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Choosing a good spa

Some tips to keep in mind before booking your getaway

By Ann Hoevel
CNN

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Ask plenty of questions before booking your spa vacation and while you're there, say experts.

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(CNN) -- When that extra piece of chocolate or glass of wine is no longer helping you unwind, you may decide to hit the spa for some professional care and a little "R and R." But how do you choose the right spa, and what do you do once there?

If you've never been to a spa before, the best way to start narrowing down your choices is to start asking questions, according to Hannelore R. Leavy, founder and executive director of the Day Spa Association.

"The first contact the client has with a spa usually is by telephone," said Leavy. "People should not be afraid to tell them that they've never been to a spa, that they're new to this and they need to ask more questions," she said.

"How much do I tip?" "Do I have to take off all my clothes?" and "Will any treatments have an impact on my medication?" are the kind of questions any spa newbie should ask of prospective salons. Answers should come easily from spa owners and receptionists, said Leavy.

"They're very much aware of new customers, new people to the spa services, and they will explain things to the customer. If the spa does not do this, I would recommend the client go to another one," she said.

Walking through the door

Once in a spa, there are some other ways to tell if the place is serious about the spa business.

"If you walk into a spa and you are not greeted with a smile or if you see that the spa is dirty or you don't feel comfortable for any reason, those are excuses to walk out," said Leavy. "The first rule is cleanliness; it's got to be spotlessly clean. The sheets on the massage table or a facial chair need to be changed after every client. If you have any inkling that this is not a clean place, walk."

Another hallmark of a good spa establishment is membership in a national or international spa association.

"Usually they are marked with an accreditation emblem," said Leavy. "It assures that this spa is really serious about what they're doing, serious about their business and has been in business for quite a while or plans to be in business for quite a while."

Massage therapists and aestheticians should also be licensed.

"The consumer needs to be very diligent to make sure that the therapist who is working on them is licensed in their state. Even if the state doesn't have a license -- in the case of massage therapists -- they should have documentation from their school (a reputable one) that they have completed training. They also need to be able to produce certification that they actually are trained in some of the machines they're using, the devices, and the application of certain products," said Leavy.

Your spa experience

Another idea to keep in mind when choosing a spa is what kind of spa experience you're looking for. There's more than just one kind of spa, explains Lynne Walker McNees, president of the International Spa Association.

"A destination spa, historically, has been a minimum of a seven-day visit, and that's where you'll find yourself completely immersed in that spa experience," explained McNees. "A resort spa is going to be where you go for a meeting or for a family vacation and there happens to be a spa on the property and you go and enjoy the spa several times when you're there, but that's not the sole driver of why you're at that event. A day spa is where you go for several hours.... day spas are everywhere now; they're definitely mainstream."

And with more people wanting spa experiences, availability is growing.

"Consumers are driving spa components being added to your health club, your fitness center, your beauty salon, or the hotel where you go for business a lot," said McNees.

Wherever you choose to go, a spa's purpose is to create a stress-free, nurturing environment. The price of your spa treatment usually includes some hospitable extras, like refreshments, robes, sandals and more. The one extra that should raise a red flag to spa-goers is alcohol.

"Wine does not go with spas, and I would stay away from any spa that serves alcohol," said Leavy. "You are doing treatments to the body, you are moving muscles and masses, blood, and you don't know how a client is going to react."

No unpleasant surprises

Spa clients should fill out a form that includes information about health, like what medicines you are taking and what physical conditions you may have. This is important, said Leavy, because some spa treatments can affect some drugs or ailments.

"Some of the skin care products have ingredients that may not be tolerated by certain people who are taking certain medications or have certain medical conditions" like diabetes, high blood pressure and pregnancy, said Leavy. "Even supplements people take can have an adverse reaction to some chemicals in a skin care product."

Spa-goers should also be aware of outcomes of treatments and have realistic expectations.

"When you have your first facial, you're not going to come out looking like a model on the cover of Vogue. Your aesthetician is going to tell you what your skin needs, what some take-home treatments can be and how to take better care of your skin," said McNees. Likewise, she said, massage therapists and aestheticians will advise clients in the best ways to make the effects of their spa treatments last, even ways to continue treatment at home. (Gallery: Bring the spa home)

Dreading tip etiquette?

Whether you choose a 60-minute facial at a day spa or a weeklong rest at a destination spa, one nagging question that might keep you from totally relaxing is how to tip.

"At a resort spa, a lot of times they'll add it on [to the price of service] and let you know it's added on. It takes the pressure off," said McNees.

"In a day spa, it's more typical of going to a hair salon; it's your discretion. The range is anywhere from 10 to 20 percent, 15 being the norm."

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