By Kara Williams, on April 29, 2014

Spa etiquette 101

I’ll never forget my first professional massage. I was 25, had recently moved to Aspen, and I was sore from new-to-me hiking and biking adventures. I decided to spend what little money I had (from waiting tables) on a full-body massage. I showed up at the hotel spa full of excitement and not much trepidation—until I found out my massage therapist was a man! Though I carried on with the spa service as planned, as a total spa virgin, I felt out of sorts and unprepared to have a man whom I didn’t know rub me down.

I learned a valuable lesson that day: Communication is key when it comes to ensuring your satisfaction with facials and body treatments. Whether you book treatments at a day spa, hotel spa, or destination spa, if you want a specific-gendered therapist, just make that clear to the spa-service scheduler. (Side note: Twenty years and at least 100 professional massages later, I’ve found I prefer male massage therapists! Their big strong hands usually deliver the firm deep-tissue massages that I just adore.)

Here are some other tips and tricks I’ve learned when it comes to maximizing the spa experience.

Ask questions when you book your spa treatment

If you’re not sure of the difference between a “sports massage” and a “deep-tissue massage,” ask. If it’s not clear whether the steam room is single-sex or coed (necessitating a bathing suit), find out. If you’re interested in trying a spa’s specialty, you also might ask: “What treatments is this spa known for?” If you have ultra-sensitive skin and you’re interested in getting the scoop on what sorts of products your therapist might apply, ask: “What brand of lotions or oil do you use?” Again, knowledge is power, and the more you’re prepared and aware of what the spa has to offer, the better equipped you’ll be to enjoy your time there.

Arrive at the spa early

Hot tubs, steam rooms, saunas, and multi-head showers are just a few of the amenities that often are available to anyone purchasing a facial or body treatment—especially at resort or destination spas. If you know the spa offers such options, show up at least an hour before your scheduled service. That way you can steam or soak, and also get cozy in a robe and slippers and lie on a chaise lounge sipping on citrus water and nibbling on dried fruit.

Some fabulous hotel spas–such as the spa at Viceroy Snowmass—offer a free glasses of champagne with any body treatment. I love the multi-step water journey at Allegria Spa at Park Hyatt Beaver Creek Resort, while the spa at The Broadmoor has a nifty aromatherapy room. You really don’t want to show up late and miss out on any of these awesome extras.

Use an icy washcloth to cool down after a steam


Shower before your treatment

I like to be totally clean before I have any oils or lotions applied to my skin, so even if I don’t have access to a steam room or sauna, I will rinse off in a hot shower before I get a body treatment. This helps muscles warm up and relax, plus it’s a nice courtesy to your massage therapist to enter the treatment room smelling clean and fresh.

Undress to your comfort level

In the United States, I doubt there is any professional massage therapist who would have a problem with you leaving on your underwear for a full-body massage. If you really want to stay covered down there, wear your panties (or boxers). That said, you may not get all the attention to your glutes that you want if your butt cheeks are fully covered. Plus, most therapists are pros who keep your truly private parts fully draped or hidden. Frankly, in my opinion, it feels better to be totally “free” under the sheets.

In less-modest countries, your therapist may raise an eyebrow if she finds your panties on. Still, it’s your treatment; do what makes you comfortable.

In gender-specific locker rooms here in the United States, you’ll find guests in various stages of dress using the steam room, sauna, or hot tub. Nudity is de rigueur at most spas, and if any pools do require bathing suits, signs or spa attendants likely will make that clear. In foreign countries, especially those where you don’t speak or read the prevailing local language, do what others are doing. If folks are in the hot tub in bathing suits, wear a suit; if your fellow spa-goers are nude, get naked—or skip the pool all together if you really feel strongly about staying covered up!

Viewfinder Tip: Don’t even think about using your cell phone in a spa’s locker room or relaxation lounge. Also, turn off your phone’s ringer so the device doesn’t bother other guests.

Make your needs and wants known

If you’re paying big bucks for a spa treatment, you want it to be fabulous, right? Your massage therapist or aesthetician does, too. So when that person asks about the pressure or about your comfort level, be honest! Therapists can tweak treatments to your liking, help you get situated comfortably, and otherwise enhance your time at the spa, but you’ve got to speak up and let them know your preferences.

I’ve found most service providers minimize conversation during treatments, but not always. Usually they get the hint if I don’t answer their questions or I just don’t talk back. Occasionally I’ve had a Chatty Cathy deliver my service, and I’ve said something like, “I’ve had a long week, and I prefer just to relax during my massage,” or “I’d like to zone out now to that background music.”

Don’t forget about a gratuity

Sometimes when you check out of a resort spa, the front-desk staff will ask if you’d like to add 15 or 20 percent to your total bill as a tip for your therapist. If they don’t, you should be able to leave cash in a small envelope for your provider. Remember, it is a common courtesy to tip for your pampering experience—at least in the United States. If you’re not sure what sort of tip is expected in a foreign country, again, just ask!

What’s your favorite spa treatment?