For most of my adult life, I loved traveling and drinking in equal measure. The pleasure of visiting Argentina came both from the grand, crumbling 19th-century architecture of Buenos Aires and the grand Malbecs I gulped under Mendoza’s Andean skies. My husband and I brewery hopped in spots from Asheville, North Carolina, to Istanbul, Turkey.
Experiences such as these can be great ways to explore new places and soak in unfamiliar cultures. But I would take them to the extreme, leading to blackouts and crippling hangovers.
An estimated 46.3 million Americans have substance abuse problems, and I’m one of them. I suffer from alcohol use disorder (the National Institute for Health’s preferred term), colloquially known as alcoholism. I got sober five years ago via rehab and group therapy. I’ve learned how to thrive without sauvignon blanc, but figuring how to travel “dry” in a booze-soaked world has been a whole different journey.
Traveling sober is a growing trend, especially among millennials and Generation Z, who are drinking less than prior generations. Here are some expert tips on how sober people can stay happy and alcohol free on the road, plus how to be an ally when you vacation with non-drinking friends or family members.
Studies show that travel can result in heavy drinking and illicit drug use, particularly in tropical locations. Perhaps it’s the sense of getting away from it all, including moderation?
When I first got sober, my rehab counselors and clinical research suggested using “substitution strategies”—trading potentially destructive behavior (drinking) for positive moves. “Much of early sobriety is about structure and creating new routines,” says Sarah Levy, a fellow sober writer and author of the new memoir Drinking Games. “You need to rewire your brain and break old habits.”
Chasing the adrenalin that comes from a new experience or a thrilling physical activity induces a natural high. “Sheer exhilaration can be a good substitute for craving a glass of wine,” says Lauren Burnison, founder of We Love Lucid, a European sober tour company. “On the trips I organize, we do adventurous things, like windsurfing or hiking.” I started kayaking in early sobriety and try to sneak in an early morning paddle wherever I go.
New ways to travel
I quit drinking around the time the current “sober curious” movement started bubbling up. The market for nonalcoholic beers, spirit-free cocktails, and no-booze bars (Kava Social in Brooklyn, Club Soda in London) is now booming. According to a 2022 study from IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, the global market for no- and low-alcohol beer, cider, wine, and spirits grew by 31 percent year over year and currently amounts to a $10 billion industry.
That’s all a bulwark against the equally robust uptick in distilleries, breweries, and wineries sober travelers find in the unlikeliest places. Still, many destinations—Muslim countries in particular—have strong traditions around non-alcoholic drinks. On a recent trip to Egypt, I delighted in the frothy, not-too-sweet mint lemonade on most menus.
For people who attend sober support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, or the Luckiest Club, “taking a vacation shouldn’t mean taking a vacation from your meetings and recovery,” says Sarah Weston, manager of Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s Connections, a sober coaching program. “You can now attend meetings on Zoom anytime, or find a meeting at your destination.”
When you are sober, your choice of traveling companions can be as important as your destination and activities. “Don’t go on vacation with people you used to use substances or anyone you have highly conflictual relationships with,” advises Weston.
Sober people (and those traveling with them) might avoid boozy festivals like Mardi Gras or beach weekends with friends who drink heavily. Especially in early sobriety, these moves could help avoid temptation or fear of missing out.
These days, I’m comfortable traveling almost anywhere and abstaining. But I’m considering booking a sober group trip next. Many companies host booze-free, recovery-focused tours, including yoga retreats by Soul Bliss Journeys and cruises organized by Sober Vacations.
“People are just so happy to connect with others who have gone through a similar life experience,” says We Love Lucid’s Burnison. “There’s such an upbeat vibe, and it’s great to wake up without a hangover.”