My life as a non-drinking traveller

My life as a non-drinking traveller

It was 20 years ago today

March 14, 2013 marks an important milestone in my life: I have been sober for 20 years. This means I haven’t had a drink or mind altering substance in that time, and to top that off I gave up smoking on the same day as well. Being a non-drinker has had a profound affect on my outlook on life, and how I live as a full-time traveller.

You don’t drink, and you’re Australian?!

I often get asked why I don’t drink, especially as I am Australian. I usually tell people that I am not a full-time traveller by choice, and that I have been banished from my homeland for not drinking. Australia has a big drinking culture and our well travelled citizens have carried this reputation abroad.

Before I go any further let me get this point out the way. This isn’t a you should give up drinking post, just as this site isn’t a you should give up your job site.

There is nothing wrong with responsibly enjoying a drink while you travel. This is just my experience and I’m sharing this more personal than usual post to explain why I don’t drink, and how being a non-drinker has influenced the way I travel.

My drinking life

I had a short and spectacular drinking career. I started out drinking after hours at school and once I reached the work force I was in full-blown drinking mode, getting smashed 3 or 4 nights a week. I lived with other drinkers and we would drink all night, sometimes through to the morning, and then go straight to work.

Blackouts were a regular feature of my drinking, meaning that I would drink to the point of losing memory and wake up the next day not knowing what happened the night before. I drank with a wild bunch who would also blackout, so we would pool our collective memory to piece together what went down. While I laughed those blackouts off at first, in the end I came to fear those moments of finding out what had happened. Some mornings we would look back and say, “that was the best party ever”, but most of the time I was dying inside from guilt and remorse.

At 20 years old, in the deepest throes of my alcoholism, I had what is known as a moment of clarity; I saw my life was what it really was. For some drinkers that moment takes decades, if it ever happens all. I knew something had to change or I was doomed. From that time on I tried to control my drinking, but once I started drinking I couldn’t stop. I would tell myself “I’ll control it next time” – then find myself doing the same thing over and over again.

A new life

A month after turning 21 I reached my rock bottom and knew I was done with this lifestyle. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I knew I could no longer drink in safety and that trying to control my drinking was futile. Conceding this point (what felt like defeat) was also like having a weight lifted of my shoulders.

I began my new way of life, not sure how I would live in this world without drinking. I sought help from other non-drinkers who had been where I have been, who shared their experience on how to live a life without drinking.

It took a lot of courage to tell people I was no longer drinking. Fortunately my family were supportive as were most of my friends. I reluctantly moved on from drinking friends who were still out there.

When I stopped drinking I wondered about how I would handle situations in the future, like birthday parties, weddings and special events, and after work drinks on Friday. How would I resist the social pressure to drink? It turns out I could do all those things without drinking – little did I know. While early on it was strange and uncomfortable to be unanesthetized in social situations, now I can comfortably attend events.

I used to worry about what people would think of me not drinking, especially in Australia where so many social occasions revolve around drinking. I soon found that it doesn’t matter what others think of me. I still have moments of self-consciousness (like right now as as I write this post) but one of the benefits of getting older is that the older you get the less you worry about what people think of you. This applies if you are a drinker or not.

Travelling as a non-drinker

One of the immediate benefits of giving up booze was a sudden surplus of cash. I used to go out with $100 (in 1993 money) and wake up with an empty wallet. I would swear I was getting robbed as I couldn’t possibly have spent so much money in one night.

Having control of my finances I soon found it easy to save money. I had a pile of debt to pay off which took a few years to pay off, and I maintained a savings account for travel. Not only could I save faster for travel, I can also travel for longer as I don’t have to budget for drinks.

Another benefit was the reclaiming of time. I lost so many days due to being hungover, lying around in bed or on the couch feeling sorry for myself. Today I get up early without having my day ruined with that lingering seediness.

I did a lot of backpacking travel in my twenties, staying in hostels where drinking and going out to pubs is common. I thought this would make backpacking a tedious experience. Instead I found that I attracted other travellers who were not looking to go out and drink, and I have forged some great friendships from these meetups.

