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.
There are approximately 98,000 sober blogs out there now (give or take). I think that’s awesome! Following other peoples’ journeys when you’re teetering around on your newly sober Bambi legs is super helpful. There are even a few other sober travel blogs out there, for which I want to provide you with the links. If I haven’t covered the topic, maybe one of these fine people have. Also, I’ve included a few sober travel agencies and tour groups which may have a blog associated with them. I have zero affiliation with anybody, I’m just a master of the Google-fu and am sharing my resources for those who might be lazier. You’re welcome. 😉
Sober Travel Blogs
Parisian on Purpose: Not really focused on sobriety or travel, but the author and journalist Robert J. Hughes, who splits his time between Paris and NYC, reflects on his Not Drinking in France, and other aspects of French life and culture.
The Sober Senorita: Kelly Fitzgerald Junco blogged about her journey getting sober in Cancun and now she’s writing a book!
Traveling Wild Woman: I just discovered Shannon Whaley, and I love her style, cool tattoos, and the message about storytelling and entrepreneurship.
Nomadic Notes: I stumbled across James Clark’s blog last year when I found his post about his life as a non-drinking traveler. He’s currently based in Vietnam.
Be My Travel Muse: Kristin is a solo female traveler, who also doesn’t drink. Yay!
Sober Trips & Retreats
Travel Sober: A sober travel tour company; upcoming trips include Hawaii, Greece, and Mexico.
Sober Outside: Started by Brooke, who wanted to travel with like-minded sober peeps.
Recovery Elevator: I’m a huge fan of Paul’s podcast; he puts on meetups and retreats several times a year.
She Recovers: The recovery movement has an annual conference as well as retreats both in the US and abroad.
General Articles on Sober Travel
Sober Travel: Do it Without a Drink! GoNomad.com
The Best Types of Vacations To Take if you Don’t Drink, HuffPost.com
9 Tips for Staying Sober While Traveling, TheFix.com
The Ghost of Drinking: Reflections on Sober Travel, LauraMcKowen.com
Traveling the world in search of good, sober fun, BostonGlobe.com
How to Plan a Sober Vacation, MissTravel.com