How To Rock A Group Vacation When You're (The Only One) Not Drinking

It’s officially summer, which means many of us are planning an adventure or relaxing getaway. Vacations are traditionally a time to cut loose, relax or explore new places and experience a new culture. For most people, this means gluttonous eating and drinking. I gave up the latter almost 18 months ago and have navigated the waters of sober vacationing many times since - and always with a travel companion (or companions) who were decidedly not sober.

Whether you’re newly alcohol-free, working through recovery, or just trying to be more mindful - getting outside of your normal routine can be a test of your commitment to sobriety. You are surrounded by messages that suggest you deserve a drink to relax or that you need to have a cocktail to be normal.

I get it, I took my first sober vacation over Memorial Day weekend in 2017. It was my first trip out of the country. I was going to an all-inclusive resort in Mexico and to Cuba (aka the land of rum). I remember walking onto the resort thinking, “Am I going to make it through this?” I was surrounded by fruity cocktails, all of which I had paid to indulge in (in retrospect, I should have negotiated a discount; we’ll get to that later). Vacation was the first time I really felt on-the-edge about being alcohol-free.

Spoiler: I did it. I made it through resort-living in Mexico and several beautiful days in Cuba without a sip of alcohol (read about my Cuba recos here). Shortly after that trip, I shared my tips for vacationing sober, but wanted to explore a different dynamic which I’ve since experienced several times: group vacations, because it’s a completely different dynamic than traveling alone or with just one companion.

To date, I’ve been on three major group trips: Hawaii (4 people), Chicago (12 people), and Dallas (8 people), and want to share my strategies for making sure group trips are amazing...especially when you’re the only one not drinking.

Now, as you read some of these suggestions, it might sound like I’m preparing for the worst; and that’s true to an extent. While I go into a group vacation with the best of expectations, vacations can be the most unpredictable of spaces because everyone is out of their element. With this in mind, I find it best to over-prepare in order to ensure the most positive outcome: .

Take time to prepare your mindset. 
The outcome of most situations is highly dependent on how you choose to approach them. If you go into a group trip with expectations that it might be difficult, boring, annoying, or otherwise negative; you’ll be looking for those experiences and those experiences are exactly what you’ll find.

Rather, I recommend taking the time to complete a visioning meditation before you depart for your trip. Take this step even if you feel you’re approaching the situation with a positive mindset. It helps to clear any negative muck that may be hiding in your subconscious. During this meditation, affirm statements like,

  • “Sober travel is fun and enlightening”
  • “My friends are respectful travel companions.”
  • “I am energized by and open to new experiences.”
  • “I choose to see the positive in all situations. If I have slipped into negativity, I can choose again.”
  • “I am grateful for time to deepen connections and have new experiences with my friends.”

Aligning yourself with these positive mindsets will tap into parts of your brain that help you cope in unexpected moments of chaos. Regardless of your religious preference, or lack thereof; you may consider also saying a prayer like the one below,

Dear Universe,

Help my to approach this situation with positivity and patience. Allow me to make the most out of this experience and enjoy my time in this new place with friends. Guide me to release any predispositions or biases which may hold me back during this trip. Remind me to be mindful in all that I do and guide me to choose again should I loose sight of this vision. 

Take time to yourself. 
When I quit drinking, my emotions and levels of sensitivity went into overdrive. I felt a heightened sense of joy, happiness, and mental clarity I’d never experienced before. But I was also forced to experience and completely feel through negative emotions and stressors without the aid of a numbing agent. Furthermore, I found myself more sensitive to subtle stressors. While I now have the tools to deal with the more challenging emotions, I also find that I require more time to mindfully recharge.

If spending several days out of your routine and normal environment isn’t call enough for extra self-care, throw in the energies and personalities of a few travel companions. Our bodies and minds tend to self-regulate to those around us; especially when your sensitivities are heightened. This means you’re constantly picking up and playing off of the energies of others. If you don’t take time for a break and major reset during a group trip, you’re doing a disservice to your own well-being.

 Chicago, party of 12! My biggest success during this trip was turning in early and waking up to go for morning adventures in our neighborhood.

Chicago, party of 12! My biggest success during this trip was turning in early and waking up to go for morning adventures in our neighborhood.

I like to do this in a couple of different ways. First, I nearly always plan to go home before my travel companions; if possible. This allows me some alone time to decompress and get into bed before they arrive home. This also allows me to wake up before the group and take some time to enjoy a coffee or (better) go for a walk or run in the area we are staying. As an active individual, this has proven to be some of the most important and fulfilling time as it allows me to move my body and peacefully enjoy the city in which we are staying.