The same goes for my expat life. I lived for a year in Dublin without having a drop, let alone a pint, of alcohol. I might be the only Australian who spent a year in Ireland and didn’t drink, I don’t know. What I do know is that I would walk around the streets of Dublin at night and be reminded that the guy passed out on the streets of Temple Bar could have been me.

I went to many social events at pubs in Dublin and never felt the need to drink, and after the initial shock of being a non-drinking Australian, most people didn’t care. I can go out for dinner and social occasions with my friends who are drinking, and I have the freedom to leave when parties become drinking for drinking’s sake.

These days I rarely spend time in pubs unless it is a special party or meetup. I prefer spending time in cafes talking over a coffee. This is less to do with my non-drinking and more to do with my introverted character and preference for meeting up in small groups or one-on-one chats.

My life today

20 years on and I find myself living in Ho Chi Minh City, with a life I never would have imagined. Around this time every year I reflect on my drinking life and I am filled with gratitude for the incredible life I have today.

Most of my friends are aware that I don’t drink and I’m happy to talk to people about it to anyone who asks. I was debating with myself whether to share this online, but all the friends I talked to were supportive of publishing this.

I have met numerous people in my travels who have asked how I can travel without drinking. I’m here to say that it can be done and my life has never been better. If you would like to talk more feel free to email me.

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  1. Great post, James. I’m also a non-drinking traveler, though it’s for religious reasons. I have no problem with people around me drinking, and they usually have no problem with me not drinking. It’s been a non-issue, but it’s good to know there’s more than one of us out there. Thanks!

  2. Long time reader, first time commenter. 🙂

    I was recently talking about my propensity for traveling sober. It’s not backed by a personal struggle (thanks for sharing yours, though, it’s honest and I appreciate that) but rather, a desire to really keep my wits about me when I’m traveling. Given that my job as a writer is to try to capture the nuances of places, it seems foolish to engage in activities that dull my wits.

    Coffee any time. There’s a great place near my house, walking distance from the red couch.

    • Hi Pam, great to see your name here 🙂

      Yes, keeping my wits about me and the art of observation is another advantage for me as well.

      Thanks for the coffee offer. I look forward to making my way back to the Pacific NW again.

  3. I have a strong suspicion this post will bring about a moment of clarity for someone else. You should be very proud.

  4. Good on ya mate! As someone who has drank in Australia, I completely understand how $100 disappears in a night out. It’s not pretty. And the drinking culture in Australia is NOT one of moderation. I think it’s great that you haven’t had a drink in 20 years and it has made your travels better.

  5. Hi James, congratulations on the 20 years and thanks for sharing this personal story. I used to feel self-conscious and awkward about not drinking at in social situations, in particular I worried about being left out. Now, I’ve realized that if the people around me won’t like me for not drinking, they won’t like me even if I did drink. Plus, as you mentioned, not drinking means more resources (funds, time and energy) for other travel experiences. Great blog post James.

    – Lily

  6. Awesome post, James. While I am now a beer nut, I didn’t ever drink until about halfway through college. I’m glad for my alcohol-free formative years, but at younger ages the peer pressure, the demands of conformity, the bullying make a decision not to drink a sometimes stressful one. So it makes your quitting in your early 20s all that more impressive. While this post was a big deal personally for you, I think for any thoughtful person it is “not a big deal” that you don’t drink. (I can’t speak for the Australians though 😉 I think most of us have known someone who was heading down the wrong path with the stuff and found a better life cutting it out completely. Congrats on the 20 years!

    • Thanks Kevin. One of the reasons I travelled to the US so often in my 20’s is that I felt that most people thought of it as “not a big deal” compared to in Australia. I know you, being an as-seen-on-TV beer expert, never once remarked about me not drinking. Tip hat to you.

  7. Great stuff James and congrats! I love reading these types of posts.

  8. john obrien says

    hi james,
    congratulations on your lifestyle choice.seems we have run a parallel course. i also gave up that lifestyle decades ago and really i have never looked back,although at age 66 i suspect i’m a little older than you..a coffee and a long chat is where i’m at also.did i mention the juices?
    you may recall i told you my wife and i are off to our nest in the philippines asia’s best kept secret.relatively anyway.are you still in saigon? or was it hanoi?if you think you have seen rice terracing and hill tribes in vietnam then check philippines.

