How to Stay Sober on Vacation
The day has arrived. You’ve put in the work. You’ve stayed sober. Now it’s time for a little rest and relaxation. Maybe something on the beach in Florida? Perhaps something more tropical? Or maybe you want something “outdoorsy”, like a trip to Yellowstone. If recovery has been especially generous, Europe could be a possibility.
Whatever you decide, there’s a good chance thoughts of drinking or using will happen. Many sober folks tell me family reunions are especially difficult. It might not be a vacation, but for some, vacations and family reunions go together. When temptation happens, it’s important to be prepared. If you aren’t, chances of a relapse increase dramatically.
Having a plan in place will help ensure a clean and sober vacation. Don't want to plan for vacation? You might end up like this guy.
(don't have a Weekend at Bernie's by relapsing on vacation)
Determine the risk – what’s the trigger factor?
A trip to Yellowstone National Park or the Grand Canyon won’t carry near as much relapse risk as a trip to the beach. Ocean atmospheres are the most romantic settings for people with a history of problem drinking. There’s a good chance a sober alcoholic has a history with booze on the beach.
Before you leave, assess a trip’s trigger factor. Do you think the atmosphere and people will bring a lot of temptation or a little?
Vacation Trigger Factor
Examples: a trip to the beach, a tropical location, a trip to Italy or France (lots of wine) or family reunions.
Examples: a trip to a metropolitan area, like New York City, with a lot of party venues (clubs, bars, etc) or a business conference in a major metropolitan area. Depending on the city and nature of your planned activities, the risk may be high.
Examples: a trip to the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park. These natural settings invite more spiritual reflection than intoxicating temptation. So a vacation like this might strengthen your sobriety.
(photo I took while spending five sober days and six sober nights on vacation in Virgin Gorda)
Think Step Brothers. Will Ferrell. John C. Rielly. You want lots of activities. Excessive idle time on vacation, especially somewhere like Florida or California, almost assures relapse for anyone newly sober.
I recently went on vacation to Virgin Gorda with family. It’s a small, tropical island. I’d snorkel, throw the football, read or exercise. One night I even grilled chicken for everyone. You don’t have to overdo it, but try and have something planned for each day.
Book travel through a sober vacation website
You may not know there are websites that exist for the sole purpose of sober vacations. Sober Vacations International specializes in providing incredible experiences at traditionally non-sober destinations. They offer cruises to tropical locations. Maybe the Alaskan wilderness is more appealing? Or you might want to go on a sober golf trip.
Expedia offers the ability to search their site for sober vacations. You can filter their vacation packages to search for ones that are sober-friendly.
Sober Travelers is sponsored by the Online Alano Club and focuses on 12 step-oriented vacations. If you are interested in meeting people in recovery while on vacation, this is a great place to search for sober destinations.
Don’t keep a vacation secret from your sober network
Let your sober friends and sponsor know you are going on vacation. Don’t keep it a secret.
This adds an additional layer of accountability. Reach out to sober friends and ask them for advice on how they stayed sober on vacation. If they haven’t been sober on vacation yet, ask them if they know anyone who does.
You can really get a lot out of this technique if you try and find someone who went to the city you’re visiting. Ask them about 12 step meetings in the area that they enjoyed. They might even know a sober person or two who lives there. Ask your sober friend if they can put you in touch with that person. Meet up with your sober connect while on vacation for a meeting.
Check in regularly with your recovery network while on vacation. This is especially important if you find yourself thinking about drinking. An old sponsor of mine, Ric B., received a call from one of his sponsees who was on vacation. This sponsee had already poured himself a cocktail. Instead of drinking it, he called Ric. Ric told him to pour it out. As a result of that phone call, Ric’s sponsee made it through vacation sober.
If you are going somewhere without access to cell phones (out of the country or an isolated area), try and find somewhere with Wi-Fi access so you can check in with your sober friends via email or social media. I used Facebook when I went out of the country. It helped. A lot.
Don’t fall out of your recovery routine
Almost everyone who stays sober develops a recovery routine. This may include meditation, prayer, working out, eating right, attending 12 step meetings, calling a sponsor or sponsees and staying in touch with sober friends.
Don’t stop your routine when you’re on vacation. Continue to practice the same things that have helped you stay sober.
Plan ahead by searching for AA meetings or NA meetings in your sober destination (US and Canada). If you are traveling internationally, use this link to search for 12 step meetings internationally - AA meetings or NA meetings.
Don’t be afraid to say no to unhealthy activities
When I was 7 months sober, I went with my family on vacation to St. Lucia. This island was genuine Caribbean. It had steep rain forest-like terrain, volcanoes and crystal clear water.
A few of my family members aren’t in recovery and like to go out to drink and dance while on vacation. It wasn’t easy, but I had to say no. There simply wasn’t a good reason for me to go, and the atmosphere wasn’t sober-friendly.
I definitely don’t recommend a tropical vacation at 7 months sober, but I made it 10 days in the Caribbean without picking up a drink. I did it by following all of the advice I’ve crafted for this article. And a big part of my success was choosing not to participate in something that would jeopardize my sobriety.
Don’t be afraid to enjoy yourself
Staying sober on vacation doesn’t preclude having a really good time. If you are going somewhere tourist-friendly, take in the sights.
If you are going somewhere on the beach, take a walk at sunset. Swim in the ocean. You could learn to scuba dive or charter a day of deep sea fishing.
Staying sober on vacation isn’t easy at first. But it does get easier as you build quality sobriety time. Follow these suggestions, and I guarantee no matter where you go, you’ll stay sober too.