Empress of the Seas Review

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Why Choose Empress of the Seas?

  • Pros: Small, uncrowded ship with plenty of window-lined seating and personalized service
  • Cons: Ship's age is evident in plumbing issues; lack of activities for teens might be a problem
  • Bottom Line: Empress has charm and offers a well-rounded cruise experience at a bargain price

Empress of the Seas Overview

By Amber Nolan, Cruise Critic contributor

Editor Rating

The return of the 1,602-passenger Empress of the Seas to the Royal Caribbean fleet marks a break from the company's flashy, gigantic ships, and brings travelers back to a time when cruising was all about the sea. Those who are used to sailing Royal Caribbean's ships for the innovative amenities (skydiving simulators, ziplines, ice skating rinks and constant flow of activities) will likely be disappointed in Empress -- the smallest (and oldest) ship in the fleet. Empress is not a floating theme park, and in many ways doesn't feel like the modern Royal Caribbean line at all. Yet, many of Royal Caribbean's signature experiences, like "Quest" scavenger hunt, Viking Crown Lounge, Windjammer Cafe and the friendly, genuine crew members, are reminders that -- despite its small size -- Empress still wears the Royal Caribbean crown.

Empress of the Seas entered the Royal Caribbean fleet in 1990 under the name Nordic Empress (it changed its name to Empress of the Seas in 2004), but was transferred to Spanish cruise line Pullmantur Cruises in March 2008. (Both Royal Caribbean International and Pullmantur are owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd.) In 2015, Royal Caribbean announced that Empress would return to the fleet in spring 2016, following an extensive $50-million renovation. Its return didn't go entirely smoothly: several early cruises were canceled due to a longer than anticipated dry dock, passengers reported air-conditioning and other problems after launch and one voyage had to be rerouted due to technical issues with an engine.

By the end of July 2016, it seemed that many of the issues had been sorted out (the air-conditioning in particular, was running well), but the extremely sensitive plumbing was still a problem. During our cruise, a sewage stench was still noticeable in some areas, and on more than one occasion toilets stopped flushing (or got clogged up, resulting in unsavory messes).

Visually, the ship's revitalization is evident in some spaces more than others -- like the new Boleros -- a beautiful, Cuban-themed lounge with colorful decor and paintings of Cuban culture. The theme here hints at the company's future plans to bring Empress to the island. (We can only speculate that itineraries to Cuba would be lengthier and carry a higher price tag than the current discount cruise fares on four and five-night Caribbean cruises.)

Other parts of the ship still maintain elegance from the early days -- like the Royal Theatre that showcases white marble entranceways, crimson curtains and supper-club-style seating with individual tables. The smaller size of the ship makes it easy to navigate and passengers can quickly walk from one end to the other without worrying about being late for events. The lack of a need to "sign up" in advance for most onboard activities adds an element of spontaneity to the cruise.

While the start of meal times -- especially on the final day of the cruise -- can produce a wait in the restaurants and at the guest relations desk, overall, the ship is uncrowded and has an airy, sunlight-soaked atmosphere. Many secluded seating areas face floor-to-ceiling windows and the promenade on Deck 6 provides ocean views and even more peace and quiet. The pool area and sun deck has plenty of loungers and chairs so finding a nice place to curl up with a good book is not a concern on Empress. For many cruisers, it is a refreshing change to the busier, larger vessels.

Although there is still room for improvement, Empress delivers an affordable and relaxed cruise experience. The ship is ideal for first-time cruisers, budget travelers or simply those who enjoy a more intimate voyage where the crew treats you like family, instead of a cabin number.

Empress of the Seas Fellow Passengers

The Miami-based ship is a melting pot of North Americans from all cultural backgrounds; the majority of adults are baby boomers or younger. On our summer cruise (when most schools are not in session), there was a notable number of families with teenagers or young adults traveling together -- a bit surprising since the ship doesn't have a teen center.

Empress of the Seas Dress Code

Empress of the Seas does not require a formal dress code for dinner, so T-shirts and flip-flops are just fine, however many passengers still "dressed up" for dinner with cocktail dresses or nice blouses for ladies and button-up shirts for men. Passengers should also consider packing a white item of clothing for the white parties on the pool deck.

Empress of the Seas Gratuity

An 18 percent gratuity is added to bar and spa bills, plus there is an option for passengers to give extra if they'd like. A $13.50 per person, per day gratuity is automatically added to the final bill for housekeeping and restaurant crew ($16.50 per person, per day for suites). All major credit cards, as well as pre-paid cash, can be linked to your Seapass spending account. Daily gratuities can be reduced by visiting the guest services desk on your last day onboard.

Those visiting the casino can take cash out, in the form of chips, directly from their Seapass account, however a 5-percent fee applies. An onboard ATM charges around $6.50 (but varies depending on bank).

Next: Empress of the Seas Cabins
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Empress of the Seas Member Reviews

We chose this cruise for the destinations that fit both our work schedules and budget. The size of the ship being so small never entered into the decision. While having cruised on larger ships, I found the ship to be adequate. Dinner selections ... Read more
We choose this ship because this was our first cruise exactly 14 years ago this month out of Tampa. Back then it was called The Nordic Empress and it was slightly smaller. Since then the ship was sold and slightly added to in length and now RCCL ... Read more
We chose this cruise because it is a smaller ship than other Royal Caribbean ships and the atmosphere was very casual with no 'dressing for dinner'. Plus the price was right. And the clincher was that we went to Key West, one of my bucket list ... Read more
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Empress of the Seas Ratings

Editor Rating 3.0 Member Rating
Public Rooms
Spa & Fitness
Family & Children
Shore Excursions

Sailing From

Miami Tampa

Cruises To

Bahamas Western Caribbean Cuba

Explore This Ship

Ship Stats
1,602 (double occupancy)
CDC Score:
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