  9. Congrats on your 20 years James that’s an awesome achievement, more so as a traveler. I have always wondered if there are other sober nomads. Now I know reading this and the comments. Your welcome to come hang out in Mae Sai if your ever my way.

  10. Wow, I command you for giving up drinking and sticking with it for decades!

  11. Tell you what, that day when you started not to drink was the day when I was born, but don’t worry I’m a bit older than your sober anniversary. ;P But hey, congratulations to you! I wish you 20 more years of being sober. 🙂

  12. Man, the timing!

    I’m on the verge of cutting it out again. I did it last year. 3 months without alcohol, then a few binges, then another 5 months without alcohol. It felt fantastic. I loved having more time and energy. I could go out with friends, party, and then wake up feeling great.

    I don’t drink often now, but when I do I don’t get much out of it. I’ve been toying with the idea of doing it again and doing it for longer.

    Congrats on the 20 years!

    • Hi John, thanks for posting your article (why wasn’t I following you before?!) The headline made me laugh as I could hear it being said in an Australian accent, and I have heard it before 🙂

      Good on you for working out what works for you, I love reading these stories of transformation.

      Hopefully we will cross paths in Bangkok this year.

  13. Chris Osborne says


    I’ve suffered the exact same problem – albeit a tad longer – all the way through my 20’s with regular “blackouts”.

    Turning 30 in January was “my turning point” and I decided I needed to change. I even went to the extreme of selling my wine shop I have built with my wife over the past year, as the temptation to open a bottle or three was too great.

    Since selling the wine shop and a solid effort, I’ve only drank once – 14 days after I quit and will open a nice bottle on day 30 (coming up soon). I love wine, but want to drink wine to compliment the evening with food, rather than just to drink it to alter my mind and ultimately not appreciate it. So my thinking has changed… instead of 50 mediocre bottles a month, I’m aiming to drink 2 very nice bottles a month, with great food, just with my wife. Then an early night.

    One thing I did change that really helped for others, was deciding to get up at sunrise everyday. By evening, I’m often too knackered to drink. It helps.

    So far, so good. My work, productivity and relationship with my wife has improved dramatically, and after 10 years drinking myself silly, I’m really looking forward to the next 10 without drink.

    Great post.

    • That is a big deal to sell your wine shop so well done for doing that and seeing that you needed to change. I have found living in Asia is good for getting up early as I was so resistant to getting up on cold mornings. Plus there is not as big a drinking culture as their is in our respective homelands. All the best and thanks for the comment.

  14. Wow… James! Congratz and Thanks for sharing this story.

  15. As a fellow non-drinking traveller, I loved this post. Apart from a regrettable New Year’s Eve I haven’t been drunk in 8 months and I don’t miss it in the slightest. If I’d known how easy it would be to quit I’d have done it much sooner.

  16. A fellow non-drinking traveler here!

    Im based on an island in Thailand and found your post through tweet – thanks to Dan who commented above. As a non drinking person, sharing a story very similar to yours I am very happy to have found this post. It provides massive comfort knowing that there are people out there who have been there and done that longer than you.

    Congrats on your life. I will be following your blog and travels.


  17. What a wonderful and insightful post. I am on the path to never having a drink again, though for different reasons. I think it’s sad that we think we need alcohol to socialize. I’ve gone to bars with friends and I didn’t have a single drop, and I managed to have fun!

  18. Hi James, thanks for the inspiration for your staying sober and traveling. The temptation for me to drink while traveling is always too alluring. Your article was a great reminder of the possible joys of sober travel. thanks.

