River Empress' shore excursions are designed firmly with the clientele in mind; in other words, do not expect kayaking, white water rafting or rock climbing. The majority are coach tours or gentle walking tours, with a few variations such as a tram ride round Colmar, for example; or a river boat tour around Strasbourg. Many are walking tours that set off just outside the gangplank of the ship and will amble into the town and back, with frequent stops for refreshments.
On each cruise there will be a selection of included excursions, which will usually be in the town where you are docked. Generally speaking, if you want to go further afield you'll need to pay. The included excursions usually run to half a day; the paid ones are usually a full day. They might include a trip to the Black Forest while you are in Strasbourg; or a trip to Heidelberg while the ship is in Speyer. The visit to Marksburg Castle, for example, costs €39 per person, while the Black Forest excursion will set you back €79 per person.
Our view: If you haven't visited these towns before, stick with the included tours: the towns are stunningly pretty with plenty to see and do in a day. If you have visited these places before then you may wish to shell out and go further afield.
You can make reservations the night before for most excursions, though for some of the more popular ones (the cable car in Rudesheim, or the for fee ones), 48 hours ahead is recommended; you can't book online ahead of time).
The majority of the tours are so gentle and on flat surfaces that they would be perfectly suitable for people with mobility issues or small children.
Every evening, the Cruise Manager gives a talk/overview of the excursions and what can be expected each day. The excursions themselves are run by knowledgeable, English-speaking (and sometimes English) guides. You are not accompanied by a member of the ship's team.
Every cabin has two QuietVox portable audio headsets in the wardrobe for use on the guided tours.
Shuttle buses to the town center are included.
Daytime and Evening Entertainment
River Empress does not offer a packed itinerary of events during the day, in fact it doesn't offer anything at all. Which is fine, as it means you don't feel you are missing out on anything. After all, the places you visit are the stars of the show, and with the majority of the moorings literally a few minutes' walk from the town centers, there's no real reason for you to stay onboard.
During the day, most people are out on shore excursions and nothing is laid on till lunch and then Afternoon Tea, which is served in the lounge at the appropriate time (4 p.m. to 5 p.m.). There is no trivia, movie showings, Friends of Bill or Dorothy or any other meet or greets.
In the evenings, it's a similarly simple affair -- you won't see Vegas-style showgirls, lavish production numbers or a jingling, flashing casino on the River Empress. You will find a piano player/singer who performs music for dancing in the Main Lounge most nights. Sometimes, regional entertainment is brought onboard, but this will usually consist of one or two more musicians playing the same, generic 50s–80s pop music, rather than traditional folk music for example, or dancing.
A limited selection of lectures are on offer; new for Uniworld are theme cruises on music, art or wines of a region that include guest speakers and visits to related museums, concerts and vineyards at no extra cost. In 2016 these include The Monarch Collection (an exploration of the continent's aristocratic heritage); The Connoisseur Collection (delves into French culinary delights); Christmas Markets and Multigenerational cruises. Onboard lectures include Austria's Blue Blood (Monarch) and Chefs dynasties in France (Connoisseur). On the Castles along the Rhine sailing, the line has one signature lecture and a number of other informative talks.
Patio (Deck 2): The Patio is a marble-floored, mirror-walled space just above the waterline where you'll find tables and chairs, a selection of magazines, a wall of board games, but more importantly a self-service coffee machine, making various different types of coffee, a selection of tea bags, a water dispenser and two cookie jars. Pastries are available here from 6:30 a.m. It's a lovely, light space to relax.
Captain's Lounge (Deck 3): The Captain's Lounge is opposite the main lounge at the front of the ship, and is an intimate space with a handful of tables and chairs, and flanked by two glass cabinets full of books; on most ships this would be designated The Library. It's a place to relax away from the (relative) hubbub of the larger lounge. You can get drinks in here at any time and also Afternoon Tea.
The Lounge (Deck 3): The main lounge takes up all the front of the ship, has lots of comfy couches and chairs and is lined with panoramic windows. It's beautifully decorated in soft colors of blues, beiges and accents of greys. There's a bar at one end and a small dance floor with an area for the keyboard or a small band. This is really the heart of the action onboard in terms of entertainment, which kicks off at about tea time and will (theoretically) continue until the last person is dancing. In practice this is around 11 p.m., but it does depend on the clientele onboard. You can snack on potato chips, peanuts and olives.
Most nights, the resident musician, Charlie, will sing popular hits till late. Occasionally, the ship will bring a guest band onboard, who will also play popular hits till late. Despite nights being designated "Disco Night" or "Dancing Queen Night," most nights are similar with popular hits till late. Personally, we would have liked to have seen more local performers and a bit of local color rather than cookie-cutter pop bands singing English-language pop songs.
