What is it, exactly, that makes that single word so magical? "Butler." The word alone, more than almost any other in the cruise lexicon, conjures notions of pampering, swanky accommodations and service fit for royalty.
Butler service is offered on certain ships in the most deluxe accommodations (or, in the case of Silversea, in every cabin). And its popularity has been steadily growing -- not just on cruise lines that are classified as luxury, but also on mass-market and premium lines. Mainstream lines Costa, MSC Cruises, Norwegian and P&O Cruises now feature butler service in their top suites. On the other hand, some lines you'd expect to employ butlers -- like luxury line Seabourn and premium line Holland America -- don't have any at all.
What is it about butler service that makes it special? For that matter, what is the difference between a butler and an attentive cabin steward? We'll answer that one right here: A well-trained and conscientious butler generally picks up where the cabin steward leaves off, providing special services and touches that stewards don't have the opportunity -- or the time -- to provide. A butler can, among other things:
Assist with packing and unpacking
Make reservations in the alternative restaurants
Deliver hors d'oeuvres and course-by-course meals
Expedite laundry, dry-cleaning and pressing services
Mix a martini
Draw a bubble bath
Arrange in-suite cocktail or dinner parties
The real advantage of a butler may be the intangible things that add up to a seamless experience. Cruise Critic member Uktog put it this way: "A good butler just makes things tick without you realizing it is happening."
Member Waldospepper describes how butlers go out of their way to make your cruises perfect. His butler on Norwegian Dawn "met us in the Terminal building and personally escorted us through every step of the check-in process, all the while handling every piece of carry-on luggage. He then escorted us through a private entrance onto the ship and directly to our stateroom, and provided a tour with directions on the various functions of the TV's, telephones, etc. Later in the day he performed a personal inspection of the suite, made requests of the room stewards and the ship's maintenance department, and then followed up to be certain that all issues were resolved to his satisfaction."
"...To his satisfaction." That comment is actually quite telling. Butlers are the creme de la creme of a ship's hotel staff. While most are culled from the ranks of room stewards and dining room staff because of their front-line training in service and high rates of passenger satisfaction, some cruise lines actively solicit trained butlers for their ships. (We found ads online for experienced butlers for Oceania and Celebrity.) While most are trained by the cruise lines, some are schooled at specific butler academies; those on Silversea and Regent Seven Seas, for example, come from the Guild of Professional English Butlers, which provides service to members of royal families around the world.
And, while some are quite formal, not all come from the stiff-upper-lip Jeeves tradition of butlering. Some are female! And some are quite jovial and fun, getting on the floor to play with the kids or whimsically decorating a room for a special occasion.
Ultimately, the increase in popularity of butler service stems from the growing "comfort culture"; passengers who travel in deluxe accommodations are paying for extra space, extra services, extra attention and pampering, and they don't want to worry about little time-consuming details like dinner reservations, dry-cleaning and private shore excursion arrangements. We also discovered that there is little difference in service between big ships and smaller ships. Butler service on large ships adds an element of luxury for those cruisers who don't want to travel on smaller ships, and passengers on smaller ships get that extra layer of personalized service when they choose a suite with a butler.
Not all butler services are equal, so check out our line-by-line guide.
Azamara Club Cruises
Who Gets It: Passengers booked in suites on Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest.
What They Do:Your butler will handle your priority check-in and departure, pack and unpack luggage, set up in-room cocktail parties, deliver and serve meals course by course, arrange to get your laundry cleaned and pressed (garment pressing of two items is complimentary for those booked in suites), and make your spa and specialty dining reservations. (Dining in specialty restaurants is complimentary to suite passengers throughout their cruise.) Afternoon tea is served on a cart that goes door to door.
Get This: Azamara butlers are trained by the English Butler Guild to be your all-purpose support system while onboard. Don't be shy about asking for assistance. In addition to your butler, a room attendant will clean your suite and provide backup support throughout the voyage.
Who Gets It: Passengers entitled to butler service are those booked in Celebrity Cruises' various suites. (Depending on the ship, they include Penthouse, Royal, Celebrity, Century and Sky.) Butler service is not available on Celebrity Xpedition.
What They Do: Celebrity offers its exclusive "European Butler Service," which includes priority check-in and debarkation; assistance with unpacking/packing; full in-suite breakfast, lunch and dinner service (including a restaurant meal served on your balcony, course by course); spa, restaurant and shore excursion reservation assistance; in-suite afternoon tea service; complimentary espresso and cappuccino; shoe-shine service; and delivery of requested board games. Butlers will even arrange a private party in your suite and then clean up afterward. Butlers come to Celebrity in a variety of ways; some have risen up the ranks of the hotel staff, and some are recruited by outside agencies, but all go through Celebrity's training program.
Get This: Butlers on Celebrity ships go above and beyond the call of duty to make you feel pampered throughout your voyage. Don't be shy about asking for a few extras. Want to watch a movie? Your butler can fetch a DVD from the ship's library on your behalf. Don't forget to ask for a big bowl of hot buttered popcorn! Your butler can also assist with things like booking Celebrity's picnic on the lawn packages aboard Solstice-class ships. Tell him a bit about your vacation style, and he'll recommend onboard activities that you'll love.
