boat and setting off to explore the UK's inland waterways is a great way to spend your holidays! Whether you are looking to hire a canal boat for a peaceful escape to the countryside, or a city cruise where all the action is on your doorstep (or more specifically your bow), a canal boat holiday (also known as barge holidays, long boat holidays or narrow boat holidays) gives you the freedom to explore and enjoy the things you love.

But, with so many UK canal boat hire options available, how can you be sure you are booking the best canal holiday? Well, that's what we are here to help with!

Before you rent a canal boat for your 2023 holidays, check out our top tips for booking below.

Swans swimming on the Wendover arm canal on a sunny day

1. Choose between skippered and self-drive canal boat hire

On a self-drive holiday, you and your crew mates will be managing your chosen hire boat yourselves, making it perfect for those who want to get the full experience of life on the waterways. Aside from driving the boat, there is also working the locks, operating some bridges and managing the boat utilities - so plenty for everyone to get involved with. It's a real team activity and a great way to spend quality time together. Then after a few hours boating, you can enjoy some downtime. Self-drive boat hire also gives you the freedom to explore at your own pace, along your own route. 

Alternatively, if you're looking for a break where you can sit back and relax a little more, canal boat holidays wih crew provided, such as skippered canal boat holidays or hotel boats could be the perfect option.

A hotel boat, much like a cruise boat, will welcome multiple guests and cruise a pre-planned route. There will be a crew onboard who will manage all aspects of the boat and canals (though many welcome help from guests if you want to get involved!), leaving you to do nothing but put your feet up and enjoy the ride. As well as high end personal service, hotel boats often include dining options as part of the package too.

Canal boat hire with a skipper is a combination of both a self-drive canal boat hire and hotel boats. A skipper will join you each day to take you on a cruise to your chosen destination, managing all the driving, locks and bridges. By night, you'll be left in privacy to enjoy your evenings aboard you very own holiday boat.

Routes and prices vary considerably depending on whether you choose self-drive or skippered canal boat holidays, so before you book your canal boat holiday for 2023, make sure you know which type of holiday is right for you.

2. Research the cruising routes available

The boating itself is a huge part of the fun, from driving the boat and working the locks, to planning the route and tying the knots, there's plenty for the whole crew to learn and get involved with.

Hired luxury narrowboats moored on the Grand Union Canal

But, you may find that a few hours narrow boating each day is enough, or you may even find a beautiful mooring spot where you want to stay for a few days. In that case, it's important to make sure you have some other things to do to, aside from the boating.

With canal boating holidays being available on a large part of the UK's inland waterways, it's always worth spending some time before you book looking at the available routes a boat hire company offers. That way you'll know that if you need it, there is plenty else to entertain you along the way.

Maybe your perfect pastime involves a hiking trip and picnic with a scenic view. Or, some wildlife spotting and fishing in a quiet part of the canals. In this case, you'll probably want to opt for a more rural cruise where you can make the most of the countryside and the odd canalside pub.

However, if you're looking for somewhere with lots to do, a canal holiday that includes a cruise through some towns or cities may be a better option for you.

The majority of routes tend to offer a mix of both of rural and urban landscapes, and many boat hire companies provide suggested itineraries on their website which will help you understand where you can travel during different length trips. You can also use CanalPlanAC to plan you own routes and get an indication of how long a particular trip might take.

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3. Decide how long you want to hire a canal boat for

With the speed limit on the UK waterways being just 4mph, and locks and bridges to attend to along the way, it's important to remember that when you hire a canal boat, you won't be travelling huge distances every day. Because of this, it's always recommended to spend a few days aboard so you get to fully experience boat-life and local the area. 

If you are new to boating holidays and  if you're just looking for peaceful getaway to relax and unwind without travelling too far, a long weekend or a mid-week short break are a great option.

For those who want to go on a boating adventure, a week long boat hire holiday gives you a good few days to explore the waterways before you need to turn around to return the boat. A lot of areas also have circular routes available but with these, you'll need to ensure you stick to a schedule to complete the ring before the end of your holiday.

Longer boat hires are also available, allowing you to travel a good length of the canals and rivers and enjoy everything that inland waterways has to offer. You can often find some good discounts on longer holidays too!

Happy couple and their dog on a canal boat holiday

4. Shop around for the best narrowboat hire company for you

There are a large number of boat hire companies in the UK today, offering a range of holiday boating experiences, and catering for a wide range of budgets. So picking the best narrowboat hire company really comes down to what you are looking for in your canal holiday. 

