A Wanderful Woman’s Guide to Traveling While Sober
During my twenties, I pursued stamps in my passport with the same unquenchable enthusiasm I chased glasses of wine. Traveling and drinking: This is the life (I believed) of an independent, adventurous woman on a mission to experience all of the world. And experience the world, I did. I moved from the US to Australia, then London, followed by a two-year stint in Eastern Europe, then back to the US, punctuated by more than a few blurry escapades.
Looking back, most of my adventures were positive: beach camping in Baja California with canned margaritas or dancing wildly in a locals’ bar in Central Australia. But there were terrible nights too. Sweating, nauseous and miserable, I remember bouncing along a deeply rutted road in the back of a Costa Rican bus. Or worse, waving off strange men while walking home alone from a bar in Eastern Europe, realizing with rising panic, I’m unable to form a straight line. Not to mention the countless mornings spent recovering when I could have been taking in more of my destination.
When I quit drinking for good in 2016, I was terrified that I’d have to say goodbye to both of my loves. I mean, how can you travel and not drink? Not drink wine in France? Unthinkable. No tropical rum punch in the Caribbean? Might as well stay home. Don’t even get me started on the cheeky thrills to be found in airport lounges, which would inspire a dirty martini—two olives, please—instead of my typical glasses of cheap red wine.
Like a toxic romance that finally ran out of fights, I knew I had to stop drinking even if it meant never finding happiness again. (We drinkers do have a flair for the dramatic.) The angst of not achieving my potential gnawed at my soul. Depressed and directionless, I recognized my wine habit played a significant role. Plus, the idea of turning 40 in a few years, still stuck in the same headspace, was unbearable.
After a few (dozen) false starts, I did quit drinking. Months later, like an awkward but determined new-born fawn, I tested my sober travel legs by nervously booking a long weekend in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. I survived, sobriety intact. Emboldened by this modest success, that year I traveled to Sweden, Iceland, and the Netherlands. And since then, I haven’t looked back.
I’d have never believed that alcohol-free travel could be satisfying—maybe because I didn’t know anyone that did it.
The last few years have seen a tremendous rise in the popularity of sober curious events, dry bars, and even sober travel clubs. If alcohol-free travel intrigues you, but you aren’t sure you want to go it alone, check out these fun people:
If you’ve quit drinking recently, or part of the growing sober-curious movement, and want to consider trying a sober trip, this is what you can expect.
Sober travel is less stressful.
Alcohol’s greatest irony is that whatever issue you drink to resolve; the result is the opposite. Want to relax? Alcohol spikes your anxiety, especially when you oversleep for your 7 a.m. flight. Want to have fun? Experience a rush initially, but being sick, full of regret, or hungover is not a good time. Since quitting drinking, I never worry about missing early flights, tracking down booze in unfamiliar destinations, or finding my judgment impaired when I need my wits about me.
You’ll fit more into your travel itinerary.
I didn’t quit drinking and discover my insatiable appetite for green juice and 5 a.m. military-style workouts. But I can vouch for the benefits of a stable mood and energy levels, even after an overnight flight to Hong Kong. Functioning on five hours of sleep just fine, I delight in hitting the streets to take photos or find a local cafe before the city, or my travel partners, emerge for the day.
You’ll be open to new experiences.
Like most travel nerds, I considered myself a try-anything-once kind of person. But my dependence on alcohol meant every night, whether I was in Boston or Belgrade, meant scoring at least a few glasses of wine. Without that obsession limiting my options, I’m free to try every bizarre local drink on the menu. Or even skip the bar in favor of a new experience altogether, and I certainly don’t need to limit my company to the party crowd.
Sometimes sober travel is hard.
Like any worthwhile commitment in life, alcohol-free travel will challenge you. Maybe your travel companions still drink. Or you want to drown the stress of missing a flight in a $13 airport cocktail. Maybe the FOMO of traveling in Peru without an authentic pisco sour hurts your soul. That’s normal. To keep yourself sane, I recommend two techniques. The first is to keep your everyday support channels around you as much as possible while you are traveling. That could look like using an app-based therapist, or checking in with one of the many online accountability groups. The second is to find a mocktail that will buoy your spirits, even after the longest travel day, and pack it. I never regret packing sachets of herbal tea or liters of diet tonic water when I stagger into my destination’s hotel, knowing I have the makings of a cozy, relaxing first night already in my luggage.
Since that awkward trip to the Delaware shore, it’s become obvious the less-hungover version of myself is a far better traveler than the wine-sodden one ever was. With a little practice, my enthusiasm for travel quickly eclipsed the ambition of my 25-year-old self, with further-flung destinations (China!), new experiences (tree-climbing in Southern Virginia!), and—best of all—a new career writing about travel (yay!).
That’s the thing you don’t realize as a regular drinker. Drinking is framed as a release—an escape from the everyday. But that’s an illusion: The reality is that my life was actually getting smaller. Rather than accentuating my experiences, a habit as deeply ingrained as mine limited my options, and my expectations for my own potential. Once I waded out from the emotional flotsam caused by 15 years of overdrinking, I looked around and thought, “Huh…that was seriously an enormous waste of time.” And, unwilling to waste another minute, I booked that flight to Hong Kong.