1000 meters of street food, Muslim Street, Xi’an, China
In the three years since I quit drinking, I’ve traveled to dozens of places without relying on alcohol. No margaritas to celebrate a tropical arrival. And no desperate glasses of wine to numb my travel frustrations. In fact, I’m getting pretty good at sober travel and, for the most part, I rarely struggle while abroad. That is until I escorted my mother to China on a two-week bucket list trip for her 70th birthday.
One night, towards the end of our trip, I staggered to my hotel room in Beijing; the stress and exhaustion taking me completely off-guard. Thoughts I hadn’t had in years bubbled up.
“What if I went down to the bar for a drink?”
“I wonder if could have just one glass of wine.”
For a few minutes, I stewed on the unfairness of not being able to smoke or drink. Then I pulled the covers over my head, bunkering down until the self-pity storm passed. (That’s the trick to staying sober, I’ve found—keeping the faith that the storm will always pass.)
Traveling in Asia for two weeks with a parent is about as advanced sober travel can get—negotiating 15-hour flights, engrained family dynamics, unfamiliar customs, and oh my goodness, the crowds. It was also a pivotal experience—a first trip to the Far East for both of us, and one that both my mom and I will look back on fondly for the rest of our lives.
But I was humbled by how easily, with this specific combination of stressors, I found myself debating if I should drink.
Aberdeen Fishing Village, Hong Kong
I’m grateful that I had the practice of less intense sober travel, so I was able to fall back on habits that had kept me on track up to this point.
After returning from China, I published an article with the online travel publication Matador Network—Sober travel: How not to fall apart without your routine & support system.
If you’ve recently quit drinking, I hope you’ll check out the Matador article for ideas on how to stay on track when you’re abroad.
Want more sober travel info? Check out this article on how to stay sober while visiting your in-laws!
First, a story from the vault
Years ago, I traveled to San Antonio to speak at a conference attended by thousands of children. I wasn’t even trying to quit drinking at the time; this was not a sober business trip. In fact, it was more like Game On. Unencumbered by family responsibilities or routine, after checking into my hotel, I headed out to explore the city. I ended up at a laid-back bar near the river, but off the tourist crawl, where a handsome bartender mixed me a Manhattan. While watching the television behind the bar, I sipped my cocktail and learned the 49ers were in the Superbowl later that week. I mused that despite hailing from San Francisco, I hadn’t been aware of the game. I chatted with some random people at the bar. And I drank a few more Manhattans.
At some point, I went to the bathroom. While navigating the unfamiliar, dark hallway, it occurred to me, “Hm, I very drunk.” Too drunk. I had crossed that invisible line that we enthusiastic drinkers relentlessly strive for, yet are inevitably surprised when we tumble over.
I left, probably giving my new bar friends the old Irish goodbye, and weaved my way back to the hotel where I unceremoniously passed out. Probably in my clothes. I woke up with enough time to pull myself together for my presentations, although my eyes were puffy and my head throbbed. I couldn’t remember if I disappeared before paying my bar tab for all those Manhattans, and to this day that fact makes me cringe.
This isn’t a story of disastrous consequences. But it could have been. No one knew where I was, and I was irresponsible and careless with my safety. My employer paid for my time and expertise to attend this conference, and the young attendees deserved better. I knew all this, which is why underneath my functional facade, I deeply loathed myself. Why else would I be poisoning myself on a semi-nightly basis?
The three-headed hydra: Lack of support, absent routine, and total anonymity
If you recently quit drinking, a business trip can be a tricky thing to navigate. On vacation, you’re probably traveling with someone who’ll witness and take issue with your ugly behavior. But on a business trip, loved ones are at home. You’re free to reinvent yourself among the strangers in airport and hotel bars. This lack of routine and total anonymity can be exhilarating! And very precarious… 😧
So, let’s figure out how to slay this hydra!
Bring your support with you.
Friends, we live in a digital world, and every kind of support can be found in that glowing rectangle glued to your hand. Listen to recovery podcasts. Text your friends from AA. Email your therapist. Call your husband or wife. I’m not a meeting person, but they exist on all corners of the planet. No excuses! Hell, you can ping me if you want, I’m almost ALWAYS online. And I’ll remind you of the LAST business trip you went on.remember? Oh, you don’t? I’m pretty sure there are pictures though…Yikes. (Anyways, my contact button is in the sidebar. It goes straight to my phone, cuz we’re living in the future 🛸. You can also find me on IG @virgincoladatravel.)
