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Getting Through An Airport While Drinking Mindfully

By Maggie Downs
Posted: August 25, 2021

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I’m sprawled out in a lounge at LAX. It’s an hour before boarding, and I’m eager for summer vacation to start. I have my passport, a rolling carry-on bag, a sweater for when I inevitably get cold. Only one thing is missing. 

A pre-flight gin and tonic. 

Honestly, that g&t could be any drink. Just fill in the blank there. But having that drink is one of my rituals before flying. It’s not because I’m anxious or that I need to smooth over any stray travel jitters. It’s that I really, really enjoy airport bars and lounges — and now that I’m mindful about alcohol, I don’t know what to do with myself. 

There’s something romantic about an airport bar. It’s not just that you could meet anyone or be anyone. It’s the serendipity of the moment — people from different, far-flung places sharing the same space for a fleeting half hour or so. It’s the radically candid conversations that travelers have because they know they will never see each other again. And honestly, the bar tricks me into believing that I’m a jet-setter, as though I’m dashing off to do important things but first I need to suck down hard liquor with a tiny straw. 

That’s followed by the drinks on the flight. I once read a study that explained why flying temporarily changes our sense of taste — including why bloody marys are more delicious at 30,000 feet. (Spoiler: The combo of the cabin’s low humidity and low air pressure reduces taste bud sensitivity, so umami-rich foods become more appealing.) Ever since then, it seemed like a waste of a flight to not order a bloody mary, even though it’s a preposterous drink in such a small, turbulent space.

Embarking on a different trip 

Many of my travel memories involve alcohol in some form — Singapore slings across Asia, Pisco sours in Peru, wine tours of Argentina and South Africa. My recollections are a mishmash of distilleries, vineyards, swim-up bars, grimy taverns. It’s as though I was inching around the world one drink at a time. (Okay, many drinks at a time.)

This trip, however, will be different. In preparation, I reached out to travel writer Brooke Morton, founder of Sober Outside, which offers guided vacation adventures for dry travelers. She said there are plenty of things to do in transit instead of parking myself at the airport bar. 

“This is an opportunity to get creative with your time,” she said. “I normally post funny things on Instagram or call my friends. I download podcasts. I get an airport massage.”

Then I asked if she ever feels like she’s missing out by traveling sans alcohol. 

“I try to think about what am I really missing?” Morton said. “Well, I’m not spending $10 a drink. I’m not hungover anymore. Drinking alcohol on a plane is so dehydrating, and it’s terrible for jet lag.”

“What I get instead is that I am fully present during my trip. I arrive ready to explore a new place. And I feel great almost every day of my life,” she said. “So the pros outweigh the moments that seemed like they were special before because of alcohol.” 

Before ordering a drink, Morton said this is when I should be asking myself: What do I really want? What am I longing for here? 

That’s the whole point of being mindful about alcohol, after all. Not just to notice your triggers but to find what they reveal. 

What is the real celebration?

This is what happens when mindful drinking is put into practice: I realize I want a cocktail at the airport because I’ve always had one. My ritual is just another habit. I know I’m not making meaningful friendships in the airport bar; I’m only enamored with the idea of the bar. And I don’t actually need a bloody mary on my tray table; I’m just hankering for salt. As for those distillery tours, I don’t remember much about them anyway.

I think about something else Morton said. 

“Travel is a celebratory thing, so we think there should be alcohol involved, because that’s how we’re taught to celebrate,” she said. “But isn’t travel itself the celebration?”

So I sit here with my passport and bag, Sunnyside on my phone, plus a thirst for adventure and a glass of sparkling water. I’m about to board a plane bound for Greece, the dream trip I’ve wanted to take for decades. 

On the other side of this flight will be ancient temples, luminous teal waters, and island roads jammed with donkeys. My plans include snorkeling, climbing mountains, exploring caves, and I want to remember every moment of this journey. 

What makes me a jet-setter is not the airport lounge or the beverages I consume there. It’s the ticket in my hand and the fact that I’m ready to go. 

Author headshot

Maggie Downs

Contributing author for Sunnyside

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