Sky Lounge (Deck 5): The Sky Lounge comes into its own during the summer months, when a retractable roof is rolled back for al fresco meals. Outside of these times, it is a place to take shelter from the elements, but its not serviced (so bring your own drinks).
The sun deck takes up most of the rear of the top deck -- there is little else a part from rows of loungers and chairs, and a giant chess set. There is also a smoking area. At the front of the ship, you'll find the Sky Lounge, the wheelhouse and a small seating area.
Reception is as you enter the ship, and all rooms and corridors lead from here. Reception is staffed 24/7. The whole area is beautifully decorated with mirrors and a series of figurative paintings of a woman in various states of undress smoking a cigarette. Here you'll find a small sofa, a table and two chairs for passenger use; and on the opposite side the Cruise Manager's desk. There is also an elevator leading to all floors.
There is no shop, but all the jewelry on display in the cabinets here and one floor below are for sale; ask at Reception.
You'll also find two (well hidden) rest rooms on this level, on the way to the lounge.
Directly below Reception is the self-service laundry, which is free, and has two washers and two dryers; this is unique to Uniworld. Ask for free detergent at Reception. Outside the laundry is an ice machine.
WiFi is free and it's theoretically available throughout the ship, but it's very variable -- particularly when you're sailing that part of the Rhine between two countries. There are also two laptops available for use -- again, free.
River Empress has a dedicated spa on Deck 2 (which is the size of a cabin) called the Serenity River Spa, and an onboard "Wellbeing Coach" who offers massages and wellbeing tips. She'll come to you in-cabin, or you can have your treatment in the Spa itself. There is a limited range of treatments that start at €25 for a Thai Chair Massage. Others include a Honey Massage (€95) and a Restoration and Rejuvenation massage (€120).
The 24-hour fitness center on Deck 2 is not big, but it does pack a lot into what amounts to about the size of two cabins: two bikes, one treadmill, two elliptical walkers, a rowing machine; as well as free weights and six yoga mats -- but you'll have to take the yoga mats with you as there's not enough space in there for classes. They take place on the Sun Deck when it's warm and in the lounge when it's not -- led by the Wellbeing Coach.
(River Empress once had a small sauna, but it was removed to extend the gym in the 2013 refit.)
The ship also carries 15 pedal bikes for free use in ports, which are available on a first come first served basis.
Up until 2015, this ship (and indeed the line) made little or no provision for families; there were no facilities and kids were not really encouraged onboard. All this has changed quite recently, with the line launching its first dedicated Family River Cruise Collection brochure in early 2016, which offers 16 dedicated family friendly itineraries across the fleet. In addition, children between the ages of four and 18 pay half-price.
In theory you can bring kids younger than four onboard, but the ship (and its itineraries) would be best suited for children aged seven years and up.
(Note also, these family friendly itineraries are only on offer in July and August -- peak school holiday times in Europe, and also a Christmas Markets cruise in December.)
The timing of the program is dependent on the ship's itinerary, and will start after breakfast. Depending on the number of children onboard and their ages, they may be split into groups, with age-appropriate activities for each group. Family Hosts brought on for these cruises supervise and coordinate onboard activities for Junior Cruisers (ages 4 to 11) and Young Cruisers (ages 12 to 18).
Onboard activities on offer might include dessert making with the ship's pastry chef, to create ice cream cookies or 'crazy waffling'; a behind-the-scenes tour with the captain, including a tour of the wheelhouse (and help steer the ship); tasting local soft drinks with the resident Soda Sommelier, go on a ship-wide treasure hunt or take part in craft workshops and fun local language classes.
On full family sailings, the Captain's Lounge will be turned over to a dedicated kids room -- The Young Travelers Lounge -- complete with a PlayStation, a wide selection of games, movies, puzzles, kids' books and candy jars. Every family-friendly cruise itinerary also features onboard visits from local children or teens, who introduce guests to the daily life of their culture. If the ship is sailing less than full (or there aren't that many children onboard), one of the cabins will be turned over to a dedicated kids room instead.
The ship also offers a children's menu and early meal times for very young kids. The ship also has 12 interconnecting cabins (eight on the 400 Deck, and four on the 300 Deck), so it's worth requesting those when you book. Cabins do not accommodate more than two people.
Off the ship, the line offers a number of fun family excursions, which might include a visit to a theme park in Franconia, a public swimming pool in Breisach or climbing the Cathedral tower in Strasbourg.
Weary parents can also take advantage of leaving their kids onboard with babysitting while they explore the destination undisturbed. Each night the child receives a special pillow gift from the destinations visited.
It's also worth noting that the the crew are flexible and accommodating, so if you need a babysitter one night, or you need some extra time ashore outside of the regular programming -- just ask.
* May require additional fees