6 Tips for Traveling Sober

Jan 26, 2019

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You’ve decided to take a trip, and you’ve decided you’re not going to drink alcohol during that time. Whether it’s for a Dry January experiment, long-term health reasons or anything in between, it can be done. You know what you don’t have to decide? How to explain yourself. The reason(s) why you don’t plan to drink alcohol are yours to share—or not—with whomever you please. The important thing is that you’ve made those first two decisions, and you’ve landed on this article to help you stay the course.

That’s another important thing! You recognize that this will be challenging, because temptation lurks at the beach, in the hotel lobby, and even at yoga these days. So, good on you.

Now, let us help.

Set an intention.

What do you want to accomplish while you’re on your trip? Do you want to remember every piece of it: the weather, the architecture, the scents, the faces of the people there? Whatever it is, having a goal in mind helps. You’ll look forward to achieving it and you’ll cherish the experiences that are part of the process.

Also, you can choose your vacation accordingly. Meditation and yoga retreats, hiking and camping excursions, and volunteer trips are more conducive to not drinking than others, and certain regions of the world, like the Middle East, cater to non-drinkers more than others. So take note!

Deal with the minibar.

“It’s important to appreciate the power of rewards systems in our brains,” says Alex Dayton, clinical director of Freedom Institute in New York City. He’s referring to those feel-good endorphins triggered by alcohol, among other things, and the neural pathways that form when the brain experiences something it likes. The deeper those pathways become, the more likely we are to keep giving the brain what it wants (a drink) without thinking about what happens when we run that path into a ravine (a hangover). In other words: It’s a habit, and those are hard to break.

Do yourself a favor and remove the thing that makes repeating it as easy as twisting off the cap to a beer bottle: the hotel minibar. All it takes is a phone call to the hotel’s staff ahead of time, and they’ll turn your room alcohol-free before you arrive. Remember that you don’t have to explain yourself! Just ask that they edit out the booze, and they will. They do it all the time.

Deal with the mile-high bar.

“One of most triggering things is being around people who don’t know that you’ve decided not to drink,” says Dayton. A plane is like a protective little bubble in the air, and no one on the ground can see what you’re up to inside of it. “There’s this idea of being able to get away with it on an airplane.”

As you board, tell the flight attendants that you’re not drinking and request that they support you in that endeavor when the bar cart comes around. Sharing your plan with others helps keep you accountable. (Same goes for restaurants, by the way. Tell the maitre d’ that you don’t drink at the time of making your reservation or checking in, and ask that your server be prepared. You can even ask the staff to remove the wine glasses from your place setting if you want to.)

Airports can be tricky, too. If you find yourself really craving a drink, go to an information desk or courtesy phone and explain. Over the loudspeaker, the airport personnel can ask that any “friends of Bill,” which is code for attendees of Alcoholics Anonymous, come to your gate. If you’re not already in AA, remember that the only requirement is a desire to stop drinking or using a substance. People who share your goal want to help, so call an impromptu meeting if you need it.

If you’re not comfortable with this, call a friend. Whether it’s before and after a flight, a meal, or a day, set up times to check in with someone who knows what your goals are. Specialists call this technique “bookending.”

Put other rewards in place.

Get excited about all the other delicious drinks out there, whether it’s a longstanding part of a country’s culture, like a tea ceremony in Japan, or a buzzy new bar that’s pushing the boundaries of it beverage program, like Chicago’s new Kumiko. There, creative director Julia Momose pairs “spirit-free” mixed drinks, such as the Hoji-Hai, made with nutty green tea, pomegranate molasses, Concord grape vinegar, and club soda, with her five-course tasting menu. There are so many articles about the alcohol-free cocktail trend these days; all it takes is a little Googling to find some options at your destination.

In addition, think about other, non-drinkable forms of self-soothing: massages, music, even a bath. This is what vacation was built for! Making morning plans also helps. What’s a morning activity that you’d legitimately be bummed to have missed (or have suffered through with a headache)? A nature walk? A pilates session? Scheduling something fun for first thing in the morning helps ensure that you won’t do things to mess it up the night before. This could even be good morning sex, if you’re on a romantic vacation. (Talk about a reward!)

Change your body chemistry.

By changing your body chemistry, you can better tolerate certain urges, like the want to drink. One of the ways to do this is to hold your breath and put your face in a bowl of cold water for thirty seconds. It’s a skill taught to students of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, which is all about changing patterns of thinking and behavior.

Two other ways: Intense exercise, which expends your body’s physical energy, and paced breathing. Breathe deeply into your belly, slow down the pace to five or six breaths per minute, and breathe out more slowly than you breathe in. Notice the tension in your body softening. Now you have the calm to think through that drink. Play it forward: What are the pros and cons of taking the first sip? What will it look like in ten minutes? What will it look like in an hour?

Don’t be so hard on yourself.

Ruby Warrington, author of the new book Sober Curious, believes that “anybody who drinks on a regular basis is probably, kind of, just a little bit addicted.” Remember those rewards systems and the easy-to-form neural pathways? “Our brains are biologically hardwired to form an attachment to alcohol,” Warrington writes. Add to that the fact that, in most cultures, alcohol is “presented as both good times in a bottle and a panacea for a multitude of modern malaises.” Changing this habit—for however long or short a period of time—is really hard! So be kind and patient with yourself. Enjoy yourself. And enjoy your vacation.

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