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European Waterways' Magna Carta sails the Thames and surrounding rivers (Photo: European Waterways)

Barge Cruises vs. River Cruises

European Waterways' Magna Carta sails the Thames and surrounding rivers (Photo: European Waterways)
Executive Editor, U.S.
Chris Gray Faust

Last updated
Aug 11, 2023

Read time
9 min read

When it comes to picking a cruise along Europe's rivers and canals, barge cruises are often lumped in with river cruises. In fact, along the Thames River, the only multi-day cruise available on the Thames River -- taking in towns like Oxford in addition to major Royal Family sites and London -- is aboard a retrofitted barge, European Waterways' Magna Carta. Barge cruises are also especially popular along the smaller rivers of France.

We can see why people might consider barge cruises and river boat cruises the same. After all, both cruises take place are on small boats and are often run by the some of the same companies.

Yet barge cruises have their own peculiarities that make them different from the typical river cruise, from the size of your vessel to the number of passengers onboard and amenities. Read on to see what makes barge cruises special, and how they compare to a river cruise.

Vessel Size: Barge Cruises Are the Smallest River Cruises Out There

European Waterways' La Nouvelle Etoile in the Netherlands (Photo: European Waterways)

Both river cruise ships and barges are considered small. But barges are about as small as you can get, with some vessels only holding six to eight passengers. The Magna Carta, which cruises the Thames River, holds a maximum of eight passengers in just four rooms, and there are four crew members (or, one for every two passengers). Sometimes there are actually more staff than passengers on these intimate vessels. That can be fun because not only do you receive stellar service, you get to know the crew, too.

The typical barge cruise has one or two decks, or possibly a third if you're allowed to go near the wheelhouse where the captain sits (often once the barge is docked for the night). There's usually one dining room, one lounge and an outdoor sitting area. That's it. With a barge, you're almost forced to socialize with your cruise mates; on a vessel so small, it's very hard to hide.

On a river cruise, the number of passengers usually varies from 98 to 190. Most river cruise ships have three or four decks, including a sun deck that is almost always open, unless you are passing underneath a bridge. A river vessel will typically have at least one dining room, possibly two or three; a main lounge for entertainment; and several decks of cabins. It may have a fitness center and small spa or salon, even an indoor or outdoor pool.

You still have a dedicated staff and more individual service than you'd find on most ocean cruises. But it's less intimate than a barge

Choose a barge cruise if... you like traveling with intimate groups, don't mind small spaces and enjoy a high degree of interaction with the crew.

Choose a river cruise if... you still like smaller vessels, but prefer to have choices in tours, dining options and a bit more privacy.

Rivers and Destinations: You'll Find Barges From London to France and German Across Europe

The Enchante by European Waterways in Canal du Midi (Photo: European Waterways)

River cruising is global, with ships plying inland waterways around the globe. Europe is far and away the most popular destination for river cruises, though iconic rivers like the Mekong, Ganges and Yangtze in Asia; the Mississippi River in the U.S.; the Amazon in Peru and Brazil; and river journeys in Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa all make for fascinating options. These options all generally take place on standard river cruise ships and you'll find a much wider array of itineraries and activities.

Barge cruises, on the other hand, primarily stick to canals and shallow rivers of Europe, like the Thames. Additionally, only a handful of operators offer barge cruises. Lines to consider include European Waterways and French Country Waterways, as well as the French river cruise line CroisiEurope; a few tour operators, such as G Adventures and Abercrombie & Kent, also charter these vessels.

A lot of the waterways that barge cruises use are so small, you're unlikely to have heard of them. Barge cruises in France are a particularly attractive destination, with sailings available in the Loire Valley, Provence (Canal du Midi), Bordeaux, Gascony, Picardy (Canal du Nord), Alsace/Lorraine, Champagne and both northern and southern Burgundy. You can also take a barge cruise in England (off the Thames); Ireland (off the Shannon) and Scotland (the Great Glen).

A handful of barge itineraries are similar to those on river cruises; these include Italy (the Po), Germany (the Moselle) and Belgium/Netherlands (Dutch waterways). Although the waterways are the same, the barges will move much slowly and generally cover far less ground than the river cruises will. You're more likely to stay in the small towns along the water than go to bigger cities by coach.

Choose a river cruise if... you like visiting small towns but also want to see some larger cities and marquee sites.

Choose a barge cruise if... you've already traveled in Europe and want a more off-the-beaten-path experience.

Cabins: A Wide Range of Options Are Available on River Cruise Ships

Viking Aton Veranda Stateroom (Image: Viking)

River cruise ships are usually large enough where you can find a choice of cabins. Expect everything from standard cabins to suites on most river ships, and the different decks mean that you'll find an array of views, from "aquarium class" cabins that are on the first level to French balconies and true balconies where you can go outside and sit higher up.

