Your Visit to the Spa: The Complete Guide

••• Portra/Getty Images
Explore This Guide

If the idea of going to a spa makes you nervous, you're not alone. Many people have their first spa experience when they get a gift card to a day spa. Some people don't even use it because they're anxious about what will happen and the finer points of spa etiquette.

But you can relax—literally! The biggest area of concern is usually taking your clothes off for a massage. This shouldn't be a worry, because in America there are very strict protocols for draping during massage.

Only the part of your body that is being worked on is exposed. The rest of it is covered with a sheet and blanket or sometimes a large towel. You can keep your clothes on for certain types of treatments such as reflexology. And the truly shy can always get a facial or a spa manicure and pedicure.

And you don't have to worry too much about knowing what to do, because someone will be there at every step to tell you where to go, what to do and what happens next.  

Choosing A Spa

Most of us make our decisions based on convenience—what's close by, and within my budget? But there are other things you should take into account. Look for friendly, nurturing staff, from the person at the front desk to the massage therapists, estheticians, nail technicians, and make-up artists. Of course, all therapists should be licensed. (If the treatments are really cheap, this might be one reason.)

A well-trained staff starts with the person at the front desk, so if they're not polite over the phone—forget it.

When you arrive, you want a quiet, relaxing, well-designed environment with soothing music, low lighting, and pleasant aromas that is also clean and sanitary.

It's great if you can find special equipment such as hydrotherapy tubs, whirlpool tubs, steam rooms, sauna, steam cabinets, Vichy shower, etc., which will help you spend more time relaxing.

A good spa menu should explain the treatments, and staff that can answer any questions in detail.  It's always a good sign if the spa asks you to complete a medical disclosure questionnaire.

When It's Your First Time at the Spa

If you want to find out what a spa is like, you can always ask for a tour before you book an appointment. The spa may or not be able to accommodate you, but it's fair to ask. Here are a few things to look for.  

When you book your appointment, tell the spa concierge it's your first spa visit. He or she should take as much time as you need to answer any questions you have: what different spa treatments are like, what they would suggest for you, when you should arrive, and so forth. The most popular spa treatments are massage, facials, body treatments and spa manicures and pedicures.

The spa concierge will usually ask if you have a preference for a male or female therapist.  If you say you don't have a preference, you will probably be booked with a male. It's fine to state your preference.  Most people feel more comfortable with a female therapist, especially in the beginning

Select Your Spa Treatments

The basic spa treatments are massagefacial, body treatmentmanicure, and pedicure.

A massage will help you relax and get rid of muscle tension. (A Swedish massage is a good place for beginners.) A facial is a deep cleansing of your face, and a body treatment exfoliates and softens the skin on your body. Most spas offer manicures and pedicures as well.

You can also combine services—a massage and a body treatment is a good combination (get the body treatment first) or a massage and a facial (get the massage first). The quality of the therapist determines the quality of the treatment. Get a personal reference if you can. Also, think about whether you prefer a male or female therapist.

Before You Go

Don't eat for at least an hour before or after your massage. Drink plenty of water after your service to enhance the benefits of your treatments.

Arrive early so you have time to enjoy the sauna, steam or whirlpool before your treatment.

If you get in a whirlpool, shower to get rid of the chlorine before a massage. Allow your mind to calm down before your treatment. Although most spas have lockers that lock, you might want to leave valuables at home.

Enjoy Your Spa Experience

Most people know generally remove your clothes for massage and body treatments, but you are draped with sheets or large towels. (Read more about nudity and the spa.) Relax—no one is judging your body. Take slow, deep breaths before your treatment begins. Envision every muscle in your body relaxing, and simply be open to the experience.

Communicate with your therapist. If you have any feedback on the temperature or amount of pressure, let them know. You can talk or not, as you prefer—the therapist will usually follow your lead. When the treatment is over, take the time to slowly reintegrate, rather than rushing off. A tip of 15% to 20% is appropriate.

When you get back home, continue the good feeling by taking care of yourself. Most spas sell the products they use but don't feel pressured to buy, although it's a good idea to get into a proper skin care routine at home.

More Spa Basics

There are several different types of spas. The most common is the day spa. Here are tips on how to choose the right day spa for you and make the most of your trip to the day spa.

Other first-time spa-goers have their first spa experience on vacation, at a resort/hotel spas. Resort/hotel spas come in a wide range of sizes and styles, from small private inns like The Harbour Inn in St. Michaels, Maryland, to the lavish, sprawling resort spas in Hawaii.

People who are interested in weight loss or jump-starting a health lifestyle often choose destination spas that offer an all-encompassing spa experience. Examples are Lake Austin Spa Resort or Canyon Ranch.

Spas provide wonderful, nurturing experiences, but they aren't usually cheap. There are many affordable destination spas.