The Definitive Guide to Sober Travel
Vacations shouldn't be nerve-racking, but in recovery, it's not always that simple. We asked three sober travel pros how to make your trips fun — and more fulfilling than ever
So you’ve got a vacation coming up. Great, right? You’re going somewhere new and exotic, and it’s a fabulous city or a beachside resort! Or you’re going to an old favorite spot with all your old favorite friends. Or you’re seeing family for the first time in a while. You love to travel, remember?
But this time, you’re anxious, because now you’re in recovery from addiction. How will you maintain your sober routines in an unfamiliar place? What are you supposed to do about the nightlife in the fabulous city, or the pool parties at the resort? What if your old friends are still using, or your family stresses and triggers you?
Fret not. It’s totally normal to feel nervous and a little vulnerable in your sobriety, even (especially?) when it comes to activities that are supposed to be “fun.” And we have even better news. In recovery, you can easily rediscover, or even newly discover, your love of travel — in fact, you’ll likely love it even more. As with everything in recovery, you’ll just have to make a few adjustments, keep a few things in mind and you’ll be good as golden sunsets.
“My very first trip in sobriety was a total disappointment,” said Darci Murray, the founder of Hooked Alcohol Free Travel, a relatively new company that leads group trips for sober travelers.
Murray remembers the vacation, where alcohol seemed inescapable. “I felt like I wanted to be safe. I felt like I just had to isolate myself and be away from everybody. Now I’ve spent my hard-earned money to get away and have relaxation and rejuvenation, and here I am hiding in my room? I was angry, frustrated. I felt alone. I felt shame. Why can’t I be like everybody else?”
“So what I would want for anybody that’s in early recovery,” she continued, “is to make great choices from the very beginning.”
Making great choices can mean many things, but it boils down to thinking ahead about what you’ll be doing on your trip and whom you’ll be doing it with.
Murray and two other sober tour organizers — Lauren Burnison, founder of U.K.-based We Love Lucid, and Cole Bressler, founder of Choose Life Sober Adventures in Marina del Rey, California — shared a few basic do’s and don’ts.
Make sure you’re connected to your support group or recovery community at home, or seek out 12-step meetings or sober functions near your destination. Avoid people and places that trigger you. Keep up your sober wellness regimen as best you can. Be open to connecting with new people who are sober, or better yet, find some sober pals for your adventure. Plan out your days and, more importantly, your nights, so they’re filled with activities that make you feel energized, fulfilled or refreshed.
“It’s just about filling your day with cool things and doing new things that are going to boost your confidence,” said Burnison. “I think that’s huge, isn’t it? When you first quit, you’re thinking, ‘Oh, am I going to be able to do this?’ It’s all about just building that confidence and realizing, ‘Yeah, I can.'”
Finally, be bold enough to engage yourself completely. “Food tastes better, touch is more intense, the colors are brighter. When you’re traveling and you’re not using any substances, it is a full-sensory experience,” said Murray. “So when you take that full-sensory experience and you put yourself in a brand new destination, it’s like a natural high. It’s just a completely euphoric experience.”
But the first time you travel sober, you can just learn to be comfortable. You’ll return home with confidence and, perhaps, some contacts. If you’re a traveler at heart, you’ll be eager to get back out there again.
Go to a National Park — Or Nashville
All right, then. Where to?! None of the experts warned us off Vegas or Cancún, as you might expect. The world doesn’t have to get smaller when you get sober. Burnison, Bressler and Murray are all sober themselves after dealing with addiction and substance use issues, so we turned to them for some inspiration and tips, based on their personal travels and those with sober fellow travelers.
In the rainforests of Costa Rica and on the slopes around Machu Picchu, Bressler starts each day with morning meditations and recovery-related group conversations about gratitude, acceptance, patience and other themes.
Burnison leans outdoorsy as well, mixing adrenaline with R&R: stargazing, snorkeling, stand-up paddleboarding and nonalcoholic drinks tastings in places like the Andalucia region of Spain and Cornwall, England. Being out in the wild is good for the sober soul, and letting a little dopamine flow doesn’t hurt either. “I don’t think there’s anything more spiritual than getting into nature and breathing in that fresh sea air,” she said.
Murray emphasizes finding ways to take the worry out of worrying about substances when you go somewhere busier, like Rome or Nashville. Alcohol-free activities and nightlife are key. Murray uses social media and local sober networks to find the unexpected: gelato tastings, underground city tours, a drag show with all Dolly Partons.
“We’ve been granted a new life, right? This is a blank slate, so what are we going to do with this blank slate?” said Murray. “When I was in Tanzania last year, our guide was really into bird-watching. And I’m like, ‘Give me a break. I do not want to look at birds.’ But who am I to say that, actually? We actually don’t know what we like when we’re starting off in recovery.” The only type of trip that earned a consensus thumbs-down from the guides was isolating yourself at an all-inclusive resort where all activities revolve around alcohol.
Finally, if you’re at a place in your recovery where you don’t want to see alcohol or other substances at all, there are still plenty of options. If you’re a trailblazer, try camping in the Cascades or rafting in the Rio Grande. If you’re a city mouse, you might look to the Arab world, where alcohol is less present in the culture. Travelers, sober or not, have been adding hot destinations like Marrakech and Essaouira, in Morocco, and Cairo and Luxor, in Egypt, to their bucket lists.
Wherever you go, look at it this way: Sober travel is not about limits, barriers and things you have to miss out on. With the right mindset, it’s entirely the opposite.
What’s New and Cool in Sober Travel
Hooked, We Loved Lucid and Choose Life are all new companies, founded in the past few years, and all are tapping into a rising demand for high-quality travel experiences that accommodate people who don’t use substances, whether that’s every day or just for the holiday.
Bigger brands are catching on, too. Hyatt Hotels made a splash with its Zero Proof, Zero Judgment nonalcoholic drinks program, inspired by the creative stylings of one property’s sober bartender. At Hyatt’s Thompson Central Park in New York, one zero-proof cocktail is sold for every five alcoholic ones — sold for $19, no less. In May, JetBlue became the first large U.S. airline to add a nonalcoholic beer to its beverage cart, now on all domestic flights.
But the connection with others who understand what it’s like to be sober and what it took to get there is the X factor that a sober group trip can offer. It’s why recovery support groups have long organized outings and excursions. You can round up some friends in recovery for an impromptu adventure, or you can jump on a journey organized by a sober travel company. Just as it does at home, shared sobriety makes individual sobriety feel more comfortable.
“The thing that really sticks out to me as the magic factor of our trips is that within the first hour of everyone being together, people were laughing and joking like we’d known each other our whole lives,” said Bressler, recalling the first trips he organized. “And I think that is because, even though on the surface a lot of us don’t really have a ton in common, we just share this one really deep thing. That bond is already there.”
Consider this. One of the first questions everyone in recovery asks themselves is: What do I do with my time and my energies now that I’m no longer using? Travel is one answer that’s very much worth exploring.
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