Who Gets It: Anyone who books a suite -- except for mini-suites -- is entitled to butler services. This includes the Samsara Spa Suites on Costa Fascinosca, Costa Favolosa, Costa Luminosa, Costa Pacifica, Costa neoRomantica and Costa Serena.
What They Do: On Costa Cruises, butlers, also referred to as valets, offer a pillow menu and provide the selected pillows. They'll unpack and arrange clothing if passengers desire; repack at the end of the cruise; make all reservations, including those for shore excursions, spa treatments and specialty restaurants; shine shoes; and organize all details, including service, should you want an in-suite cocktail party. In addition, your butler will leave a daily menu of the restaurant offerings, and you can choose to dine in-suite with course-by-course service from the restaurant.
Get This: Costa's butlers are handpicked from exceptional personnel already on staff and go through formal training with the company -- first ashore at Costa Campus and then onboard.
Who Gets It: Passengers who book cabins in categories PH (Penthouse), PS (Penthouse Suite) and CP (Crystal Penthouse) on both Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony.
What They Do: Butlers on Crystal Cruises' ships typically serve as your manservants, and if you've ever had one, you'll revel in the fact that they'll handle your dry-cleaning, proffer gourmet snacks at tea time (there's a menu every day, but you can always get caviar), and make dinner, spa and shore excursion reservations. The butler also sets up and refreshes your in-suite bar, which includes wine and a selection of spirits of your choice. Once you've ordered room service from the dining room (breakfast, lunch or dinner), or specialty restaurants Prego or Silk Road at dinnertime, and had it served by your butler course-by-course at your leisure, you'll be spoiled forever.
Get This: We have sailed with butlers on Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity and were pleasantly surprised to learn that, in both cases, each had risen from more junior posts on the ships -- and had worked onboard for at least five years apiece.
Who Gets It: On Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria, all passengers in Queens Grill (Q4 - Q1) suites get butler service.
What They Do: Butlers have been in service to Cunard since the original Queen, Queen Mary (1936). Today's butlers are unobtrusive and available to the passengers for every service imaginable, including in-room dining, packing and unpacking, and helping you choose from among nine choices on the pillow menu. Your butler will stock your in-suite bar and deliver pre-dinner canapes to your cabin each evening with the exception of formal night, when you'll instead receive a culinary turndown treat. Butlers are trained in Cunard's signature White Star Service and are selected from the steward staff based on exemplary service.
Get This: Cruise Critic Member Cruiseluvva was onboard QM2 with her husband while he celebrated a birthday. She was delighted with the extra steps her butler took to help him celebrate: "While we were out in Cadiz, the butler decorated our suite with about 30 balloons and streamers hanging from the ceiling plus balloons and streamers all around the walls -- it looked quite magical when we returned. He had made a beautiful card from supplies his daughter sent over from India, and this was displayed on the drinks cabinet along with happy birthday confetti."
As well, Cruise Critic Editor in Chief Carolyn Spencer Brown, after a trip on Queen Mary 2, reported that, despite her own reluctance to let anyone else into her suitcase, she asked her butler to unpack for her. He did an amazing job. "Just unloading that task meant we could enjoy a long lunch and leisurely explore the ship on the normally frenzied day of embarkation."
Who Gets It: Butler service is available on Europa (in the suites on the Penthouse Deck only), Europa 2 (in the Owner Suites, Grand Penthouse Suites, Spa Suites and Grand Suites) and MS Hanseatic (all category 6 and 7 cabins on Bridge Deck).
What They Do: Among other services, the butler will unpack and pack your luggage, serve beverages and meals in your suite, see that your clothes are pressed, shine your shoes, arrange for in-suite cocktail parties, make reservations at the salon and spa, organize individual shore excursions and generally enhance your experience with unobtrusive service.
Get This: Most of Hapag-Lloyd's exquisitely trained staff speak English, but unless you are on one of the ship's "bilingual" cruises, expect most announcements to be in German. There's nothing to worry about, though, because your butler will happily step in to provide any necessary translations. He'll make sure you're armed with all the information you need to fully enjoy your cruise.
Who Gets It: All Yacht Club passengers on MSC's Fantasia-class ships -- MSC Divina, MSC Fantasia, MSC Preziosa and MSC Splendida -- are pampered with butler service.
What They Do: Butler duties are executed by individuals trained to the exacting standards of the International Butler Academy in the Netherlands. Tasks include assisting passengers at priority check-in, overseeing the transport of luggage, unpacking and serving traditional English tea in the Top Sail Lounge. In addition, the butler can arrange for cigars, wine, liquors and Champagne, and pre-book restaurant tables, spa treatments, ad hoc excursions chosen by the passenger and even private en-suite parties.
Get This: Somewhat disappointingly, course-by-course dinner is not available -- a given on more upscale ships. Suite passengers are limited to dining off of the room service menu.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Who Gets It: Norwegian Cruise Line offers 24-hour butler service for all cruisers staying in suites.