Recreate your routine.
I’ve mentioned before that I pack bottles of diet tonic when I travel. It’s hugely inconvenient, yes. But I do it because that is my routine. At the end of the day, I have a diet tonic and either read or play on my phone. (Riveting, I know.) So that’s what I do when I travel. What’s your routine? Then, plan ahead so you can replicate it in Houston, Helsinki, or Honolulu.
Burn the ships.
Burning the ships refers to the legend of Cortes. Upon arriving on Mexican shores, Cortes told his crew to burn their ships, so they had no choice but to press on. (It’s also an episode of a favorite Recovery Elevator podcast of mine, check it out!)
When you share your recovery, you burn the opportunity to sneak back to your old ways without anyone noticing. For me, this blog is a way of burning the ships. Telling people I work with that I don’t drink is another. When I was worried about my drinking, the idea of workmates thinking I drank too much was unbearable. Now that I’ve been sober for years, my anxiety about my secret drinking has mostly gone. Now I’m just incredulous I was ever willing to live that way. I knew I had turned a major corner recently, when applying for a corporate writing position, I included this blog as an example of my writing portfolio. 😲 I know. And they still called me for an interview! (I think it was my judicious use of four-letter words, but I can’t know for sure.)
Want to read more about handling stressful travel without drinking? Right this way.
A few of my most awkward travel memories involved extended family. Because,well…in-laws! When I drank, the weird dynamic became even more difficult to navigate. How do you remain hospitable while wanting to hide with a bottle of wine? How many drinks is too many before someone raises an eyebrow? Even worse, what if they’re heavy drinkers as well, and then the evening devolves into a messy scene from COPS? It’s a lot to handle.
I recently returned from a in-law visit which I wasn’t particularly looking forward to. (That’s something about sobriety no one tells you about–you aren’t magically turned into a saint. 😧) It had all the makings of being super annoying: two flights in two days, small house with lots of people, forced dinner conversation, and in a destination even the most charitable travel guides skip over.
But, if you want to continue to trick your significant other into thinking you’re a generous, loving person, you have to suck it up and occasionally be a team player. So that’s what I did.
And in doing so, I discovered another example of what I refer to as “Fake Stress.” “Fake Stress” is a situation I once thought I needed alcohol to cope with but turns out–surprise!–it’s actually a more pleasant experience without it. (“Dinner” or “horror of facing the evening once you get home from work” are a few other examples of “Fake Stress.”)
If you’ve been sober for awhile, say longer than six months, you’ll have noticed you’re much more patient with life, in general. This means that you’ll be able to smile serenely when you’re defecting questions about your weight and Uncle Larry’s jokes. You might not even be faking! You might not laugh at the fifth knock-knock joke of the evening, but I bet you’ll at least enjoy the hamburger casserole.
Nothin’ to Hide
The luxury of having absolutely nothing to hide is a favorite part of sobriety. It’s a relief after several decades cagily trying to get away with bad behavior. Forget awkwardly counting how many bottles of wine are left for all these people. No giving Aunt Glenda the side-eye when she fills her wine glass up to the brim and then barely touches it. No tiptoeing into the kitchen for a topup. And no more empties to get rid of the next morning. It’s positively luxurious to have so few secrets. And makes you a much lesser maintenance house guest.
Though, because we like to plan for happy sober travel, here are a few tips to ensure success the next time you must visit your beloved’s family:
1) Pack your favorite non-alcoholic drinks.
I strolled into my in-laws’ home with two litres of diet tonic water. Sure, they had iced tea and water. But diet tonic makes me happy, so where I go, it goes.
2) Go to bed as early as you need to.
Blame your exhaustion on the travel. Or say you need to catch up on some work reading before bed, and then retire to your room at 7:30 if you have to.
3) Insist on a hotel, if you need it.
Having your own space to return to at the end of the day can be a game changer. Need an excuse? Use one of these:
- I’m taking an online class and I have a paper due on Monday, so I need a place to work.
- I need to use the gym and pool to get in my triathlon workout–it’s coming up soon!
- The kids are really excited about the hotel pool. (This only works if you have kids.)
- I have a voucher for a night at XYZ hotel, and I want to use it before it expires.
Want to read more sober travel advice? Check out this article on how to keep cool despite the stressiest of travel stress.
