I've worked out in several gyms and had several personal trainers throughout the years... So, here are a few tips from my experience (in no particular order):
1) You said you don't have any "gym bunny" friends... What about co-workers? I ask only because gym members tend to give the most honest appraisals of their gym. Beyond that, just start researching (the internet is a good place to start) and look for free workout passes on gyms you're interested in. Even if you don't see a free pass advertised, if you walk in they'll usually let you workout for free at least once (so go prepared to workout).
On your first visit, a guided tour should be a given, but you should also take your own time to check out everything. And just be aware that you'll usually get a sales pitch the first time you're in a gym. But only make that decision when you're ready.
2) Understand that when it comes to gyms and memberships (money) you should always negotiate! Never settle for a first offer and be willing to say no and walk out if you don't get a deal you want or feel comfortable with! Also, because many gyms pay their sales staff on a commission basis, go in towards the end of the month when they're looking to meet their sales goals. They tend to be more flexible with their deals during that time. Even payment arrangements and methods are often negotiable. And don’t forget to ask if they’re offering any “specials”.
3) Look for a good range of equipment (free weights, machines, cardio equipment, exercise balls, etc). This should be a given, but it's especially important if you plan on hiring a trainer... A good trainer should know how to utilize many different types of equipment to give you a "workout program" that incorporates a lot of change and variety to keep your progress going. This also helps you learn more!
1) This one is a bit tougher. Simply put... you have to ask a lot of questions about the training staff!!! For example, if you're interested in doing a competition... have any of the training staff actually been in a competition (can they relate, do they know the specific steps you’ll have to take to prepare)? What type of certifications and degrees to the trainers have?
2) Know your goals... do you want to loose weight? Do you want to build lean mass? Do you want to do both? Until you have set a goal for yourself, the training staff can only give you a "general direction". But if you have a plan in mind, they can definitely help you define it realistically and set you up to achieve it. This also helps them put you with the right trainer from the start.
3) A good trainer will offer you solid advice and also encourage you to do your best. They do add to the cost, but a trainer that gets you results is worth the money. Even if you work out with a trainer for the short term, another benefit is that he or she can help “orient” you to the gyms equipment and teach you proper use and form. This may sound kind of crazy, but given the variety of equipment from one gym to another, it’s always nice to get a “demo” of how it’s used.
I hope that helps… that was more than three things… it was 3 plus 3. Haha