Quitting alcohol for a month as a frequent traveler

Not too long ago, I decided to engage in a little social experiment. I was going to quit drinking for a month.

No, not even from a carton.
No, not even from a carton.

Before you ask, there was no catastrophic event that precipitated any of this. No DUI or waking up in the hospital with an IV. Not even a minor oopsie like nursing a nasty hangover or forgetting my wallet at the neighborhood watering hole.

No, this alcohol-free experiment was mostly driven by curiosity. Though if I’m being perfectly honest, it may have had a little something to do with shedding the last few pounds off the scale.

And as you might’ve guessed, in the end I saved some cash – a lot, actually. I slept more soundly and woke up more refreshed. I looked better. I felt better! I didn’t end up losing any weight because I ended up starting a new bulk/strength cycle, but whatever.

I thought my experiment was a great success.

But what was so striking was how much quitting alcohol affected my view of travel, especially frequent travel. If the connection seems far-fetched to you, it caught me completely off-guard. Here’s what really stuck out for me during my short-lived sobriety.

Alcohol wildly inflates the “value” of so many travel benefits.

Hilton London Paddington Executive Lounge
What good is a mid-tier hotel lounge – if there’s no free booze?

Like it or not, alcohol plays a huge role in the perceived value of so many travel benefits. Take a look at your favorite travel forum or blog, and you’ll find no shortage of drink-inspired discussion.

At the airport: Which lounge has the best booze? Is it free or one of those annoying “premium” upcharge deals? Will they cut us off or is everything self-serve? Are self-serve bars even a thing anymore? You know what, forget it – why can’t everything just be like the Centurion Lounge?

At the hotel: Will a welcome amenity include a bottle of wine or glass of champagne? Does the executive/club-level lounge have a set happy hour or is it an all-day affair? Oh, and is liquor included?

And of course, on the plane: Krug or Dom? Glass or plastic? Let’s convene an international summit on the economic and social implications of the quintessential PDB, and how that half-ounce of ethanol prior to take-off serves as the last frontier of competitive advantage in an increasingly concentrated airline industry.

To be clear, I’m not judging any of this. In fact, I’ve been known to tout my preference for one particular airline’s beverage selection over another.

Hint hint.
Hint hint.

My point is that when it comes to valuing most travel benefits, free alcohol inevitably becomes part of the equation. And this makes sense. If you’re going to drink anyways, you should consider opportunities for free things you would’ve paid for otherwise.

But what if you didn’t drink? What if alcohol had zero value to you? 

For me at least, it seemed like the “value” of all those travel benefits crashed overnight.

Take your average run-of-the-mill hotel or airport lounge. Think along the lines of a typically humdrum United Red Carpet Club or Hilton Executive Lounge. Now, subtract the free booze from the equation. What’re you left with? More often than not, it’s something like this:

Wingtips JFK Lounge Seats 1
Where the salesman died, I imagine.

A sad little corner with worn seating and curling linoleum. Lukewarm, weaker-than-church-coffee espresso made in a suspiciously sticky “all-purpose” machine. Stale bagel-shaped substance that would make any self-respecting New Yorker (or human for that matter) burn the counter in shame.

I exaggerate, perhaps. But I still think that, with few exceptions (the Centurion Lounge and Ritz Club come to mind), most domestic airport and mid-tier hotel lounges are mediocre establishments whose shining feature is the free booze. In fact, it’s usually the alcohol that makes the hefty annual fee or hotel loyalty for lounge access “worth it” in the end.

I don’t know about you, but I often found myself factoring in the price of a few $6-8 drinks into the “value” of each lounge visit. When I spent so much time in airports over the past few years, it seemed easy to justify at least a couple hundred dollars or so in fees for the lounge access alone.

But with alcohol out of the picture, I considered myself crazy to pay anything at all. I discovered I’d much rather hand over a few dollars for a reliably strong cup of black coffee at the Starbucks next door. If I needed assistance with a reservation, help was usually just a tweet away. And for all the hullabaloo over the “enhanced” lounge food offerings by a certain major airline, the fact remains that you’re eating over-engineered, filler-injected, food-inspired by-product that was likely shipped and re-heated in the same clear plastic bag. (I may be judging a little here.)

Substance green, via Flyertalk.
Substance Green #3, via Flyertalk.

That’s not to say that I found airport or hotel lounge access worthless. Free coffee, soda water, and snacks are nice. And sometimes, a lounge agent can be helpful in handling special requests like emergency re-bookings or restaurant reservations. But to pay hundreds of dollars for pretzels and carrot sticks?