There’s something about air travel that triggers a massive personality change in me. Healthy lifestyle habits and good intentions are abandoned and before I’m even airborne I’m scarfing pretzel-wrapped hot dogs while wiping my hands on the pages of a US Weekly.
I’ve heard that many ex-drinkers find staying sober in an airport challenging, even years after their last drink. It makes sense. No one will look at you sideways if you order a martini at 7 am. You either have time to kill or you’re excited about your vacation or both. But let’s be honest, they aren’t great bars, and being semi-hungover on a flight isn’t that fun. There are a million more productive ways to pass the time. Even at an airport.
This is my airport strategy. I’m a frequent flyer–so if these recommendations come off as bougie, it’s because I’ve taken enormous pains to eliminate as much of the inconvenience as possible.
1. Fly like a pro.
Remember the movie, Up in the Air? George Clooney’s character has perfected the art of efficient air travel. Consider this a defensive strategy and do all the things that make checking in and onto your flight on time as seamless as possible. The idea here is to be proactive about minimizing frustrations and delays. Check-in to your flight the night before. Get your boarding pass on your phone. Sign up for TSA-Pre and Global Entry. Get dropped off at the airport by a car service or a friend so you don’t have to park. Take advantage of loyalty and/or airport lounge programs if they’re benefits offered by your credit card.
2. Fly direct.
I’m obsessed with direct flight travel—and you should be too! This isn’t the time to try to save $100 by routing yourself through Chicago on the way to Cancun. Avoid the potential for more delays, frustrations, and temptations, and just get where you need to be as efficiently as possible.
3. Relish in the downtime.
How often do you actually have a few hours to browse magazines and eat pretzel dogs? Never. Take a stroll through the terminal and get in your Fitbit steps. Many airports have express spas so you can get a cheeky manicure or chair massage. Pick up some fun snacks for the flight. Meditate or practice your sun salutations in the yoga rooms popping up in airports all over the world.
4. Belly up to a different kind of bar.
A world-class sushi bar while laying over in New Jersey. An award-winning coffee bar in Copenhagen Airport. Exotic juice bars in Dubai. Whenever I fly through SFO, I race to The PLANT Organic Cafe, for my favorite avocado, grapefruit, and fennel salad. Why pout over an $11 Heineken you won’t be drinking when there’s so much muy delicioso food and drink to try–and if you’re desperate there will always be pretzel dogs at BWI. P.S. While researching this article, I came across Vane Magazine, an online magazine dedicated to health and wellness at airports. Check them out here to research your next airport layover.
5. Create a travel bug-out bag.
A bug-out bag is an emergency survival bag that you can grab from your closet in the event of a sudden zombie apocalypse. The travel version, in my opinion, are the essentials that will keep you content and sane even if your travel plans go terribly wrong. Which they inevitably do. I don’t like being cold, hungry, bored, or lost, so mine includes: headphones, Kindle e-reader with books already downloaded, portable charging battery, actual book or magazine, cash in US$ and whatever currency is used where I’m going, snacks, chapstick, printed copies of my car rental and directions to my destination, pen, and a scarf
Like most things in life, successfully navigating the airport sober gets easier with practice. But until you’re able to sail through customs with the composure of a Zen master, plan ahead, minimize frustrations, and try to keep a sense of humor close by. One day the experience of being bumped off your plane and having to spend the night in the Budapest airport will be hilarious. I promise. 😉
My least favorite thing about quitting drinking is that there’s no reward for getting through the day without punching somebody in the face.
Back in my drinking days, it seemed that even the most aggravating situation would dissolve as soon as the cork popped. The sting of being bumped off a flight made sweeter by a strong airport lounge G&T. The stress of dealing with an infuriating client almost forgotten after a few glasses of Cab. Sadly, no longer an option.
Stress is an inevitable part of sober travel, no matter how practiced you are. I travel frequently and find myself in exhausting scenarios with annoying regularity. A few days ago, after being on the road for several hours, I tried to check into a hotel in the charming town of Staunton, VA. Despite the presence of my reservation confirmation, the receptionist coldly announced that they had no record of me. “Oh, and by the way, our hotel is full,” she gloated.
Thirty minutes later, after miraculously finding me a room, she dismissed me with a warning that the air conditioning was broken, and the hot water was OK to drink–but not the cold, since it was brown. Say whaat?!