  19. So brave and honest James, I know it is hard to share some of the more personal side of the journey, but it is something to be proud of that you have made a choice for yourself and your life and have made that work for you — beyond that, to enhance your life. Many a coffee chats we were able to have in Southeast Asia as fellow early-risers, and I am so happy to count you as a friend. As Pam said, I often don’t drink much overseas partly to keep my senses about me, and the binge drinking never really appealed, and I know it is likely some of those personal choices that have also allowed us to hang out and enjoy SEA. I look forward to our next coffee chat, hopefully before your 21st anniversary. Much love, wonderful post sir. 🙂

  20. Hey James,

    I am also a non drinker, but have never had alcohol before. It is interesting to me when people find that I do not drink, many comment that I am missing out. Then most people will admit that it is a good choice. I enjoyed hearing it from your point of view. Glad to see there are other non drinking travelers out there!


  21. Hey James, really enjoyed this post! While not a non-drinker, I drink far less than almost everyone I know, and for me, a glass or two of wine is the perfect amount while many others I know feel the need to get sloshed every weekend or at every occasion. I find that when I travel, there is more pressure to drink from random friends I meet along the way. When I go out for a beer with someone or a group, and for them it turns into 10 beers while I stop at 2, there’s a disconnect. But like you said, there is sometimes a non-drinker amongst the revelry that I can bond with too.

    Anyway, good to see a non-drinker traveler out there, next time I see you we’ll have to grab coffee!

  22. Surplus of cash, reclaiming of time. Quitting drinking definitely is part of the 20% of things many entrepreneurs should focus on to boost their efficiency. Well done!
    I’ve reduced my drinking habit a lot in the past 6 months (from 3-4 big nights out to 1, occasionally 2), but I’m not quite ready to entirely quit though. Hope to get there sometime!

  23. I don’t drink either.
    I have about three ‘aperitifs’ a year (not all at once, of course) and maybe one cocktail that consists for 95% out of fruit juice.
    I just don’t like the taste of alcohol. I don’t like beer, wine, Champagne… so I don’t drink it.
    I’ve been ‘tipsy’ once, when I had a pisang-orange before dinner on an empty stomach and I hated it. I’ve never been drunk and the idea of getting drunk doesn’t appeal to me at all.
    Almost no-one gets me, though.
    Some people say that I have to ‘learn to like’ alcohol – No, I don’t. That it’s an ‘acquired taste’. Well, it doesn’t have to be for me.
    I go out regularly and when I see drunk people I’m always happy that I’m not them. I would never want to wake up to realize I’ve behaved like a total drunk or to simply have forgotten how I behaved.
    I know when I state these things that I sound like no fun to a lot of people, but I don’t need a drink to enjoy myself. I start dancing from the first minute I enter the party until I leave.
    I understand that some people feel more at ease when they’re tipsy. My boyfriend, for example, only dares to dance when he’s drunk.
    But still…
    For myself, personally, I don’t see any benefit to drinking.

  24. Nice job!
    The zero hangovers and no wasted days spent in recovery mode are definitely one of the biggest bonuses of not drinking.

  25. Good call James! Congrats on sticking with it. Peer pressure can be a pain 🙂

    I’ve been drinking a bit when younger and at some point just gave up on it. As you said – it’s just not as fun as advertised 🙂

    I still have a beer once in a while but mostly because I enjoy the taste – not just to get smashed.

    I love it when people give up on trying to be average and dare to stand out – like a non-drinking Australian 🙂

  26. well done! i must admit im a big drinker but do see the clarity of why you dont drink and commend it! I also must admit being a traveller sometimes I wish i didnt drink for that saving money reason and not having days hung over!

    Being an Australian though I have found we have a huge cafe culture and probably not as much of a drinking culture as people in the UK though we do generally love a good drink.

    Great post, I shall share it along!

  27. Hi James

    I’m an Aussie too and a non-drinker. As a woman it’s more socially acceptable to tee-total (what an uncool word!), but only marginally. Thankyou for sharing your story.

    🙂 Melissa

  28. Great stories usually involve tough choices … good decision!
    Those smoothie combos are really good too!

    I do not drink …never had the urge to go beyond an occasional glass of wine. That was over 5 years ago.
    Keep it real! 🙂

  29. Thank you for this inspiring post James. It’s actually how I found your blog and I’m so glad I did so.

    I’m a non-drinking traveler (although not yet a full-time one) as well. I like red wine, but I’ve given it up as I’ve found that alcohol gets in the way of serious meditation practice. (I live in Korea, so this is a bit of a challenge!) It’s nice to know that people like you are out there and have lived well.