No thanks.

Complimentary alcohol makes it scary easy to drink in excess.

What, a free refill? Sure, why not!
A free refill? Sure, why not!

During my experiment, I did some digging around to see what was considered “normal” or “moderate” drinking. Well it turns out, the CDC says that’s “up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men.” Not bad, I thought. Rarely did I drink several days in a row.

But the CDC also warns against the dangers of binge drinking, which is “when men consume 5 or more drinks, and when women consume 4 or more drinks, in about 2 hours.” Mmmm, I may have violated this one a few times here or there.

Most of these instances can be chalked up to living in San Francisco or New York in my early 20s, or you know – college. But it dawned on me that a good chunk of my “binge drinking” experiences wasn’t in the company of friends or co-workers during happy hour.

It was by myself, up in the air.

It usually started with a drink in an airport lounge after a long week of work. If I was lucky to get upgraded to first class, it was another one or two on the plane. Maybe a glass of wine to wash down a nuked sirloin.  If I had a lay-over (and I usually did), it’d be another round or two on my connecting flight. And even if I didn’t, I’d round out the flight with a final drink before landing. Keep in mind that quite a few of these were doubles of my drink of choice – Woodfords, neat.

Before I knew it, I would’ve blown through the official definition of excess drinking before landing home. Now admittedly the 2-hour limit allows some leeway here, and I wasn’t exactly getting hammered on my afternoon commuter flight. But see, that’s the scary part. 

I was drinking a hell of a lot, but I wasn’t getting that drunk. It never occurred to me how much I was drinking, partly due to the small servings over a long period of time, but mostly because my wallet wasn’t complaining about the free drinks. 

Another Blahdka, sir?
Another Blahdka, sir?

You see, it’s hard for me to over-imbibe when I’m home because drinks are so damn expensive. After my second $18 cocktail or $9 beer, my reaction invariably becomes “Nope, no thanks – I’d like to be able to pay rent next month thank you very much.”

When no one’s keeping tab, the drinks flow free. And when I was fresh out of college, an endless supply of free drinks was certainly new and exciting.

But as the weeks turned into months, and months into a full few years, the allure of unlimited in-flight bourbon eventually wore off. I was getting to a point in my life where a naturally high-tolerance was turning from a novelty into a liability, and every extra round felt like it was heading straight for my mid-section.

So I gradually tapered from the peak of my consumption, which by any honest measure, was an unhealthy amount. Now I look back on those times with strange ambivalence, realizing that if it weren’t for the free drinks, I probably wouldn’t have started climbing at all.

The negative effects of drinking while traveling creep up on you.

The world's finest shoe polish
A collection of the world’s finest shoe polish.

We all know that alcohol isn’t exactly a superfood. In fact, it’s technically a toxin that forces your body into overdrive to digest and expel.

As an aside, if you’re the type to spout off inane nonsense about how a glass of red wine is just as good for you as an hour at the gym, please do everyone a favor and watch this.

Again, I’m not saying that this means we should all embrace the teetotaler lifestyle or that those 18th Amendment folks had it right all along. Actually, quite the opposite – I’m a huge whiskey fan and love a good steak and cabernet.

But I can’t help but notice that drinking, in any amount really, combined with the stress of practically living in airports and hotels can eventually take a serious toll on your health.

It probably won’t be the alcohol that’ll kill you, but it just might be waking up with 3 hours of sleep after a night of heavy drinking with clients and colleagues … for the fourth night in a row. Or maybe the chronic dehydration that comes with living in a tin can high in the sky, with virtually unlimited amounts of bourbon and wine to help pass the time.

Often, the ill-effects of drinking while on the road are much more subtle and cumulative than you’d expect. Why venture out of your hotel to find something quasi-healthy to eat? Grab a beer from the mini-fridge and order a burger and fries from the room service menu instead! Going for a jog or visiting the gym after sipping on a glass of champagne? Out of the question – here, have another!

Dinner for more nights than I care to admit.
Dinner for more nights than I care to admit.

For me, it had less to do with how much I was drinking, and more to do with what I wasn’t doing because of it. I wasn’t sleeping well. I wasn’t eating right. And I sure as hell wasn’t exercising enough.

When my break from alcohol extended into my travels, I was pleasantly surprised to find I had so much more energy. Long red-eyes didn’t seem so tiring anymore. It felt like I could pack more hours in a day. I even took up the habit of jogging through every new city I came across, which was way more stress-relieving than beer from a musty hotel lounge could ever be.

