Let’s talk about sober travel
If you go on a vacation and don't drink a frozen cocktail, did it even happen?
If you’re walking down the street at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday and pass a bar full of people drinking, you’d probably do a double take.
But if you’re walking through an airport terminal at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday and pass a bar full of people drinking, you’d think it was totally normally. (And hey, you may even join them—after all, your flight just got delayed.)
Despite our increasingly wellness-obsessed world, drinking on vacation is still the norm, even for the healthiest people—and even for the healthiest people who may be scaling back their drinking at home. Take Ruby Warrington, author and founder of the mystical-obsessed website The Numinous: “When I got sober curious and started doing things sober for the first time, vacation drinking was the thing that stuck the longest. I was always like, ‘I don’t drink—except on vacation.'”
“I was always like, ‘I don’t drink—except on vacation.'”
So when, on a yoga retreat in Ibiza, the onetime party girl went nearly a week without touching a drop of alcohol, it was pretty major. No red wine on the airplane. No margaritas by the pool. No Red Bull-vodkas at all-night raves.
“It was the first time as an adult that I had no alcohol on the weekend…and I felt so unbelievably good,” she says. “It was a massive revelation.”
The benefits to limiting consumption range from the physical (bye hangovers, hello better sleep) to the superficial (think clearer skin and a bunch of saved money). And whether you’re committed to a dry January, made a New Year’s resolution to cut back a bit, or are just open to ways to have some next-level travel experiences, approaching your next vacation with a sober curious (that is, open to being more mindful about your drinking choices) mindset could be a revelation.
“Honestly, waking up without a hangover, hopefully somewhere really beautiful, you’ll always feel fucking great in the morning.”
“You never regret not drinking,” says Warrington, who has gone on to found the event series Club Soda NYC and just released a book on the topic, Sober Curious. “Honestly, waking up without a hangover, or waking up with no alarm, hopefully somewhere really beautiful, you’ll always feel fucking great in the morning—and it’s so important to remind yourself of that.”
Here, Warrington speaks with The Glassy about why frozen cocktails are often synonymous with vacation, realistic ways to become more mindful about your drinking, and the top places to visit if you’re sober curious.
What is it about vacation that makes it so synonymous with drinking?
There are multiple things feeding into that. On the one hand, vacation is a time when we take a break from our regular lives. We’re almost given permission to be or do whatever we want. The structure is gone from our days; we’re outside of those regular rules. “Of course I can drink at 10 a.m., I’m on vacation!”
But on a deeper level, we associate alcohol with relaxation, and for many people it’s a really fast and apparently effective way to switch off our thinking mind. When we think of vacation to relax, it’s a literal no-brainer—so without even thinking, it’s: I’m going to drink, because what I do when I relax is I drink.
“We associate alcohol with relaxation, and for many people it’s a really fast and apparently effective way to switch off our thinking mind.”
Those two things combined lead to an excessive all-day-into-the-night drinking that a lot of people find themselves in on vacation—myself included. I was always like, “I only drink four or five nights a week—except on vacation.” I dug deeper into why, and not having work, not having the to-do list, not having the day-to-day, it can leave you at loose ends. It really brings up this idea of what does it mean to be in the present moment with myself and no distractions?
And that can be intense—and frankly, the exact type of thoughts that some of us go on vacation to quiet! How have you found travel experiences to change when you cut out alcohol?
In the book I talk about this thing called “euphoric recall”—when we think back fondly on good times, to remember just the good parts. I had done so much partying in Ibiza, the party capital of Europe, in my twenties and thirties. Looking back on my vacation drinking, I think, wow, I had so much fun.
I went back to Ibiza for a wedding this summer, and I was really curious to see if this place would be as magical without the alcohol. Can I have as much fun without the alcohol? What would it be like to go to the super-clubs—some of the best clubs in the world—without a drink? The whole thing with sober curious is rather than having judgment about how it will be, put yourself in the situation and get curious about what’s happening.
The trip was amazing—the natural beauty of the place, being able to sleep in as long as I wanted, having time to literally just hang out with my friends…. It was so deeply relaxing, and all added up to me being so deeply floored by the experience. This is what a vacation should feel like.
Did you go out while you were sober traveling in Ibiza?
I went to three of the biggest clubs on the island and I had an amazing time! Often if I’ve had a heavy drinking vacation, I might come out of it feeling like I needed a vacation. How many times have you had that? Or feeling like it wasn’t long enough, or I wasn’t able to relax as long as I wanted to. That Ibiza vacation was a real revelation.
