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How to Avoid an Embarrassing Spa Experience Abroad

AFAR logo AFAR 03/03/2017 Chris Ciolli

Last year I had a 16-hour layover in Reykjavik, Iceland, en route to Barcelona. So I decided to spend a relaxing day in the steamy waters at Blue Lagoon. It was a lovely experience, except for one minor incident: being brought to task for breaking the rules. Turns out hosing down your naked body in the communal showers isn’t enough. Washing your hair—as opposed to just putting it up on top of your head to keep it out of the water—before going in the water is non-negotiable; the shower attendant is on duty to make sure you follow through.

There’s nothing quite like being scolded while nude to bring home the importance of learning and following the local rules. This was particularly embarrassing because signs in the showers at Blue Lagoon in multiple languages explain exactly what is expected of you, and I tried to get away with something and failed. (What can I say? I’m really picky about shampoo.)

Whether you’re in a sauna in Finland, hot springs in Japan, or a traditional hammam in Turkey, there are destination-specific guidelines you should follow to have the best (and most comfortable) experience possible. Here are our top tips organized by country.

1. Be quiet! (Finland)

The biggest faux pas you can commit in a Finnish sauna? Making too much noise. It’s considered the height of rudeness to speak loudly or discuss controversial subjects (religion, politics). Appropriate topics for discussion in the Fin’s sacred space include sauna customs and the heat. Also, passing gas, whistling, humming, singing, and cursing are best avoided—per local legend, people who break these rules are punished by the sauna elf known in Finnish as the saunatonttu.

In public and private saunas, full nudity is the norm; swimsuits are regarded as unhygienic and uncomfortable. For the most part, public saunas are separated by gender, but private saunas are often shared by family and groups of close friends. 

Always scrub yourself down before you go in, and take a towel to sit on. Before going in, knock and ask if anyone needs anything, and then shut the door behind you quickly. If an older lady comes at you with a bundle of leaves, do as she asks—she’s the kylvettäjä and being thrashed with twigs a little is all part of the traditional Finnish spa experience.

Note: Sauna cultures in Estonia, Sweden, and Russia are nearly identical to that of Finland.

2. Be on time (Germany)

In Germany, saunas are run a lot like the trains. Everything is done on a schedule by an expert, and lateness and interruptions aren’t tolerated. The pouring of water over coals, or aufguss, is done by the saunameister on a schedule usually posted at the spa entrance. Sauna-goers are expected to arrive before the aufguss, and unless you’re interested getting a talking to from the saunameister, don’t arrive or leave mid-session. Opening the door lets all that healthy heat out.

In German spas and saunas, nude areas are designated FKK Bereich (towel only), and flip-flops may not be worn inside. Not unlike in Finland, the sauna is regarded as a quiet space. That said, Germany also has plenty of thermal baths and pools, and most of these are mixed-gender, family-friendly affairs that require bathing suits.

Note: Saunas in Austria, Luxembourg, and German-speaking regions in Europe are similar to German saunas.

3. Don’t splash! (Hungary)

Hungary’s thermal baths are world famous, but unfortunately, rules can vary a lot from spa to spa and more often than not are only posted in Hungarian.

Even so, wherever you go, no matter how massive the pool, try to remember (and remind your children) that these aren’t swimming pools. They’re for soaking, not splashing.

Want to stay clothed? Co-ed baths usually require bathing suits, whereas single sex hammams may be birthday-suit only. Men who don’t want to look like tourists should stick to Speedos and skip the board shorts or trunks. Sandals or flip-flops are required in most steam rooms, so bring your own.

Have small change on hand to tip the attendant who opens a locker or changing area for you.

4. Scrub down naked (Iceland)

In spas in Iceland, a simple rinse in your bathing suit won’t cut it—strip down and pay special attention to your head, armpits, groin, and feet, or the attendant on duty may send you back for a do-over.

Unlike in Finland’s saunas, Iceland’s thermal pools and hot pots are far from tranquil, sacred spaces, so don’t go looking for peace and quiet. They’re popular places for locals to chat and catch up on news and gossip. That said, it’s still not acceptable to be loud. Speak about anything and everything, but softly. If you make too much noise, you might be shown the door.

How to Avoid an Embarrassing Spa Experience Abroad: Iceland’s Blue Lagoon © Photo by Alison Cornford-Matheson Iceland’s Blue Lagoon

5. Cover your tattoos and keep your towel dry (Japan)

In the Land of the Rising Sun, tattoos are typically associated with the Japanese mafia, so many public baths and hot springs require them to be covered or bar entry to tattooed travelers. The tourism department is working hard to change this, but don’t be surprised if you’re given stickers to cover your body art.

Bathing in Japan’s public baths is usually nude but single sex. Blue outside an area means it’s open to men, and red is for women. As everywhere in Japan, mind your feet and footwear and follow the example of locals.

Another rule that catches visitors to Japanese baths by surprise? Don’t get your towel wet or let it touch the water. Locals like to fold them on top of their heads and use them to wipe their brow. Got long hair? Put it up in a topknot or wear a shower cap—letting hair trail in the water is a big no-no. 

6. Wear your pjs in the sauna (Korea)

Korea’s traditional bathhouses, known as jjimjil-bang, are more like a cross between a hostel and a gym than spas and saunas in many countries.

While the baths are same sex and nude, saunas are mixed gender, and you must wear the cotton pajamas provided at check-in. Before going into the baths, you must wash up. In the locker room area, there will be people of your gender walking around in their underwear—these are attendants who do seshin, which is a professional (and very intense) scrub. It’s best done after a soak. Once in the baths, you’ll see that the rules resemble those in Japan—don’t bring your towel in the water and keep your hair out of it.

Something else unique to Korean bathhouses? The common areas and the hours. Jjimjil-bang are open 24 hours and feature hang-out areas with televisions, snacks, and massage chairs as well as sleeping rooms where spa-goers can pay to stay overnight.

A Few Tips for a Good Spa Experience Anywhere

-Ask about spa rules over the phone or via email before your treatment. Ask what to wear for treatments, saunas, hot tubs, and so on. Once you know the rules and expectations, follow them.

-Do as the locals do. When in doubt, wear a bathing suit underneath a spa robe and check out what everyone else is wearing. If folks are in bathing suits, you’re all set. If people are naked, head back to the locker room and take off your bathing suit.

-Get clean before you jump in. Shower with unscented soap, paying special attention to your head, feet, and private parts.

-Don’t be noisy. Even in places where chatting up your neighbor is acceptable, speaking softly is always a good idea.

-Don’t stress too much about being in the know—remember that even with language and cultural barriers, common courtesy and respectful behavior go a long way. Plus, those embarrassing spa moments are the stuff great stories are made of.

>>Next: Looking for traditional spas, hot springs, and saunas around the world to visit? Check out this list of Spas Around the World.

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