The Abercrombie & Kent Difference


While sailing with Abercrombie & Kent, we have mentioned parts of their version of the river cruise experience that are unique. Included pre- and post-cruise hotel stays and custom-designed off-ship experiences stand out as easily-definable line items one might anticipate from the luxury vacation company. That an A&K guide has been with us every step of the way adds an element of personalization, layered on top of what the cruise line includes. But what about the cruise line? So far, very little information has come your way about Luftner Cruises, the Austria-based cruise line that owns our ship, Amadeus Brilliant. As we prepare to leave the ship, its time to tackle the sometimes-confusing relationship between A&K, the cruise line and how it all shakes out.

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The Base Experience
Compared to other river cruise lines we have discussed here, the base experience offered by Luftner is more of an ala carte offering. If we were booking a Luftner sailing on its own, shore explorations included at every port by others, are extra here. As opposed to beer, wine and soft drinks included with meals, wine only is included with dinner.   Bottled water, passed out with gusto whenever passengers go ashore on other lines, is available on the way off the ship, for a fee.
Crunching The Numbers
Comparing prices is always difficult with river cruises, if for no other reason than the fact that itineraries are quite varied. As opposed to a swing through the Caribbean where a few basic combinable ports are available from which to choose, there are hundreds in the general category of “river cruises”. Still, generally speaking, the Luftner base experience comes in costing about 15% less. That might make them a potential choice for budget-concious river cruise travelers: if they could book passage with Luftner in the first place. Odds are, they can’t.

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Luftner’s Niche In The Marketplace
Mainly a charter-operator, the 150 passengers on board our sailing are made up of several groups, each with their own experience layer. That’s typical of any sailing with the only past-guests of the line being those who booked through a group before or a variable number of repeat passengers. But even booking is complicated for past guests of the line. For that to happen, they have to be registered and doing so takes completing an interest card in the back of the line’s onboard magazine. Then, even they too would be part of a group, that one the ‘past-passenger group’. On our sailing there were two past-guests, on the sailing after ours, that number increases to twenty two.

Comparable, But Not
So for all practical purposes, a Luftner cruise is not one to throw into the mix of candidates for planning purposes; like one might compare Viking River Cruises to AMA Waterways, Avalon, Uniworld and other lines we see. Still, there are some undeniable highlights of our experience with Luftner worth noting.

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Culinary Efforts Score High
Dining options are the typical river cruise fare; one main seating for dinner, a choice of buffet items or made-to-order items for lunch and dinner, afternoon tea and a midnight snack.

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Standout winners are dinner entrée’s, synced with destinations visited for an authentic feel.   Unique to Luftner, when passengers enter the dining room, the one-for-all starter is already on the table, waiting for them. I liked that idea and the move seemed to speed up the entire dining room process. The starter counts as the salad in a four-course menu that changes daily.

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A choice of two soups is next and comes out quickly also. Entrée selections bring a choice of three, usually a beef, chicken and/or fish-centered plate with appropriate accompaniments. This is where service slows a bit, but for good reason.

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Individual choices are prepared or finished as ordered and come out of the kitchen almost too hot to eat. A single dessert offering is nicely done and a cheese bar is available as an alternative. The entire process starts at 7:00 or 7:30, depending on the day’s port schedule and takes a couple hours.

Practical Application: Just Try This And Let Me Know How It Goes
Straying a tiny bit off topic, there is a dining topic that fits in right about now.

On the river as it is in the ocean, passengers gather at the end of the day for dinner. It’s an included part of the experience that can bring engaging conversation from the normally well-traveled, accomplished clientele. But like on the ocean, there are times when one might like to dine in the express lane: Same service, same food, same ambiance, just less time between courses. Speed eating, if you will.

On most cruise lines, land or sea, there are times when diners are left thumping fingers on the table top, waiting for the next course. It’s as though showing up for dinner at all is not a good enough indicator for cruise lines that we are hungry; they want us to prove it between courses.   How about an option to sit close to the kitchen, move right along and proceed with the evening?  Applying “deconstruction” to the service choreography perhaps.  I am going to start including an inquiry about dining in this manner on future sailings, putting the idea to test. Stay tuned for reports and/or let me know if this is something that resonates with you.

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Accommodations, Crew And Ship Features
Something that is always a hit with cruise passengers are the efforts of the crew and those on board Amadeus Brilliant share a similar commitment to customer satisfaction. That’s almost a given in the world of river cruising, and small-ship cruising in general. In fact, it’s a huge reason that many river cruise fans are former fans of big ship cruising; they like the smaller numbers of other passengers and crew members as well.

Passengers also find more of a desire to tip and for the right reason. Tipping on a big ship cruise seems more of an obligatory fee that might as well just be added in to the price. Personal service made possible by a small number of crew members on a river cruise encourages more tipping, and guidelines are provided. €5 to €7 per person, per day (translates to $7 to $9) is suggested for the crew, actually a bit less than the standard ocean cruise suggestion of $12 per person, per day. Oddly, that makes the more-attentive river cruise service and outstanding value tip-wise.

