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5 Ways to Stay Sober While Traveling

Tips for maintaining your sobriety when traveling for work or fun.

Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.
Source: Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.

Whether for pleasure or business, travel presents challenges for those working hard to stay sober. You’re away from your support network, out of your routine, and likely to be surrounded by fellow travelers who see being away from home as a virtual mandate to drink. It can feel like the ultimate test of your sobriety.

With a little planning and foresight, however, you can minimize the risk and maximize the chances of actually enjoying your outing rather than feeling as though you’re running a gantlet. Keep these five things in mind:

1. Pick your destination wisely.

When planning a vacation, it goes without saying: no Germany in October, no spring break at Daytona Beach, no tours through Napa Valley. But keep in mind the culture and structure of other travel experiences. Cruises, for example, primarily offer opportunities to eat and drink. In France, wine glasses are often filled without prompting. And at beach resorts, sunning and drinking go hand in hand. Will you be comfortable in these settings? Perhaps this is a good year for a camping trip at a national park that doesn’t allow alcohol, or a walking tour through the Lake District, or a drive through the East Coast’s fall foliage.

Or take advantage of a welcome and booming trend: sober tours. These connect you with others who are committed to sobriety and who know that a good time doesn’t mean you have to have a glass in your hand. There are tours for just about every activity you can imagine – sober safaris, sober retreats, sober sports, sober cruises, even sober Club Med. Or you can arrange for a sober concierge to guide you through your visit to an area so that you hit the high spots while skipping the temptations.

2. Take your support network with you.

It’s unnerving to be suddenly untethered from your usual support networks, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take support with you. Our information age makes connection as close as our smartphones. Apps, many of them free, can be downloaded that offer inspirational messages of encouragement, daily reflections, and tips for staying sober. One free recovery app even connects you with all the available support group meetings – both 12-step and non-12-step – wherever you are.

3. Plan some activities in advance.

Don’t wait until you reach your destination to find out what there is to do. You don’t have to fill every moment in advance, but it’s smart to have at least some activities and tours planned to help keep structure in your day. If you’re traveling for work and know you will have a little downtime, check ahead about events in the area. Perhaps there’s a film screening or a lecture you might find interesting, or a museum or restaurant you want to visit. You can even invite any co-workers to come along and do some networking while you’re at it. They may see your plans as a welcome change of pace from the after-work drinks at the bar that are so often part of business trips.

4. Prepare coping strategies.

Stress is a common trigger to drinking, and travel is stressful. You’re dealing with new situations and sometimes with new cultures, currency, foods and languages. And let’s not forget the getting there. For some, the flight is the most stressful part of the trip. Alcohol can start to feel like a necessity just about the time the flight attendants come down the aisle with the drink cart. Prepare yourself for your travels by practicing stress-reduction techniques you can call upon as needed. Deep-breathing exercises, for example, can be done anywhere and at any time. Or investigate mindfulness techniques that can bring you into the moment instead of getting wound up about what might be.

Above all, try to keep your sense of humor. Things are bound to go wrong at some point on your trip, but all those exasperating incidents will become the “Remember the time …?” stories you laugh about later.

5. Keep in mind what you’re really missing.

It can be easy to start feeling sorry for yourself when those around you are sipping cocktails in the sun or laughing it up at the bar. But keep in mind that what you’re really missing out on is a return to a life that didn’t work for you. Among those laughing over their drinks now, many will be paying for it later. You, on the other hand, will actually be present for your vacation and able to experience and enjoy everything it has to offer. Instead of “What did I do last night?”, your trip will be one you remember – and one worth remembering.

David Sack, MD, is a psychiatrist, addiction specialist and addiction blogger. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees a nationwide network of treatment programs for addiction including Clarity Way drug rehab in Pennsylvania and The Right Step treatment centers in Texas.

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