    Also, I’m really enjoying your blog and look forward to reading it in more depth. Your details on where you’ve stayed and how much it costs to live in certain places are really helpful.

  30. I was stunned by your title and said to read through your article. Glad I did! it was inspiring but then hard especially if you already have been accustomed to the fun of drinking with good friends. Still, you are a great person to have taken that huge step in your life. Here’s a toast of delicious smoothie for you!

  31. Hei, James, thanks for sharing your view on non-drinking.

    I am a 40 year old male and a non-drinker as well.

    I never drank regularly (years and months between each time) but I still managed to experience a few shameful lessons before I understood that alcohol was an enemy and not a friend. Luckily no long term consequences for me or others, but I sometimes wish it was my willpower alone that was the turning point to become teetotal. Still, to be a non-drinker now defines who I am and the benefits are numerous!

    Maybe some think you will miss the action when traveling as a non-drinker, but I suspect that you just become more creative when it comes to find other substitutes to the drinks. And your body feels so much better when it has not tasted alcohol in a long time. Life as a teetotaler is great!

  32. Hi James,
    My husband and I are also non drinkers and traveled without any issue. I don’t drink purely because I don’t see the draw and it’s expensive. I’m much more interesting sober 🙂
    I’m American but live in Australia. I find Australians are less accepting than Americans of non drinkers so I can understand how tough some social situations can be.

  33. Congratulations on 20 years,a huge milestone and a LOT of ‘one days’ 🙂 Loved reading this, thank you!!!!!

  34. I like a drink but think any one who chooses not to should be treated with respect for their choice. I HATE it when people bother people for their choice. I have been vegetarian for 10 years and recently gone vegan and people treat me badly for my own personal decision all the time! However there is always a flip side and I have met awesome people through my choice.

    In all cases like drinking moderation is key. If you can’t moderate stopping is the only real sense.

  35. Colleen Bowen says

    I found your website from a link on Migration Mark’s twitter. I so enjoyed this uplifting article. It’s an encouragement to me as my eating has gotten out of whack again this winter and I’m looking forward to straightening out my habits again and reaping the rewards.

    Thank you for sharing.

  36. Good Morning (SE U.S,) James,

    Thank you for sharing your story. Arrived here via link at Jodi’s Legal Nomads and was just looking around when I stumbled on this post. What a find. If I live I’ve scheduled my wandering to start about 3 years from now and besides being a gray beard at 59 yrs of age also sober and have wondered how that might impact my interaction with other travelers. Your article and the comments above have been enlightening. Thanks! Now if I could just remember where I left my car. (Just kidding)

    • Hi Randy, happy to hear you found me via the wonderful Legal Nomads (great blog!) Before I started travelling I was wondering how I would get by in a drinking world, but once you get on the road it is no problem. And thankfully I don’t have to worry abot such problems as “where is my hotel?”

  37. Fabulous post. The drinking life killed my dad, will kill my brother, and will likely kill his son too. It is agonizing to watch. Thanks for your honesty – how refreshing to find someone who faced the demons and found life without drinking was really worthwhile!!

  38. Thanks James. I happened to hear about you and your blog recently and the first thing that attracted me is this post. I am a hardcore drinker and was contemplating giving it up after I am finding trouble maintaining the relationship with my wife. This surely will be an inspiration in my pursuit of giving up alcohol.

    Cheers !!
    Hyderabad, India

  39. James, very good post. While I do not share your non-drinking lifestyle, I admire your persistence to maintain this lifestyle. For me drinking has never been an issue. I’m rarely intoxicated, but enjoy the libations of various cultures on occasion. Just a little spice of life. ; )

  40. Today’s the first time I hit your blog and am very happy with all the interesting and honest writing I am finding here. Thanks for freshing up my reading!

    One thing that annoys me is when you are on vacation and people tend to want to drink more, when I rather wake up early and DO something active. A glass of wine with dinner is fine, but anything that won’t let you get up and be proactive is a wasted day… sometimes it’s nice to sleep in, but I have seen this as habits rather than blue moon moments in some party friends.