Now that it was 9 pm, I was finally getting into my room–dinner plans had been long abandoned–it occurred to me that handling travel stress with aplomb would be a helpful blog post. A few years ago, this would have been a perfect set up for celebrating surviving the day by sinking five glasses of wine. I mean, how else does one reward themselves for getting through the life’s frustrations without losing their shit?
Here are my 11 tips on how to handle travel stress without having a nervous breakdown.
1) Mitigate problems by traveling during business hours.
I try to avoid showing up at hotels at midnight or catching the 5 am flight. Let’s be reasonable, people. We’re sober–not superheroes. Give yourself a buffer of a few business hours to find another hotel or catch another flight.
2) Comfort drinks by the gallons.
For many years I brought wine with me when I traveled. I mean, why endure the inconvenience of having to decipher local liquor laws immediately upon arrival? That’s for amateurs. (Side note–it was when I packed not one, but two boxes of wine, for a 4-day trip to Portugal, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was just being organized or if these were two major red flags.)
Now I’m smuggling diet tonic water–cloaked in less shame, but still so outrageously heavy the baggage handlers wince when they throw my gear on the cart. I’ll toss in some instant coffee and tea, as well. I’m not an animal.
3) Pack snacks, and most definitely chocolate.
Granola bars. Beef jerky. Fun bags of almonds. Definitely chocolate. And remember, if you are traveling with a grumpy significant other, double your stash.
4) Headphones, always.
If you heed no other advice on this list, remember this one. Pack not one, but two pairs of headphones. When that kid in row 6 starts blasting his Ipad with absolute disregard for your sanity, you’ll be grateful. I’ve forgotten my headphones before–zero regrets paying $35 for an emergency pair of earbuds at the airport kiosk.
5) Don’t forget your back-up chargers.
Self-explanatory, I think. Pack one set in the carry-ons, the other in the suitcase. I bring a power bank as well, but I need a lot of gadgets.
6) Something to read, or do.
I live and die by Kindle, and make sure you actually download the books before getting on the plane. If you get delayed somewhere, you’ll be grateful for something to read, a puzzle book, knitting, a meditation app, adult coloring book, just something. Plan ahead for extra downtime.
7) Bring cash, especially in different currencies.
When I lived in Eastern Europe, I could never count on the ATMs to dispense money, especially when I ended up in a random part of the Balkans. So now, even if I’ve let the bank know I’m traveling, I’m immensely paranoid of being without cold, hard, cash. I always bring enough money to cover a coffee and a taxi wherever I land.
8) Sleep it off.
When I first quit drinking, my go-to coping strategy was crawling into bed (no matter what the time) surrounded by my dogs, snacks, tea, and something trashy to watch on Netflix. When I emerged the next day, the agony of whatever I had been suffering had faded and I could get on with getting on. Take the same approach when traveling–you have that big, comfy hotel bed and room service!
9) Plan your sober rewards.
During my first six months of quitting drinking, I planned a reward for myself every single week. Ooh! Another whole week, I win a manicure AND and a $7 Starbucks coffee. This weekend, I’m heading to Panama and I’ve already scoped out the hotel spa. It doesn’t have to be expensive though–maybe your reward is two hours uninterrupted by the pool or a sunrise walk on the beach.
10) Give people the benefit of the doubt (sleeping Buddhas).
I”ve had a fledgling interest in Buddhism and meditation for many years. I’m a terrible meditator, but I do take advice for living wherever I can get it. In the book, City Dharma, I learned that it’s helpful to think of the Buddha as being in all of us, and if someone cuts us off in traffic–well, he’s just a sleeping Buddha right now. I think the lesson there is to practice compassion–for others and ourselves. I get it, it’s hard. Especially at the end of a 14 hour flight, and you just want to get off this f-ing plane, and some travel noobs are blocking the aisle. 🙄
11) Remember that at some point, this situation, no matter how nightmarish, will end.
Where good planning fails, that’s where the great stories begin, right? You aren’t going to write a hilarious blog post about your journey to Nairobi when everything went smoothly. That’s boring. I want to hear about the time you were forced to hitchhike through Slovenia after your now-ex-girlfriend left with your best friend and the rental car. I’m no monk (ask my husband) but my threshold remaining patient has drastically expanded since quitting drinking. Be patient with others, and yourself.
I didn’t quit drinking one day, and then hop on a truck tour of Oman the next. In fact, it was about six months before my first sober travel adventure. One of the first articles I wrote on the “sober travel” topic discusses my apprehension of a weekend away for the first time. Check it out here.