It turns out the benefits of cutting back are cumulative as well. I decided to channel all my extra energy into something more productive than nit-picking over spirit options at a generic executive lounge. After months of training, some sessions admittedly more painful than the worst of hangovers, I hobbled my way through the finish line at the Stockholm marathon not too long ago, and I’ve already signed up for my next race in Portland later this year.

Here's to a better time next time around.
Here’s to a better time next time around.

It’s a far cry from vegging out with a Budweiser and closed-captioned CNN at the JFK SkyClub, and to be honest – I don’t miss it one bit.

So, where does that leave me?

With my experiment over, I’m not sure where things will go from here. The purpose of this exercise was never to stop drinking forever. It was to stop drinking for a while to see if I learned anything useful. From that perspective, it went pretty well.

It took abstaining completely for an entire month to realize just how intertwined travel and alcohol was for me, especially since the booze, more often than not, was free.

I don’t see anything wrong with popping the champagne on your first flight in international first class or maybe even getting a little schwasty on a special one-in-a-while kind of trip. But when I found myself traveling in-perpetuity, it became clear that a little moderation would do me a lot of good. And now that I’ve experienced all the benefits of taking a break from alcohol, I’m in no rush to go back.

There's hope after all! :)
There’s hope after all!

15 thoughts on “Quitting alcohol for a month as a frequent traveler

  1. Beware…I did this for 15 years, and now I have advanced liver disease and will likely die before drawing Social Security. This is no joke. Those “free” drinks are sadly not so free after all.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that. It’s amazing how much the liver can repair itself after abstaining though – don’t give up hope! Sending my best wishes.

      1. @ Yihwan — Thank you for your best wishes! I just learned of my condition about 2 months ago, and I will never have another drink as long as I live. I am hoping for some less bad news after 6-12 months goes by…

  2. I really enjoyed this write up. I’ve wanted to do the month long “test” as well. Do I over drink nah, but often I find myself reaching for a drink out of sheer boredom or novelty. I’m wondering if I can improve my sleep and overall pessimistic attitude.

  3. This is probably the opposite reaction you wanted from this post, but…

    Who serves Woodford?!

    Don’t worry I’m not a business traveler, so my travel drinking is only for special occasions. Though, I have thought about not drinking on redeyes just for the dehydration factor alone. But Woodford would put a stop to that notion 🙂

    1. Woodford on Delta, Glenfiddich on Virgin America and (I think) American. Cheers!


      Actually it looks like American switched over to the Woodford crew too.

  4. I was married to an alcoholic, so have always looked with a jaundiced eye on over indulging, in general. Pot, too, for that matter.

    But way back in 2004, I flew by myself from ORD to AMS, and was one of two people in J on the KLM flight. Had some champagne as I settled in. A gin and tonic before dinner, red wine with dinner and sherry with a cheese plate for dessert.

    And I slept terribly that night, felt like crap once I woke up. And decided not to do that, ever again.

    Now, I rarely drink at all; I had a head injury in 2014, and have no need of help to be stupid. In J or F, I say “No thank you, I’m good” to the refill on the one glass of wine. I have sparkling water instead of the champagne, and I enjoy the flight, the sleep and the food, all the more.

  5. Your post came at an opportune time for me–I have drastically cut down on drinking as of a few days ago. I took an early retirement a few years ago, and I’ve found that the cocktail hour begins early and earlier as each day goes by. I was drinking at least half a bottle of wine every day (at least). That has resulted in me putting on about 20 extra pounds.

    I have started the medical merry-go-round (x-rays, ultrasounds, MRI’s, cortisone shots) with a painful knee problem that flared up about a month ago. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but I’ve decided to help things along by trying to lose that extra weight. The most obvious thing to cut out–daily alcohol consumption.

    I have been thinking about the “free” alcohol that is offered in airport lounges and in the beverage packages on cruise ships. The wine you are being served often is not much better quality than boxed wines you can buy at the grocery store for $20 for five liters. I’m hoping that I can get myself in the mindset that I would rather drink fewer glasses of better quality wine, than vast quantities of free inferior wines.

  6. Cool post – I don’t drink for religious reasons and agree that the “value” of first class is quite diminished.

    Nothing says classy like flying Emirates First Class and ordering 7-up and Diet Pepsi 🙂

  7. Fun post. I don’t have the tolerance (Asian glow etc etc) so I usually don’t drink too much in the air. And less on the ground when it costs money like you said!

    Btw you cut drinking for a month and could already run a marathon? Geez! And congrats 🙂

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