  41. Great article. I actually just quit drinking for good yesterday and that decision was long awaited but sealed as it was also the day my father, at only 54, died of liver failure from his 30+ year addiction. I’m 34 and I have been a binge drinker for a long time, pretty much since 19. I’ve had countless blackouts and have put myself in dangerous situations worldwide. I worried if I kept this up I would get myself into even worse situations as time progresses. One of my goals is to go to every country, so its nice to see a traveler like you is doing all this traveling with the partying. The hardest thing for me will be that first trip without booze as going to pubs was something I did almost every night, but I know I will be fine, and I’m thankful you have proven it can be done.

    • Hi Ryan, sorry to hear about your father and good for you for making the decision to stop.

      Not drinking will certainly help in visiting every country, especially financially. It’s hard at the start to resist peer pressure and old habits, but I love being able to travel and not having to worry about waking up in a strange place (yep, that happens) and not losing days to hangovers.

      Good luck!

  42. Thanks for sharing your story James? My Dad was an alcoholic. He died from liver disease at 44. I’m always heartened to read stories off people who have managed to pull themselves out of that hole. I know it isn’t easy. Congratulations on 20 years sober!

  43. I am also a non-drinker and living in Ho Chi Minh. Drinking is such a heavy part of the culture in this city. What do you do on a normal night out?

    • Hi Liam, yes it is true that drinking is a big part of HCMC, but I also meet plenty of people who are happy for me not to drink. A normal night out might involve meeting friends at a cafe or going out with a group to eat somewhere. They will drink but don’t care that I don’t. I wouldn’t say I am missing out on anything here. I hate those big beer places where the music is so loud that you can’t talk, so that’s about the only place I don’t go.

  44. I linked through to this via today’s post, and I appreciated reading something more personal, that speaks to your inner life, friendships, and other aspects that we don’t always see when you focus on travel. It was especially interesting to read this after I had just been thinking, as I read your most recent post, that I would value more personal content. Thanks for sharing this with the world!

    • Hi Alexis,

      thanks for the feedback. Yes I often think that I should do more personal posts but I never get around to it, so it is good to know that someone is reading and appreciating 🙂

  45. I’m moved by your courage. Thanks for an intimate view of your story. My husband is an alcoholic and therefore, I don’t drink. We have been discussing a trip and he isn’t sure he will like travel without alcohol. It’s good to hear a positive position on sober traveling.

  46. I also had a problem with drinking. I started drinking when I was 40
    Now I turn 50 and it’s time to be sober again.
    I am off to HCM in March and don’t feel the pressure of drinking. I not only keep my wits about me, I save money
    Thanks for sharing your story
    Happy travels

  47. Randomly came across this post while looking for info on HCMC, and wow this must have took some guts to write. Thanks for sharing, I like the fact that you took control over something despite the social pressures and then managed to maintain that. Inspiring, and best of luck in future!

  48. Hi James,

    I’ve just read your posts and I love them. I’m the editor of Step 12 Magazine and wondered if you would be interested in working with me to create a column I’d like to call Sober Travel.
    We could focus on one city per issue and talk about the benefits of being sober in that city, the meetings (if you go to any), the great things to see, and places to hang out with like-minded people. Anyway, my email is attached to this comment along with a link to the website so you can investigate us, so if you are interested, please get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.
    Cheers, Roni

  49. Loved reading this one, James! I look forward to another coffee and perhaps cake somewhere in the world. Was great to connect and have yet another thing to bond over a part for my mutual love for southeast Asia and its cuisine. I look forward to when I can also say it’s been 20 years!

  50. Mike Robinson says

    Still highly relevant in 2018. Maybe more so. Thanks for the great example. Maybe it will influence some people I know!

  51. Jonaroo says

    As Dean Martin expressed and was probably said earlier “I feel sorry for people who don’t drink, because when they get up in the morning, it’s as good as they’ll feel all day.”


  1. […] My Life as a Non-Drinking Traveller, Nomadic Notes– James long ago gave up alcohol and he talks about how it’s affected his travel experiences. […]

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