The larger boat hire companies primarily offer self-drive boating holidays. Often with multiple bases across the UK, there are various route options and a range of boats to choose from. 

There's also a growing number of smaller, independent boat hire companies all over the UK's canal network. These companies are often family owned and are able to provide a more personal service to their guests. Whilst they may offer fewer route options and less canal boats to rent, this is where you'll find some really exclusive and quirky holiday boats for you to enjoy - from quaint, traditional narrowboats and boutique houseboats, to luxury widebeam hotel boats and skippered dutch barges - each holiday will be unique. Prices are often more competitive than the larger companies, and they may also offer quieter cruising routes.

5. Check what's included in the price of your boating holiday

When comparing canal boat hire prices, be sure to read the small print about what is and is not included. 

There are some basics that every canal hire boat will come with, such as free introductory training, life jackets and any boating equipment that is required (e.g. windlasses, mooring pins).

Grey heron sitting on the rear fender of a luxury canal boat

Some boat hire companies will provide a basic cost to rent canal boat, but there may be extra charges added later for things like:

  • bed linen
  • towels
  • car parking
  • pet charges
  • firewood and kindling
  • gas
  • diesel
  • a security deposit or damage waiver

There are now also a lot of boat hire companies offering all-inclusive prices where a lot (if not all) of the above is included, so you know exactly how much your holiday costs at the time you book.

It's also worth taking into account what's included on board your chosen canal hire boat. Some boats will only include the bare basics, whilst others may provide an array of onboard entertainment, all washing up and cleaning supplies, a fully equipped kitchen, some onboard condiments along with tea/coffee making supplies, and maybe even a welcome basket of treats.

So, take a look at the boat's inventory before you book. If you can't find it available online, ask the hire company to share it with you. You can view the inventory for our boats here: Mini Escape; Narrow Escape.

It's good to know what you're getting for your money so you can choose the best deal, but it also helps with that holiday packing. There's nothing worse than getting out on the canal, only to then realise that you should've packed those toilet rolls!

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6. Check the T&C's

As well as checking the small print for your chosen canal hire boat, it's always advisable to read the terms and conditions of booking. There may be certain restrictions about who can hire canal boat, with many companies having requirements around age or minimum number of adults in the party. You'll need to make sure your party meets the requirements before you make any booking.

The terms and conditions can vary a lot between boat hire companies, but will generally include information about:

  • Payment terms and payment methods
  • Check-in and check-out times
  • Limitations due to adverse weather or canal closures that may affect your holiday
  • Cancellation policy
  • Liability for any damage or losses

It's important to make sure you are happy with the T&Cs for your chosen canal holiday, and if you have any questions, give the hire company a call.

Skipper driving a narrowboat out of a tall historic bridge on a luxury canal boat holiday
Brick bridge crossing the grand union at old linslade near leighton buzzard

7. Arrange your Boating holiday insurance

Depending on the type of incidents that are covered by your boat hire company, you may also need to look in to getting your own holiday insurance, as you would for any other holiday.

Generally, any damage to the boat will be covered by your boat hire company, as long as you are operating the boat within the rules and guidelines provided. However, the hire company insurance is unlikely to cover you for any personal injury or in the case of a cancellation, so in these circumstances, it's good to know that you'll be covered by your own travel insurance policy. 

Ready for your holiday?

So, now you've read our top tips you're ready to start booking your perfect 2024 canal boats holiday. Why not take a look at the luxury narrowboat holidays we offer here at Chiltern Canal Boat Holidays? 

  • We offer both self-drive and skippered canal boat holidays from March through to November. 
  • Located on a quiet stretch of the south Grand Union Canal, you can cruise through the countryside of the Chiltern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and will pass through a number of historic market towns and rural villages along the way giving you plenty of holiday activities to choose from.
  • Our canal holidays are available to book for weekends, mid-week shortbreaks, full weeks and longer.
  • Our luxury hire boats are each completely unique and come well equipped with lots of extras that you won't find elsewhere. Plus our all-inclusive pricing means there are no hidden costs!
  • As a family run company, we are passionate about providing a 5 star service holiday experience to all our guests. Don't believe us? Take a look at the reviews from our previous guests by clicking here.

Blog Date: 03 January 2024

Author: Corinne Newman, Co-Owner of Chiltern Canal Boat Holidays (author biography)

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