Second, I often choose one group activity to say, “no” to. I’ve actually added this to my own travel list as a result of going on one too many excursions or activities after my gut told me to skip and have my own experience. Breaking away from the group can be difficult because the fear of missing out is real. However, consider breaking away to do your own thing as simply having a different experience, not missing out on another experience. Taking a little time to build your own independent memory or simply to relax will offer you extra time to recharge and allow you to be more present and positive in other group situations. I recommend doing this at least one time, depending on the length of the trip, but - to the other extreme - remember that you are on a group vacation and should purpose to build memories with the group as well.

Appreciate your “different” experience”.
Breaking your sober streak when on vacation can be VERY tempting. You see everyone around you cutting loose; typically at all hours of the day. This can be a big difference from your typical environment where boozy activities are more exclusively for the nighttime hours. It can be tough to watch (or be tolerant) as everyone around you indulges throughout the day.

It’s in these moments that I take the time to truly become appreciative of the “different” experience I am able to have during a vacation. Notably, I never realized how much you truly miss when you are drinking. You aren’t mentally present to pay attention to the beauty and newness around you. Let me assure you, there is always something to marvel over when you look through sober eyes. Always. Even on domestic trips, I am amazed at the subtle things I am able to enjoy and experience through when I am fully present. Furthermore, I am clear-headed and energetic - characteristics not always shared by my travel companions. Though I have been tempted to indulge on vacations, it is this sense of truly soaking in everything my new surroundings has to offer that allows me to stay committed to being alcohol-free.

While I hope your friends are as supportive as mine, it is always possible that you might find yourself in a travel situation where someone in the group pressures or encourages you to “cheat” or take a break from your sobriety. This is your choice; be gentle with yourself if you decide drinking is the right choice for you in the moment. To that end, I also encourage you to stand firm in your decision to be sober. Remember that this decision will sometimes make others uncomfortable. Likewise, this decision will sometimes make you feel uncomfortable. What I do know is that I’ve never regretted my choice to have a “different” experience on these group trips and I wholeheartedly believe that sobriety has allowed me to have a better, more present, more mindful vacation on every trip I’ve been on.

Set expectations about the bill.
Part of the joy of being alcohol-free is all of the money you save. While I am grateful to have a group of friends who is extremely considerate, there are still times when I have to look out for myself when it comes to splitting up the bill. If your friends are like mine, we’ll often split a check evenly to save our server a bit of hassle or take turns paying at various stops. While I think the scale often evens out, I also don’t want to pay for a whole bunch of drinks I didn’t consume. In these situations, there are a couple of preparation techniques I find helpful.

First, I always try to carry cash. This allows me to throw in for what I’ve consumed and let the rest of the group split the tab as they wish. However, I find that there are also times when we’ve shared several items or are paying for the bill of a guest of honor, etc. where this is not as easy. For these situations I LOVE the Tab, bill-splitter app. This app allows you to take a picture of the receipt, assign/split items to certain guests and request payment via several common apps. While this might require you to pay the tab and split out the bill (hello credit card points), it’s an easy way to ensure things get taken care of fairly and smoothly.

It’s also important that you communicate your expectations clearly and kindly, especially if there are people in the group who aren’t privy to your lifestyle. Personally, my friends are really great about excluding me from splitting most alcohol purchases, but sometimes things get hectic or complicated and details are overlooked. I understand and I purpose to be patient because life isn’t all about me.

Finally, if you’re traveling somewhere all-inclusive, always call the resort personally and politely ask for special accommodations. While I didn’t take this step on my Mexico vacation, I have politely explained my sobriety in other all-inclusive situations and had my bill reduced. It’s always worth a shot.

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Overall, I’ve found my sober group travel experiences to be tremendously enjoyable and fulfilling. Granted, I’ve chosen carefully as to which group trips I do and do not go on as I know that some situations will be more challenging than others. I know that there will be moments on group trips that challenge my patience or trigger my emotions; and that’s okay. In these moments, I let myself lean into the practices which keep me strong in any moment. I take a breath to appreciate the positive choice I’ve made for myself and acknowledge the challenges which come with this choice. Ultimately, this allows me to practice patience and gentleness towards both myself and others. The result is a newfound ability to truly enjoy the experience of traveling and building memories with friends, being fully present and mindful in every moment.