What They Do: The International Institute of Modern Butlers oversees Norwegian's Butler Training program. These well-trained individuals assist passengers with priority embarkation/debarkation; unpacking and repacking garments; shoe shines; delivering liquor, wine and beverages; delivering DVD's and CD's; and filling/emptying hot tubs and bathtubs. Norwegian's butlers also help with delivery of flowers, personalized letters and stationery on embarkation day and during the cruise. They serve Champagne; ensure that fresh flowers, fruit baskets, sodas, water, newspapers and other amenities are set up properly and freshened as needed; set up private in-cabin cocktail parties; and take food orders and serve in-room breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner from any menu onboard, including the alternative dining venues.
Get This: Butlers on Norwegian ships are culled from the rank and file of the hotel department, based on their excellent customer service and positive consumer feedback. As a result, Norwegian's butlers retain a level of warmth and a service ethic that's hard to find on any other cruise line. Butler service on a Freestyle ship can make the big-ship cruising experience intimate, cozy and special.
Who Gets It: Butlers are available in Owner's Suites, Vista Suites and Penthouse Suites on both O-class ships: Marina and Riviera. On R-class ships -- Regatta, Nautica and Insignia, which will re-enter the Oceania fleet in May of 2014 after a long-term charter with Hapag-Lloyd -- passengers in the Owner's and Vista Suites receive butler service.
What They Do: Butlers are on hand to assist suite passengers with unpacking and packing, coordinating dinner and entertainment reservations (both on and off the ship), complimentary garment pressing and shoe shines and other services upon request. Butlers also deliver gourmet canapes to their charges each evening. Finally, one of the most requested services the butlers provide is course-by-course in-suite dining. You may even "order in" from any of the specialty restaurants.
Get This: Oceania's butlers are recruited from some of the finest hotels and residences worldwide. The line also periodically looks to members of the Guild of Professional English Butlers to enhance its corporate training program.
Who Gets It: Butlers serve cruisers who book a Suite, Family Suite or Penthouse Suite onboard any P&O Cruises ship.
What They Do: Butlers provide a wide range of services, including unpacking your luggage and serving meals in your suite if requested. They will draw a bath; deliver flowers and special occasion cakes when ordered; make restaurant, spa and salon reservations; assist with laundry; shine your shoes, suggest and book shore excursions and take care of other special services that you might request -- like an in-suite pre-dinner cocktail party with your friends.
Get This: P&O butlers are on call between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. only. Your cabin steward or room service will assist you outside of those hours.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Who Gets It: Anyone booked into a Penthouse Suite (category B) or higher gets butler service.
What They Do: Butlers aboard Regent Seven Seas ships are taught to customize the cruise experience for each passenger, and each butler has a knack for determining your personal style and onboard requirements. All butlers go through Regent's rigorous Butlers Benchmark of Excellence program, so they are prepared to assist with myriad requests, from unpacking and packing to arranging private parties and making restaurant, spa and shore excursion reservations on your behalf. When you feel like dining in-suite, your personal butler will serve the meal course by course from the restaurant menus.
Get This: Regent Seven Seas Cruises is the first cruise line to enjoy membership in the Guild of Professional English Butlers, which trains butlers for service to Britain's royal family and other royals around the world.
Who Gets It: Passengers on all seven Silversea ships -- Silver Spirit, Silver Shadow, Silver Whisper, Silver Cloud, Silver Wind and the expedition-going Silver Explorer and Silver Galapagos -- are served by butlers, regardless of cabin category.
What They Do: Your butler will greet you when you first arrive in your suite. As part of the welcome regimen, you'll be offered a variety of bathroom amenities and your choice of pillows (goose down, hypoallergenic or therapeutic). If you so choose, your butler will unpack/pack your luggage, discuss any special food preferences with the chef or maitre d', and make reservations for dinner, spa services or private fitness sessions. The butler overseas the room steward to ensure that your suite is immaculate, and he'll also serve breakfast, polish your shoes and luggage, facilitate laundry and dry-cleaning requests and make sure your bar setup is replenished daily. Passengers in Royal, Grand and Owner's Suites benefit from additional butler perks like coordinating shoreside activities with the shore concierge, serving afternoon canapes, securing shoreside dining reservations, organizing in-suite cocktail parties and drawing scented whirlpool baths.
Get This: Silversea's butlers receive training from the Guild of Professional English Butlers. Each learns the art of providing unobtrusive, attentive service. Still, not everyone is convinced that Silversea needs both room stewards and butlers. Cruise Critic member Chelonia expressed that, "the butler did what had been done previously in an excellent way by the staff, and he was not necessary (imho). I felt that my privacy was being invaded." Member LaPaloma responded with, "We had a female butler on the Whisper -- Grand Suite -- last December -- she really didn't do much, except to check to see that the maids did a good job. She did deliver the snacks each evening, and took care of the laundry. I would agree no need for the expense of a butler."
--by Jana Jones, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Andrea M. Rotondo, Cruise Critic contributor