“Often if I’ve had a heavy drinking vacation, I might come out of it feeling like I needed a vacation.”
If you’re traveling with people, should you tell them that you’re planning on not drinking? Or be really low-key about it?
It very much depends on you as an individual and the relationship with the people you’ll be on vacation with. The idea of hiding it suggests there’s something shameful or weird about it, so I’m much happier to be like, “Hey, I’m not going to be drinking this trip, and the reasons are because it doesn’t make me feel great—but you do whatever you want, my decision has nothing to do with you at all.” You may be surprised by the people in your life who are open to this, once you’re the first brave one to talk about it.
If you’re not comfortable with that, you can also not make a big deal of it and just go—but the thing is, when you’re with people 24/7, they’ll notice [if you’re not drinking], so it helps to know what your answer is going to be when it comes up. Think about the top three or four reasons why you’re making this choice, and put it on paper so you can refer to it. If there’s peer pressure and you start questioning your motives, you can return to why you do this.
But yeah, don’t sign up for a month-long trip through South America with your biggest drinking buddy.
If you’ve never consciously abstained from drinking, do you recommend trying it out at home first before you try it somewhere new?
Vacation is probably one of the hardest sober curious challenges, so it would be helpful to have some experience of being in a situation where you’d usually drink and not drink. That could be a dinner party, or a weekend of not drinking.
“Vacation is probably one of the hardest sober curious challenges.”
If your intention is for a transformational retreat, or taking a sabbatical and changing your life, then throwing in sobriety as a part of that is going to expedite any kind of transformation that could happen. If you’re really looking for a game-changing travel experience, doing it sober is just going to amplify the impact of a new country or putting yourself into any situation.
I’ve definitely been on my fair share of retreats where the group vibe is work out or meditate in the morning, and then drink pina coladas by the beach in the afternoon. If you’re traveling for a retreat, is sobriety a key element?
For me personally, yes, because what I’m looking for in a retreat experience is to get out of my comfort zone and to be present with the full experience and all of the emotions that are coming up as a result—and for me alcohol prevents those things.
It can keep me in a comfort zone of, “I’m going have a breakthrough…but tomorrow I’ll be hungover and that will keep me from dealing with the emotional things that have come up.” Anyone who has come on one of my retreats knows that, yeah, a little bit of a breakdown is a good thing [laughs].
I’ve been in some travel situations where alcohol is a part of the cultural experience—like, say, on the Trans-Siberian railway, where doing a shot of vodka with the people in your train car is customary. Are there times where it might not make sense for someone to abstain when they vacation?
This is the thing: Being sober curious doesn’t mean being teetotaler sober. It can also mean entering drinking with a questioning mind. How is this going to make me feel? Is this enhancing my experience or taking away from it? What will happen if I don’t drink? Entering experiences with that mindset can help inform your decisions.
“Being sober curious doesn’t mean being teetotaler sober. It can also mean entering drinking with a questioning mind.”
And also, most places you’re traveling to now have wellness activities, so you can experience the local culture and meet local people in ways that don’t involve alcohol. I’m sure if you went to Tulum and found a beach yoga class, you could still meet people and immerse yourself in the local culture and it wouldn’t revolve around alcohol. That expectation to drink is so deeply ingrained, it’s not really until we begin to question it that we realize it.
Where are your top destinations for having an amazing, sober curious vacation?
Joshua Tree is incredible—some of those hikes in the desert, oh my God, completely trippy without any substances. The energy there is incredible, and it’s one of the few wifi black spots, so you can really disconnect and be present with yourself.
Anywhere there’s a really thriving wellness scene, like Bali or Tulum, where you know you’ll be able to find alternative pastimes that don’t involve drinking.
If you’re really into culture, then any city that has really amazing art culture or restaurant culture. Like, say, Barcelona, which seems counterintuitive since drinking is such a part of the culture, but go and say, “I’m going to enjoy what’s on offer, and I’m just going to remove the alcohol,” and it will still be fabulous.
Or got to countries where they don’t drink—like in the Middle East, where there’s no alcohol at all. Somewhere like Dubai, where there’s a bit of a western tourism scene so you can drink in all the hotels, if you step outside of that you’ll find that people don’t drink. Morocco would also be a great option. “I’m going to be out at a belly dancing club, drinking tea and smoking hookah, and that will be just as fun and I don’t need alcohol.” You’ll realize that the alcohol is an add-on, it’s not an essential component.”