A barge cruise may or may not have a choice of cabin size. Additionally, you won't likely find a balcony or window that opens. Most barge cabins have an ensuite bathroom with a shower. Unlike river cruises, where many ships in the same line are identical (Viking River Cruises, for example, has 51 longships that are almost exactly the same), barges tend to be more unique and idiosyncratic in layout and decor. Some barges might have sumptuous suites that rival a luxury hotel room, where others are much more utilitarian.

Choose a river cruise if... you see your cabin as an important part of the trip and want more of the amenities that you'd find in a hotel room.

Choose a barge cruise if... your cabin is mostly a place to sleep and you plan on spending the majority of your time with others above deck.

Dining: Get Hyperlocal With Meals on Barge Cruises

Croisieurope's MS Deborah plying the waters of Northern France (Photo: CroisiEurope)

As with any type of cruising, it's hard to go hungry on either a river or barge cruise.

On a river cruise, there's usually a main restaurant that serves three meals a day. The morning and lunch menus are often a mix of buffet and made-to-order items, while dinner is a three-, four- or five-course served meal, with several options for appetizers, entrees and desserts. Many river cruise ships now have a secondary restaurant that either does a special fixed menu, often with paired wines, or a more casual bistro where passengers can come and go. Almost all menus are a mix of regional and familiar dishes.

A barge cruise is a more intimate setting, with gourmet meals that border on the elaborate. Having a chef onboard for only a handful of passengers translates into multicourse lunches and dinners, with fresh ingredients often picked up at the local market. Wine is included, and pours are copious. If you're in France, cheese will be a highlight and presented as a course unto itself. There's usually only one set menu but if you have food allergies, the cruise line and chef will accommodate you.

Choose a river cruise if... you're a picky eater or want a wider variety of selection at meals or an alternative restaurant.

Choose a barge cruise if... you like long gourmet meals with a regional bent, and -- if you're in France -- love cheese.

Excursions: Choose a River Ship to See and Do, but Pick a Barge for Long, Quiet Days

A Viking Longship in Lyon ,France (Image: Viking)

Many passengers aren't prepared for the pace of a European river cruise, which can be quite hectic. Barges are an alternative, as they offer a slower pace and more intimate vibe (i.e., you're less likely to be dragged along in packs through crowded cities).

On a river cruise ship, you'll stop in a port (or two) every day and there's usually a walking tour or coach tour that's included; if you don't want to miss out, you could literally be on the go from 8 a.m. until dinner. If you're the type of person who enjoys an afternoon nap on your vacation, you might have to skip some of the fun.

A barge cruise slows it all down. Because barges have to travel during the day, stops in the small villages and towns are usually limited to a few hours in the morning. Then it's back to the boat for the lengthy lunch mentioned above, with afternoons spent puttering through the countryside. Naps are encouraged, as is quiet reading time or socializing with other passengers over a glass (or two) of local wine. When the boat docks before dinner, you might have time to meander through the village or take a short bike ride, but that's about it. (On some canals, you'll be able to bike in the afternoons, meeting up with the barge at a designated lock.)

Choose a river cruise if... you want to see Europe's marquee sites and have an active vacation where you don't want to miss anything.

Choose a barge cruise if... you're happy relaxing, visiting small towns and watching the world drift by.

Price and Inclusions: Barges and River Ships Are Both Generally Pricier Than Ocean Cruises

European Waterways' La Bella Vita in Venice, Italy (Photo: European Waterways)

What you get in the price of your river cruise depends entirely on the line. While many river cruises include at least one daily excursion, as well as Wi-Fi and wine and beer at lunch and dinner in their fare, not all do. As you'd find on the oceans, river cruise lines have different price points, ranging from a value product where you buy more a la carte to an all-inclusive luxury option where everything, including gratuities, is included in the fare.

Barge cruises usually include almost everything in the fare, including transfers, all alcohol, Wi-Fi and excursions. Gratuities may or may not be included. Prices are usually higher than a river cruise due to the small size and the personalized service you receive.

One thing to keep in mind with both river and barge cruises is that the price point is a lot higher than what you'd pay for most ocean sailings (luxury lines excepted). That's because you are usually getting more for your money, in terms of inclusions, and the vessels' smaller size prevents economy of scale.

Bottom Line: Is a Barge Cruise or River Cruise Right for You?

A Viking Longship sails the Main River (Credit: Viking)

Hopefully we've helped you figure out which type of cruise is right for you. But if you still feel uncertain, consider what follows to be your North Star when making your decision between barge cruises and traditional river cruises.

Choose a river cruise if... you're a relatively new traveler to Europe who wants to see as much as possible in a comfortable and social setting.

Choose a barge cruise if... you're an experienced traveler to Europe who is more focused on seeing cute small towns, singular gourmet experiences and relaxation.

Publish date May 18, 2018
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