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Amadeus Brilliant accommodations are nicely appointed but have no balconies available. Remember, these are river cruise ships and size is limited. Build too tall and they won’t fit under bridges, build too wide and they won’t fit in locks. Cabins have all the necessary elements including an in-room safe, flat-screen tv with a few channels and a forward-facing web cam, , private bathroom as well as two chairs and a table in addition to a queen-size bed.

Extremely snappy Internet service is available but not included and charged at €5 per hour. Still, regular readers here know its not what we pay for it but what we get out of cruise line Internet making €5 per hour a good value, € to $ conversion considered.

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A forward and aft lounge make for nice spaces to relax, read a book or gather for nightly port talks, a nearly mandatory part of the experience for river cruise passengers. As opposed to a Caribbean ocean cruise ‘port talk’ which is more of a sales pitch for recommended stores, the ship’s program director goes into detail about the next day’s schedule. That’s a no-miss part of onboard programming that gets all passengers on the same page with last-minute itinerary changes, onboard activities and more…which brings us to the Abercrombie & Kent element.

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Best compared in my experience to an escorted cruise tour we did with Princess Cruises in Alaska in the world of big ships, the overall A&K experience makes for a very personal travel option. With us every step of the way; meeting those in our group individually as they arrived in Munich, we were transferred to the pre-cruise hotel option by private car. Once there, we found Gabor Kovacs our highly resourceful A&K guide waiting to greet us. Gabor had already checked us in to the hotel then hosted a welcome dinner later that night. Like our Alaska cruisetour, Gabor kept us on schedule and provided his own version of daily port talks with information specific to our group.

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In most case, those traveling with A&K were on our own bus that complied with A&K’s standard of two seats for each person. Aimed to eliminate being crammed into tour busses, we had ample personal space during this element of a river cruise that often receives a great amount of criticism.

Special requests received special attention and varied, including Gabor working as a liason between guests and the cruise line for special dietary needs, satisfied as never before. Example: the ship’s baker produced fresh, gluten-free bread for one in our group. Unique example: One great lady in our group had some mobility issues. Gabor made sure she was included in tours and activities, going many extra miles to make that happen.

Arguably, one of the best parts of being with Abercrombie & Kent was the customizable element of each day’s activities. When we wanted more free time, for example, Gabor directed efforts to make that happen, giving us nearly a full day on our own in Amsterdam as opposed to a tour then back to the ship for lunch and back out to the city on our own later, if we wished. On tour with local guides, Gabor provided direction to them and did not hesitate to re-direct the focus of tours to match the interests of our group.

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Initially a confusing relationship between A&K and the cruise line and what each provided, the value of being part of our group started to take shape early on. Gabor did whatever it took to insure a superior vacation for each of us, adding surprise extras along the way. Still, some disparity seemed to linger between the top shelf reputation of Abercrombie & Kent, delivered with their other travel products and our sailing, part of their Abercrombie Connections line.

Abercrombie Connections
Connections is best described as a step down from the reputed high end experience, aimed at competing with other river options. I think they do that very well as witnessed during this series. A good comparison would be to say that if the A&K experience would normally include suites at a 5 star hotel, this one is more club level-focused at a 4-star hotel. At the end of the day, its going to be Gabor, the A&K guide that made the difference and provided much higher odds that first-timers would enjoy a river cruise.

Past river travelers who want an even more personal experience than that provided by other operators might also find value in what Gabor does as well. Indeed, those in our group who had traveled with A&K in other ways felt right at home with the A&K river offering and were generally more relaxed from the start; knowing A&K would take care of everything, no matter what happened.   That’s good news for those who allow travel disruptions to ruin a vacation. That’s better news for those who want an even more personal experience and are willing to pay for it. The A&K layer adds about a 20% premium to what other river cruise lines charge, a small price to pay for the peace-of-mind that some travelers find elusive.   That premium is a very loose number too as Abercrombie & Kent has done a nice job of differentiating what they do from others.  Not so much ‘better’ as ‘different’.   Example:  Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class ocean ships are truly unique and it would be wrong to compare them to any other ships in the ocean.  The A&K product is different like that.

Bottom line, as we prepare to disembark Amadeus Brilliant and continue on our journey: At the end of the day, A&K provided a memorable travel experience at a respectable value for all. I don’t know that we can ask for much more than that.

 

Chris is on location this week, sponsored by Abercrombie & Kent touring Europe by river.  On assignment with Porthole Cruise magazine, Chris is covering a variety of topics along the way, testing Boingo Wireless connectivity and a variety of travel products that have been provided for him.  As always, Chris provides the details to let readers decide what resonates (or not) with them in an unbiased, factual manner.

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