From booze-free bars to sober group trips, the travel industry is taking note of our changing drinking habits. Here’s how to see the world without the beer goggles
By Grace Beard for TimeOut | February 7 2023
If Dry January has given you a taste for the sober life, you’re not alone. More and more of us are reevaluating our relationship with alcohol. Whether that’s choosing to abstain entirely or embracing the ‘sober-curious’ lifestyle, not drinking is on its way to becoming the norm. And Gen Z is leading the charge – a recent study on the UK’s drinking behaviours showed that 16 to 25-year-olds were the least likely group to drink alcohol, while in the US, a 2020 study found that the number of teetotal college students had risen from 20 percent to 28 percent between 2002 and 2018.
So what does a new generation of teetotallers mean for travel? From bar crawls and beach parties to boozy boat cruises, socialising between young solo travellers has long been fuelled by alcohol. Group tour providers for 18-to-30-year-olds typically revolve their trips around nightlife and clubbing, while life in hostels often happens at the bar, with boozy parties, pub crawls and cocktail nights turning travelling strangers into best friends – even if it’s just for one night.
But as the demand for booze-free experiences rises, the travel industry is taking note of our changing drinking habits. From alcohol-free tour providers to sober nightclubs, there are more options for good, clean fun while on the road than ever before.
Find your sober crew
Rethinking what ‘fun’ means for sober travellers is what inspired Lauren Burnison to found her travel company We Love Lucid, which plans small-group trips catered towards the growing number of people experimenting with alcohol-free living. Lauren came up with the concept while she was travelling the world and realised how few activities there were available for people who don’t drink.
After partying hard for years, many people still want the adrenaline rush
Unlike some sober retreats, which tend to have a rehab or recovery aspect, We Love Lucid trips eschew wellness and mindfulness in favour of connection and adventure.
‘What we're offering is an alternative to a wellbeing retreat,’ says Lauren. ‘After partying hard for years, many people still want the adrenaline rush. That’s where adventure travel comes in.’ A recent We Love Lucid trip took sober-curious travellers to Tarifa, a surfer town in southern Spain, for hiking, windsurfing, tapas-making, swimming and more.
You can, of course, do all of these things on your travels without having to book a place on an alcohol-free trip. But for Lauren, travel companies like hers provide a meaningful alternative to boozy tours and hostels. For sober travellers, connecting with like-minded people is key – something that isn’t often an option with booze-centric tours and social activities.
‘Imagine you are a sober person faced with a situation where everyone else at the table is getting stuck into the wine at every meal time – and that’s not even mentioning the quality of the conversation after a couple of hours,’ she says. ‘To put it bluntly, it’s bloody boring. When a bunch of sober or sober-curious people with some shared experiences get together, there is a real feeling of belonging.’
Forget ‘bars = booze’
For those flirting with alcohol-free travel, there might be a worry that going sober means having to sacrifice an inextricable part of going on holiday: nights out. But in recent years, sober nightlife has evolved well beyond the humble mocktail menu.
Booze-free bars have been popping up all over the place: take Dublin’s wellbeing bar The Virgin Mary, ‘where people can socialise on a conscious level’, or Japan’s futuristic 0% Tokyo, which serves up creative cocktails and CBD-infused bites to an ASMR soundtrack. Recently opened in London’s Covent Garden neighbourhood is Club Soda, which bills itself as the UK’s first permanent site for mindful drinking. A bar, shop and tasting room that opens late on weekends, Club Soda supplies the atmosphere of an intimate cocktail bar without the risk of a hangover – or those increasingly senseless conversations.
...and that goes for clubbing, too
Going sober doesn’t have to mean giving up clubbing – and we don’t just mean being lumped as the designated driver while your friends flail about on the dance floor. Berlin’s Sober Sensation promises visitors the experience of the underground rave scene in Europe’s hedonistic capital without a single mind-altering substance in sight. If you want to rave while the sun comes up, you can do that too: Daybreaker has been throwing legendary early-morning dance parties since 2013, with events in cities all over the globe.
Of course, going sober for many means that nightlife takes on a whole new identity, and doesn’t have to be tied to drinking or partying at all. Once upon a time, all that a young Brit abroad needed for a good time was a giant fishbowl cocktail and a packet of Lay’s. But young travellers are increasingly searching for more cultural experiences. Nightlife could mean music, theatre, food, after-dark tours or late-night cafés.
‘As a non-drinker, I love checking out what evening and nighttime tours or activities are available, so there’s less pressure to pack everything into the day and I can actually relax when the sun is out,’ says Naomi, 32, from London. ‘In my experience, you can often get a unique take on a place at night. I’ve been on a headlamp-lit hike in a snowy Canadian canyon, and kayaked in a bioluminescent bay in Puerto Rico.’