Most people are going to drink a lot on their gap year. And that’s fine. Backpacking means freedom and the shedding of inhibitions; experiencing new things; letting it all hang out one final time before submitting to the stricter tenets of adulthood (although a lot of these also involve drinking, just in much less exotic locales).
Drinking, for better or worse, is a pillar of gap year culture. It’s usually the primary after-dark activity and means of socialising and making new friends, and drinks are often ludicrously cheap.
So where does all this leave you if you don’t want to drink on your gap year? It might feel too daunting to travel to popular backpacking destinations like Australia or South East Asia, especially if you’re going alone. But it should never be something that prevents you from seeing the world.
Here are some tips from hardened travellers who didn’t touch a drop.
Don’t feel pressured to drink
This is what most people worry about. If you’re young (heck, if you’re British and have a pulse) and you tell people you don’t drink, you’re likely to be met with incredulity (at best) or disdain (at worst). Drinking is so ingrained in youth culture that being unwilling to partake can seem unusual.
Some people might not want to take ‘no’ for an answer. You’re probably used to hearing ‘go on, just one!’ by now. Don’t let anyone force you into drinking if you don’t want to. “Politely decline offered alcoholic drinks and if pushed just explain why,” says Pete Churchill, who works right here at Gapyear.com. “I spent six months travelling all round the world and didn’t touch a drop. It’s still one of the greatest things I’ve ever done.”
You might feel that you have to drink to fit in, but explain yourself clearly and most people will get the idea soon enough. If you force yourself to drink when you’re not used to doing so, it could end badly.
“On my first night my new colleagues took me out to a bar,” says Daniel Legg, who taught English in China for two years. “I don’t usually drink, but I didn’t want to seem rude. I ended up getting so drunk that I was sick in front of all of them, and missed my first lessons the next day. I didn’t drink the rest of the time I was there.”
So, if you do end up drinking, go easy and know your limits!
You can still meet people
Going out drinking is one of the main social activities when travelling. There’s no point denying it. Many hostels even come with a bar attached.
But don’t fall into the mindset that drinking is the only way to meet likeminded travellers and make new friends.
“If your hostel offers breakfast, go down and try striking up a conversation over your toast,” says Kat O’Neill, who took a solo backpacking adventure across Southeast Asia. “You’ll get to know people better than you ever could in a noisy bar, and they might invite you to join them for whatever they’re doing that day.”
Another option is to join a tour, for a day or longer, where you’ll spend most of the time with other travellers. This gives you plenty of time to get acquainted without a drink in sight.
Not drinking does not make you boring
It’s a well-worn phrase that you’ve probably used time and again as a social shield, but you really can go out and have fun without drinking. You’ve probably been doing it at home with your friends already, and nothing has to change because you’re travelling.
“If you’re anything like me, you’ll get a buzz just from being around people who are clearly relaxed and enjoying themselves,” says Pete. “I regularly get mistaken for being drunk when I’m the sober one!”
Rather than avoid drinking culture altogether, try and find ways to get involved and have a good time. “You can still take part in drinking games and go out,” says Pete. “Just relax and enjoy it and maybe be prepared to do press-ups instead of shots, or a dare of some sort.”
Remember: if anybody you meet thinks you’re not worth knowing because you don’t drink, they’re probably the person not worth knowing.
Don’t forget why you’re there in the first place
There are few greater pleasures (and opportunities for smugness) in life than waking up fresh and rested while everybody around you is brought low by a hangover.
While they’re trying to recover, you can get out of bed bright and early to do exactly what you flew half way round the planet to do: see the world! “Why would you pay for the privilege of inflicting a monstrous headache upon yourself and writing off several hours of the morning, or potentially even a whole day?” says Pete. “That’s time you could be out doing amazing stuff!”
So instead of nursing a headache or bowing penitently in front of the hostel’s shared toilet bowl, you can be watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat, bungee jumping off a bridge in New Zealand, or claiming a top sunbathing spot on the beach. Those are the experiences you’ll truly never forget.
You’ll save some serious money
Alcohol can put a serious dent in your budget. In some destinations, like Australia, alcohol is expensive, and you’ll often find travellers drinking the nastiest, cheapest stuff available just to save some money. Even in places like Thailand, where the drinks are dirt cheap, it’s still money spent that could be used elsewhere.
“My new travel friends were big drinkers. They spent twice what I did every night,” says Kat. “By the end of our trip together they were out of money. I booked a flight to Fiji and spent two weeks on the beach!”
Not drinking while you’re travelling won’t always be easy. But it should never put you off taking a gap year. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that could shape the rest of your life. Don’t let yourself be left out. Just relax and enjoy yourself, and you’ll soon realise that not drinking doesn’t have to be a big deal.